Locked up NL Central set for showdown

I know it’s early, but the NL Central standings are pretty cool:

Reds 10-9

Cardinals 10-9

Cubs 9-9

Brewers 9-9

Pirates 8-11

Astros 7-12

Some other divisions are close. The Central is claustrophobic. And the best part is, as the Cardinals prepare to host the Reds in the first big showdown series of the season, (Saturday, 4:10 p.m. ET, MLB on Fox), the race should get even more interesting in the weeks and months ahead.

I’m not inclined to take the Pirates seriously, but they already have won road series in St. Louis and Cincinnati. Meanwhile, each of the top four clubs in the Central — yes, even the Cubs — can dream realistically of winning the division.

Just consider some of the injured players who should return soon:

Reds: Right-handers Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey.

Brewers: Right-hander Zack Greinke and right fielder Corey Hart.

Cubs: Right-handers Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner.

Cardinals: Outfielder Allen Craig, second baseman Skip Schumaker and relievers Bryan Augenstein and Brian Tallet.

The Cardinals, of course, also have lost righty Adam Wainwright for the season. True to form, they are mounting a vigorous fight, even without their ace. But at this moment, the Reds still appear to be the deepest and best team in the division.

That’s not to say the Reds will win — the outcome of the Central likely will hinge on the rest of the season’s injuries, not to mention July and August pickups.

But the Reds feature one of the division’s two best offenses, along with the Cardinals, and by far the best defense. Their rotation is unspectacular but seven or eight deep. Their bullpen, if lefty Aroldis Chapman stays healthy and righty Nick Masset straightens out, should be very good.

What’s more, as one rival GM puts it, the Reds’ reserves are better than some teams’ regulars. The Reds alternate two quality catchers, Ryan Hanigan and Ramon Hernandez. Chris Heisey is a terrific fourth outfielder. Edgar Renteria, the backup shortstop, is the reigning World Series MVP.

It’s the same way with the Reds’ pitching. To make room for Cueto and Bailey, the Reds might demote right-hander Mike Leake, who has produced three quality starts in four outings, and lefty reliever Matt Malone, who would resume starting at Triple A. Righty Sam LeCure would move from the rotation to the bullpen, becoming the long man.

The Reds’ lack of a dominant starter could haunt them if they again reach the postseason, but they are the type of club designed to outlast opponents over 162 games — particularly when every other contender in the Central appears more seriously flawed.

The Cardinals’ offense, after a freakishly slow start, looks improved over the 2010 version. The substitution of a healthy Nick Punto for the injured Skip Schumaker at second, temporary or not, improves the up-the-middle defense. The outfield corners remain defensive questions, but the way Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday are hitting, the Cardinals will accept the tradeoff.

The real issue is the bullpen.

Ryan Franklin is out as the closer, at least for now. The Cardinals love their stable of power right-handers — not just Mitchell Boggs, Jason Motte and the rapidly emerging Eduardo Sanchez, but also Blake King and soon Francisco Samuel at Triple A. Rival scouts and executives are much more skeptical of that group, but who knows with relievers?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Boggs or Sanchez emerged as an adequate closer. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinals’ bullpen remained a season-long work in progress.

The Brewers, too, have had issues with their closer — John Axford has allowed 14 baserunners in 6 1/3 innings. Club officials, though, don’t seem particularly concerned, and the rest of the bullpen is performing well. LaTroy Hawkins recently came off the DL and righty Takashi Saito and lefty Manny Parra soon could join him. And that rotation — goodness.

Even without Greinke, who is on track to return May 5 in Atlanta, the Brewers rank third in the NL in rotation ERA. But their offense, despite the ridiculous starts of first baseman Prince Fielder and left fielder Ryan Braun, is a tick below what it was, especially without Hart, who is expected to return next week.

The Brewers, the last team in the NL to score six runs in a game, are actually becoming something of a pitching-and-defense club — and their defense, despite new manager Ron Roenicke’s emphasis on shifting and positioning, remains a concern.

Which brings us to the Cubs, another club with a suspect defense (the Reds, according to Baseball Prospectus, rank seventh in the majors in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the percentage of balls in play that are converted into outs; the Cardinals are 15th, and every other club in the Central is 26th or below).

The Cubs’ rotation started off with injuries to Wells and Cashner and inconsistency from righties Carlos Zambrano, Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster. Zambrano and Garza were better in their most recent starts. If the rotation gets healthy, it could be quite good.

The offense is a tougher sell, even with second baseman Darwin Barney emerging as a useful player and shortstop Starlin Castro as a star (“such good at-bats, oh my Lord,” one rival GM says).

The Cubs are still too right-handed heavy. Their big left-handed threat, first baseman Carlos Pena, is off to a slow start. Second baseman Blake DeWitt has lost playing time to Barney, and Kosuke Fukudome and Tyler Colvin are rarely in the same lineup together.

So, there you have it — questions and more questions, confusion and more confusion, just three weeks into the season.

You’ve got to love the Central.

The fun is only beginning.