MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Pitching suddenly a pain in NL Central

Castrovince: Pitching suddenly a pain in NL Central

Pitching suddenly a pain in NL Central
We were duped, we were bamboozled, we were hornswoggled.

Here we thought the National League Central was interesting because of the might of its starting pitching.

Oh, how wrong we were.

Now we know the NL Central is interesting because of the plight of its starting pitching.

While Brewers fans were gushing over their pitching, little did they know Zack Greinke was crashing the boards and cracking a rib.

While Cardinals fans were counting on a triumphant title run to sway Albert Pujols to stay, little did they know Adam Wainwright's elbow ligament was about to tear.

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While Reds fans were celebrating the depth of their young rotation, little did they know that depth would be tested before the first pitch of the season proper, as Johnny Cueto's shoulder flared up and his biceps started barking at him.

The Brewers, the Cards and the defending-champion Reds were perceived as the class of the division.

Truth is, they still might be.

But a spate of spring injuries to their starters has to make you wonder if the door has opened a bit for the improved Cubs and the young Astros.

Or perhaps even the Pirates? (Hey, it's March 22. We must account for all possibilities.)

Contention begins with a stout starting five, so the first shift in the Central outlook arrived with last month's announcement that Wainwright would require season-ending Tommy John surgery. The Cards are fortunate to have 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter on hand to assume the No. 1 slot in their rotation. But Carpenter provided a slight scare himself when he missed a couple weeks of game action because of a sore hamstring.

Carp returned to the mound in time to be ready for the start of the season, and the Cards exhaled. Yet there's no denying they are quite a bit thinner in the rotation now than they were a month ago. Kyle McClellan, who has longed for a rotation opportunity, will be a big X-factor for this club, as it would appear doubtful that the ghost of Kyle Lohse will resurface to post double-digit wins.

When Wainwright was scratched for the season, it was only the beginning of the Central scares.

It has been a particularly worrisome spring for the Brew Crew, simply because Milwaukee seemingly mortgaged so much of its future for a win-now mindset in 2011. Losing Greinke to a perfectly preventable injury is a temporary blow that might linger longer than initially anticipated. Already, the Brewers are backing off their initial best-case scenario of an April 16 return for Greinke. He has yet to even pick up a baseball since the injury, sustained a month ago, was first revealed on March 8. When Greinke does begin throwing, he'll essentially be starting from scratch, and it will take him a few weeks to get game-ready.

Greinke was just one of two major starting pitching acquisitions made by the Brewers this winter. And unfortunately, he's just one of two important injury concerns as the regular season nears.

The other, on both fronts, is Shaun Marcum, whose move from Toronto and the brutal American League East to the decidedly more pitcher-friendly NL Central could reveal him to be an ace-type arm. For now, however, that arm is connected to a stiff right shoulder. Marcum will skip one turn in the rotation and is expected to make his final start before camp breaks, which would put him in line to open the season on time.

Again, though, the Brewers will undoubtedly exercise caution with Marcum, simply because they can't afford any major setbacks.

The Reds would appear to have less to worry about. Yes, they'd be stronger with Cueto around from the outset, but Monday's news that he has no structural damage is a positive, as is the availability of Homer Bailey, Travis Wood and Mike Leake to round out the rotation. Edinson Volquez made a strong return from Tommy John last year, and getting a full season out of him is viewed as a major internal upgrade to an already strong core.

That said, it bears mentioning that Bailey had shoulder inflammation last season that was originally billed as minor but ultimately cost him three months. Keep an eye on Cueto.

As the Reds, Brewers and Cards deal with the above impairments, we have all the more reason to keep an eye on the Cubs, who could certainly be a major factor in this division if some underachieving members of their lineup live up to the worth of their contracts. The offseason acquisition of Matt Garza was an eye-opener, but you'll know the Cubs are really a threat if Carlos Zambrano's head is affixed correctly.

In that regard, it's been a good spring for the Cubbies. The post-anger management version of Big Z pitched like a man possessed (in a good way) down the stretch last season and has looked sharp -- and calm -- in camp. The back end of the rotation remains a mystery. But if the Cubs maintain the momentum of the early portion of the Mike Quade era, they'll be a first-half factor.

Speaking of which, don't ignore what the Astros did down the stretch last season, either, and don't ignore what their rotation is capable of, especially if Wandy Rodriguez is right. He, like so many Astros, began 2010 in a funk and ended it in a flourish, going 8-2 with a 2.03 ERA in eight starts after June 24.

Brett Myers has proven to be reliable. Bud Norris went 7-3 from July 28 on and struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings for the season. J.A. Happ has a 19-9 record and 3.27 ERA in his first 289 innings in the big leagues. And 20-year-old top prospect Jordan Lyles, optioned out of camp this week, will almost certainly impact the rotation this year. Youth -- and the inconsistency it provides -- abounds in the field, but a steady rotation would at least give the Astros a shot.

On paper, the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers would still appear to be the Central's strongest units. But if their injury issues linger too long, you can't rule out the Cubs and Astros shaking things up, if their 2011 starts out the way their 2010 ended.

As for the Pirates, well, we're quite a few injuries away from them entering the contention picture, especially if a rotation is as much a predictor of future success as I am insisting.

But at least they have their health.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.