This isn't meant to belittle the Milwaukee Brewers. I think they have a shot at the playoffs this year, but they need a lot of things to happen -- especially with the starting rotation -- that didn't go right last year.
In all likelihood, this division battle is down to two major factors.
The Genius is Tony LaRussa, St. Louis' egomaniac of a manager who thinks way too highly of himself, but does so with good reason because he's truly one of the best.
The Curse? Well, you know what that is. So does every Chicago Cub fan around, and there are a lot of them. No one wants to talk about it, but it's around until someone breaks it.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis
The curse. The players can say they don't think about it. The manager can say it doesn't matter. But the fans think about it, and they're tired of it. It's been 100-plus years since the Cubs ... blah, blah, blah. This team is solid. Carlos Zambrano will bounce back, and it's not like he was bad last year. Rich Harden is gone, so there should be a lot less strain on the bullpen. Carlos Marmol should only get better as the closer. Guys like Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez can still mash, and you know Lou Pinella can still get them ready. As long as the pressure isn't too great, and the health is good, the Cubs are a contender.
The genius leads the consistent. LaRussa might be full of himself (might be?), but he's a hell of a manager. Not only that, but the consistency and stability he and his staff offer are a huge reason why St. Louis has been so good. The other reason? Talent. They have Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday to lead the offense, with help from guys like Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick. Their bullpen is always solid, and Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright top the rotation, giving the Cardinals two of the best pitchers in the National League. What's the hole? The Cardinals don't have a lot of depth anywhere, so they're vulnerable to the injuries they avoided all of last season. Also, they benefited greatly last year from the Cubs being banged up and not performing to expectations. That isn't bound to happen again.
The rest. The Brewers could be a contender, depending on the ability of guys like Randy Wolf and Doug Davis to help the starting rotation not be terrible. Milwaukee has a lethal offense, especially if Rickie Weeks stays healthy and Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder keep growing up. Their bullpen will be very good, anchored by LaTroy Hawkins and Trevor Hoffman. Cincinnati is building a strong team, and they could crack the top three of the division if someone falters. Joey Votto is a very good young hitter, and watch for Aroldis Chapman to earn a spot in their starting rotation after a quick stint in the minors. Houston should be better, but they won't be. Lance Berkman will start the season on the DL, and the Astros lack any semblance of depth. As for the Pirates, the futility will continue, but there are signs of hope, thanks to young players like Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones, Lastings Milledge, and prospect Pedro Alvarez.