Reds vs. Cubs:The Cubs, the defending NL Central champs, also had the league's lowest rotation ERA. Chicago has ace Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden and a fifth-spot battle between Aaron Heilman, Sean Marshall, Chad Gaudin and Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs' top three starters are generally solid bets for 200 innings per season. This likely fearsome five-some does have some chinks in the armor, however. Zambrano dealt with rotator cuff issues down the stretch and fell short of 200 innings for the first time since becoming a full-time starter in 2003. Dempster, a reliever turned starter that has an elbow injury history, threw over 3,400 pitches last season in his first full rotation year. It will be interesting to see if he can repeat his totals of 17 wins and 206 innings after signing a new four-year, $52 million contract. Harden hasn't come close to 200 innings since 2004 and has a bad shoulder. Injuries can't be assumed, however, and Lilly is about as dependable as they come. Add it up and this is a no-brainer: Advantage, Cubs.
Reds vs. BrewersMilwaukee owned the NL's second-lowest rotation ERA but has likely lost its two-best starters to free agency in CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. This year's starting five projects to be Yovani Gallardo, Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan, lone lefty Manny Parra and Seth McClung. Gallardo, the projected ace, missed most of last season with a torn ACL in his knee. The other four are middle-of-the-road starters, at best. Depth is a big issue, and Brewers GM Doug Melvin recently admitted his club is "thin when it comes to starting pitching." New manager Ken Macha said the team would be counting on Gallardo, who soon turns 23, and Parra, 26, to step forward in their development. Advantage, Reds.
Reds vs. CardinalsThe Cardinals' medical staff will be under as much pressure as the starters will. Former ace Chris Carpenter missed most of 2007 and 2008 after having Tommy John ligament transplant surgery on his right elbow. Defacto ace Adam Wainwright missed 11 weeks last season with a finger injury. The other three starters are Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro. The key could be Lohse, who didn't sign with St. Louis last year until late in Spring Training but won 15 games and reached 200 innings for the first time since 2003. The Cardinals rewarded him with a four-year, $41 million deal and hope 2008 was a break from the lackluster track record he established with the Twins and Reds in prior years. Advantage, Reds
Reds vs. Astros
It's basically Roy Oswalt and the other four, but that's still a handful for a Cincinnati club that was 3-12 vs. Houston last year -- including 0-6 at home. Oswalt alone is 23-1 with a 2.47 ERA lifetime vs. the Reds.Mike Hampton, Wandy Rodriguez, Brian Moehler and Brandon Backe will form the rest of the Houston rotation. The Astros benefit from having a largely veteran staff but have a real wild card in Hampton -- who has an injury log longer than the average line for the rest room. Rodriguez and Moehler have the ability to be dependable, but it's Oswalt alone who still makes this comparison. Advantage, Astros.
Reds vs. PiratesThe only starter with a spot fully assured is lefty Paul Maholm, who became the Pirates' breakout ace in 2008. Maholm was 9-9 with a 3.71 ERA and established career highs in innings pitched (206 1/3), strikeouts (139) and starts (31). Pittsburgh rewarded him with a new three-year, $14.5 million contract last week. Zach Duke and Ian Snell have faded after high hopes a few years ago, but the Pirates are hoping to get a return from Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf -- two starters acquired from the Yankees in the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte trade last July. Advantage, Reds. Any Reds hopes of ending a streak of eight-straight losing seasons will be tied to how well they play and pitch against their division rivals. In 2008 vs. the NL Central, Cincinnati was just 31-47. For that record -- and the overall mark -- to improve, it will be up to the rotation to show that the front office was right by not making any serious offseason upgrades.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.