Division doesn't make things any easier for Cubs

The bad news for the Cubs is that three teams in the National League Central made the playoffs last season.

One of them, the St. Louis Cardinals, made it to the World Series before falling to the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs will find it difficult to escape the Central cellar again this season. The Cardinals, along with the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, are still light years ahead of the Cubs at the major-league level.

The other team in the division, the Milwaukee Brewers, will get a key player back in Ryan Braun, who returns from a drug-related suspension.

Here is a look around the division as spring training gets into full swing.

St. Louis Cardinals:

In Jupiter, Fla., MVP candidate Matt Carpenter is getting set to move back to third base from second for the Cardinals. Last year Carpenter put up a line of .318/.392.481 while leading the league with 199 hits and 55 doubles. The trade of David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels has left third base open for Carpenter.

"The thing that I'm so excited about for me personally this year is there are expectations," Carpenter told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "This is the first time in my career that I've had that chance, that I've had those expectations.

"Think about it. Every year, it's been like maybe he'll make the team. Then the next year, it's maybe he'll play second base. This year, well, he's going to play and this is what he did, so there's an expectation. For the first time in my career, I get a chance to live up to an expectation.

"My goal is to exceed those."

Despite playing a power-hitting position this year, Carpenter is still expected to be the Cardinals' leadoff hitter.

The Cardinals have invited former Cub Scott Moore to camp as a nonroster man. Moore, a third baseman, played briefly for the Cubs in 2006 and 2007.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Some of the biggest talk in Pirates camp has been about who is not there as much as it has been about who's there.

Pitcher A.J. Burnett recently signed a one-year, $16 million deal to move across Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. Burnett told the media he harbors no ill will toward the Pirates, who bypassed him in Game 5 of last year's division series, the Pirates' first postseason appearance since 1992.

"I'm a team guy," Burnett said. "Nobody wants to have the ball taken from them. But that had no influence (on signing with the Phillies). I would've liked to have known ahead of time as opposed to what happened. But if it put our team in a better spot, I'm all for it. I was ready to go if needed."

The Cubs used to see a lot of lefty Wandy Rodriguez when he was with the Houston Astros. Rodriguez is in Pirates camp and on the mend from a flexor-tendon injury that cost him the final four months of last year.

"I have good news for you guys," Rodriguez told reporters after an early spring throwing session. "I threw my bullpen, and I feel nothing."

One-time Cubs pitching prospect Jay Jackson is in camp as a nonroster invitee.

Cincinnati Reds:

The Reds and pitcher Homer Bailey reportedly are close on a contract extension that would lock up Bailey for six years at a cost of about $100 million.

"There's a lot of things we have in place; I feel the majority of it is worked out," Bailey told reporters in Arizona on Monday. "It's just the little details and stuff like that - but we're really close. Us being here and everyone else being in different time zones puts a damper on things."

Bailey would be a free agent after this season if he doesn't sign an extension.

Former Cubs manager Dusty Baker was replaced by Bryan Price, who was promoted from pitching coach. Price has sought all kinds of advice for the new job.

"I spoke with Pete Rose a few weeks ago, which was a real treat," Price said, referring to the Reds legend who is on baseball's permanent suspension list.

What did Rose impart?

"The importance of having players who love to be at the ballpark," Price said. "Guys that love to come to the ballpark and prepare, talk baseball, prepare to find a way to win that day."

Milwaukee Brewers:

The Brewers are fighting an uphill battle to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, when they won the Central. Injuries and the suspension to Braun wrecked last season. Corey Hart missed the season with a knee injury, and former Cubs player Aramis Ramirez played only 92 games last year because of injury.

"Health is always a concern of mine, especially in our market," general manager Doug Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Brewers will need former Cubs pitcher Matt Garza to stay healthy. Garza spent plenty of time on the disabled list from 2011-13 with the Cubs, who traded him to Texas last summer. The Brewers signed Garza to a four-year, $50 million deal in late January.

• Follow Bruce's Cubs and baseball reports on Twitter@BruceMiles2112.

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez throws a bullpen session during a workout Monday in Bradenton, Fla. Associated Press
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