By STEVE MEGARGEE

AP Sports Writer

Two familiar faces from St. Louis’ run to the NL Central title last season aren’t around anymore as the Cardinals attempt to become the division’s first repeat champion in six years.

The retirements of Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols leave the Cardinals having to replace two likely Hall of Famers. Second-year manager Oliver Marmol says Molina and Pujols did much to assure the club’s winning culture would endure even after their departures.

“Albert and Yadi would talk about that often, like, ‘What’s this look like when we’re no longer here? We want to make sure we’re passing along what we know in the same way it was passed along to us,’” Marmol said. “They did that really well.”

The Cardinals still have plenty of star power, returning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt at first base and third baseman Nolan Arenado, who finished third in the voting.

That makes St. Louis the favorite in a division that hasn’t had a team finish first in back-to-back seasons since the Chicago Cubs in 2016-17.

The NL Central has had a different champion each of the last three years, with the Cubs winning in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and the Brewers finishing first in 2021. The Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs figure to fight it out for the title again this year as the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds continue to rebuild.

“You always have the Cardinals on top, the team that won it the last year,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “That’s the one you’re gunning for. Milwaukee has been up there for the last couple years, as well.”

HOW THEY PROJECT

1. St. Louis Cardinals: Goldschmidt and Arenado bolster the division’s most formidable lineup, which ranked third in the NL in runs last season. The Cardinals replaced Molina by signing three-time All-Star catcher Willson Contreras away from the Cubs. Contreras lacks Molina’s catching acumen and all-around game but is a better hitter. Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks lead a quality bullpen. The Cardinals’ biggest concern is a starting rotation that lacks depth, with Steven Matz and Jack Flaherty trying to bounce back from injury-spoiled seasons. The Cardinals could use one more age-defying season from 41-year-old Adam Wainwright, who will open the year on the injured list with a groin issue.

2. Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers’ franchise-record string of four straight playoff appearances ended last season when they finished a game behind the eventual NL champion Philadelphia Phillies in the race for the third and final wild card. Milwaukee’s chances of regaining the NL Central crown depend in part on whether its rotation can produce the way it did in 2021, when Corbin Burnes won the Cy Young Award and Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta joined him on the All-Star team. Injuries limited the rotation’s effectiveness last year. The Brewers may need to lean on their rotation more this season as they adjust to a new collection of relievers setting up closer Devin Williams.

3. Chicago Cubs: The Cubs spent big on veterans to boost their lineup as they attempt to bounce back from two straight losing seasons. They signed shortstop Dansby Swanson to a $177 million, seven-year deal. They also added Cody Bellinger on a $17.5 million, one-year contract in hopes the 2019 NL MVP can regain his form after slumping the last couple of seasons with the Dodgers. Other newcomers to the lineup include Trey Mancini, Tucker Barnhart and Eric Hosmer. Jameson Taillon received a four-year contract worth $68 million and could head the rotation.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates: The most interesting part of the Pirates’ season will be measuring the progress of 6-foot-7 shortstop Oneil Cruz, who displayed a cannon arm and enormous potential as a rookie last year while also striking out in more than one-third of his plate appearances. Bryan Reynolds, the Pirates’ best player, has an uncertain future after requesting a trade in the offseason. The Pirates brought back 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen five years after trading him to San Francisco in a deal that netted Reynolds. The 35-year-old McCutchen could help mentor a group seeking to take a step closer to relevance in 2023. The Pirates hope Mitch Keller builds on the momentum he established late last season and leads their rotation.

5. Cincinnati Reds: The Reds are coming off their first 100-loss season since 1982 and figure to struggle again as they’re in the early stages of retooling their roster. In the short term, the Reds would love to get a bounce-back performance from 2021 NL Rookie of the Year Jonathan India, whose OPS dropped from .835 in 2021 to .705 last season. The progress of young pitchers Hunter Greene, Graham Ashcraft and Nick Lodolo also bears watching. They could be leading the rotation by the time the Reds are competitive again.

ROOKIE WATCH

The NL Central has produced two of the last three Rookie of the Year winners ( Williams in 2020 and India in 2021 ) and should have plenty of newcomers contributing again this season.

Cardinals outfielder Jordan Walker is one of baseball’s top prospects and has garnered plenty of attention with his spring training performance. Spencer Steer likely will start the season as the Reds’ main third baseman. Garrett Mitchell made a favorable impression after a late-season promotion and could be the Brewers’ opening day center fielder.

Hayden Wesneski could crack the Cubs’ starting rotation. Pittsburgh’s Ji Hwan Bae is competing for a starting spot at second base.

SWINGING AND MISSING

The NL Central could use some more contact hitters.

Four of the six NL teams that struck out the most often last season came from the division. The Pirates had the second-highest strikeout total (1,497). The Brewers were next with 1,464. They were followed in order by the NL West’s San Francisco Giants (1,462), then the Cubs (1,448) and Reds (1,430).

The Cardinals won the division while striking out 1,226 times, the third-lowest total in the NL.

Then again, strikeout totals aren’t necessarily the best indicator of success. The Atlanta Braves had an NL-high 1,498 strikeouts and still won the East with a 101-61 record.

SIBLING RIVALRY

The Brewers’ acquisition of William Contreras from the Atlanta Braves means that the projected top two teams in the NL Central each will have a Contreras brother catching for them this season.

William Conteras is 25, while Willson turns 31 on May 13. Both siblings made the NL All-Star team last season.

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AP freelance writers Rick Hummel, Gary Schatz and Jack Thompson contributed to this report.

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