The Brewers traded for former American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, the Cubs added pitcher Matt Garza and the Cardinals signed former Astros first baseman Lance Berkman. And the defending champion Reds didn't do anything to believe they won't contend again in 2011.
Bill Hall, who was one of the Astros' biggest offseason acquisitions, knows the division pretty well, having spent the first 7 1/2 years of his Major League career making the rounds between Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Houston as a member of the Brewers.
The Astros finished in fourth place last year -- a game ahead of the Cubs and a game behind the Brewers -- and will have one of the younger teams in the division with players such as Brett Wallace, Jason Castro, Chris Johnson and Bud Norris figuring to serve in key roles.
Hall warns that just because the Astros are young, doesn't mean they can't compete.
"When you have a young team, everybody overlooks you," he said. "When you have a young team, nobody knows what to expect from each player. St. Louis knows what it's getting from players like Albert Pujols, and they have Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday over there.
"Those guys have eight years of proven stats, so you know what you're going to get, and a lot of these guys [with the Astros] are coming off their first year. It makes people overlook you, but at the same time, it makes you dangerous."
The Astros were anything but dangerous on offense last year, but Hall thinks things will be different in Houston this season. Of course, the Astros might only go as far as youngsters like Wallace, Castro, Johnson and Norris can take them, regardless of what kind of difference he and fellow newcomer Clint Barmes can provide at the plate.
"When people don't know what to expect from you, a lot of times you can sneak up on them and catch them before they see it coming," Hall said. "It's going to take a certain mentality in Spring Training, and we expect to compete from day one.
"I was only in Boston for one year, but I learned a lot while I was there about preparing ourselves to win and knowing we're going to win every day and expecting to win on a daily basis. Hopefully we get some of that started in Spring Training."
Hall, 31, hit .247 with 18 home runs and 46 RBIs in 119 games last year for Boston. Among Major Leaguers with 350 at-bats or fewer, his 18 homers ranked tied for fourth.
Hall was expected to be the Red Sox's utility man last season, but he ended up playing in 119 games and getting nearly 400 plate appearances because of injuries to others. The right-handed hitter played left field (55 games), second base (51), right field (nine), center (seven), shortstop (six) and third (five) for Boston, and he even pitched one inning.
"Obviously, coming in and knowing the situation and knowing where I stand for the first time in a long time, I'm ready to help these guys win some ballgames," Hall said. "It's a young team and I'm a guy that's still young, but I'm a veteran at the same time and have been through a lot of things a lot of these guys are going to go through, and hopefully I can help them through these tough situations and teach them how to enjoy when things are going good."
Hall is well aware how the Astros have historically gotten off to bad starts, only to play well in the second half. Last year, the Astros were 17-34 before posting a 59-52 record -- second best in the NL Central in that span -- the rest of the way.
"I think everybody knows how this team starts off slow and gets hot, and sometimes that streak comes a little later than it should be," Hall said. "Hopefully with me coming in and other guys coming in, we can help this team get over the hump and put us right where we need to be in September."
For his nine-year career, Hall is a .250 hitter with a .310 on-base percentage and 122 homers. He has a career .261 average against the NL Central. Of his 940 games in the field, 155 have been played at second base.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less