Capsules of National League Central teams, listed in order of finish last year:
2017: 92-70, first place, lost to Dodgers in NLCS.
Manager: Joe Maddon (fourth season).
He's Here: RHP Yu Darvish, RHP Brandon Morrow, RHP Tyler Chatwood, RHP Steve Cishek, LHP Drew Smyly, C Chris Gimenez.
He's Outta Here: RHP Wade Davis, C Alex Avila, C Rene Rivera.
Projected Lineup: CF Ian Happ (.253, 24 HRs, 68 RBIs, .842 OPS) or Albert Almora Jr. (.298, 8, 46), 3B Kris Bryant (.295, 29, 73, 38 2Bs, 111 runs), 1B Anthony Rizzo (.273, 32, 109, 91 BBs), C Willson Contreras (.276, 21, 74), LF Kyle Schwarber (.211, 30, 59), SS Addison Russell (.239, 12, 43), RF Jason Heyward (.259, 11, 59), 2B Javier Baez (.273, 23, 75, .796 OPS).
Rotation: LH Jon Lester (13-8, 4.33 ERA, 180 Ks), RH Kyle Hendricks (7-5, 3.03), RH Yu Darvish (10-12, 3.86, 209 Ks with Rangers and Dodgers), LH Jose Quintana (11-11, 4.15, 207 Ks with White Sox and Cubs), RH Tyler Chatwood (8-15, 4.69 with Rockies).
Key Relievers: RH Brandon Morrow (6-0, 2.06, 2 saves with Dodgers), RH Carl Edwards Jr. (5-4, 2.98), RH Pedro Strop (5-4, 2.83), RH Steve Cishek (3-2, 2.01, 1 save with Mariners and Rays), LH Brian Duensing (1-1, 2.74), LH Mike Montgomery (7-8, 3.38, 3 saves), LH Justin Wilson (4-4, 3.41, 13 saves with Tigers and Cubs).
Hot Spot: Bullpen. The unit has a different look after it struggled in the playoffs last year, compiling a 6.21 ERA and walking 27 batters in 10 postseason games. Morrow steps in as the closer after Davis signed with Colorado as a free agent. Cishek, who has 121 career saves, also agreed to a free-agent deal with Chicago in December. Morrow and Cishek combined for 23 walks in 88 1/3 innings last season. Edwards and Strop also will have prominent roles in front of Morrow.
Outlook: World Series or bust. The acquisition of Darvish, who finalized a $126 million, six-year contract in February, gives Chicago a strong rotation, and the lineup is young, deep and dangerous. A franchise-record six players (Rizzo, Schwarber, Bryant, Happ, Baez and Contreras) belted at least 20 homers last year, including a major league-record five in an age 25 or younger season. Chicago also scored more than 800 runs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the team surpassed that mark for three straight years from 1929-31. The Cubs have made it to the NL Championship Series for three straight seasons, winning it all in 2016 to end a 108-year drought, and there's no reason to think they won't be in the mix for another title this year.
2017: 86-76, second place.
Manager: Craig Counsell (fourth season).
He's Here: OF Lorenzo Cain, OF Christian Yelich, RHP Jhoulys Chacin, RHP Yovani Gallardo, LHP Boone Logan, RHP Matt Albers.
He's Outta Here: 2B Neil Walker, OF Lewis Brinson, RHP Matt Garza, RHP Wily Peralta, RHP Carlos Torres, RHP Jared Hughes, RHP Anthony Swarzak.
Projected Lineup: CF Lorenzo Cain (.300, 15 HRs, 49 RBIs, 26 SBs, .363 OBP with Royals), RF Christian Yelich (.282, 18, 81, 16 SBs, .369 OBP, 36 2Bs with Marlins), LF Ryan Braun (.268, 17, 52), 3B Travis Shaw (.273, 31, 101), 1B Eric Thames (.247, 31, 63), C Manny Pina (.279, 9, 43), SS Orlando Arcia (.277, 15, 53, 14 SBs), 2B Jonathan Villar (.241, 11, 40, 23 SBs) or Eric Sogard (.273, 3, 18, .393 OBP).
Rotation: RH Chase Anderson (12-4, 2.74 ERA), RH Zach Davies (17-9, 3.90), RH Jhoulys Chacin (13-10, 3.89 with Padres), LH Wade Miley (8-15, 5.61, 93 walks with Orioles), LH Brent Suter (3-2, 3.42).
Key Relievers: RH Corey Knebel (1-4, 1.78, 39/45 saves, 126 Ks in 76 IP), RH Matt Albers (7-2, 1.62, 2 saves with Nationals), LH Josh Hader (2-3, 2.08), LH Boone Logan (1-0, 4.71 with Indians), RH Jacob Barnes (3-4, 4.00 in 73 games).
Hot Spots: Outfield and First Base. The Brewers are stocked at both positions, so finding enough playing time for everyone will be a good problem to have for Counsell. Cain and Yelich appear to be everyday locks. Braun has been playing some first base in spring training and could shift there at times, especially against lefties. That would allow Domingo Santana, who hit 30 homers last year as the starting right fielder, to get back in the lineup. Jesus Aguilar could be the odd man out after serving as a key right-handed bat off the bench last season and spelling Thames against lefties. Milwaukee has the depth to make a deal to boost the rotation or bullpen if needed.
Outlook: Expectations are up after the Brewers finished one game out of the playoffs in what was supposed to be the second full season of a rebuild. Instead of signing a high-priced starter, general manager David Stearns added Cain and Yelich as the team's key offseason acquisitions. The new outfielders are former Gold Glove winners who can help out the pitching staff by cutting down on extra-base hits at Miller Park. The rotation should be bolstered later in the season by the return of right-hander Jimmy Nelson, who is recovering from right shoulder surgery in September after getting hurt while diving back to first while running the bases. Whether the Brewers repeat their 2017 success and challenge the Cubs in the NL Central could come down to starting pitching. A trade drawing from the team's outfield depth might help during the season.
St. Louis Cardinals
2017: 83-79, third place.
Manager: Mike Matheny (seventh season).
He's Here: LF Marcell Ozuna, RHP Miles Mikolas, RHP Luke Gregerson.
He's Outta Here: RHP Lance Lynn, OF Stephen Piscotty, OF Randal Grichuk, RHP Seung-hwan Oh, RHP Juan Nicasio, SS Aledmys Diaz, RHP Trevor Rosenthal.
Projected Lineup: RF Dexter Fowler (.264, 18 HRs, 64 RBIs), CF Tommy Pham (.306, 23, 73, 25 SBs), 1B Matt Carpenter (.241, 23, 69, 109 BBs, .384 OBP), LF Marcell Ozuna (.312, 37, 124 with Marlins), 3B Jedd Gyorko (.272, 20, 67), C Yadier Molina (.273, 18, 82), SS Paul DeJong (.285, 25, 65), 2B Kolten Wong (.285, 4, 42, .376 OBP).
Rotation: RH Carlos Martinez (12-11, 3.64 ERA, 217 Ks), RH Michael Wacha (12-9, 4.13), RH Adam Wainwright (12-5, 5.11), RH Luke Weaver (7-2, 3.88), RH Miles Mikolas (14-8, 2.25 with Yomiuri Giants in Japan).
Key Relievers: RH Luke Gregerson (2-3, 4.57, 1 save with Astros), LH Tyler Lyons (4-1, 2.83, 3 saves), LH Brett Cecil (2-4, 3.88, 1 save), RH Alex Reyes (4-1, 1.57 in 2016; injured last season), RH Matt Bowman (3-6, 3.99, 2 saves).
Hot Spot: Bullpen. The Cardinals struggled for much of last season to find consistent roles for their relievers, with Oh losing his job as closer midway through the year and Rosenthal then needing Tommy John surgery after taking over. St. Louis enters this season with Gregerson getting the first crack at closing as he tries to recapture the form that led to 31 saves in 2015. That said, many expect Reyes, a top prospect, to ease his way into that role when he returns from elbow surgery in early May. Also, the Cardinals are counting on improvement from Cecil, who struggled at times with the command of his usually effective curveball a year ago in the first season of a four-year contract.
Outlook: The Cardinals have had one losing season since the start of the century, but they are facing immense pressure from fans after finishing behind the Cubs and Brewers in 2017. St. Louis missed the playoffs for a second straight year, the first time that's happened since 2007-08. For the Cardinals to snap that postseason "drought," they'll need bounce-back seasons from several players — including a healthy Wainwright on the mound and Carpenter at the plate. Few expect the Cardinals to cede the NL Central title to Chicago for a third straight year without putting up a fight, but St. Louis will need Ozuna and Pham to produce as expected. If they do, and the Cardinals can bring along their reworked pitching staff, the potential for a return to the playoffs is there.
2017: 75-87, fourth place.
Manager: Clint Hurdle (seventh season).
He's Here: OF Corey Dickerson, LHP Kyle Crick, RHP Joe Musgrove, RHP Michael Feliz, 3B Colin Moran.
He's Outta Here: CF Andrew McCutchen, RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP Daniel Hudson, C Chris Stewart, 1B John Jaso, RHP Joaquin Benoit.
Projected Lineup: 2B Josh Harrison (.272, 16 HRs, 47 RBIs), LF Corey Dickerson (.282, 27, 62 with Rays), CF Starling Marte (.275, 7, 31, 21 SBs in 77 games), 1B Josh Bell (.255, 26, 90), RF Gregory Polanco (.251, 11, 35), 3B David Freese (.263, 10, 52) or Colin Moran (.364, 1, 3 in 7 games with Houston; .308, 18, 63 in 79 games at Triple-A Fresno), C Francisco Cervelli (.249, 5, 31), SS Jordy Mercer (.255, 14, 58).
Rotation: RH Ivan Nova (11-14, 4.14 ERA, 2 CGs), RH Jameson Taillon (8-7, 4.44), RH Chad Kuhl (8-11, 4.35), RH Trevor Williams (7-9, 4.07), RH Joe Musgrove (7-8, 4.77 in 38 games, 15 starts for Houston).
Key Relievers: LH Felipe Rivero (5-3, 1.67, 21/23 saves), RH George Kontos (1-6, 3.39 in 65 games with Giants and Pirates), RH Michael Feliz (4-2, 5.64 with Houston), LH Kyle Crick (0-0, 3.06 in 30 games with Giants), RH A.J. Schugel (4-0, 1.97), RH Dovydas Neverauskas (1-1, 3.91).
Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. Pittsburgh traded Cole, an All-Star in 2015 and the rotation's rock for much of the last five seasons, to Houston rather than pay him in arbitration. That leaves Nova as the de facto ace, though Taillon showed flashes last season despite missing a month to deal with testicular cancer. Kuhl and Williams were occasionally effective at times and the Pirates are confident that Kuhl will take a step forward after posting a 3.63 ERA after the All-Star break last year. Musgrove, acquired from the Astros as part of the Cole trade, was effective out of the bullpen in the second half of 2017 for the World Series champions and is hoping that form will translate now that he has returned to being a starter.
Outlook: General manager Neal Huntington insists the Pirates are not rebuilding, but it certainly looks that way after they flipped franchise cornerstones McCutchen and Cole for less expensive and less proven talent. The Pirates did nothing in free agency, though they were able to grab Dickerson, an All-Star for Tampa Bay last season, in February. Dickerson's arrival gives Pittsburgh some stability in the outfield but the Pirates still have some serious power issues outside of Bell, who finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Pittsburgh finished 29th in the majors in home runs in 2017, and while McCutchen and Dickerson's numbers are comparable, the rest of the lineup isn't exactly imposing. If Marte can put his suspension-marred 2017 behind him, if Polanco and his hamstrings can stay healthy, if Moran proves he can do more than spell Freese at third, if Taillon, Kuhl and Williams all improve, Pittsburgh could be competitive. That's a lot of "ifs," probably a few too many.
2017: 68-94, fifth place.
Manager: Bryan Price (fifth season).
He's Here: RHP Jared Hughes, RHP David Hernandez.
He's Outta Here: SS Zack Cozart, RHP Bronson Arroyo, RHP Tim Adleman.
Projected Lineup: CF Billy Hamilton (.247, 4 HRs, 38 RBIs, .299 OBP, 59/72 SBs), 3B Eugenio Suarez (.260, 26, 82), 1B Joey Votto (.320, 36, 100), 2B Scooter Gennett (.295, 27, 97), LF Scott Schebler (.233, 30, 67), LF Adam Duvall (.249, 31, 99), SS Jose Peraza (.259, 5, 37), C Tucker Barnhart (.270, 7, 44).
Rotation: RH Homer Bailey (6-9, 6.43 ERA in 18 starts), LH Brandon Finnegan (1-1, 4.15 in 4 starts), RH Luis Castillo (3-7, 3.12 in 15 starts), RH Tyler Mahle (1-2, 2.70 in 4 starts), RH Sal Romano (5-8, 4.45 in 16 starts).
Key Relievers: RH Raisel Iglesias (3-3, 2.49, 28/30 saves), RH Jared Hughes (5-3, 3.02, 1 save with Brewers), RH David Hernandez (3-1, 3.11, 2 saves with Angels and Diamondbacks), RH Michael Lorenzen (8-4, 4.45, 2 saves).
Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. For the third year in a row, right-hander Anthony DeSclafani is sidelined to start the season, this time by another oblique injury. He missed all of last season with a sprained elbow. DeSclafani, Bailey and Finnegan were limited to 22 starts combined last season because of injuries, forcing the Reds to use young starters before they were ready. The rotation wound up going 44-73 with a 5.55 ERA. The Reds chose not to sign a veteran starter in the offseason, placing all their hopes on those three being fully healthy this season. It's already proving to be a bad bet. DeSclafani is out indefinitely and Finnegan was limited during spring training with a forearm injury. If the trio can't hold up, it'll be another revolving rotation populated by young, unproven pitchers.
Outlook: The Reds launched into a major rebuild in 2015 and have lost at least 90 games for three straight seasons while finishing last in the NL Central all three years. They locked up Suarez through 2024 with a $66 million contract during spring training — their first significant deal during the rebuild — but are still at least a year away from looking for an upgrade through free agency. The everyday lineup will score enough runs to keep games competitive, but pitching is the sore point again. It would be considered a breakthrough simply to move out of last place.
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