The Chicago Cubs, World Series champions for the first time since 1908, are the favorites to win the National League Central.
The question is: Could the Cubs - and their youthful position-player roster - be baseball’s answer to the NFL’s New England Patriots, who won their fifth Super Bowl?
The Reds and Brewers are rebuilding. The Pirates have taken a step back. The Cardinals are the only team with a chance to challenge the Cubs.
Here’s a look at the NL Central:
Chicago: The Cubs, defending World Series champions for the first time since starting the 1909 season, have the same four leading the rotation, but age could be a worry. Right-hander John Lackey is 38 and left-hander Jon Lester is 33. The rotation also has right-hander Jake Arrieta, who, along with Lackey, is eligible for free agency after the season. ... Righty Kyle Hendricks should progress and the No. 5 starter is likely going to lefty Mike Montgomery, who has also worked out of the bullpen. ... The Cubs didn’t sign right-hander Jason Hammel and instead signed often-injured left-hander Brett Anderson, who is insurance for rotation injury. However, Cubs manager Joe Maddon expects to be using a six-man rotation at times. ... The Cubs’ new closer is right-hander Wade Davis, acquired in a trade from the Royals. They’ve also added right-hander Koji Uehara and left-hander Brian Duensing to a bullpen that has righties Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr.
Cincinnati: The rebuilding Reds are hoping to get a healthy season from their $105 million pitcher, right-hander Homer Bailey, who has missed the last two seasons with a flexor mass injury and Tommy John surgery. Bailey is optimistic he’ll be in spring training ready to go. ... The Reds’ best pitcher in 2016 was Anthony DeScafani, who had a 3.28 ERA in 20 starts, and left-hander Brandon Finnegan. The rotation also has righty Scott Feldman and prospects competing for spots. ... Former right-hander Nationals closer Drew Storen will compete for the closer’s role in spring training while adding to a bullpen that includes top-notch righties Michael Lorenzen and Raisel Iglesias. With the Reds, Storen will be reunited with catcher Tucker Barnhart. The two were high school teammates in Indianapolis.
Milwaukee: The Brewers hope pitching depth leads to a strong rotation. ... Their best pitcher is right-hander Zach Davies, 23, who had a 3.97 ERA in 28 starts last season. ... The rotation also has late-blooming righty Junior Guerra, 32, who had a 2.81 ERA last season in a breakout year, and righty Jimmy Nelson, 27, who pitched well in the first half of last season but struggled with walks and a high ERA in the second. ... Former Nats left-hander Tommy Milone will compete for a rotation spot along with right-handers Chase Anderson, Matt Garza and Wily Peralta. ... Righty Neftali Feliz, 28, will be the closer. Feliz has limited experience as a closer, but re-established himself with a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Pittsburgh last season.
Pittsburgh: The first three pitchers in the Pirates rotation will be right-handers Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova. ... Cole is the ace, even though he’s coming off an inconsistent season of injury. ... Taillon is the team’s top pitching prospect with a 3.38 ERA in 12 starts last season. ... Nova, inconsistent as a Yankees starter before a trade to the Pirates, has found a comfortable zone with a three-year, $26 million contract. He had a 3.06 ERA in 11 starts last season with a 52-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. ... There is a list of names for the final two spots in the rotation, including righties Chad Kuhl, Drew Hutchinson and Tyler Glasnow. ... Left-hander Tony Watson, who saved 15 of 20 last year, is the closer, but former Nationals lefy Felipe Rivero, who had 39 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings in 2016, could challenge Watson.
St. Louis: Who is going to be the Cardinals’ opening day starter? Is it right-hander Adam Wainwright, 35, who has started four consecutive but is coming off a bad year, or right-hander Carlos Martinez, the projected future rotation leader who signed a five-year, $51 million contract? Martinez had a 3.04 ERA in 195 1/3 innings last year. This season will tell if Wainwright, who struggled trying to comeback from an Achilles injury, is beginning a slide in his career. ... The Cardinals expect right-hander Lance Lynn to be healthy after recovering from Tommy John. ... The rotation also has prospect right-hander Alex Reyes, as well as righty Mike Leake, a groundball pitcher who struggled last year, and right-hander Michael Wacha, who is coming off his worst season (5.09 ERA). ... The closer is right-hander Seung Hwan Oh, who saved 19 of 23 last season with a 1.92 ERA. The Cardinals are thinking about making righty Trevor Rosenthal, a starter-turned-closer, a starter this spring.