Examining the NL Central as the Cubs look to repeat as world champions

The Chicago Cubs are defending a World Series title for the first time since 1909, and this year, they are one of the best teams in the National League.

The favorite to win the NL Central? Without a doubt, it is the Cubs.

The Cardinals have the best chance to challenge, but their rotation has questions. The Pirates could surprise, but their pitching is young. And the Reds and Brewers are rebuilding with little chance of a .500 record.

For the record, the Cubs won 104 games in 1909 and lost the pennant to the Pirates, who lost the 1909 World Series to the Tigers. In 1910, the Cubs won 104 games again, but lost to the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.

Enough history.

Here are NL Central story lines:

CHICAGO: The Cubs won the NL Central with 103 wins and a 17 1/2-game lead over the second-place Cardinals. Then, they went on to win their first World Series since 1908. ... The Cubs were built for the long haul and it shows. The only major lineup change is prospect Albert Almora Jr., 22, a rangy defender, taking over for Dexter Fowler in center field. Almora, 22, hit .277 last year in 41 games. He’ll platoon with former Cardinal Jon Jay, a lefty who hit .291 for San Diego last season. ... The new closer is right-hander Wade Davis, who had 27 saves with a 1.87 ERA last season, replacing Aroldis Chapman. Davis was acquired from Kansas City for Jorge Soler. ... The rotation has Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10), Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13), Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44) and John Lackey (11-8, 3.35) leading the way. At 38, Lackey is the biggest question. Brett Anderson is the No. 5 starter. Last season, the rotation was near perfect with four starters making at least 29 starts. Can that happen again? ... Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young winner, had a good season last year, but his walk rate almost doubled, going from 1.9 to 3.5 walks per nine innings. ... Jason Heyward hit .293 for St. Louis in 2015, but slumped to .230 last season for the Cubs, who hope that mechanical adjustments will put Heyward back on track. ... Kris Bryant, the NL MVP (.292-39-102) over the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy, is one of the core young players that also includes Addison Russell (.238-21-95), Javier Báez (.273-14-59) and Kyle Schwarber, who hit .412 in the World Series in 2016 after injury limited him to two regular season games.

CINCINNATI: The Reds finished last season 35-37, which is impressive considering they were last in the division at 68-94. ... This season is about opportunities for young players as the Reds attempt to build around the leadership of Joey Votto, Devon Mesoraco and Zack Cosart. ... Wonder why the rebuilding Reds can’t trade Votto, 33? He’ll make $22 million this season, $25 million per year from 2018-23 and $20 million in 2024. He hit .326 with 29 home runs and 97 RBIs last season. ... Pitcher Homer Bailey has pitched 180 innings for the Reds since signing a six-year, $106 million contract with the team. Bailey was expected to be healthy this year, but had bone chips removed in surgery before spring training and likely won’t be back until June 1. He and Anthony DeSclafani (elbow) start the season on the disabled list, meaning Scott Feldman will be the opening day starter. Feldman has done that job for both Texas and Houston. ... The biggest hitting surprise from last year is outfielder Adam Duvall, 28, who hit .248 with 33 homers and 103 RBIs last season. ... Brandon Phillips was traded to Atlanta, so Dilson Herrera and José Peraza will play second. Peraza could also see time at shortstop and in the outfield. Herrera could play some third base. The Reds want to keep each versatile.

MILWAUKEE: The Brewers, who have had winning records in two of the last five seasons, are in rebuilding mode after 73 wins in 2016. Offseason trades beefed up their farm system. ... Outfielder Ryan Braun is about the only big-name player that didn’t get traded, but he could be traded during the season. He’s coming off a season where hit .300 with a .365 on-base percentage and 30 home runs. Braun is owed $87 million through 2021. ... Second baseman Jonathan Villar, 25, acquired from Houston, led the NL with 62 steals last season. Villar will bat leadoff after having a .369 on-base percentage last season. ... The Brewers’ biggest offseason news was not signing Chris Carter, the NL’s home run champion (41) who signed with the Yankees. Carter also led the NL with 206 strikeouts. Instead, the Brewers gave Carter’s job and $16 million to Eric Thames based on his statistics in Korea. ... Junior Guerra, with a 2.81 ERA, was a surprise in last year’s rotation. Otherwise, the Brewers will be counting on Matt Garza, Kyle Davies, Wily Peralta and Jimmy Nelson. Nelson and Peralta are prospects that are running out of time to be consistent. Garza could be a trade chip if he pitches well. ... The Brewers catcher is Andrew Susac, Buster Posey’s backup last season in San Francisco.

PITTSBURGH: After three consecutive seasons of playing in the playoffs - losing the Division Series once and twice in the wild card game - the Pirates are coming off a 78-win season with questions about whether they should rebuild or not. They are on the bubble when it comes to being a legit contender. ... They tried all winter to trade their most recognizable player - outfielder Andrew McCutchen - but instead of a trade, the Pirates moved McCutchen, 30, from center to right field after he hit .256 and had career lows in virtually every offensive category. Starling Marte will play center and Gregor Polanco left, giving the Pirates one of the NL’s best outfields. ... Gerrit Cole, prospect Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova, a former Yankee prospect who has ignited his career in Pittsburgh, will lead the Pirates rotation. Cole had a 3.88 ERA last season in an uneven year. Taillon was at 3.38 and Nova, who had Tommy John surgery in 2014, was at 3.06. Cole pitches opening day while Nova gets the home opener. Prospect Chad Kuhl is the fourth starter. ... The Pirates added Daniel Hudson to help in the bullpen setup roles, while one of the game’s best setup guys, Tony Watson, takes over the closer’s role full-time. Since 2012, Watson has pitched 345 1/3 innings, third among major league relievers. ... One of the Pirates’ top prospects, Josh Bell, will play first base after hitting .273 in 152 plate appearances last season.

ST. LOUIS: The Cardinals had 86 wins last season and if they are going to challenge the Cubs this season, everything is going to have to go right. ... Their biggest offseason addition was center fielder Dexter Fowler, 31, who played for the rival Cubs last season with a career-high .393 on-base percentage. The Cardinals have a potent lineup and Fowler, in addition to his clubhouse demeanor, will lead off. Fowler in center means that Randall Grichuk moves to left field, taking over for Matt Holliday, who went to the Yankees. The move improves the Cardinals’ outfield defense. Stephen Piscotty plays right field. ... The Cardinals added two relief pitchers - left-hander Brett Cecil and right-hander John Gant - and they will set up for closer Seung-hwan Oh, who had a 1.92 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings in his first season with the Cardinals. ... The Cardinals need health and rebounds from their rotation. At age 35, Adam Wainwright needs to get back to being Wainwright. Last year, for the first time since his first season in 2007, he gave up more hits (220) than innings (198 2/3) pitched. Michael Wacha, 25, a pitching hero in 2013, is coming back from a shoulder injury and a 5.09 ERA, and Lance Lynn returns from elbow surgery. Mike Leake is coming off his worst season, posting a 4.69 ERA. ... The rotation took a big hit when Alex Reyes was sidelined with an elbow injury the first day of spring training. Reyes had Tommy John surgery. ... Carlos Martínez, the opening day starter against the Cubs, is their surest bet as a starter after going 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last season. ... Catcher Yadier Molina, 34, a Cardinals institution, is in the final year of his contract. Will he be a Cardinal for life?