The Cubs have a revamped rotation to go with a lineup that features Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, two hitters that are potential National League MVP candidates.
Their biggest competition in the NL Central could be the Brewers, who had 86 victories last season and have a legitimate shot to make the postseason for the first time since 2011.
But the Cardinals, who had 100, 86 and 83 wins in each of the last three seasons, are trying to avoid being left out of the postseason for the third consecutive October.
The Pirates, who made the playoffs each season from 2013-2015, slipped to 75 victories last season. It’s safe to say they are rebuilding.
The team that has a chance to make strides is the Reds, who, assuming health in their rotation, will be better because their offense is explosive. The Reds haven’t had more than 76 wins in any of the last four seasons.
Projected finish: Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates.
The NL Central sets up like this:
CHICAGO: The Cubs, who have been in the Championship Series three consecutive seasons, have a new-look pitching staff. Right-hnaders Yu Darvish, 31, and Tyler Chatwood, 28, will replace righties Jake Arrieta, who is with Philadelphia, and John Lackey in the rotation. ... Right-handers Brandon Morrow, who had 2.06 ERA for the Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, are new in the bullpen. Morrow, 33, who didn’t allow a home run last year in 43 2/3 innings, will close. Cishek, who also has experience as a closer, will be in the setup roles along with righties Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. ... Darvish has a 3.42 career ERA and got hit hard by the Astros twice pitching for the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. But Darvish beat the Cubs in Game 3 of the NLCS. ... Chatwood has a 4.31 career ERA and the Cubs figure that will improve after leaving hitting-friendly Coors Field. ... The rotation also has left-hander Jon Lester, who at 34 keeps finding ways to go deep. Lester, who has struggled since high school to throw a ball to first base, will try a new technique: When he fields a ball, he’s going to throw it to first on a bounce. ... Right-hander Kyle Hendricks has an excellent changeup and is coming back from an injury season of 24 starts. ... After coming from the White Sox in a trade, left-hander José Quintana started slow, but he had a 1.10 WHIP after the All-Star break. ... Left-hander Mike Montgomery is a work in progress. ... The outfield, from left to right, is Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Jason Heyward, who is struggling to hit consistently after signing a big contract with the Cubs two years ago. ... The infield has Rizzo at first base and Bryant at third, with shortstop Addison Russell and second baseman Javier Báez in the middle.
CINCINNATI: The Reds are trying to steer away from a miserable trend. They were in the playoffs in 2013, losing the wild card game, but since then, they have finished fourth once and last in three consecutive years, losing 89, 94, 94 and 98 games in each of the last four seasons. ... The Reds’ improvement depends on the rotation health of right-handers Anthony DeSclafani (20 starts in 2017), Homer Bailey (91 innings) and Brandon Finnegan (four starts). The Reds’ best pitcher last season was righty Luis Castillo, 25, who as a rookie had 98 strikeouts in 81 innings. His fastball is 98-99 mph and his changeup is devastating. ... The bullpen was fortified to help right-hander Raisel Iglesias, who has a high-90s fastball and is one of the best closers in the game. He had 92 strikeouts and 27 walks with 28 saves in 76 innings last season. ... Reds first baseman Joey Votto, 34, needs to be traded, but his contract is an issue. He’s owed $25 million a year through age 39 with a club option for $20 million at age 40. But there’s no arguing his production. Votto has hit in his last three years (average, on-base percentage, home runs): .314-.459-29, .322-.434-29 and .320-.454-36. ... Votto leads an offense that was sixth in home runs last season (219) and eighth in runs (753). ... There is firepower in the lineup: second baseman Scooter Gennett hit 27 home runs while third baseman Eugenio Suárez had 26, outfielder Scott Schebler had 30 and outfielder Adam Duvall had 31. ... Center fielder Billy Hamilton, the leadoff batter, had 59 stolen bases in 2017.
MILWAUKEE: The Brewers added outfielders Lorenzo Cain, 32, and Christian Yelich, 26, and have a chance to win the NL Central. Last year, they were 2 1/2 games out of first place on Sept. 13 and finished with 86 wins, one game out of the postseason. ... Cain, who started in the Brewers organization and was traded to Kansas City, is a leadoff batter who averaged 24 steals and 11 home runs in the last four seasons for the Royals. ... Yelich, a left-handed batter, is a .290 career hitter who hit 18 home runs with 81 RBIs last season. Yelich has also won a Gold Glove Award. ... By adding Yelich and Cain, the Brewers have a crowded outfield. The manager, Craig Counsell, also has Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana, a 25-year-old who hit 30 home runs last season. ... Braun, who played shortstop in college and was a third baseman as a rookie for the Brewers, will see time at first base, giving a breather to Eric Thames, who came from the Korean Baseball Organization last season and made news with his fast start. He was a streaky hitter. He hit 11 home runs in April and finished with 31. ... The first three in the Brewers rotation will be left-hander Chase Anderson (2.74 ERA last season), right-hander Zach Davies (3.90) and right-hander Jhoulys Chacín (3.89 with San Diego). ... The Brewers are waiting for the return of their homegrown pitcher, right-hander Jimmy Nelson, who had 199 strikeouts and a 3.48 ERA when he injured his shoulder diving into first base on Sept. 8. Nelson could be back at the All-Star break. He had shoulder surgery. ... The bullpen has a dominating closer in right-hander Corey Knebel, who has a 98 mph fastball that helped him get 39 saves last season. Former Orioles prospect left-hander Josh Hader is a key in the setup role. Last year as a rookie, Hader struck out 12 batters per nine innings.
PITTSBURGH: After three consecutive losses in the 2013-2015 postseason, the Pirates finished 25 and 17 games out of first place in the NL Central in each of the last two seasons. That’s why it was time to rebuild and say goodbye to two of their franchise players, right-hander Gerrit Cole and outfielder Andrew McCutchen. ... Starling Marte, who was suspended for PED use last season, takes over in center field for McCutchen, who was traded to the Giants. Marte hit .275 with 21 steals and a .712 OPS last season. ... Gregor Polanco is in right and the new left fielder is Corey Dickerson, 28, who hit .282/.385/.490 last season with 27 home runs for Tampa Bay. The Pirates finished 29th in home runs in the majors last season, so another power bat will help. ... Right-hander Joe Musgrove takes the spot of Cole, who was traded to the Astros. Musgrove, 25, was a top prospect for the Astros in 2016 and started last year in their rotation. But after posting a 6.12 ERA in his first 15 starts, he was moved to the bullpen. ... The rotation needs a bounceback from right-hander Ivan Nova, who came to camp 10 pounds lighter after posting a second-half ERA of 5.58 in 2017. ... The Pirates’ best hitter is first baseman Josh Bell, 24, a switch-hitter who hit 26 home runs with a .466 slugging percentage last season. ... Former Nationals pitcher, left-hander Felipe Rivero, and his blazing fastball will be the Pirates closer.
ST. LOUIS: After missing October baseball for two consecutive seasons for the first time since 2007-2008, the Cardinals had an aggressive offseason. The biggest changes are their re-configured outfield and beefed-up bullpen. The Cardinals were interested in trading for Giancarlo Stanton, who refused to accept a trade to St. Louis, and so they traded for Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who hit .312 with 37 home runs and 124 RBIs last season. Ozuna will play left field, Tommy Pham, 29, will be in center field and Dexter Fowler moves to right field. Pham hit .306 with 23 home runs in 2017 and his goal is 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases. ... At 35, Yadier Molina is the catcher. He hit 18 home runs last season. ... Right-hander Luke Gregerson, who pitched for the Astros last season, will be the closer and right-hander Dominic Leone, acquired from Toronto, will be a boost to the setup core. ... The Cardinals ace is right-hander Carlos Martínez, who had 217 strikeouts last season. ... The Cardinals’ newest starter is right-hander Miles Mikolas, who had a 2.18 ERA in 62 starts in his last three seasons in Japan. ... Right-hander Michael Wacha can be steady if the shoulder injuries that have bothered him the last two seasons are history. ... Right-hander Adam Wainwright is in his final year of his contract and if he starts slow, the Cardinals could move him to the bullpen. Wainwright, 36, had some strong moments last year, but overall, his first-half ERA was 5.20 and his second-half ERA 4.78. ... The Cardinals’ top pitching prospect, right-hander Alex Rios, had Tommy John elbow surgery last spring and the team expects him to ready either in the rotation or bullpen, by the beginning of May. ... The Cardinals signed shortstop Paul DeJong to a six-year, $26 million contract, the largest ever given to a player with less than a year of service time, but the money will give them stability at the position. Since 2008, the Cardinals have had 10 different shortstops on opening day. DeJong came up two months into last season and led the Cardinals with a .532 slugging percentage. He hit 25 home runs.