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NL Central preview 2017: Cubs in a runaway

Albert Almora Jr. of the Chicago Cubs celebrates

Albert Almora Jr. of the Chicago Cubs celebrates after hitting a three-run homer against the Cincinnati Reds at Cashman Field on March 26, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: Getty Images / Ethan Miller

Chicago Cubs

It’s a different reality now on Chicago’s North Side. Rather than talk about the Cubs winning a World Series, which they finally did last year for the first time in 107 years, the conversation has turned to how many rings they can accumulate with their young stars.

So yes, the Cubs are going to take this division. The question is by how many games, and it would require a catastrophic injury bug to slow this crew. After a 103-win season, Chicago gets Kyle Schwarber back from the jump, and manager Joe Maddon has said he intends to use his monster bat in the leadoff spot as part of the plan to replace Dexter Fowler. That’s a fun new wrinkle after Schwarber played only two regular-season games a year ago, then miraculously returned from knee surgery to put his imprint on the World Series.

On the pitching side, the Cubs return the same front four, with lefty Brett Anderson likely to replace the absent Jason Hammel. Most notable, of course, is the absence of Aroldis Chapman, who now wears Yankee pinstripes. But the Cubs rolled the dice this offseason by trading Jorge Soler from their stable of talented kids to the Royals for Wade Davis in his walk year — and coming off two DL stints due to forearm issues.

St. Louis Cardinals

The recent trend of the Cubs and Cards stealing each other’s players continued this winter with St. Louis signing Dexter Fowler to an $82.5-million contract to bat leadoff and play centerfield. That upgraded an obvious need for the Cardinals, but their rotation — traditionally a strength for this franchise — may now be its greatest worry. Adam Wainwright is healthy, but he’s also 35, the No. 1 is Carlos Martinez, and the Cards were dealt a huge setback early in spring when Alex Reyes, their top pitching prospect, required Tommy John surgery. Bullpen-wise, Seung-hwan Oh has taken over for Trevor Rosenthal in the closer’s spot.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates’ Renaissance took a step backward with last year’s 78-win season, but there’s no reason to believe that will continue in ’17. Pittsburgh is too talented, and it’s unlikely Andrew McCutchen, the ’13 MVP, is stuck in a downward spiral, not at age 30. McCutchen had a career-worst .766 OPS, more than 100 points below his career mark, and the Pirates intend to move him from centerfield to right for this season. Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte man the other spots, as well as muscle-up the middle of the Pirates’ lineup. But the rotation is full of question marks other than ace Gerrit Cole and the former Yankee, Ivan Nova, who had a resurgence himself last season under the tutelage of LI’s own Ray Searage, Pittsburgh’s pitching coach.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds lost most of what made them interesting once they kicked off the fire sale that jettisoned Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. All of their intrigue was wrapped up in where those players were headed, so now what’s left to talk about? Cincy’s rebuild is dragging, and in the meantime, perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto keeps getting older. And before anyone thinks the Reds should get a haul back for the 33-year-old Votto, he’s still owed $179 million through 2023. In his age range, that should anchor Votto in Redsville for good, which at least helps jersey sales.

Milwaukee Brewers

Aside from one of the greatest throwback uniforms — there’s an M and B in that glove/ball logo by the way — and Bernie Brewer, there’s not to get excited about as Milwaukee waits for that Aaron Rodgers-Martellus Bennett hookup in a few more months. Selling off Ryan Braun would be another productive step in the rebuilding process, but it seems that his particularly thorny PED history has made him radioactive on the trade front. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for top outfield prospect Lewis Brinson, acquired in last years’ Jonathan Lucroy deal, to show up in Miller Park.


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