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NL Central preview: Chicago Cubs spent big

Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs is

Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs is congratulated by Kyle Schwarber #12 after hitting a three-run home run in the second inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game 4 of the National League Division Series at Wrigley Field on Oct. 13, 2015 in Chicago. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jonathan Daniel

With a 97-win regular season, Joe Maddon apparently was able to work his quirky brand of magic in his managerial debut on Chicago’s North Side. A roster stocked with talented kids definitely helped, but the playoffs ended in typical Cubs’ fashion — with a four-game NLCS sweep by the Mets.

In response, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein whipped out the checkbook this winter and spent nearly $280 million on free agents, the most by any team heading into 2016. Not only that, the Chicago Cubs got two key players to jump from the rival Cardinals by luring away Jason Heyward ($184 million) and John Lackey ($32 million). They also irritated the Mets by swiping Ben Zobrist ($56 million) in an 11th-hour deal facilitated by Maddon’s relationship with the super-utility man.

Clearly, money is no object to the Cubbies, who even had Dexter Fowler fall back to them when his agreement with the Orioles reportedly collapsed. So this lineup is deeper than the one that finished sixth in the NL in both OPS (.719) and runs scored (696). It’s a minefield with mashers Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber in the middle, but can the rotation hold up its end?

Jake Arrieta, last year’s Cy Young Award winner, looked fried in October after an historic second half. Jon Lester, after going 11-12, spent spring training assuring everyone he’ll be fine pitching with floating bone chips in his elbow.

2. PITTSBURGH PIRATES

No surprise they’ve been lobbying in Pittsburgh for a change to the one-and-done wild-card format as the Pirates have been erased twice in a row, including after winning 98 games last season. Ace Gerrit Cole is a perennial Cy Young threat, and former Met Jon Niese is the latest import to hope for a revival in Pittsburgh.

3. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

No Heyward, no Lackey, and the Cardinals also will be without Jhonny Peralta for the first two months after thumb surgery. Usually they just re-stock and keep rolling in St. Louis, but will the Cardinals still have enough to keep pace in this ultra-competitive division? Ruben Tejada, cut loose by the Mets, should be the space-filler at short until Peralta returns.

4. CINCINNATI REDS

Joey Votto continues to produce runs with robot-like efficiency, but the rest of the Big Red Machine is in the midst of an overhaul. Cincy remains in prospect-gathering mode after trading Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake since last season’s deadline. They’d love to move Brandon Phillips as well.

5. MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Ryan Braun again will be laboring at the bottom of the division, and his five-year, $105-million extension — signed before the Biogenesis mess — finally kicks in this season.

ALL THE BEST

Team: Cubs

Manager: Joe Maddon, Cubs

GM: John Mozeliak, Cardinals

Everyday player: Joey Votto, Reds

Hitter: Joey Votto, Reds

Leadoff hitter: Dexter Fowler, Cubs

Baserunner: Starling Marte, PIrates

Exciting: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

Infielder: Brandon Phillips, Reds

Outfielder: Jason Heyward, Cubs

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals

Starter: Jake Arrieta, Cubs

Setup: Tony Watson, Pirates

Closer: Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals

Home uniforms: Cardinals

Ballpark atmosphere: Wrigley Field

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