Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
|St. Louis Cardinals
The Chicago Cubs surprised more than a few people last year with 97 wins and a run to the National League Championship Series, but they won't be sneaking up on anyone this year.
Adding Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey and Adam Warren to a roster that was already overflowing with talent should make them the odds-on favorites to win it all when the season starts, and the young roster will face a whole new set of challenges in the role of favorite.
Young players like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler have only scratched the surface of their vast potential, and adding Lackey to the rotation plugs what was arguably the Cubs' biggest weakness a year ago. This is still the Cubs we're talking about, so anything can happen, but it's impossible to ignore their talent.
Sustained success is the ultimate goal for any team, and the St. Louis Cardinals have been the gold standard in that department. They've reached the postseason in 12 of the past 16 seasons, including each of the past five years, and led the majors with 100 wins in 2015.
They are not without some legitimate areas of concern, though.
Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk will be relied on heavily in an offense that has struggled to consistently score runs at times, and losing Jhonny Peralta to a thumb injury doesn't help that situation. Meanwhile, catcher Yadier Molina is still recovering from thumb issues of his own, and keeping him healthy will be incredibly important.
Joining those two in making it an exciting three-team race once again will be the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have made the postseason each of the past three years after snapping a 20-year drought.
It's a new-look Pirates team this year, with guys like Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria and Antonio Bastardo moving on and John Jaso, David Freese, Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz set to take their place.
The return of Jung Ho Kang and arrival of prospects Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell and Alen Hanson could be the X-factor for the Bucs.
Similar to the NL East, the bottom of the division will be a battle to the cellar and perhaps a race to 100 losses, as the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers have both sold aggressively and are still in the early stages of rebuilding.
The Brewers rotation has a chance to be good enough for them to at least remain competitive, while the Reds still have some solid offensive pieces in place, starting with Joey Votto, who was an absolute monster after the All-Star break.
The NL Central is a tough division for a rebuilding team, and with both teams expected to trade off at least a few more pieces between now and the deadline, the 2016 season is essentially a throwaway year for both clubs while they evaluate their young talent.