Nothing easy for Chicago Cubs in tough NL Central
It's not often that one division has the three best teams in baseball. That's what happened last year in the National League Central, when the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs tore things apart in the regular season.
With the unpredictability of the playoffs, however, none of these teams made it to the World Series.
The Cubs eliminated the Pirates in the wild-card game before beating the Cardinals in the first postseason meeting between the teams.
In the end, it was the Mets who prevailed, sweeping the Cubs and getting to the Series.
Although it's hard to imagine the top three teams in the Central winning 100, 98 and 97 games, respectively, again this season, the heartland looks to be the source of power for the NL for 2016.
Here is how I see the Central shaping up this year:
They're on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They seem to be everybody's pick to win not only the NL Central but the World Series as well.
So what could possibly go wrong?
Just about anything, and it has nothing to do with curses, jinxes or the weight of history.
The Cubs are the favorites for a reason: They have a very good team coming out of spring training.
The front office did what all good business people do after a successful year: It refused to stand pat.
Instead, the Cubs added key veterans such as Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. All three bring talent as well as a wealth of experience and plenty of good leadership characteristics.
The Cubs' offense figures to get on base more this year, and if the young hitters grow, the strikeouts should come down. On the mound, Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta is a true ace, and Jon Lester says he's more comfortable in his second season with the Cubs.
The most important X-factor in any sport is injury. The Cubs were a healthy team for almost all of 2015. A key injury, especially to a starting pitcher, could change everything.
All that kept the Pirates from advancing past the Cubs and into the division series last October was a masterful performance by Arrieta in the wild-card game.
The big question dogging the Pirates this spring is whether their starting rotation is deep enough. Perhaps anticipating that, they acquired lefty Jon Niese from the Mets in a trade for local boy Neil Walker. Niese slots in behind emerging ace Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano.
As long as Andrew McCutchen is patrolling center field in PNC Park, the Pirates have a fighting chance. Jung Ho Kang, taken out in a hard slide last fall by then-Cub Chris Coghlan, moves to third base from shortstop, and he figures to be ready sometime in April after knee surgery and rehab.
St. Louis Cardinals:
It's never easy to count the Cardinals out, and we're not doing so here. They won 100 games last year with ace Adam Wainwright on the disabled list most of the season.
Righty Mike Leake might be a good under-the-radar addition to the rotation. Matt Carpenter is plenty of trouble at the top of the lineup, and the future looks bright in the outfield with Stephen Piscotty.
The Cardinals and their fans will "welcome" the Cubs to town April 18 for a three-game series, which features the return to St. Louis of Lackey and Heyward after they signed with the Cubs this off-season. It should be a rollicking atmosphere from the get-go at Busch Stadium for that one.
Here is where the big drop-off occurs. The Brewers finished last season 68-94, and it seems like only yesterday they were contenders.
Things appear on the upswing in Milwaukee, where the Brewers are in the midst of a rebuilding. Domingo Santana, 23, will start in right field on Opening Day for the Brewers, who obtained him from Houston last year in the Carlos Gomez trade. Others are on the way.
Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy are still there. Braun had a line of .285/.356/.498 with 25 homers last year, while Lucroy had his season derailed by injuries. Lucroy also could be the next one traded as the Brewers seek to load up on more prospects.
Co-closer Will Smith will be out for several weeks after tearing a knee ligament while taking off a shoe last week.
Former Cubs starting pitcher Matt Garza is Milwaukee No. 3 man in the rotation.
The Reds are the other team in this division to have gone downward after making the playoffs three times in a four-year span (2010-13). They went 64-98 in 2015 to finish last.
The core of the lineup looks good, with on-base machine Joey Votto (.292/.449/.493 with 25 homers) anchoring. Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Zack Cozart and Devin Mesoraco should enable the Reds to score runs, but the starting rotation is inexperienced, and the Great American Ball Park is no place for those kinds of pitchers to thrive.
Raisel Iglesias, whose big-league career began with 18 games for the Reds last year, will start on Opening Day as Anthony DeSclafani deals with an oblique injury. Iglesias will be followed in the rotation by Brandon Finnegan.
The Reds will take it easy on pitcher Homer Bailey, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
Manager Bryan Price has endured some rocky times in Cincinnati. Will he last the season?