NL Central preview: Cubs refocused on getting back on top

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon long has maintained he wants his team to play in the toughest division in baseball.

Maddon does have some experience with that, having previously managed the Tampa Bay Rays in the rugged American League East.

In his first year at the helm of the Cubs, 2015, three teams from the National League Central went to the postseason.

Maddon may get his wish again this year as the NL Central looks to be improved and loaded.

"I thought it was the best last year," Maddon said during spring training in Mesa, Arizona. "It's gotten even better, a tremendous challenge for us. When you get teams that evenly matched, it's about playing the game better on a nightly basis. It really comes down to that."

All that said, here's how they'll finish in the Central:


No team coming off a 95-win season seems to be more on a mission than these Cubs, who lost their lead in the division before losing Game 163 to the Milwaukee Brewers and then losing the wild-card playoff game to the Colorado Rockies.

Put on notice by team president Theo Epstein, the Cubs, from Maddon to the players, have a sense of urgency that hasn't been apparent since the 2016 world-championship season.

"The big push this camp is really to take fundamentals to heart and to try to play the game properly every night, Maddon said. "We're going to pitch well. We're going to catch it well. Offensively, I think we're going to be better than we were last year. We have a lot of guys who have a lot of room for growth. But other teams have gotten better. The concept I'm really trying to promote is that we've got to play the game better fundamentally."

The Cubs have the best starting rotation in the division, if not the NL. If pitcher Yu Darvish and third baseman Kris Bryant are healthy all year, many problems will be solved.

Underestimate this team at your risk.

Milwaukee Brewers:

What the Brewers did last season was no fluke, and it does not appear to be a one-off situation. The Brewers took the division from the Cubs, thanks in large part to Christian Yelich, who took the MVP Award away from the Cubs' Javier Baez.

There are some issues with this team, especially with injuries to relievers Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress, both of whom will open the season on the injured list.

The Brewers, too, are hungry. They want to do better than just getting to the NL championship series, as they did last fall.

"It's the only division in baseball where every team's trying to win," Yelich told reporters. "So yeah, it's going to be a tough division. I think we understand that, and I bet you it's decided by a game or 2 just like it was last year. So we know every game counts."

St. Louis Cardinals:

The Cardinals have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons, and in St. Louis, that is a crisis.

To try to expedite a return to the postseason, the Cardinals made a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks to get first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. They recently signed Goldschmidt to a contract extension.

Goldschmidt has a lifetime line of .290/.389/.533 for an OPS of .922 and 209 home runs.

Mike Shildt took over as manager from Mike Matheny during the 2018 season, and there seems to be a new energy as the Cards break camp.

"This is a postseason roster," veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright told the media. "There's nowhere you can point that part of our game can't play in the postseason. When I look at our lineup and I look at our bullpen and I look at our starting rotation, I don't see many holes."

Reliever Andrew Miller should help the bullpen, and if the Cardinals get a rebound year from former Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler and everyone else produces as expected, they will challenge for the division title.

Cincinnati Reds:

The Reds were the talk of the off-season with their acquisitions of outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp and pitchers Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood.

First baseman Joey Votto is now 35, but he led the league with a .417 on-base percentage last year and is on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

The Reds have hit one speed bump. All-star infielder Scooter Gennett will miss 8-12 weeks with a right-groin strain.

This team should be fun to watch.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

It seemed like only yesterday that the Pirates were on the cusp of big things. Then, the Cubs shut their fingers on what seemed to be a window of opportunity by knocking the Buccos out in the 2015 wild-card game.

The Pirates now seem to be in development mode with their young pitchers. Former Cubs prospect Chris Archer lends some veteran credibility to the rotation, which includes promising pitchers Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove.

First baseman Josh Bell is considered one of the star first basemen in the NL, but the Pirates will need more than the 12 homers he hit last year, down from the 26 he hit in 2017.

Kyle Hendricks, Cubs agree to $55.5 million contract extension

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