St. Louis Cardinals

Brewers, Cubs won't make it easy for Cardinals to gain ground in NL Central

For the second year in a row, the success of the Cardinals' offseason is being graded against whatever competitive ground they gained on the Chicago Cubs.

You can add in this metric as well: How much ground did the Cardinals gain on the Milwaukee Brewers?

St. Louis finished in third place in the National League Central Division in 2017, nine games behind the then-defending World Series champions and three games behind the Brewers. The Pirates and Reds trailed the pack in the distance.

"Right now we have three teams that are competitive, and Pittsburgh is always up there," team president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. "I don't I don't think there's a club in our division right now that's head and shoulders above."

Here's how the rest of the National League Central Division shapes up:

Chicago Cubs (92-70)

A year removed from their first World Series championship in 108 years, the Cubs were still two games under .500 after their first 88 games. But they finished strong, going 19-9 in September and advancing to their third straight National League Championship Series, which they dropped to the Dodgers 4-1.

The starting nine in 2018 will be largely unchanged, with only Javier Baez stepping ahead of Ben Zobrist as the everyday second baseman. As it it, Baez got 469 at-bats there last year, hitting .273 with 23 home runs.

Otherwise, opposing pitchers still have to get through third baseman Kris Bryant (.295, 29 home runs, 73 RBIs) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.273, 32 home runs, 109 RBIs).

The starting rotation is largely unchanged as well, with the notable exception of Jake Arrieta, who led the staff with 14 wins. The Cubs allowed him to go to free agency and replaced him with four-time All-Star Yu Darvish, who went 10-12 with a 3.86 in a season split between Texas and Los Angeles.

A healthy Kyle Hendricks also can bolster the rotation. He was limited to 24 games last season but still managed a 7-5 record with a 3.03 ERA.

The team also let closer Wade Davis and his 32 saves move on to Colorado while replacing him Brandon Morrow, who has 18 saves over an 11-year career.

Milwaukee Brewers (86-76)

The Brewers got off to a solid start in 2017 but slumped slightly in the second half to finish one game out of the second NL wild card spot.

They've made some key additions to the lineup, however, that have some national analysts calling them the breakout team of 2018.

Six-time All-Star and 2011 MVP Ryan Braun may be reduced to platoon status as the general manager David Stearns has assembled a solid new outfield.

The Brewers added free agent center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who batted .300 with 15 home runs and 26 stolen bases for Kansas City last season. Then they traded for left fielder Christian Yelich, a 25-year-old Gold Glover who was made available in the Miami Marlins' payroll purge. Yelich hit .286 with 18 home runs and 81 RBIs.

They'll join a roster already stacked with young, home-grown players, several of whom had breakout seasons in 2017. Third baseman Travis Shaw belted a team-high 31 home runs with 101 RBIs, while 24-year-old right fielder Domingo Santana added 30 homers with 85 RBIs.

A rotation that ranked fifth in ERA last year will see some turnover.

Zach Davies, 24, is back after winning 17 last year, as is Chase Anderson, who went 12-4 with a 2.74 ERA. But Jimmy Nelson (12-6, 3.49 ERA) is out until at least June after having shoulder surgery. Jhoulys Chacin, Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley fill in the back of the rotation, which looks like a weakness on the team so far.

Corey Knebel saved 39 games and had a 1.78 ERA last year. He's back as well.

Pittsburgh Pirates (75-87)

It will be a transitional year for the Pirates, who cleared the roster of longtime fan favorite Andrew McCutchen and staff ace Gerrit Cole in favor of younger, unproven players.

McCutchen, who batted .279 with 28 home runs and 88 RBIs, was traded to San Francisco. Cole, 12-12, was sent to Houston.

The Pirates are hoping outfielder Gregory Polanco and starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow, a pair of once highly touted prospects, can reach some of their potential.

Polanco has been a regular each of the past three seasons. His best season was 2016, when he hit .258 with 22 home runs and 86 RBIs. But he had just 11 homers and 35 RBIs in 2017.

First baseman Josh Bell, 24, is the top returning hitter, having led the Pirates with 90 RBIs to go with his 26 home runs last year. Second baseman Josh Harrison (.272, 16 home runs) and Starling Marte (.275, 21 stolen bases) also return.

Glasnow, 24, is 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA in limited opportunity the past two seasons. The rest of the rotation is unchanged.

Cincinnati Reds (68-94)

The Reds have finished last in the National League Central for three straight years after reaching the playoffs in three of the four seasons prior.

They had no real trouble scoring runs but were bogged down in 2017 by a pitching staff that ranked last in baseball with a 5.17 team ERA. But Cincinnati skews young and could be improved.

Joey Votto had a good season, even by his own standards, batting .320 with 36 home runs and 100 RBIs in 2017. His .454 on-base percentage led the league for the second year in a row and helped him to a team-high 106 runs scored. He had the NL's top OPS, too, at 1.032.

He got plenty of help from second baseman Scooter Gennett (.295, 27 home runs, 97 RBIs), shortstop Zack Cozart (.297, 24 home runs), third baseman Eugenio Suarez (26 home runs, 82 RBIs) and left fielder Adam Duvall (31 home runs, 37 doubles, 99 RBIs).

Improvement in the starting rotation rests in the arms of Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani, who missed all of last season with an elbow injury. DeSclafani, 27, had a 3.28 ERA in 123 innings pitched in 2016. Castillo, 24, was just 3-7, but had a 3.12 ERA in 15 starts.

Raisel Iglesias saved 28 games and struck out 92 batters in 76 innings, but the rest of the bullpen is suspect.