2016 NL Central: Three-headed monster

The NL Central spawned a three-headed monster in 2015.

Top three finishers the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs tallied the best records in Major League Baseball. Barring a disaster or a miracle, not much will change in 2016, except possibly their order of finish.

The only knock on an otherwise dominant division was that none of the three National League juggernauts were able to make it to the World Series, with the Cubs being swept by the New York Mets in the NLCS.

The Cubs (97-65, 3rd NL Central) are the team on everybody’s watchlist in 2016. Usually the butt of tough-luck baseball jokes, the Cubbies haven’t won it all since 1908.

The modern Chicago side has shown glimpses of brilliance and, despite finishing third-place in the Central last season, they toppled the second-place Pirates in the wild card playoff before besting the first-place Cardinals in the NLDS.

Chicago enters 2016 with much loftier expectations. Las Vegas gives them the highest odds to win it all, followed by the San Francisco Giants and divisional rival St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cubs lineup is simply terrifying to opposing teams, from top to bottom.

Offense was already what fueled a 97-win sensational season, behind the bats of star first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.278, 31 HR, 101 RBI) and rising stars Kris Bryant (.275, 26 HR , 99 RBI) and Kyle Schwarber (.246, 16 HR, 43 RBI, in half a season). Add to the mix proven role players Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, and the Cubs are potentially the best team on paper in 2016.

It takes more than big bats to win championships, though. That’s where 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA, 236 K) makes his money. Arrieta having a repeat year, along with strong performances from respected starters, Jon Lester and John Lackey, will be instrumental for the team to reach their limitless potential.

If the Cubs miss a step, you can bet the St. Louis Cardinals (100-62, 1st NL Central) will be the first team to take advantage. The Cardinals were the only team in MLB to crack the 100-win plateau, but do they have the tools in place to produce that kind of success again?

The team boasts a supply of solid young talent, like Pleasanton’s Stephen Piscotty and outfielder Randal Grichuk. Both players have shown well so far and will be expected to carry the Cards forward in 2016.

Speaking of young talent, pitchers Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez make up a mouth-watering combo of current stars with room to improve.

But Cardinal veterans like Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright are a year older and a year more likely to spend stints on the disabled list. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta is already out for the beginning of the season. Health could make or break the 2016 season for a St. Louis club that otherwise looks primed to have one or two more great seasons.

If the Cubs and Cards are the one-two punch, than the Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64, 2nd AL Central) are the knock-out blow.

98 wins and the second-best record in baseball translated into a second place divisional finish and an early exit from the post season. Life isn’t fair.

The offense should remain strong in Pittsburgh. Andrew McCutchen (.292, 23 HR, 96 RBI) is a star and Starling Marte (.287, 19 HR, 81 RBI, 30 steals) seems destined for nothing less. Guys like Francisco Cervelli and Gregory Polanco are important question marks, that could turn a good offense into a great offense.

Pirates pitching has some question marks. Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA, 202 K) obviously has the tools for greatness in this league. But the next four — Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Juan Nicasio and Jeff Locke — all leave doubts. Pitching guru Ray Searage always seems to find a way, however, so expect another unlikely success story from a weird rotation.

The final two teams in this division will find themselves outside looking in. The Cincinnati Reds and the Milwaukee Brewers have the misfortune of competing in this jam-packed division.

The Reds (64-98) will continue their approach of getting rookie pitchers time to grow, a philosophy that drew many looks in 2015.

Offensively they’ll be hoping Joey Votto (.314, 29 HR, 80 RBI) can carry a weaker lineup, and that Billy Hamilton (57 stolen bases) can steal 100.

The Brewers (68-94) can wave the white flag now. 2016 will be a season of rebuilding, as Milwaukee brings one of the weakest lineups and pitching staffs in the National League.

Expect Ryan Braun (.285, 25 HR, 84 RBI, 24 stolen bases) to hit a lot of baseballs and for Chris Carter (.199, 24 HR, 151 strikeouts) to miss a lot of baseballs.