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NL Central outlook: Foe-cus is on Brewers, Cardinals

Christian Yelich gets high-fives from teammates after scoring a run against the Reds during a spring-training game in Goodyear, Ariz. Outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Yelich are just as capable of changing games with their gloves. The two big offseason acquisitions make their Brewers debut when Milwaukee visits the San Diego Padres for their season opener on March 29.
| Ross D. Franklin/AP

After three consecutive runs to the National League Championship Series, the Cubs remain the favorites in the Central Division in 2018. Here’s a look at their division foes (capsules listed in order of 2017 finish):

BREWERS

2017:: 86-76, second place.

Manager: Craig Counsell (fourth season).

Outlook: Expectations are up after the Brewers finished one game out of the playoffs in what was supposed to be the second full season of a rebuild. Instead of signing a high-priced starter, general manager David Stearns added Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich as the team’s key offseason acquisitions. The new outfielders are former Gold Glove winners who can help out the pitching staff by cutting down on extra-base hits at Miller Park. The rotation should be bolstered later in the season by the return of right-hander Jimmy Nelson, who’s recovering from surgery on his right shoulder in September after getting hurt while diving back to first while running the bases. Whether the Brewers repeat their 2017 success and challenge the Cubs in the National League Central could come down to starting pitching. A trade drawing from the team’s outfield depth might help during the season.

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CARDINALS

2017: 83-79, third place.

Manager: Mike Matheny (seventh season).

Outlook: The Cardinals have had one losing season since the start of the century, but they are facing immense pressure from fans after finishing behind the Cubs and Brewers in 2017. St. Louis missed the playoffs for a second consecutive year, the first time that has happened since 2007-08. For the Cardinals to snap that postseason “drought,” they’ll need bounce-back seasons from several players — including a healthy Adam Wainwright on the mound and Matt Carpenter at the plate. Few expect the Cardinals to cede the NL Central title to the Cubs for a third straight year without putting up a fight, but St. Louis will need Marcell Ozuna and Tommy Pham to produce as expected. If they do, and the Cardinals can bring along their reworked pitching staff, the potential for a return to the playoffs is there.

PIRATES

2017: 75-87, fourth place.

Manager: Clint Hurdle (seventh season).

Outlook: General manager Neal Huntington insists the Pirates are not rebuilding, but it certainly looks that way after they flipped franchise cornerstones Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole for less expensive and less proven talent. The Pirates did nothing in free agency, though they were able to grab Corey Dickerson, an All-Star for the Rays last season, in February. Dickerson’s arrival gives Pittsburgh some stability in the outfield, but the Pirates still have some serious power issues outside of Josh Bell, who finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Pittsburgh finished 29th in the majors in home runs in 2017, and while McCutchen’s and Dickerson’s numbers are comparable, the rest of the lineup isn’t exactly imposing.

REDS

2017: 68-94, fifth place.

Manager: Bryan Price (fifth season).

Outlook: The Reds launched into a major rebuild in 2015 and have lost at least 90 games for three consecutive seasons while finishing last in the NL Central all three years. They locked up shortstop Eugenio Suarez through 2024 with a $66 million contract during spring training — their first significant deal during the rebuild — but are still at least a year away from looking for an upgrade through free agency. The every-day lineup will score enough runs to keep games competitive, but pitching is the sore point again. It would be considered a breakthrough simply to move out of last place.