National baseball writer Barry Svrluga previews the upcoming season with a division-by-division rundown, in predicted order of finish. Today, the National League East.


Chicago Cubs

2015 record and finish: 97-65, third, second NL wild card

Significant additions: OF Jason Heyward, IF/OF Ben Zobrist, SP John Lackey, RP Adam Warren, OF Dexter Fowler

Significant losses: SS Starlin Castro, OF Chris Denorfia, OF Austin Jackson

The season is a success if: Don’t even say it.

So, then, everything would appear to be on the table for the Cubs. And by everything, we mean, well, everything. Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations, is quick to point out they are a defending third-place team – while, of course, not mentioning that they also had the third-most wins in baseball. Added to that team is the best right fielder in the game in Heyward, the most versatile and effective utility player in Zobrist, an effective arm who can either start or relieve in Warren – and capped it off by surprisingly bringing back Fowler, last year’s leadoff man, with a deal after spring training began. A team that had the third-best rotation ERA in baseball added Lackey, who is coming off his highest inning total (218) since 2007 and just posted the lowest ERA of his career. Their bullpen’s ERA was third in the NL. They were sixth in the NL in runs scored without Heyward, Zobrist or a full season of Kyle Schwarber, who will get 500 plate appearances between the outfield and catching. Sure, Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta can’t duplicate 2015, in which he yielded four earned runs over his final 12 starts. But there is reason to think something could happen this year that hasn’t happened since 1908. But we won’t go there.

St. Louis Cardinals

2015 record and finish: 100-62, first

Significant additions: SP Mike Leake, IF Jedd Gyorko, SS Ruben Tejada, RP Seung-Hwan Oh

Significant losses: OF Jason Heyward, SP John Lackey, OF John Jay, OF Peter Bourjos

The season will be a success if: the lineup can score enough.

The Cardinals won more games than the other 29 teams, but the list of teams they outscored is just six long. Only seven teams had worse slugging percentages, and only five hit fewer homers. This run of five straight playoff appearances has been fueled, of course, by pitching – no team has allowed fewer runs over the past four years. But St. Louis also must figure out a way to push across runs. It will try to do so with starting shortstop Jhonny Peralta out for the first two months of the season following thumb surgery. It will do so without Heyward in the middle of the order. And it will do so while trying to coax significant steps forward from outfielders Stephen Piscotty, Tommy Pham and Randall Grichuk – all while hoping Molina’s recovery from a pair of offseason thumb surgeries allows him to excel at the plate a year after posting a .660 OPS. If the offense doesn’t improve, more pressure falls on the pitching staff.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2015 record and finish: 98-64, second, first NL wild card

Significant additions: SP Jon Niese, SP Ryan Vogelsong, 1B/C John Jaso, RP Neftali Perez, RP Juan Nicasio

Significant losses: 2B Neil Walker, SP A.J. Burnett, RP Antonio Bastardo, RP Joakim Soria, 1B/3B Pedro Alvarez, 3B Aramis Ramirez, SP Charlie Morton

The season is a success if: they avoid the wild card game.

Yes, this is a tall order. But the arc of Pittsburgh baseball has changed from the euphoria of making it back to the postseason for the first time since 1992 to being somewhat jaded about it. They won the wild-card game in 2013, then lost a five-game series to St. Louis. But in 2014, Madison Bumgarner shut them out at home. Last year, Jake Arrieta did the same. So hosting another wild card game would likely bring some measure of anxiety to the city. To avoid that, the Pirates must beat out two of the best teams in baseball with a rotation that seems shaky beyond ace Gerrit Cole and lefty Francisco Liriano. Beyond that, there are questions: Jeff Locke had a 4.49 ERA and 1.420 WHIP; Vogelsong is 38 and posted a 5.90 ERA and 1.638 WHIP in starts away from San Francisco last year; Niese is decidedly average, though reliably so. The bullpen, anchored by Tony Watson and closer Mark Melancon, is still exceptional. McCutchen leads an offense that was outscored only by the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Nationals in the NL. But beating out the Cardinals and the Cubs? That’s a tough ask.

Milwaukee Brewers

2015 record and finish: 68-94, fourth

Significant additions: 1B Chris Carter, 3B Will Middlebrooks, IF Aaron Hill, OF Kirk Niewenhuis, IF Jonathan Villar, OF Ramon Flores

Significant losses: RP Francisco Rodriguez, 1B Adam Lind, SS Jean Segura, OF Logan Schafer

The season will be a success if: Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun can be dealt for prospects.

The change to former Astros assistant David Stearns as the general manager likely means a full-on overhaul for the Brewers, a franchise that needs new life. Houston is back in contention now, but only after it suffered four deadening seasons at the major league level to replenish its system with young players. Stearns’s two most significant assets in that regard are Lucroy, the catcher who has an extremely affordable $5.25-million option for 2017, and Braun, the former MVP, whose five-year, $105-million extension begins this season – thus making it harder to move him. That, though, is the prism the entire season must be viewed through: can the Brewers get better for three years from now, not three weeks from now?

Cincinnati Reds

2015 record and finish: 64-98, fifth

Significant additions: IF Jose Peraza, OF Scott Schebler

Significant losses: RP Aroldis Chapman, 3B Todd Frazier, OF/IF Skip Schumaker, C Brayan Pena

Most significant question: see above, replace “Lucroy and Braun” with “Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips.”

The Reds’ rebuild began with the trade of ace Johnny Cueto last summer and continued by dealing away Chapman and Frazier over the winter. They also tried to send Phillips to the Nationals for minor leaguers, but Phillips wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause. When spring training began, the Reds reportedly had agreed to a three-team trade that would have sent Bruce to Toronto – but the deal fell apart. Bruce could be an attractive piece in a trade-deadline deal because he has a team option for 2017 for a relatively affordable $13 million. Phillips can block any deal because he has 10 years of major-league service, five with the same team, and that can make him hard to move – though his deal also ends after 2017, when he’s owed $14 million. The other Cincinnati fixture is on-base beast Joey Votto, but he is entering the third season of a 10-year, $225-million deal, and it’s hard to imagine a team taking on that many years at that much money.