2. St. Louis Cardinals
Significant additions: CF Dexter Fowler, RP Brett Cecil, RP John Gant
Significant losses: OF Matt Holliday, 1B/OF Brandon Moss, SP Jaime Garcia
Clubhouse catalyst: C Yadier Molina
The season is a success if: they close the gap on the Cubs and make it back to the postseason for the sixth time in the past seven years. They don’t do rebuilds in St. Louis, and so the Cardinals will soldier on in 2017, even in the face of the Cubs’ steep ascent. They are banking on Fowler providing a defensive upgrade over Holliday, rebounds from starting pitcher Mike Leake and Michael Wacha, and big years from youthful shortstop Aledmys Diaz, outfielder Randal Grichuk and right fielder Stephen Piscotty. But a step backward — or a stall — in 2017 could portend a transition period. Molina, 34, could become a free agent after the season, and his potential replacement, prospect Carson Kelly, is almost ready at Class AAA. Top pitching prospect Alex Reyes will miss this entire season after elbow surgery. All told, that makes this a crucial season for the franchise’s direction.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
Significant additions: RP Daniel Hudson, IF Phil Gosselin
Significant losses: SP Jeff Locke, SP/RP Ryan Vogelsong, RP Neftali Feliz, IF/OF Sean Rodriguez, OF Matt Joyce
Clubhouse catalyst: OF Andrew McCutchen
The season is a success if: the franchise gets pointed back in the right direction. After three straight playoff appearances, the Pirates took a 20-game backward step in 2016. That was followed by a strange offseason, in which they were involved in some blockbuster rumors — at one point they were going to trade McCutchen and acquire Jose Quintana in separate deals. In the end, they largely stood pat — their biggest move a contract extension for SP Ivan Nova — and appear to be banking on bounce-back years from McCutchen and ace Gerrit Cole, and progress from youngsters such as starting pitchers Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault, first baseman Josh Bell and outfielder Gregory Polanco. It may be too much to ask the Pirates to take down the Cubs, but 90 wins and contention for the wild card are not out of the question.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
Significant additions: 3B Travis Shaw, 1B Eric Thames, RP Neftali Feliz, C Jett Bandy
Significant losses: 1B Chris Carter, RP Tyler Thornburg, RP Blaine Boyer, C Martin Maldonado
Clubhouse catalyst: LF Ryan Braun
The season is a success if: it gets them closer to one extreme (contention) or the other (a tear down and rebuild). These days, the worst place for a franchise to be is in the middle ground between trying to contend and trying to build an excellent farm system, but failing to do either. The Brewers have shown signs of being willing to transition, trading veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy last summer and sending away Thornburg this winter — deals which have helped pull their farm system out of the bottom of the rankings. But while they have an interesting core of young position players, headed by second baseman Jonathan Villar, they don’t have enough pitching to contend or enough prospects yet to rebuild properly.
5. Cincinnati Reds
Significant additions: RP Drew Storen, SP Scott Feldman, OF Ryan Raburn, OF Desmond Jennings, RP Louis Coleman, IF/OF Arismendy Alcantara
Significant losses: 2B Brandon Phillips, SP Dan Straily, SP/RP Alfredo Simon, RP Ross Ohlendorf, SP John Lamb
Clubhouse catalyst: 1B Joey Votto
The season is a success if: they don’t wind up as one of the worst teams in history. Only the Minnesota Twins had a worse record in 2016, and it’s hard to see how the Reds get much better in 2017. Perhaps recognizing the need to rebuild, the team sent Phillips to Atlanta, creating a starting spot for youngster Jose Peraza, and traded veteran pitcher Dan Straily for prospects, but they didn’t go far enough. There was little reason, for example, to hang onto 31-year-old shortstop Zack Cozart, especially with 23-year-old prospect Dilson Herrera ready to take over. There doesn’t seem to be another way out for the Reds except to go full rebuild. And they could be a Votto injury away from being historically bad this year.
Coming Wednesday: AL and NL West
AL Central preview: Indians shake off Series collapse by getting deeper
Fancy Stats: Kershaw is a unicorn; Nats have two thoroughbreds