The National League Central has had both wild cards in two of the past three seasons and one wild card in 2013 and 2011. It's been the toughest division in the NL. While the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds are taking a step back into rebuilding mode, the top three teams could once again all make the postseason.
Here's a look at each team ...
2015: 100-62, plus-122 run differential, lost to Cubs in Division Series
Projected 2016 record from FanGraphs: 88-74
2015 payroll: $132.6 million
Projected 2016 payroll from Baseball-Reference: $132 million
Cardinals fans have been frustrated by an offseason that saw the Cubs sign both Jason Heyward and John Lackey and the Cardinals counter thus far only with the signing of capable but unexciting Mike Leake. (Yes, "capable and unexciting" now equates to an $80 million contract that most thought was reasonable.) Maybe the Cardinals still have another signing in them, but their current payroll matches up with last season, suggesting their offseason maneuvering is likely complete.
If that's the case, the path to the playoffs will once again rely on the depth of a pitching staff that allowed the fewest runs of any team in a full season since 1972. Lackey and Lance Lynn (Tommy John surgery) are out, but Leake and Adam Wainwright are in, and the Cardinals will happily take the draft pick for losing Lackey. It's going to be difficult to repeat that kind of run prevention: The Cardinals had a 2.94 ERA but 3.47 fielding independent pitching. The staff ranked seventh in the NL in both walks and strikeouts, so it's not like it dominated in those areas.
Still, Wainwright should be back at full strength after his torn Achilles heals, and Leake has been a durable 30-game starter throughout his career. If Carlos Martinez is healthy after the shoulder injury that shut him down for the postseason, the rotation should again be one of the best in the majors. The bullpen had a 2.82 ERA, third in the majors, and returns all its primary guys.
Something to keep in mind: The Cardinals won 100 games. Via the BaseRuns projection -- bases gained and bases allowed -- they should have won 89 games. So given the likely regression of the pitching staff, the offense will have to perform better after finishing 11th in the NL in runs. But there's also this: The offense may have underperformed a bit. It was fifth in the NL in OBP and ninth in slugging. While the Cardinals hit .253 overall, they hit just .242 with runners in scoring position.
Of course, 2016 isn't 2015. Losing Heyward means the Cardinals will need Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty to perform over a full season. Both hit better in the majors than they had in the minors. The Cardinals also need Matt Holliday to play more than 73 games and hope that Yadier Molina's second thumb surgery takes. Matt Carpenter was the team's surprising power source with 28 home runs. He struck out more but still drew 81 walks and led the NL in doubles for the second time in three years.
The ultimate key for a better offense, however, may be first base, currently some combination of Matt Adams, Brandon Moss and Piscotty. The Cardinals were 28th in the majors in wOBA at first base. If somebody steps up there, the Cardinals' chances increase for a sixth straight trip to the postseason.
2015: 98-64, plus-101 run differential, lost wild-card game
Projected 2016 record from FanGraphs: 87-75
2015 payroll: $95.8 million
Projected 2016 payroll from Baseball-Reference: $91.3 million
The Pirates have the second-most wins in the majors over the past three seasons, but all they have to show for it are three wild-card berths, the last two of which ended in defeat, to Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta.
Now comes the bad news: Three-fifths of the rotation currently consists of Jeff Locke (4.49 ERA in 2015), Jonathon Niese (4.13 ERA with the New York Mets in 2015 with the lowest strikeout rate of his career) and Ryan Vogelsong (4.63 ERA with the San Francisco Giants over the past three seasons). It's safe to say that the playoff chances of the Pirates reside on how those three -- or perhaps prospects Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon or Nick Kingham at some point -- perform behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano.
Trouble is, the Pirates' infield depth took a hit as Neil Walker was used to acquire Niese. They can slide Josh Harrison over to second base and will hopefully have Jung Ho Kang ready early in 2016 to play third base, but they've lost that ability to slide Kang between second, third and shortstop.
The Pirates will need Mark Melancon and Tony Watson -- by one measure, the two most valuable relievers in the majors over the past three seasons -- to once again be a dominating duo and they'll need Gregory Polanco to blossom from solid regular (.256/.320/.381) to star.
2015: 97-65, plus-81 run differential, lost NLCS
Projected 2016 record from FanGraphs: 100-62
2015 payroll: $133 million
Projected 2016 payroll from Baseball-Reference: $162.2 million
It's not difficult to envision a path to the playoffs for the Cubs. The FanGraphs projection has them at 100 wins, the highest total in the majors, an especially impressive figure considering projection systems are usually pretty conservative.
In other words: The Cubs are loaded.
One thing I love about the Cubs' offseason: Not only does the Lackey signing bring a solid No. 3 starter behind Arrieta and Jon Lester, but the Starlin Castro-Adam Warren trade also brought back a solid swingman. With Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel, Warren and Travis Wood, they have tons of rotation depth in case of injuries.
The other reason to love this, of course, is the young offensive core. FanGraphs projects Kris Bryant at 5.6 WAR, Anthony Rizzo at 5.2, Heyward at 4.8, Kyle Schwarber at 2.9 and Addison Russell at 2.3. It's not unreasonable to expect all five of those guys to exceed those figures. And if Jorge Soler figures out how to hit those pitches that do bendy things ... watch out.
Is there any chance this club becomes the 2015 version of the Washington Nationals, a World Series favorite that doesn't even make the playoffs? Sure, it's baseball. A long list of injuries ... the bullpen implodes ... Joe Maddon brings a tiger into the clubhouse and he bites off the arms of the entire infield ... I mean, I guess there's a way the Cubs disappoint.
2015: 68-94, minus-82 run differential
Projected 2016 record from FanGraphs: 73-89
2015 payroll: $98 million
Projected 2016 payroll from Baseball-Reference: $59.1 million
Your path to the playoffs is probably slim when your owner is writing a letter to the fans that states, "The commitment you've demonstrated to the Brewers, I assure you, is equaled by my own commitment to doing better. Each of you deserves that. By doing better, I mean fielding a playoff-competitive team and one day bringing a world championship to Milwaukee. To move toward accomplishing this lofty goal, I believe we need to take a step back and build more intensively from within."
It's the smart move. The Brewers' collapse down the stretch in 2014 spilled over into 2015, and it's time to rebuild. Considering the caliber of competition in the division, the Brewers weren't going to compete in the next couple of years. New GM David Stearns has a tall task ahead of him, but the Brewers do come from one position of strength compared to some other small-market clubs with a strong fan base that has allowed them to draw at least 2.5 million fans each of the past nine seasons.
The farm system is also in much better shape than it was a few years ago. Shortstop Orlando Arcia had a strong season at Double-A and could reach the majors in 2016, and the Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers trade brought in two potential starting outfielders in Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana. Stearns will have to decide about trading catcher Jonathan Lucroy (they're probably stuck with Ryan Braun), and it would be nice if Matt Garza got off to a nice start so he could be flipped. Otherwise, it looks like the Brewers will be battling the Reds for fourth place and maybe hoping to finish fifth.
2015: 64-98, minus-114 run differential
Projected 2016 record from FanGraphs: 79-83
2015 payroll: $118.8 million
Projected 2016 payroll from Baseball-Reference: $103.3 million
The Reds are in the same boat as the Brewers. They tried to give it one more run last year, but Homer Bailey blew out his elbow, Jay Bruce was awful again, Devin Mesoraco got hurt, Billy Hamilton didn't hit and Johnny Cueto and Leake were eventually traded. The Reds started rookie pitchers in their final 64 games and ended up losing 98 games, the franchise's most since 1982. Whatever did happen to Paul Householder?
Anyway, the Reds have traded Todd Frazier for second baseman/shortstop Jose Peraza, a glove-first slap hitter with speed. They tried to trade Aroldis Chapman, but we know what happened there. They apparently had a deal in place to trade Brandon Phillips to the Nationals, but Phillips invoked his 10-and-5 rights to veto it. Bruce has been minus-0.3 WAR the past two seasons, so even if somebody wants him, he won't bring much in return.
As of now, the Reds aren't as bad as the bottom feeders in the NL East. They still have one of the best hitters in baseball in Joey Votto. Hamilton and Zack Cozart are elite defenders. All the young starters at least picked up experience. And for now, they still have Chapman and Phillips.