It’s hard to imagine, but if Major League Baseball only had one wild card team in each league, the Chicago Cubs wouldn’t have made the postseason in 2015.
With 97 wins, the Cubs did finish in third place in the Central Division, three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals and a game behind the PIttsburgh Pirates.
Those three teams were arguably the three-best regular season teams in the league last year, and they could potentially have another strong season this year. With the Cubs’ additions to their roster, they are one of the biggest World Series favorites this year, but can they fend off the Pirates and Cardinals?
1 Chicago Cubs
It’s a trendy pick to say that the Cubs are going to win their division after their momentous moves of the offseason, but trendiness aside, it is still a smart pick to say that the North Siders will once again make the postseason.
After all, they are loaded in the areas that matter most. Their pitching rotation is well-stacked at the top, with Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and John Lackey serving as a three-headed monster that will allow guys like Kyle Hendricks, Travis Wood, and Trevor Cahill to compete for the bottom two slots.
Their bullpen is also solid, with the addition of Adam Warren helping out players like Cahill, Hector Rondon, and Pedro Strop nail down the back-end of things. Neil Ramirez has also looked good this spring, and if the Cubs can get him going, things will be helped even more.
Then, there’s the lineup. Already loaded with power bats like Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs added more on-base percentage and extra-base ability to the mix by bringing in Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. That, combined with the possible emergence of guys like Addison Russell, could help the Cubs to be the most potent lineup in the league, and when combined with the pitching upgrades, the team could be the most complete in the majors.
There are of course potential obstacles, including teams in their division and the potential for injuries and downturns in performance, but for the most part, all signs are pointing up for the Cubs this season.
2 Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates can’t seem to get past the National League wild card game, once again losing in 2015 as Arrieta and the Cubs dispatched them from the postseason.
Even with those failures in mind, this team could still cause some havoc in the postseason. Adding David Freese to the mix could help give the team a good power boost, and returning stars like Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte give the Pirates one of the most potent lineups in baseball.
The big question will come at the back end of their pitching rotation. Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole are both excellent pitchers, but can guys like Jonathon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong get the job done on the days when the top two pitchers aren’t throwing?
3 St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals will be without one of their top pitchers once again in 2016, as Lance Lynn will miss the entire season. The team still managed to win 100 games in 2015 despite not having Adam Wainwright for most of the year, but at some point one would think that their injury luck would start to run out.
Their lineup is still potent, with Matt Carpenter batting leadoff and Matt Holliday still slugging as his career moves along. Thanks to the loss of Heyward and injury questions surrounding Yadier Molina, the Cardinals can’t just assume that things will work out for them, and even though doubting them in the past has proven to be a fool’s errand, we’re still picking against them to make the postseason this year.
4 Cincinnati Reds
The Reds aren’t an awful team, but compared to the top three teams in the division, they aren’t on the same level. They dealt Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox over the offseason, and even though players like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are still around, there are still plenty of questions surrounding their lineup.
Their starting rotation is even more questionable. Can players like Raisel Iglesias and Anthony DeSclafani possibly compete with the other rotations in the division? It’s unlikely, but their lineup should at least make them somewhat competitive in games this season.
5 Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are, in a word, bad. They made some interesting additions to their team this offseason, with Chris Carter set to play first base and Aaron Hill coming aboard in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Losing players like Jean Segura and Yovani Gallardo will not help matters, however. Their pitching rotation is thin, and their bullpen isn’t much better. With a questionable lineup and a poor rotation, there is little chance that the team will be competitive, and they will likely once again be a punching bag in the Central Division.