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Around the NL Central: Pittsburgh Pirates offseason in review

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Around the NL Central: Pittsburgh Pirates offseason in review

The Cubs have a target on their back.

They enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series and manager Joe Maddon will have them embracing the expectations.

The Cubs committed more than $275 million to free agents this winter, taking the baseball world by storm with the Jason Heyward signing while also bolstering the pitching staff by bringing Trevor Cahill back and acquiring John Lackey and Adam Warren.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs also said goodbye to former franchise icon Starlin Castro to make room for free agent Ben Zobrist, shipping the 25-year-old shortstop to the New York Yankees.

With another month-and-a-half until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, there is still plenty of time for the Cubs to make more moves, with trade rumors swirling around Jorge Soler and the possibility of the Cubs adding another top-of-the-rotation arm.

But as it stands right now, the Cubs already look like an improved team entering 2016.

As the new year approaches, let's take a look how the rest of the National League Central is shaping up.

Manager: Clint Hurdle (Record w/Pirates: 431-379)
2015 record: 98-64
New additions: SP Jon Niese, SP Ryan Vogelsong, RP Juan Nicasio, RP Yoervis Medina, 1B/C John Jaso, OF/1B Jake Goebbert
Key losses: 1B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Neil Walker, SP J.A. Happ, SP A.J. Burnett, SP Charlie Morton, RP Joakim Soria, 3B Aramis Ramirez, 1B/OF Travis Snider, RP Joe Blanton, RP Antonio Bastardo, 1B/OF Corey Hart, 1B Travis Ishikawa
X-Factor: Gregory Polanco
Biggest question: Can they keep up with the Cubs and Cardinals?
Projected lineup:

1. Gregory Polanco - RF
2. Josh Harrison - 3B
3. Andrew McCutchen - CF
4. Starling Marte - LF
5. John Jaso - 1B
6. Francisco Cervelli - C
7. Jordy Mercer - SS
8. Alen Hanson - 2B
DL: Jung-ho Kang

Projected rotation:

1. Gerrit Cole
2. Francisco Liriano
3. Jon Niese
4. Ryan Vogelsong
5. Jeff Locke

Outlook:

The Pirates finished a game better than the Cubs last year, earning homefield advantage for the one-game playoff. But, for the second year in a row, they ran into the best pitcher on the planet (Madison Bumgarner in 2014, Jake Arrieta in '15) and wound up failing to score in a winner-take-all format.

Obviously, the Pirates are going to try to avoid the wild-card crapshoot in 2016, but they're going to have their hands full with the arrival of the Cubs and the continued success of the Cardinals.

[RELATED - Around the NL Central: Cincinnati Reds offseason in review]

The Buccos have most of their key pieces returning from 2015, including manager Clint Hurdle (one of the best in the game), perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and starter Gerrit Cole (one of the top young pitchers in the game).

But they have lost quite a few starters - Pedro Alvarez (27 HR, 77 RBI), homegrown second baseman Neil Walker (17 HR, 71 RBI), plus pitchers A.J. Burnett (3.18 ERA), J.A. Happ (1.85 ERA) and Charlie Morton, who combined for 60 starts last season. And dynamic Korean rookie Jung-ho Kang will miss the start of the season after breaking his leg on Chris Coghlan's takeout slide late last season.

As of the turn of the year, the Pirates only picked up a couple replacements for their departed players - starter Jon Niese (acquired from the Mets in the Walker trade), 38-year-old pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (4.63 ERA over the last three seasons) and first baseman John Jaso, who gets on base a ton (.361 career OBP), but doesn't offer much in the way of power (37 homers in 550 career games).

[MORE - Around the NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers offseason in review]

Francisco Liriano is a nice starter behind Cole, but the rest of the rotation is a bit unpredictable. The lineup still boasts Gregory Polanco (coming off a stellar second half), McCutchen and Starling Marte and the Pirates are hoping for a bounceback season from Josh Harrison. But the lineup behind them isn't exactly deep, even with Michael Morse and Sean Rodriguez leading a solid bench.

The Pirates have grown into one of the premier orgainzations in baseball, but they're going to have a tough time even matching last year's success and keeping pace in the NL Central.

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.