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Future of the NL Central: Brewers, Reds continue rebuilding projects

Future of the NL Central: Brewers, Reds continue rebuilding projects

While the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates are still vying for contention in the National League, the Cubs could feast on a pair of rebuilding squads within their own division.

USA TODAY projects the Milwaukee Brewers to win 72 games and the Cincinnati Reds 66 games, with the latter just a game off the worst record in the league.

The Cubs will play the two teams a combined 38 times in 2017, a huge boon to the defending World Champs who probably have the most talented roster in the game.

[RELATED - Can Cardinals, Pirates stop Cubs from running away with the NL Central?]

However, it may not be long before the Brewers and Reds start to look like contenders in the NL Central as they came in at sixth and eighth, respectively, in baseball among Keith Law's farm system rankings.

Let's take a look at what the Cubs have in store with the two likely cellar-dwellers.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

The Brewers front office has been among the most active in baseball over the last year or so and they have the organization in a great rebuilding position.

Among the Brewers' projected position players, only two are at least 30 — newly signed Eric Thames (30) and face of the franchise Ryan Braun (33). The pitching staff features only five arms north of 30 (h/t Roster Resource):

Second baseman Jonathan Villar enjoyed a breakout 2016 campaign — leading the majors in steals (62) while collecting 60 extra-base hits and posting an .826 OPS — and has emerged as an elite leadoff hitter. He turns 26 in May.

Orlando Arcia (22) and Domingo Santana (24) are former top prospects (Arcia was ranked the No. 8 prospect in the game by Baseball America a year ago), centerfielder Keon Broxton impressed in limited time last season and newly-acquired Travis Shaw has shown potential (34 doubles, 16 homers, 71 RBI last year in his age-26 season with the Boston Red Sox).

Starter Zach Davies (24) and reliever Corey Knebel (25) lead the pitching staff along with journeymen veterans Junior Guerra (32), Carlos Torres (34) and Neftali Feliz (28), plus former Cub Matt Garza is lurking in the rotation still.

And, of course, there's always 33-year-old Ryan Braun, the former MVP who posted a .903 OPS last season and still has five years of team control on his current $105 million deal.

There will inevitably be growing pains with such a young roster but even if the present is rough, the future looks bright in Milwaukee.

Outfielder Lewis Brinson is on the verge of breaking into the big leagues and leads a farm system that has ranked among the best in baseball the last few years.

If young GM David Stearns is able to unload Braun or veterans like Guerra, that would only enrich the farm system and add to the rebuilding process.

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CINCINNATI REDS

Things don't look as promising in Ohio, despite the presence of Joey Votto, baseball's premier on-base machine. 

Votto, 33, is under contract through his age 40 season, but given that he's owed $25 million a season in that span, he's virtually untradeable. 

For now, that's not a big deal as Votto is still one of the best in the game (1.158 OPS in the second half last year). But flipping him for some top prospects would've helped accelerate the rebuild, as the Reds are still several years away from contention.

Votto's infield mate Brandon Phillips was just traded to the Atlanta Braves over the weekend as the Reds continue to make a commitment to youth (h/t Roster Resource):

Beyond Votto and Zack Cozart (31), only free agent acquisitions Desmond Jennings (30) and Scott Feldman (34) are at least 30 among the stable of position players and starting pitchers.

The Reds were dealt a big blow when pitcher Homer Bailey had to undergo surgery on bone spurs in his elbow after missing almost all of the last two seasons to Tommy John. He won't be back until mid-summer and even when he does return, his contract (still owed $68 million) makes the injury-prone pitcher nearly untradeable.

Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan are intriguing in the starting rotation and top prospect Jose Peraza will now get his shot to play everyday following Phillips' departure.

But beyond a few bullpen pieces, the Reds don't have much to look forward to in 2017 and will likely be playing for the top draft slot for at least another year. Top prospects Jesse Winker, Cody Reed and Amir Garrett could receive an opportunity in an otherwise lost season, but shortstop Nick Senzel (ranked No. 9 on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list) is still a couple years away.

Cubs fans may be interested in watching the fate of Arismendy Alcantara, the former Chicago prospect who was traded to Oakland last summer for Chris Coghlan before the Reds picked him up off waivers last fall. Alcantara doesn't have much competition for a utility role on the Reds' roster.

Cubs extend Wrigley Field dugouts to keep players engaged, out of stands

Cubs extend Wrigley Field dugouts to keep players engaged, out of stands

The Cubs plan to practice social distancing as much as possible during games this season. They also want their players and coaches — and those from their opponents — to be comfortable.

The solution? Extending Wrigley Field’s dugouts further down the foul lines. 

As sports return worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, players will need to social distance as much as possible. During games, one way to do this is having teams sit in the stands rather than their dugouts. David Ross said that was a concern for the Cubs, however.

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“That was a concern of ours, that sitting on the bench is way different than sitting in an actual seat in the stands,” Ross said on Saturday. “You're gonna want to be active, you want to get up, move around, you want to go down to the cage and take some swings. 

“Just a little bit closer to the action and to help with the energy in the dugout and root guys on.”

Ross said the Cubs don’t know whether players have strong feelings against sitting in the stands. He put himself in their shoes and thought about the drawbacks of not being in the dugout.

“You don't want to sit for three innings in that environment and then try to get up and get loose and then hit,” he said. “We have nervous energy, I guess I'm speaking for myself, but you’ve got energy that you want to get out, move around, stay loose. 

“You may want to run up to the clubhouse, check your locker, all that stuff. I just think it's a little more convenient for the players.”

As MLB embarks on the challenging season ahead, keeping things as normal as possible for the players may help alleviate the added stress from this season.

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Former Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman tests positive for COVID-19

Former Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman tests positive for COVID-19

Former Cub and current Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman has tested positive for COVID-19, Yankees manager Aaron Boone announced Saturday.

Chapman, 32, is experiencing mild symptoms, Boone said. He will not be with the team for the foreseeable future.

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Chapman, who helped the Cubs win the 2016 World Series, is the third known Yankee to test positive for the coronavirus. Other Yankees known to test positive are former Cubs second baseman D.J. Lemahieu and pitcher Luis Cessa.

No Cubs players have tested positive since MLB's intake and monitoring process began.

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