The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs.
It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.
With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:
2017 record: 86-76, 2nd in NL Central
Offseason additions: Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Jhoulys Chacin, Matt Albers, J.J. Hoover, Boone Logan, Christian Bethancourt
Offseason departures: Neil Walker, Lewis Brinson, Matt Garza, Anthony Swarzak
X-factor: Ryan Braun
Cubs fans might not realize this given the way Braun mashes against Chicago pitching, but he has not often shown the stud that he used to be against other teams. Though, the main reason for that is injury.
Braun has averaged just 115 games the last five seasons and has not topped 140 in that span. He played in just 104 games last year and when he was on the field, posted his worst value as a hitter in his 11-year big-league career. He had a 111 OPS+ (relative to the rest of the league) in 2017, meaning he was only 11 percent better than the league average hitter. His previous worst career season was a 113 OPS+ in 2014.
Oh yeah, and Braun is 34 now, so don't expect him to suddenly turn into a fixture of health in his mid-30s.
But if Braun can keep the injuries mostly at bay — especially when the Brewers play the Cubs — it would be good news for a lineup that figures to have to score a bunch of runs to win games with a pitching staff that took some steps back this winter.
It will also be key to see how Braun and Domingo Santana get into the lineup on a regular basis together with Yelich and Cain slotted in for everyday roles in the outfield. Though, a move to first may help cut down on Braun's injuries, but would it be the best thing for the team to keep trotting Braun out there and sitting the 25-year-old Santana or the resurgent Eric Thames?
1. Christian Yelich - LF
2. Lorenzo Cain - CF
3. Travis Shaw - 3B
4. Ryan Braun - 1B
5. Domingo Santana - RF
6. Manny Pina - C
7. Orlando Arcia - SS
8. Jonathan Villar - 2B
1. Chase Anderson
2. Zach Davies
3. Brent Suter
4. Jhoulys Chacin
That starting rotation is suspect, regardless of who they get to fill that final spot. Jimmy Nelson was emerging as the ace of the stuff, but is out due to a shoulder injury and may not be back until June.
Veteran journeyman Wade Miley looked like a lock for that final spot before he, too, went down with an injury. Junior Guerra could've been in the rotation, but he has been sent down to Triple-A already.
Regardless of what the Brewers do in the rotation, it will be a weakness for the team, even if Nelson comes back at 100 percent health and pitches effectively from the second he gets the ball.
The lineup and the bullpen are the strengths of this team. This was already one of the best offenses in baseball before they added two exceptional top-of-the-order tablesetters in Yelich and Cain.
Corey Knebel and Josh Hader represent two of the best strikeout pitchers in the game at the back end of the 'pen while Jacob Barnes and Jeremy Jeffress are solid and Matt Albers was a decent pickup.
The Brewers are excited about the potential of Hader, Suter and Brandon Woodruff taking on larger roles on the pitching staff, but that's still not enough.
However, the Brewers have plenty to choose from if they wanted to make a deal for the top arms on the market like Chris Archer. Milwaukee could always trade Santana or else they could build a package around young outfielder Brett Phillips or Keon Broxton, a player who's already proven he can be a solid contributor at the big-league level.
All told, this Brewers team got a taste of what contention was like last season and they're hungry for more. Expect them to be on the Cubs' heels all season and probably for the next few years.
Prediction: 2nd in NL Central, wild-card team