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:
St. Louis Cardinals
2017 record: 83-79, 3rd in NL Central
Offseason additions: Marcell Ozuna, Francisco Pena, Yairo Munoz, Miles Mikolas, Dominic Leone, Bud Norris, Luke Gregerson
Offseason departures: Lance Lynn, Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk, Juan Nicasio, Zach Duke, Seung Hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Stephen Piscotty
X-factor: Paul DeJong
The Illinois State University product burst onto the scene in 2017, making his MLB debut, smacking 25 homers and finishing second in the NL ROY voting.
As a reward, the Cardinals locked him up to a six-year, $26 million deal that will take him through the 2023 season (plus two team options after that).
DeJong performed admirably at shortstop — a position he did not spend much time at in the minors (just 50 games across two seasons) — and despite a terrible walk rate, posted a .285/.325/.532 slash line (.857 OPS).
Can he do it again? The Cardinals are counting on it, having traded away Diaz and ensuring shortstop is DeJong's job for now and long term.
Diaz is a cautionary tale of a one-hit wonder in St. Louis while Piscotty and Grichuk were also once the Flavor of the Week and wound up being sold for pennies on the dollar. Can DeJong avoid following their footsteps?
1. Dexter Fowler - RF
2. Tommy Pham - CF
3. Matt Carpenter - 1B
4. Marcell Ozuna - LF
5. Yadier Molina - C
6. Paul DeJong - SS
7. Jedd Gyorko - 3B
8. Kolten Wong - 2B
1. Carlos Martinez
2. Michael Wacha
3. Luke Weaver
4. Miles Mikolas
5. Jack Flaherty
The Cardinals did plenty to address their biggest needs this offseason, acquiring a big bat and picking up a few relievers via trade and free agency.
More than anything, the Redbirds just need good health. Fowler, Molina and Carpenter were hampered last year, as well as top pitching prospect Alex Reyes.
Reyes should be returning from Tommy John surgery soon, but when he does come back, how will the team use him? As a starter or a long reliever? Either way, his innings will be vastly limited.
Martinez is a stud and bonafide Cy Young contender atop the rotation, but after that, only questions remain whether because of injury (Reyes), age (Adam Wainwright), inexperience (Weaver, Flaherty, Reyes), inconsistency (Wacha) or just a relative unknown (Mikolas, coming over from Japan).
Assuming Pham's 2017 breakout was for real and the other key players can avoid major injury, this lineup should be among the best in the NL. The bullpen has its share of question marks, but Leone is an underrated arm who will fill the closer's role until Gregerson returns from injury.
The Cardinals will absolutely be near the top of the division all season, reigniting the rivalry with the Cubs.
This is a three-team race, but for now, the Cardinals appear to come up just a bit short compared to the Cubs and Brewers.
Prediction: 3rd in NL Central, misses out on wild card