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NL Central offseason preview — Can Milwaukee Brewers do it again?

With free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams? Our division-by-division outlook wraps up with the always competitive NL Central.

2018 record: 96-67
2019 World Series odds: 12-1

Did you ever hit a really sweet drive off the tee and immediately look down at your driver and say, “Wait, how did I do that?” Not to compare the emergent Brewers to a hack golfer, but when you look at how many components came together to get Milwaukee one win from the World Series, you can’t help but wonder how they’ll do it again.

Barring a couple of impact additions, the Brewers aren’t going to light up the projection system. The first stab at Fangraphs.com at how Milwaukee’s current roster will fare in 2019 has them at 80-82. The explanation: regression. That is, players who outperformed their established patterns in 2018 reverting to prior form. It’s an intractable law of nature among groups, but is often unpredictable at the level of the human individual. That is to say, sure Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and Jesus Aguilar were even better than we thought they’d be. And over the span of enough universes, they’d probably be a little bit worse in 2019. But in this universe, it’s uncertain.

There is a tough decision to be made regarding Jonathan Schoop‘s arbitration, especially since a couple of the Brewers’ better prospects are middle infielders. There is a need to upgrade at catcher, and Marlins star backstop J.T. Realmuto is surely a target. The rotation should be better even without external additions as Jimmy Nelson returns to the fold and youngsters Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff take on larger roles. But the search for an impact veteran for that group continues.

Milwaukee needs to punch up its baseline expectation in a division with two strong rosters in place (Chicago and St. Louis) and two others (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) that are middling, but are advanced enough to pull off a version of what the Brewers did last season. That said, many of these sentiments about this year’s offseason Brewers were uttered about last year’s group. But Milwaukee emerged as an even-more improved team despite what the projections said. It might simply be that the Brewers have turned the corner as an organization. — Bradford Doolittle

Chicago Cubs: Will improvements come from within?

2018 record: 95-68
2019 World Series odds: 10-1

For years, Cubs fans have been dreaming of the idea of two Las Vegas buddies, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant, playing side by side. And after the Cubs bowed out early in the postseason, strictly because their offense failed miserably in the second half of the season, the marriage seemed almost inevitable. Yes, the Cubs might end up with the highest payroll in the game if they were to sign Harper, but wouldn’t it be worth it for a chance at a another ring?

Not so fast. Cubs management more than hinted recently the team can’t add much payroll. Expensive pitching, and now arbitration-eligible players all around the diamond, will keep their payroll high — but ownership wants to keep it away from the very top. So the answers might have to come from within again.

All eyes will be on Anthony Iapoce, the Cubs’ third hitting coach in three years. Can he unlock what was hiding for months last season? That and the health of Yu Darvish might be the most important questions for them — not necessarily who comes and goes this winter. A lefty reliever is a must, though, as the Cubs haven’t drafted and developed a single impact arm since Theo Epstein came on board. — Jesse Rogers

2018 record: 88-74
2019 World Series odds: 16-1

The feeling in St. Louis is it’s time to find that next superstar. Albert Pujols is long gone and Yadier Molina is getting long in the tooth. But selling free agents on coming to this great baseball city seemingly is harder than it used to be.

We know the Cardinals are willing to spend, as evidenced by their pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton last year and the signing of Dexter Fowler the year before. But playing in St. Louis doesn’t feel big enough for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. Then again, money talks — and the Cardinals have plenty of it.

The good news is the team continues to have a good eye for pitching. Miles Mikolas was one of the better signings last year, so look for the mound to be the strength of the Cardinals once again. Adding a bat or two wouldn’t hurt, and playing a little defense would help as well. Perhaps now-permanent manager Mike Schildt will make that a priority during spring training. — Rogers

Pittsburgh Pirates: What will their pitching look like?

2018 record: 82-79
2019 World Series odds: 50-1

The Pirates’ 2018 season was unpredictable. Last offseason, the team went into sell mode, dealing Andrew McCutchen, on the final year of his deal, to the Giants, and Gerrit Cole, with two years left on his contract, to the Astros. Then they surprised a lot of people in the early going, getting off to an 11-4 start. They held the division lead as late as May 17. They were three games above .500 the morning of the trade deadline, a day they acquired Chris Archer for Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, trading two one-time top prospects for a controllable pitcher. It felt like a move for “now,” when most indications had shown the Pirates were not in the business of making moves for now.

That puts the Pirates at a crossroads. The questions for 2019 are endless. Can they fix Archer? The right-hander had a 3.26 ERA in an 89-start span from 2013 to 2015, but he hasn’t really impressed since then, with a 4.12 ERA in 94 starts since the start of the 2016 season. He had a 4.31 ERA in 2018 with the Rays … and a 4.30 ERA with the Pirates. Can Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage work his magic on Archer?

And the pitching questions don’t stop with Archer, though his viability as a front-line starter probably will shape what level the Pirates can compete at in 2019. Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams both had very strong seasons in 2018. Is either for real? Taillon introduced a slider but will it remain a pitch on which he can rely? And can Williams, who will turn 27 in April and posted a 3.11 ERA in 2018 after posting a 4.36 ERA in 163 career innings entering the season, sustain his success?

None of this even addresses the offense, where the Pirates might want to consider bringing back McCutchen. Gregory Polanco had shoulder surgery that ended his season, and he will miss at least the beginning of 2019. Who fills in? In Pittsburgh, questions abound. — Sarah Langs

Cincinnati Reds: Where will they find help for their rotation?

2018 record: 67-95
2019 World Series odds: 100-1

The best indication the Cincinnati Reds want to compete in 2019 came in the latter half of 2018: They held on to pitcher Matt Harvey. The Reds easily could have moved Harvey at the trade deadline, but what sign would that have sent to a fan base that has seen its team hit the ball all over the place — led by the great Joey Votto — but has been unable to find enough arms to stay in the race? Harvey has playoff experience and could be part of a revamped rotation under new manager David Bell.

Team president Dick Williams says he believes some of the team’s young arms, such as Luis Castillo, are ready to take the next step, but the front office finally is willing to look outside the organization for help. Meanwhile, Votto isn’t the only star on offense. Scooter Gennett nearly won the batting title, and Eugenio Suarez might be the best unknown slugger in the game. But if the Reds don’t add more pitching, they have no chance in a competitive NL Central. — Rogers

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