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MLB preview: The NL Central might be baseball's toughest division in 2016

After three of its five teams won at least 97 games in 2015, the NL Central might be even more loaded this year.

Only Cardinals and bees can stop the Cubs in 2016
Only Cardinals and bees can stop the Cubs in 2016
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

How brutal was the National League Central in 2015? Two teams won a combined 195 games -- that's an average of 97.5 wins per team, if you're counting at home -- and didn't win the division. That honor belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals, who won a whopping 100 games before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to their division rival, the Chicago Cubs.

Those monster seasons didn't stop any of the three clubs (the Pittsburgh Pirates included) from splurging this winter. The Cubs went all in, spending over $200 million on free agents, while the Cardinals and Pirates quietly went about their way, adding talent where they saw fit. The result? Another cutthroat season in what should be the most competitive division in baseball.

At least... for those three. The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds suffered a combined 192 losses last season, falling time and again to their more loaded division foes. Both clubs saw the writing on the wall early, and offloaded as much talent as they could in order to start their rebuilds. The Brewers appear to have come out ahead on that front, but neither team will be very good in 2016, adding more fuel to the fire that is this top-heavy division race.

St. Louis Cardinals (100-62 in 2015)

The Cardinals lost their ace for the season* in April, and watched star slugger Matt Holliday play just 73 games. We saw what happened when the Tigers lost two of their best players for large chunks of the season, but the Cardinals were unfazed, steamrolling their way to a 100-win season all the same.

The question is whether they can do it again. St. Louis' pitching staff led baseball with a 2.94 ERA last season, but also posted the largest FIP-ERA difference in MLB. Ace Adam Wainwright will return, but John Lackey and Lance Lynn, two of their most valuable starters last year, will not be around in 2016 (Lynn had Tommy John surgery in November). Ditto Jason Heyward, who joined Lackey in Chicago, and Jhonny Peralta, who is out for a few months with a thumb injury.

Still, this is a loaded team. Young players like Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez are starting to supplant the aging core, while additions like Mike Leake, Jonathan Broxton, and Jedd Gyorko may help fill gaps.

*Wainwright made a few bullpen appearances in late September, but was effectively out for the year.

Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64 in 2015)

"Always a bridesmaid, never the bride."

This may as well be the unofficial tagline of the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bucs have won 280 games over the past three seasons, but have just one NLDS appearance to show for it thanks to those dastardly Cardinals. Even their lone venture beyond the NL Wild Card game saw them eliminated by the Cards, who are searching for their fourth consecutive NL Central crown.

You don't just go blowing up a 98-win team, though. The Pirates return in 2016 with their young, talented core intact, led by perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. He is flanked by a pair of gazelles in the outfield, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, while the infield has plenty of plug-and-play options (including 2015 breakout star Jung Ho Kang). The starting rotation is a bit of a concern, with little depth behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. However, with pitching coach Ray Searage steering the ship and prospects like Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon awaiting the call-up, things should be just fine.

Chicago Cubs (97-65 in 2015)

What happens when you win 97 games but don't make it to the World Series? Well, if you're facing a century-long championship drought like the Cubs, you go into the offseason full throttle. The Cubs did their best to make their roster bulletproof this winter, signing free agents Jason Heyward, John Lackey, and Ben Zobrist.

That triumvirate joins an already loaded core, led by NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Their stable of talented position prospects didn't hit its full stride until late in the season, when Kyle Schwarber forced his way into the lineup by hitting .246/.355/.487 in 69 games. As such, they finished just sixth in the NL in runs scored, a stat that seems sure to change as this core matures.

There aren't many concerns surrounding this club, an idea that is disconcerting in itself. Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammell were more-than-serviceable in the back of the rotation last year, but could maybe falter in 2016?

I don't know, I'm grasping at straws here. This team is stacked.

Milwaukee Brewers (68-94 in 2015)

Then there are the "other" teams in the NL Central. The Brewers got a jumpstart on the rebuilding process this offseason, ditching everything that wasn't nailed down -- save for stars Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun -- in exchange for prospects. Gone are Jean Segura, Khris Davis, Adam Lind, Carlos Gomez, Gerardo Parra, Mike Fiers, Francisco Rodriguez, and Neal Cotts from last season's roster, all of whom were traded for younger talent.

While better days are ahead for the one-time American League club, 2016 probably won't be very pretty. Lucroy and Braun will sell tickets, but Lucroy's days in Milwaukee appear numbered (assuming a contender ponies up to the Brewers' lucrative asking price). Beyond that, it's all prospects and reclamation projects. First baseman Chris Carter is an interesting acquisition, while prospects Orlando Arcia and Keon Broxton should be fun to watch.

As long as you don't care about all the losses, that is.

Cincinnati Reds (64-98 in 2015)

The Reds were a complete tire fire last season, nearly losing 100 games despite having MVP candidate Joey Votto on the roster. Votto's rebound season was a welcome sight for Reds fans, but continued decline from players like Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce leave many wondering how (and when) Cincinnati returns to relevance.

The Reds did what they could to bolster their farm system over the winter, trading Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman for prospects. However, their execution was faulty (particularly in the Frazier trade), and they didn't have much depth in their farm system to begin with.

All told, that's probably going to lead to a brutal season for Reds fans. Votto and center fielder Billy Hamilton will be fun to watch -- along with former Tiger Eugenio Suarez -- but the rotation consists of players like Alfredo Simon and Tim Melville.

And somehow the Tigers still gave up 10 runs in a single inning to this team last season.