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NL Central gets tougher for young Pirates

Rivals' recent deals in already competitive division only heightens challenge for Bucs
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- The Cubs and Cardinals made their moves early this offseason, and the Cubs aren't done looking for starting pitching. The Brewers made back-to-back big splashes Thursday night, and it doesn't look like they're done adding to their roster, either.

While they've dealt away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole for younger players, the Pirates' competition continues to reload. The Bucs finished in fourth place in the National League Central last year, so they already faced an uphill climb. It's only grown steeper.

PITTSBURGH -- The Cubs and Cardinals made their moves early this offseason, and the Cubs aren't done looking for starting pitching. The Brewers made back-to-back big splashes Thursday night, and it doesn't look like they're done adding to their roster, either.

While they've dealt away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole for younger players, the Pirates' competition continues to reload. The Bucs finished in fourth place in the National League Central last year, so they already faced an uphill climb. It's only grown steeper.

"We want to be respectful to what the projections are. Ultimately we're going to look internally. How do we feel we will compete?" general manager Neal Huntington said earlier this offseason. "Most importantly, we always have to take care of our business."

Hurdle excited for 'new era of Pirates baseball'

The Cubs signed free-agent starter Tyler Chatwood and reliever Brandon Morrow, effectively replacing Jake Arrieta and closer Wade Davis. Chicago also signed reliever Steve Cishek, re-signed left-hander Brian Duensing and added rehabbing lefty Drew Smyly, who could help them in 2019. And, of course, they still have most of their 2016 World Series-winning core in place.

The Cardinals added a big bat to the middle of their lineup in former Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who hit .312 with a .924 OPS, 37 homers and 124 RBIs last season. They filled out the back of their bullpen with Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone and patched up their rotation with Miles Mikolas.

Video: Hurdle's message to fans following trades

Then came the Brewers, who began last season with the Majors' lowest payroll only to win 86 games. Looking to make the most of this window of opportunity, Milwaukee acquired outfielder Christian Yelich from Miami and signed center fielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million deal.

Now, the Brewers can use their surplus of young outfielders -- potentially including Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips and former Pirate Keon Broxton -- to upgrade their rotation or infield. Milwaukee has been linked to versatile infielder Josh Harrison, the last of the Bucs' prominent trade candidates.

Cincinnati has had a quiet winter, losing shortstop Zack Cozart and adding former Pittsburgh reliever Jared Hughes. But after finishing 68-94 last year, seven games behind the Pirates, the rebuilding Reds expect to see more progress in the win column this year.

Where does that leave the Pirates? They have yet to sign a Major League free agent despite clearing roughly $19 million in payroll by trading McCutchen and Cole. They added to their collection of young talent in those deals, acquiring Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick along with prospects Bryan Reynolds and Jason Martin.

But FanGraphs.com currently projects the Bucs will finish right around where they did the last two years. The website's system has the Cubs (92-70) winning the division for the third straight year, followed by the Cardinals (88-74), Pirates (78-84), Brewers (77-85) and Reds (72-90).

The Pirates would need a lot of things to break their way to contend, if that's their intent, but Huntington has said they expect to be more competitive than analysts are predicting.

"There's a lot of misinformation and a lot of false narrative out there about when we are looking to compete again. We're looking to compete again this year," Huntington said last week. "We believe that this club is a lot closer to the '11 and '12 Pirates and '13 Pirates than the '07, '08, '09 Pirates."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

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