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Plan B: How NL Central clubs may shift in '17

March 30, 2017

There are easier assignments than the one facing the Cardinals, Pirates and the rest of the National League Central. The question is no longer whether the Cubs will ever win the World Series, but how many they might win before Anthony Rizzo, Kristopher Bryant and Addison Russell are done winning

There are easier assignments than the one facing the Cardinals, Pirates and the rest of the National League Central. The question is no longer whether the Cubs will ever win the World Series, but how many they might win before Anthony Rizzo, Kristopher Bryant and Addison Russell are done winning them.
Catching the Cubs isn't an impossible task, for sure, but Theo Epstein's powerhouse is built for a long ride behind strong leadership, a loaded Major League roster highlighted by its core of young position players and a strong farm system.
The Cardinals and Pirates were at the top of the Central not that long ago, and they still have most of their key pieces in place. The Brewers and Reds are biding time in the wings, focusing on age 25-and-under players as they try to construct teams that can compete against the ones at the top.
But things can change in a hurry. For instance:
Cubs
While Epstein's plan has been masterfully executed, the Cubs have also enjoyed good health, especially in regard to the one part of the team that's not young -- the starting rotation. Jonathan Lester, Jacob Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel made between 29 and 32 starts apiece last season, when the Opening Day rotation accounted for 152 starts overall.

The lack of rotation depth has been Epstein's biggest concern in recent years, and that remains true as the organization tries to identify and develop its next wave of starters. They are maybe eight starters deep at present, with Brett Anderson (who has a history of health problems) replacing Hammel as the No. 5 starter, and Mike Montgomery, Eddie Butler and Rob Zastryzny behind him. Epstein always has his eye out for controllable starters on the trade market, and he has the prospect inventory to acquire someone like Jake Odorizzi, Sonny Gray or even Jose Quintana if he ever deems it a priority.
Cardinals
General manager John Mozeliak believes missing the postseason last year was a blip on the radar, not the start of a downslide. But the Cardinals are counting on older arms like Adam Wainwright and a lineup that was surprisingly productive last season.

Losing Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery at the start of Spring Training was a blow to a rotation that is looking for comebacks from Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha. But the thing that has to really worry Mozeliak is what happens if the lineup doesn't produce runs at the pace it did last season. Yadier Molina's health has been a concern, but he's coming off career highs in games played (147) and at-bats (535). What if he gets injured?
The Cards have some nice depth in place in catcher Carson Kelly and outfielder Harrison Bader, but it's not clear if they have the pieces in their farm system to pull off a major trade for a starter like Quintana or a needed bat, should the need arise. The franchise does have the resources to pursue talent on the free-agent market, as the signing of William Fowler showed, but owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak have been disciplined in their spending.
Pirates
Resourcefulness has been a calling card for the Pirates in the Neal Huntington era. The good news for the franchise this season is that its area of strength -- the Major League outfield -- is also an area where it has replacements.
The recently realigned outfield of Gregory Polanco (left), Starling Marte (center) and Andrew McCutchen (right) is fully intent on engineering the long postseason run that has proven elusive. But should someone in that mix be injured, No. 2 prospect  Austin Meadows or utility man Adam Frazier could step in to get Clint Hurdle's team through the crisis.

Huntington has declined to include Meadows in a deal for Quintana, which would upgrade a starting rotation that is relying on unproven arms. There's a lot of love for Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl, but the Bucs are in trouble if veterans Gerrit Cole and Ivan Nova go down. Andrew Hutchison adds depth, but the next wave of prospects -- led by Mitch Keller -- is a couple years away.
Brewers
In a low-stakes season, the Brewers' one big gamble was allowing home run champ Chris Carter to walk away to open up a spot for Eric Thames to return from Korea. The left-handed-hitting 30-year-old first baseman received a three-year contract, but that doesn't guarantee him success. Injuries or a lack of production from him or Ryan Braun would be deflating for a lineup filled with potentially dynamic youngsters.

Jesus Aguilar, a waiver-claim pickup from the Indians, had a strong spring (seven homers, .466 average entering Friday) and may even reduce Thames to a platoon role starting the season. Right fielder Domingo Santana should elevate his production, but it could be a long season if Braun and Thames aren't big contributors. The good news is there are good prospects in the pipeline, led by Lewis Brinson and Lucas Erceg. GM David Stearns and his staff have been creative in finding players, with an eye on the future.
Reds
Scott Feldman starts on Opening Day, and you know GM Dick Williams would love to make like Epstein and find a way to turn him into the next Arrieta. Good luck on that, right?
One of the keys to the season in Cincinnati is to get injury-plagued players like catcher Devin Mesoraco, shortstop Zack Cozart and right-hander Homer Bailey back on track. That could increase Williams' flexibility to make deals as he tries to build a second contender around Joey Votto, who soon could become the only reminder of the Dusty Baker era. If injuries remain an issue -- and Anthony DeSclafani's elbow injury is a sign that they may -- then there's always the development of 2016 No. 2 pick Nick Senzel and the '17 Draft. The Reds have the second pick overall and three of the first 38.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.