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MLB Preview: National League East capsules

Associated Press

St. Louis Cardinals

2015: 100-62, first place, lost to Chicago Cubs in Division Series.

Manager: Mike Matheny (fifth season).

Hot Spots: First Base and Shortstop. Brandon Moss, Matt Holliday and Matt Adams all got work at first base during the spring. Moss received an $8.25 million deal and also can play the corner outfield spots. Holliday is adding versatility in the final year of his contract, and Adams has been productive and willing to bunt to foil defensive shifts. Over at shortstop, three-time All-Star Jhonny Peralta is out two to three months with a thumb injury. Jedd Gyorko was the presumptive stand-in before Ruben Tejada signed during spring training after getting released by the Mets. Now it appears Tejada will be the short-term fill in, with Gyorko going back to the super-sub role that was originally envisioned.

Outlook: The division-rival Cubs grabbed headlines by signing two former Cardinals, Jason Heyward and John Lackey. Chicago has a lot of young talent but so do the Cardinals. They’ve won the NL Central three straight seasons and been to the playoffs a franchise- best five consecutive years, including a World Series championship in 2011 and another Series appearance in 2013. In the outfield, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Holliday and Tommy Pham are all capable of hitting 20 homers. Yadier Molina is on track for opening day after recovering from a pair of thumb operations. There’s an abundance of quality arms in the starting rotation even though St. Louis was outbid by Boston for David Price and lost Lance Lynn to reconstructive elbow surgery. Mike Leake could provide results similar to Lackey’s, and is much younger. Jaime Garcia has an array of pitches and Carlos Martinez consistently throws in the high-90s (mph).

Pittsburgh Pirates

2015: 98-64, second place, lost to Cubs in wild-card game.

Manager: Clint Hurdle (sixth season).

Hot Spots: Starting Rotation and Infield Corners. A.J. Burnett retired and J.A. Happ turned his two sensational months with the Pirates into a three-year windfall in Toronto. Replacing them are Jon Niese, acquired in the trade that sent Neil Walker to the Mets, and Ryan Vogelsong, looking to revive his career at 38. Jeff Locke remains an enigma as the fifth starter and Juan Nicasio’s strong spring has him in the mix to start, perhaps sooner rather than later. John Jaso and Michael Morse will platoon at first base, while David Freese handles duties at third until Jung Ho Kang returns from a broken leg. The Pirates will turn over every stone looking for power after Walker and Pedro Alvarez and their combined 43 homers were sent packing.

Outlook: Three straight playoff appearances have put the franchise’s two decades in the cellar firmly in the rearview mirror. The fiscal strains of success, however, are starting to show. The Pirates kept Mark Melancon at $10 million but balked at paying the homegrown Walker the same kind of money and wanted no part of the $8 million Alvarez might have fetched in arbitration. The front office has been raided, too, with several key contributors who set the cornerstone for the franchise’s renaissance taking higher-profile jobs elsewhere. Their ability to keep up with St. Louis and the Chicago Cubs will likely hinge on their talented outfield and if the bullpen can once again shorten games to six innings.

Chicago Cubs

2015: 97-65, third place, wild card, lost to Mets in NLCS.

Manager: Joe Maddon (second season).

Hot Spots: On a team that won 97 games and reached the NLCS a year ago, it’s hard to find any real areas of concern. A few things to watch are Jake Arrieta’s workload after he threw 229 innings last season – well above his previous high of 156 2-3 in 2014. Jason Hammel struggled through a knee injury down the stretch after posting a 2.89 ERA in his first 16 starts. Kyle Schwarber’s progress in left field and behind the plate will be worth monitoring.

Outlook: Expectations are soaring after the Cubs broke out in a huge way last season and fueled hope that their first championship since 1908 is within reach. The optimism has only escalated since the final out of Game 4 in the NLCS. That’s because the Cubs added to a team that already included the NL Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta), Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant) and Manager of the Year (Maddon), not to mention a two-time All-Star in Anthony Rizzo and another slugger in Schwarber who made a big impact as a rookie. They signed Jaosn Heyward ($184 million, eight years) and John Lackey ($32 million, two years) away from division-rival St. Louis, along with two-time All-Star Ben Zobrist ($56 million, four years) from Kansas City, and acquired Adam Warren from the Yankees in the Castro deal. They pulled off another big move when they re-signed Dexter Fowler to a $13 million, one-year contract in late February. That allowed them to keep three-time Gold Glove winner Heyward in right field rather than move him to center. For all the moves the Cubs made, they did not have to part with any of their prized prospects. That gives them depth and flexibility to make trades down the line.

Milwaukee Brewers

2015: 68-94, fourth place.

Manager: Craig Counsell (second season).

Hot Spots: Center Field and Bullpen. Rymer Liriano, a former Padres prospect, was in the mix in center until getting hit in the face by a pitch in spring training. Kirk Nieuwenhuis has big league experience and a left-handed bat, but ex-Pirates farmhand Keon Broxton has impressed in camp. He would add much-needed speed to the lineup. With Francisco Rodriguez gone from the bullpen, top setup men Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress both might get chances to close. Franklin Morales joined the club in spring training, with the Brewers seeking another lefty reliever.

Outlook: The Brewers are rebuilding, and the exodus might not be over yet under new general manager David Stearns because the steady Jonathan Lucroy could still be an attractive trade candidate. But either way, Milwaukee has already dramatically improved its farm system with moves starting last summer made by former GM Doug Melvin. Top prospect Orlando Arcia will begin the season at Triple-A, but could take over at shortstop in Milwaukee by season’s end. He and center fielder Brett Phillips are the top position players in the upper levels of the minors, so there are bright spots on the horizon. But for 2016, the realistic goal for the parent club is beating out Cincinnati to avoid the basement in the top-heavy NL Central.

Cincinnati Reds

2015: 64-98, fifth place.

Manager: Bryan Price (third season).

Hot Spots: Rotation and Bullpen. Homer Bailey had Tommy John surgery last season and isn’t expected back until May. The Reds went with an all-rookie rotation after Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake were traded in July, and the results weren’t encouraging. Anthony DeSclafani and Raisel Iglesias were the only ones who pitched well enough to secure spots for this season. The Reds signed Simon during spring training to fill a spot. The bullpen also is under reconstruction. With Aroldis Chapman gone, there’s nobody with significant closing experience in the majors. J.J. Hoover gets the first shot at the job. Left field also remains a work in progress.

Outlook: The Reds launched into a major rebuilding movement after the All-Star Game at Great American Ball Park in July, trading Cueto, Leake and left fielder Marlon Byrd during the season. They dealt Todd Frazier and Chapman in the offseason, and tried to get deals for Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. They lost 98 games with a proven closer and Cueto and Leake for half the year. It’ll be another season of immense growing pains with young players. The 98 losses last year tied for third-most in the history of baseball’s first professional franchise. The Reds lost 99 games in 1934 and a club- record 101 in 1982.

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