For the past two years, the Chicago Cubs have unquestionably been the most dominant force in the National League Central division. Even after a slow start to the 2017 campaign allowed the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers to remain in playoff contention, the Cubs rampaged through the second half to take the division crown by a comfortable six games. But with questions at the top of the lineup and in the rotation and divisional foes making big additions to their clubs, should the North Siders be worried?

Of course, Chicago’s young nucleus is not only intact, but elite. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo figure to be perennial MVP contenders for years, and Javier Baez and Addison Russell have flashed elite leather while bringing some pop with their bats. Chicago’s decision to sign Bryant to a record deal for a player in his first year of arbitration was not only a commitment to the face of their franchise, but a show of good faith for other contract negotiations to come. Likewise, Jason Heyward‘s persistent hitting lessons with new batting coach Chili Davis and Kyle Schwarber‘s rigorous offseason workouts seem to point to improvements in 2018.

The Cubs have also bolstered their pitching staff, replacing star closer Wade Davis with the likes of Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek while adding back-end pieces like Tyler Chatwood to help compliment the top of their rotation. In fact, despite the loss of Davis, Chicago’s bullpen depth and flexibility figures to be a strength for the Cubs in 2018, particularly after the re-signing of lefty Brian Duensing.

And yet, Chicago has failed to make a big splash in the market while the Cardinals and Brewers have both made significant strides towards making a run at a divisional crown. The Cubs still have questions at the leadoff spot in their lineup with the loss of veteran Jon Jay and the uncertainty surrounding Heyward and Schwarber. And without signing another starter, Chicago’s starting staff appears very thin with Chatwood and potentially lefty Mike Montgomery rounding out the back.

Meanwhile, St. Louis and Milwaukee have addressed some of their needs in a big way. St. Louis mashed 225 home runs in 2016 but hit just 196 in 2017 while also scoring nearly 20 fewer runs due in part to lackluster performances from outfielders Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. But the Redbirds replaced Piscotty with former Miami Marlins slugger Marcell Ozuna, who hit 37 dingers with 124 RBIs in 2017 in a career year. They also sent Grichuk away for bullpen help while adding multi-talented pitcher Luke Gregerson to the fold.

The Brewers were one of the most surprising teams of 2017 thanks to

a very productive offense, which has since improved significantly after a blockbuster trade to bring in former Marlins star Christian Yelich and the signing of former Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain. With Yelich and Cain joining Ryan Braun and a fairly young group of stars, Milwaukee seems primed to challenge for Chicago’s title.

Of course, each of these contenders have their own weaknesses, as the Cardinals and Brewers both have fairly weak starting rotations and room for improvement defensively (though Yelich and Cain should give the Brewers a stout defensive outfield). And while the moves both teams have made are steps in the right direction, neither team appears as well-rounded as Chicago.

The Cubs already have all the pieces they need from a positional standpoint, and the team that scored the most runs in the league in the second half of 2017 may be poised to three-peat even without a major addition such as Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta. But with their adversaries aiming high, the NL Central has suddenly become one of the most intriguing divisions in baseball as Spring Training draws nearer.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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