If the Chicago Cubs pick up an elite starting pitcher or two to make up for losing Jake Arrieta, they could have the final piece to a return to the World Series two years after winning it all. The Cubs line-up is by far the best in the division, but the Milwaukee Brewers improved in the offseason and are good enough at everything else to contend, and the St. Louis Cardinals pitching gives them a chance if they can pull off trade or two.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a prototype average across-the-board, while the Cincinnati Reds are unfortunately weak in all aspects and unfortunately could part with one superstar.
Explanation of Ratings: We start by rating each team on a base 20 scale, with a 10-point scale for batting, 5-point scale for starting pitching, 3-point scale for relief pitching and 2-point scale for fielding. This was done by reviewing personnel and results to date and playing simulated games through Statis-Pro baseball (free version here), weighing pitching and batting stats by the team's home ballpark, reviewing which fielders on each team were nominated for a gold glove either of the past two seasons and evaluating all new players. We then assess the new players acquired and present the weaknesses that might be addressed by the July trade deadline.
Chicago (15.0 of 20) - While the three elite teams all appear to be in the AL in the Yankees, Astros and Red Sox, the Cubs are strong in all four areas that they could contend and match up pretty closely if they make the World Series. If the Cubs can get another top starter or two like Tyson Ross (SD) or Chris Archer (TB), they could truly be a contender.
Batters (6.9 of 10) - The Cubs stayed pat with a strong line-up.
Starters (3.6 of 5) - With the loss of Jake Arrieta to the Phillies, the Cubs might need to add Tyson Ross (SD) or Chris Archer (TB) before the trade deadline to truly have the elite rotation to potentially go all the way. - The gamble assuming Tyler Chatwood would pitch well making the move from the altitude of Colorado to Wrigley, and the rotation is solid but not quite elite. If Yu Darvish comes back strong once off DL it will help as well.
Relievers (2.0 of 3) - Adding Steve Cishek from Tampa Bay was a big addition to a pen that already included Brandon Morrow and can certainly shut an opponent down for at least a couple of innings.
Fielding (1.8 of 2) - Contender for the best fielders in baseball with Jason Heyward in RF, and Anthony Rizzo (1b), Ben Zobrist (2b) and Addison Russell (ss) all gold glove nominees.
Milwaukee (13.3 of 20) - On paper, the Brewers made substantial moves to improve the line-up, starting pitchers and relievers - and the great defensive improvement in the outfield helps make them a legit playoff contender. They may still need to add a battery like Cole Hamels and Jonathan Lucroy to beat out the Cubs in the end, but they are right there.
Batters (4.2 of 10) - The additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich give the Brewers a strong first five hitters - through the line-up is still not as deep as other playoff contenders.
Starters (4.5 of 5) - The pickup of Jhoulys Chacin rounds out what could be a fantastic starting rotation.
Relievers (3.0 of 3) - The pickup of Albers from the Nationals was expected to make a great pen even stronger, but it's been the pickup of Jeremy Jeffres added to the already great pen that - if healthy and living up to its potential - could make it the best in the majors. Fielding 1.0 of 2. In addition to their great bats, the additions of Gold Glove nominees Cain and Yelich transform the Brewers from a poor to a solid fielding team.
St. Louis (11.8 of 20) - The Cardinals are certainly solid, but with an average lineup and above average pitching and fielding, they still do not look like they have the overall talent to beat out the Cubs or even the Brewers.
Batters (5.0 of 10) - The Cardinals appeared to be a bit below average until they won the rest of the Marlins' sweepstake by signing one of the top hitters in the game last year in Marcell Ozuna.
Starters (2.1 of 3) - A solid rotation left in place. Relievers (2.1 of 3) - Greg Holland coming from the Rockies seemed like a good bet but has not panned out yet - but this bullpen was and is still loaded.
Fielding (1.1 of 2) - The Marlins Marcell Ozuna is not only a huge addition in the line-up but adds another Gold Glove nominee in the outfield to join perhaps the most dominant defender in the game - catcher Yadier Molina.
Pittsburgh (9.7 of 20) - The Pirates are almost exactly average across-the-board, from their starting pitching to their pen, to their batters. The only spot they are below average is in the field, and that is partly because a great glove at third base is on the bench a good bit due to a great new bat.
Batters (5.1 of 10) - The big addition to the lineup is slugging third baseman Colin Moran, who along with former Tampa Bay outfielder Corey Dickerson makes the line-up above average.
Starters (2.5 of 5) - The addition of Astro Joe Musgrove as a starter helps the rotation just a bit to make them almost exactly average.
(Relievers 1.5 of 3) - The addition of Kyle Click from the Giants is a nice addition but still leaves the pen just average overall.
Fielding (0.6 of 2) - The only problem with Molin hitting so well is that he puts Gold Glove nominee David Freese on the bench for most games, leaving Starling Marte (LF) as the only nominee on the field.
Cincinnati (5.1 of 20) - Scooter Gennett is providing a third big bat, but if he is traded away then the Reds could finish at the bottom as they are weak throughout except for strong fielding and one nice addition in the bullpen. Batters (2.9 of 10) - If Scooter Gennett is traded it will take the Reds down to just a couple of big bats and not a lot of punch in many spots.
Starters (1.2 of 5) Picking up Matt Harvey after his rough season with the Mets may be working out and Anthony James DeSclafani looks like an adequate starter - but the rotation is still a big weakness even prior to assuming Harvey is traded.
Relievers (0.8 of 3) - Jared Hughes was a great pickup from the Brewers, but beyond him, the pen is suspect despite a couple of players having decent starts.
Fielding (1.8 of 2) - For all their weaknesses, the Reds may have the best defense in baseball with 4 Gold Glove nominees in C Tucker Barnhart, 1b Joey Votto, LF Adam Duvall, and of course the amazing cf Billy Hamilton for whom contenders must be considering offers.