Around the NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers offseason in review

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The Cubs have a target on their back.

They enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series and manager Joe Maddon will have them embracing the expectations.

The Cubs committed more than $275 million to free agents this winter, taking the baseball world by storm with the Jason Heyward signing while also bolstering the pitching staff by bringing Trevor Cahill back and acquiring John Lackey and Adam Warren.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs also said goodbye to former franchise icon Starlin Castro to make room for free agent Ben Zobrist, shipping the 25-year-old shortstop to the New York Yankees.

With another month-and-a-half until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, there is still plenty of time for the Cubs to make more moves, with trade rumors swirling around Jorge Soler and the possibility of the Cubs adding another top-of-the-rotation arm.

But as it stands right now, the Cubs already look like an improved team entering 2016.

As the new year approaches, let's take a look how the rest of the National League Central is shaping up.

Manager: Craig Counsell (Record w/Brewers: 61-76)
2015 record: 68-94
New additions: 3B Will Middlebrooks, UTIL Jonathan Villar, UTIL Colin Walsh, OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF Ramon Flores, LHP Nick Hagadone, RP Zach Jones, OF Eric Young Jr.
Key losses: 1B Adam Lind, RP Francisco Rodriguez OF Logan Schafer, UTIL Elian Herrera, RHP Kyle Lohse, 1B Jason Rogers
X-Factor: Jonathan Lucroy
Biggest question: Will they take a step forward under Counsell?
Projected lineup:

1. Scooter Gennett - 2B
2. Jonathan Lucroy - C
3. Ryan Braun - RF
4. Khris Davis - LF
5. Domingo Santana - CF
6. Shane Peterson - 1B
7. Will Middlebrooks - 3B
8. Jean Segura - SS

Projected rotation:

1. Jimmy Nelson
2. Taylor Jungmann
3. Wily Peralta
4. Matt Garza
5. Zach Davies

Outlook:

The Brewers are out from under the Kyle Lohse contract, but they still have an ineffective (5.63 ERA) Matt Garza under contract for another two years, at least.

The Brewers don't have a ton in the way of top prospects coming up through the system, so the short-term future does not look bright for Milwaukee. They are currently testing the trade market on catcher Lucroy, and it would not be a surprise to see him dealt at some point this year. He's coming off an injury-marred 2015, when he posted just a .717 OPS, but he's on a team-friendly deal that includes an option for 2017 and posted an .831 OPS from 2012-14.

The problem is, the Brewers haven't net much young talent in prior returns for big-name players like Adam Lind and Carlos Gomez in the past year. Would they be able to draw a better return to help build the farm system in a Lucroy deal?

[RELATED - Around the NL Central: Cincinnati Reds offseason in review]

The Brewers hope Counsell can be the manager of the future, but they're still a few years away from contention with the roster. Braun is aging (he will play this season at 32) and Davis is wildly inconsistent, hitting 10 of his 27 homers in the final four weeks of the season, when the Brewers were far out of it.

Gennett and Segura have flashed potential in the middle of the infield, but have yet to prove they can be reliable producers, but 22-year-old Domingo Santana is intriguing.

However, beyond Braun and Davis' roller coaster power, the Brewers' lineup won't inject much fear into opposing pitchers, especially if Lucroy is dealt.

The pitching staff is in even worse shape, though they are young (Jungmann, Nelson and Peralta are all 26 and Davies is 22). Corey Knebel looks like he could be a quality closer and is only 24, but the rest of the bullpen beyond Will Smith is untrustworthy right now.

Even if everything goes right for the Brewers in 2016, they would be looking at fourth place - at best - in the NL Central. If luck is not on their side, the Brewers could challenge for 100 losses. Expect a team somewhere around last year's 94-loss pace.

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