Around the NL Central: Pittsburgh Pirates 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: Clint Hurdle (Record w/Pirates: 431-379)
2015 record: 98-64
New additions: SP Jon Niese, SP Ryan Vogelsong, RP Juan Nicasio, RP Yoervis Medina, 1B/C John Jaso, OF/1B Jake Goebbert
Key losses: 1B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Neil Walker, SP J.A. Happ, SP A.J. Burnett, SP Charlie Morton, RP Joakim Soria, 3B Aramis Ramirez, 1B/OF Travis Snider, RP Joe Blanton, RP Antonio Bastardo, 1B/OF Corey Hart, 1B Travis Ishikawa
X-Factor: Gregory Polanco
Biggest question: Can they keep up with the Cubs and Cardinals?
Projected lineup:

1. Gregory Polanco - RF
2. Josh Harrison - 3B
3. Andrew McCutchen - CF
4. Starling Marte - LF
5. John Jaso - 1B
6. Francisco Cervelli - C
7. Jordy Mercer - SS
8. Alen Hanson - 2B
DL: Jung-ho Kang

Projected rotation:

1. Gerrit Cole
2. Francisco Liriano
3. Jon Niese
4. Ryan Vogelsong
5. Jeff Locke

Outlook:

The Pirates finished a game better than the Cubs last year, earning homefield advantage for the one-game playoff. But, for the second year in a row, they ran into the best pitcher on the planet (Madison Bumgarner in 2014, Jake Arrieta in '15) and wound up failing to score in a winner-take-all format.

Obviously, the Pirates are going to try to avoid the wild-card crapshoot in 2016, but they're going to have their hands full with the arrival of the Cubs and the continued success of the Cardinals.

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

The Buccos have most of their key pieces returning from 2015, including manager Clint Hurdle (one of the best in the game), perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and starter Gerrit Cole (one of the top young pitchers in the game).

But they have lost quite a few starters - Pedro Alvarez (27 HR, 77 RBI), homegrown second baseman Neil Walker (17 HR, 71 RBI), plus pitchers A.J. Burnett (3.18 ERA), J.A. Happ (1.85 ERA) and Charlie Morton, who combined for 60 starts last season. And dynamic Korean rookie Jung-ho Kang will miss the start of the season after breaking his leg on Chris Coghlan's takeout slide late last season.

As of the turn of the year, the Pirates only picked up a couple replacements for their departed players - starter Jon Niese (acquired from the Mets in the Walker trade), 38-year-old pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (4.63 ERA over the last three seasons) and first baseman John Jaso, who gets on base a ton (.361 career OBP), but doesn't offer much in the way of power (37 homers in 550 career games).

[MORE - Around the NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers offseason in review]

Francisco Liriano is a nice starter behind Cole, but the rest of the rotation is a bit unpredictable. The lineup still boasts Gregory Polanco (coming off a stellar second half), McCutchen and Starling Marte and the Pirates are hoping for a bounceback season from Josh Harrison. But the lineup behind them isn't exactly deep, even with Michael Morse and Sean Rodriguez leading a solid bench.

The Pirates have grown into one of the premier orgainzations in baseball, but they're going to have a tough time even matching last year's success and keeping pace in the NL Central.

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