By Chris Emma

By Chris Emma–

(670 The Score) Faced with one more chance to catch the Cubs late last September, the Brewers opened a four-game home set with utilitymen Eric Sogard and Neil Walker batting first and second, respectively, setting the table for their big bats.

The Cubs would take that series opener 5-4 in 10 innings thanks to a home run by Kris Bryant, win three out of four games at Miller Park and seal the NL Central crown days later. The Brewers overachieved all season, winning 86 games and taking second place in the division, but couldn’t exceed the Cubs’ loaded lineup and steady rotation.

Now, the story seems different. The Brewers certainly are up to snuff with the Cubs as of Thursday evening, as they acquired outfielder Christian Yelich from the Marlins for four prospects and agreed to terms with outfielder Lorenzo Cain for a reported five-year, $80-million deal some 80 minutes later.

The addition of the two superb all-around players — both now under contract in Milwaukee through 2022 — staked the Brewers’ claim as a legitimate threat to the Cubs and the National League starting this season.

After Thursday evening, the Cubs have been put on notice. They return mostly the same team in 2018, save for losing closer Wade Davis and a few others while adding Tyler Chatwood to the rotation and some pieces in the bullpen. Jake Arrieta remains a free agent, but perhaps Brewers general manager David Stearns is working on him, too.

Milwaukee has secured a dangerous top of their lineup with Yelich and Cain. It remains to be seen how the batting order will work, but Yelich produced a slash line of .282/.369/.439 last season, while Cain went .300/.363/.440. Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw and Eric Thames are waiting after that.

Brewers outfielder Domingo Santana, 25, is now reportedly being shopped after the Thursday deals. If Santana is indeed moved, the Brewers will have upgraded their outfield by 4.6 wins, according to FanGraphs.

The Brewers will also have one of the game’s elite defenders in center field, with Cain posting the third-most defensive win shares (65.1) since becoming a full-time player in 2013. Yelich was a plus defender, whereas Santana, Ryan Braun and Keon Broxton were sub-optimal in the FanGraphs metrics.

That bodes well for the likes of Brewers pitchers Jimmy Nelson, Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin, who will get to work with better defenders watching their backs. The Brewers have improved their pitching a bit with these moves but could still use another arm.

Speaking of which, what does this mean for Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein? He has waited for the markets of Arrieta, Yu Darvish and Alex Cobb to establish themselves, but there hasn’t been a blink in the staredown. Are the Cubs fine going with Chatwood and Mike Montgomery rounding out the rotation entering the season?

In adding Yelich, Stearns just traded the Brewers’ top prospect in Lewis Brinson and other highly regarded prospects, which left no doubt Milwaukee is playing for 2018. Could Stearns offer the additional years to an Arrieta or Darvish that Epstein hasn’t? That’s where the attention turns.

Without another front-line starter, the Cubs could struggle against the Dodgers — still the NL’s team to beat — but may not even get another shot at them. The Cardinals acquired another Marlins outfielder in Marcell Ozuna, which drastically improved their lineup. St. Louis also could be in the market for another starter.

What’s clear is that the Brewers and Cardinals are coming back as deeper, stronger teams in 2018, set to challenge the Cubs at the top of the division. Epstein has never been one to make reactionary moves, but his this might call for a change in thinking that other occasions haven’t.

Because on Thursday evening, the Brewers became a legitimate NL Central contender.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670 The Score 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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