With the 2018 MLB season exactly two weeks away, let's have some fun with bold predictions.
Hopping on Periscope Thursday afternoon, the NBC Sports Chicago team laid out some hot takes for each side of the city:
1. Willson Contreras will finish in the Top 10 in NL MVP voting.
Contreras already may be the most important player on this Cubs team and if he stays healthy, it's very possible he takes that next step into stardom.
Joe Maddon often cites the old scouting adage that if a player has shown you something he's capable of at one point, he can do it again.
Contreras' superhuman stretch of games from July 14 through Aug. 9 last season could well go down as the "breakout" for the Cubs catcher. He hit .311/.280/.700 (1.080 OPS) with 10 homers and 29 RBI in 100 plate appearances in that stretch and was only slowed because he pulled a hamstring.
Last year, Contreras' walk rate increased, his strikeout rate decreased, his hard-hit percentage increased and his soft-hit percentage decreased. In other words: All the peripherals point in Contreras' favor.
And if he spends all season hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, he could wind up driving in 100 runs, a heck of a feat for a catcher.
2. Brandon Morrow will not be the closer at the end of the season...and Justin Wilson will be.
Morrow has struggled to stay healthy in his career, appearing in more than 20 games in a season just once since 2012 and he's coming off a postseason in which he was run ragged, pitching in 14 playoff games (and all 7 World Series contests).
So even if Morrow is effective, he may still get Wally Pipp'd out of the closer's role.
Wilson was one of the most dominant closers in the game before being traded to the Cubs; his two months in Chicago was an aberration compared to the rest of his career.
3. Three Cubs starting pitchers will be on the National League All-Star roster.
This one's pretty nuts, I'll admit. It's very rare for a team to send three different starting pitchers to the Midsummer Classic; the 2016 Cubs with a dynamic trio of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks weren't able to accomplish that.
But this Cubs rotation may be the best in baseball and any of the top four starters could wind up in Washington D.C. representing the Cubs.
The most likely would be Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish, but there's no reason to think Lester is out of gas in his career and Rizzo is all aboard the Tyler Chatwood train, so...
4. Ian Happ will steal 20 bases.
The Cubs don't run much at all — Rizzo and Javy Baez led the team with 10 swipes each in 2017.
But Happ has good speed, came to camp in fantastic shape and has a track record of stealing bases. In college, he swiped 56 bags in 163 games and stole 16 bases in the minors in 2016.
He's also proved it at the big-league level. After getting his feet under him and before running into the rookie wall, Happ stole seven bases in a 35-game stretch from mid-June to early-August.
5. Jason Heyward will spend more time in the leadoff spot this year than any other Cubs player.
There's a lot going on here and they're all quite bold.
Right now, Happ appears to be the most likely option atop the Cubs order, but what if he struggles a la 2017 Kyle Schwarber? This will be only the second big-league season (and first full MLB campaign) for Happ.
Schwarber may still spend some time leading off and Albert Almora Jr. will be a great option there against left-handed pitchers, but Heyward would represent a nice veteran option if he can rediscover his swing.
Heyward figures to play more than Zobrist (another solid candidate for the leadoff spot when in the lineup) and he had a career .353 OBP before joining the Cubs. Maybe a new voice in hitting coach Chili Davis will pay off for Heyward.
Also, surprisingly, he posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career in 2017 and still sees a lot of pitches with a patient approach.
It may seem crazy now, but a Heyward performing more in line with his career numbers might be the best fit for the leadoff spot on this roster.