Bryce Harper

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Will the Nationals finally win it all before Bryce Harper leaves?

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USA TODAY

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Will the Nationals finally win it all before Bryce Harper leaves?

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Washington Nationals

2017 record: 97-65, 1st place in NL East

Offseason additions: Miguel Montero, Matt Adams, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Reynolds, Jeremy Hellickson, Tommy Milone

Offseason departures: Adam Lind, Stephen Drew, Jose Lobaton, Jayson Werth, Matt Albers, Oliver Perez, Joe Blanton

X-factor: The health of their stars

Health is an X-factor for any team, but it carries more weight in D.C. than anywhere else in baseball.

Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Stephen Strasburg are three of the Nationals' best players and yet three guys that can't seem to stay healthy for a full season. Couple that group with leadoff hitter Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy coming off knee injuries, the health questions are running rampant in Washington.

Those are the Nationals' projected Top 4 hitters and No. 2 starter. If they all stay healthy, they'll put up some whopping numbers. But if history repeats, it will make the road quite a bit tougher despite a weak NL East.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - LF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Bryce Harper - RF
4. Anthony Rendon - 3B
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Howie Kendrick - 2B
7. Matt Wieters - C
8. Michael Taylor - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Gio Gonzalez
4. Tanner Roark
5. A.J. Cole

Outlook

When healthy, this may be the most talented roster in the NL. Harper, Rendon, Murphy and Turner could all wind up as serious contenders in the 2018 MVP race while Scherzer and Strasburg figure to garner some Cy Young votes once again.

The Nationals also have the advantage of a pretty rough division, at least on paper. Three teams are rebuilding and the Mets haven't made the playoffs in a couple years now. Getting to play 18+ games against all four of those teams is a godsend.

Which is good news for a Nationals fanbase that is absolutely starving for some actual postseason success. Wade Davis and the Cubs knocked Washington out last fall and 2018 represents what figures to be the final chance to win it all (or even win A playoff series) with Harper before he gets a $400 million deal elsewhere (like Chicago??).

The 2018 Nationals have no holes. If any of their starters falter, they have Hellickson available. If any of their position players struggle, they have depth in the form of Kendrick (once Murphy is healthy), Montero, Adams, Wilmer Difo and Brian Goodwin.

And the bullpen is very, very good thanks to a bunch of moves before the 2017 Trade Deadline and also have Benoit and Koda Glover expected to start the season on the DL.

The Nationals will be playing in October this year. But what they do in the postseason is a question that won't be answered for 6 months. 

Prediction: 1st in NL East, playoffs

Where does the Cubs lineup rank in MLB?

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AP

Where does the Cubs lineup rank in MLB?

It's that time of the year — a week out from Opening Day where all the predictions and rankings come through.

The latest coming through the baseball world is MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince creating a list of the Top 10 lineups in baseball in 2018.

The Cubs come up lower than I expected — sitting sixth.

Here are Castrovince's rankings:

1. Houston Astros
2. New York Yankees
3. Washington Nationals
4. Boston Red Sox
5. Cleveland Indians
6. Chicago Cubs
7. Los Angeles Dodgers
8. Minnesota Twins
9. St. Louis Cardinals
10. Oakland A's

We broke down our own rankings of the Top 10 lineups in Major League Baseball:

Here's how I would rank the top lineups:

1. Houston Astros
2. Washington Nationals
3. Chicago Cubs
4. New York Yankees
5. Cleveland Indians
6. Boston Red Sox
7. Arizona Diamondbacks
8. Milwaukee Brewers
9. St. Louis Cardinals
10. Minnesota Twins

The Astros should be atop everybody's list.

The Nationals may actually be an underrated powerhouse offense, even with Daniel Murphy currently injured. Once he returns, you're looking at probably the best 1-6 of any lineup in baseball with Adam Eaton and Trea Turner (two premier leadoff-type hitters) setting the table for Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Murphy (three MVP candidates) and Ryan Zimmerman cleaning things up.

The Cubs may not have the sheer strength and power of the Yankees, but the Chicago lineup is deeper and more well-rounded. Regardless of who leads off and who plays on a given day, this Cubs team will batter opposing pitchers on a nightly basis and feature what very well could be three MVP candidates — Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras.

The Yankees would see a boost here if Brett Gardner shows no signs of aging at 34 and Greg Bird finally stays healthy.

The Indians are stacked, but don't quite boast as much depth 1-9 as the other lineups ahead of them with Tyler Naquin, Roberto Perez and Bradley Zimmer projected to make up the bottom-third of the order.

The Red Sox feature a dynamic young core despite a lineup that is coming off something of a down 2017 campaing. Adding J.D. Martinez to the mix is an incredible boost, as is a full season of phenom Rafael Devers.

The Diamondbacks have Paul Goldschmidt and a few question marks — including how the new humidor will affect the way the ball jumps in the dry Arizona heat. 

With new additions like Lorenzo Cain and former Marlins outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, the Cubs' main division rivals (Brewers, Cardinals) see a jump in lineup rankings.

The Dodgers are noticably absent given the injury to Justin Turner. Without him anchoring the order for the first month or so, this lineup absolutely needs Chris Taylor to turn in a repeat performance after a breakout 2017.

Does Cubs' signing of Yu Darvish prevent them from signing Bryce Harper next winter?

Does Cubs' signing of Yu Darvish prevent them from signing Bryce Harper next winter?

MESA, Ariz. — Yu Darvish's contract is worth $126 million, and that's a lot of money.

But is it enough money to stop the Cubs from making an even bigger splash next winter?

While this offseason has been unbelievably slow-moving, next offseason figures to be an entirely different animal, with an incredible number of big-name players set to hit the free-agent market. Leading that pack is Bryce Harper, the superstar Washington Nationals outfielder who is expected to ink the richest contract in baseball history.

Cubs fans are chomping at the bit for their team to bring Harper to the North Side, hoping for a lineup that features Harper alongside Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to form the most formidable team in the game.

But after making this offseason's biggest free-agent signing in Darvish, did the Cubs force themselves out of the running in the expensive Harper sweepstakes to come?

"It’s hard to sit here a year removed and see what our approach is going to be next offseason," team president Theo Epstein said Tuesday before offering up an interesting possible scenario. "Look, if everyone plays well and we’re healthy and productive, we have just about everybody back next year. We might be in a situation where we don’t have to do much.

"That said, this game is so unpredictable. We might have real needs in areas that we don’t anticipate. So we’ll have to see where we are at that point, take stock throughout the course of the season, at the trade deadline, try to look ahead. We still have some flexibility as players move through the arbitration system. So we’re not necessarily done, but we obviously made a significant investment in Yu Darvish to round out our pitching staff, and it’s a staff that we think is going to be together for years to come."

What if the Cubs are good enough that they don't need Harper? You could make the case for that already. Heck, the Cubs have been to three consecutive National League Championship Series and won the 2016 World Series without Harper, who has never made it out of the divisional round with the Nationals. The Cubs took down Harper and the Nats in the NLDS last October. Throw in Darvish, and the Cubs have upped their status as World Series favorites.

But baseball's arms race is seemingly never ending. The Houston Astros, the defending champs, upped their game this offseason, creating a super-rotation thanks to Gerrit Cole, formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The New York Yankees, a win away from the World Series last season, traded for NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton and his 59 home runs. Even if Darvish helps the Cubs to a second championship in three seasons this fall, they might feel the need to land baseball's biggest fish just to keep up.

However, there's plenty of other things Epstein and his front office must juggle in the coming years. While Jose Quintana's team-friendly contract made signing Darvish possible — "we almost felt like we were acquiring one and a half pitchers in that deal," Epstein said — the Cubs now have a few big contracts on the books: Darvish, Jon Lester and Jason Heyward. Then there's impending future when the team's young position players all exhaust their team control at the same time. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents after the 2021 season.

There's plenty to be determined between now and next winter, as Epstein mentioned. But Darvish's big contract is certainly a new factor that will play a major role in next winter's chase for baseball's biggest-ever free agent.