Christian Yelich

Series with rival Brewers just what the Cubs needed to get going

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USA TODAY

Series with rival Brewers just what the Cubs needed to get going

MILWAUKEE - The Cubs are finally coming home.

After the longest road trip to begin a season since 1899, the Cubs will get to sleep in their own beds this week. Beds they haven't been in since before they left for spring training in mid-February.

Think about that: This road trip was not only nine games long, but it spanned 11 days (plus an extra three days before the season began in Florida) and the Cubs haven't been home in two months. While it would've been awful to play in Chicago in sub-freezing temperatures over the past week, this is the longest road trip to start a season in 119 years. 

They're also returning to Wrigley Field winners, boasting a 5-4 record.

For all the panic and comparisons to last season's slow start, the Cubs are sitting in a fantastic spot entering a long homestand.

They just won three of four from a very good Brewers squad, where they took advantage of all the Milwaukee mistakes, received quality starts in all three victories and saw their bullpen shut down an offense that very well may border on "elite," even without Christian Yelich.

The Cubs also did all this without Anthony Rizzo for the final three games of the series, as the All-Star first baseman is dealing with a back injury and may not be ready for Monday's opener at "The Friendly Confines" given the chilly forecast doesn't mesh well with a balky back.

"We just played quality baseball the last four games," Ben Zobrist said. "It's a good team, so good to get off to a good start against them this year and hopefully we can continue that this coming week."

Joe Maddon called it before the series started, giving his usual spiel about how he loves playing good teams, especially early on.

After going 2-3 against the Marlins and Reds - two teams expected to be competing for the No. 1 overall pick next summer - the Cubs came out and stomped their new division rivals, giving the fans who battled the "Wisconsin residents only" presale plenty to cheer about all weekend.

The Brewers scored just 7 runs in the four games, plating tallies in only four innings of the 36 played. 

Milwaukee also made 7 errors in the series, allowing the Cubs to take advantage.

"We did," Maddon said. "We've been playing aggressively. We've been playing smart for the most part."

The Cubs still didn't look quite like themselves, struggling to play situational baseball from an offensive perspective (particularly with runners on third base and less than two outs).

But they also will take a series win against an up-and-coming divison rival who figures to be in playoff contention for the next several years. 

"We know they're deep, they're a resilient bunch," Kyle Hendricks said. "What they did last year kinda brought them together. We have to be on it, game-in, game-out, regardless of who we lose or who they lose."

There's also a budding rivalry between the two teams in terms of off-field drama and wars of words. Take the Willson Contreras issue in the eighth inning Sunday.

Or the social media spat between the two teams over the last few months, culminating in an absolutely epic takedown by @Cubs Thursday:

Either way, this was exactly what the Cubs needed to light a fire.

"Always going to be a tough battle," said Kris Bryant, who is off to a blistering start. "They seem like a fun group over there, having a lot of fun.

"Sure, it can get a little annoying, but we do the same thing. It's a nice little rivalry and they're gonna be a tough one this year."

Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Brewers are out to prove 2017 was no fluke

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USA TODAY

Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Brewers are out to prove 2017 was no fluke

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:

Milwaukee Brewers

2017 record: 86-76, 2nd in NL Central

Offseason additions: Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Jhoulys Chacin, Matt Albers, J.J. Hoover, Boone Logan, Christian Bethancourt

Offseason departures: Neil Walker, Lewis Brinson, Matt Garza, Anthony Swarzak

X-factor: Ryan Braun

Cubs fans might not realize this given the way Braun mashes against Chicago pitching, but he has not often shown the stud that he used to be against other teams. Though, the main reason for that is injury.

Braun has averaged just 115 games the last five seasons and has not topped 140 in that span. He played in just 104 games last year and when he was on the field, posted his worst value as a hitter in his 11-year big-league career. He had a 111 OPS+ (relative to the rest of the league) in 2017, meaning he was only 11 percent better than the league average hitter. His previous worst career season was a 113 OPS+ in 2014.

Oh yeah, and Braun is 34 now, so don't expect him to suddenly turn into a fixture of health in his mid-30s.

But if Braun can keep the injuries mostly at bay — especially when the Brewers play the Cubs — it would be good news for a lineup that figures to have to score a bunch of runs to win games with a pitching staff that took some steps back this winter.

It will also be key to see how Braun and Domingo Santana get into the lineup on a regular basis together with Yelich and Cain slotted in for everyday roles in the outfield. Though, a move to first may help cut down on Braun's injuries, but would it be the best thing for the team to keep trotting Braun out there and sitting the 25-year-old Santana or the resurgent Eric Thames?

Projected lineup

1. Christian Yelich - LF
2. Lorenzo Cain - CF
3. Travis Shaw - 3B
4. Ryan Braun - 1B
5. Domingo Santana - RF
6. Manny Pina - C
7. Orlando Arcia - SS
8. Jonathan Villar - 2B

Projected rotation

1. Chase Anderson
2. Zach Davies
3. Brent Suter
4. Jhoulys Chacin
5. ??

Outlook

That starting rotation is suspect, regardless of who they get to fill that final spot. Jimmy Nelson was emerging as the ace of the stuff, but is out due to a shoulder injury and may not be back until June. 

Veteran journeyman Wade Miley looked like a lock for that final spot before he, too, went down with an injury. Junior Guerra could've been in the rotation, but he has been sent down to Triple-A already.

Regardless of what the Brewers do in the rotation, it will be a weakness for the team, even if Nelson comes back at 100 percent health and pitches effectively from the second he gets the ball.

The lineup and the bullpen are the strengths of this team. This was already one of the best offenses in baseball before they added two exceptional top-of-the-order tablesetters in Yelich and Cain.

Corey Knebel and Josh Hader represent two of the best strikeout pitchers in the game at the back end of the 'pen while Jacob Barnes and Jeremy Jeffress are solid and Matt Albers was a decent pickup.

The Brewers are excited about the potential of Hader, Suter and Brandon Woodruff taking on larger roles on the pitching staff, but that's still not enough.

However, the Brewers have plenty to choose from if they wanted to make a deal for the top arms on the market like Chris Archer. Milwaukee could always trade Santana or else they could build a package around young outfielder Brett Phillips or Keon Broxton, a player who's already proven he can be a solid contributor at the big-league level.

All told, this Brewers team got a taste of what contention was like last season and they're hungry for more. Expect them to be on the Cubs' heels all season and probably for the next few years.

Prediction: 2nd in NL Central, wild-card team

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.