Justin Turner

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Can anybody dethrone the Dodgers?

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USA TODAY

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Can anybody dethrone the Dodgers?

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:

Los Angeles Dodgers

2017 record: 104-58, 1st place in NL West

Offseason additions: Matt Kemp, Scott Alexander, Brian Schlitter (former Cub still in the league), Pat Venditte (switch-pitcher), Hamlet Marte (only included because his name is "Hamlet")

Offseason departures: Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, Adrian Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson, Andre Ethier, Franklin Gutierrez, Scott Van Slyke, Brandon McCarthy, Luis Avilan, Scott Kazmir

X-factor: Chris Taylor/Alex Wood

Cheating a bit here and going with two guys.

Wood has been a very good and very underrated pitcher for his entire career, but he also has struggled to stay healthy. He made just 27 appearances (25 starts) last season and has pitched more than 172 innings in a season just once (2015).

Wood has a career 3.20 ERA and led the league in winning percentage last season after going 16-3. We all know Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet (again, when healthy), but if Wood can take the ball every fifth day, it takes so much pressure off Kershaw and makes the Dodgers that much more formidable.

Taylor came from out of absolutely nowhere last year to turn in a heck of a season - .288/.354/.496 slash line, 21 HR, 72 RBI, 85 R, 17 SB - and sat atop the Dodgers order as they marched all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. 

The power was a huge surprise, but he's always had speed, hit for a high average and drawn walks, so if the power plays again, he's a huge weapon, especially with Justin Turner down with a wrist injury now. And the power actually looks legit after a swing and philosophy change.

Projected lineup

1. Chris Taylor - CF
2. Corey Seager - SS
3. Cody Bellinger - 1B
4. Yasiel Puig - RF
5. Yasmani Grandal - C
6. Joc Pederson - LF
7. Logan Forsythe - 3B
8. Chase Utley - 2B

Projected rotation

1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Alex Wood
3. Kenta Maeda
4. Rich Hill
5. Hyun-jin Ryu

Outlook

Turner's broken wrist is a huge blow to the Dodgers before the season has even begun, especially when he's suddenly like the best right-handed hitter on the planet not named Mike Trout or Kris Bryant. 

Turner was always a solid utility player for the Mets but not much of a hitter (.696 OPS in 301 games with the Mets). In L.A., however, Turner has an .881 OPS in four years, including an incredible .945 OPS in 2017.

He's the anchor of their lineup and any time he misses is a big loss. But this Dodgers team is so talented around him that they'll be fine getting into the playoffs. Turner was bound to miss time anyways - he's played in more than 130 games in a season just once in his career.

The only thing that could slow this team down would be more injuries, especially if Kershaw's balky back rears its ugly head again. 

This may be the most talented roster in the National League (once Turner returns), so even in an NL West where four teams may be competing for the division title, the Dodgers should take the cake once again.

But will they have enough left in the tank to get past the Cubs or Nationals to represent the NL in the World Series once again?

Prediction: 1st in NL West

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves
New York Mets

'The better team won': Cubs had plenty of problems, but Dodgers' championship formula should look familiar to Cubs fans

'The better team won': Cubs had plenty of problems, but Dodgers' championship formula should look familiar to Cubs fans

For the second year in a row, the National League champs celebrated a pennant at Wrigley Field.

A dominating, 100-win club that had the championship formula of elite starting pitching, a lights-out closer and a fearsome lineup lifted a trophy Thursday night on the North Side and look destined to lift another before this postseason is over.

Sound familiar, Cubs fans?

The Cubs’ quest to repeat as World Series champs ended Thursday, and instead the Los Angeles Dodgers got to party, getting their revenge after the Cubs eliminated them here last October.

The next few months’ worth of conversation in Wrigleyville will center — and not inappropriately so — on the Cubs’ shortcomings this postseason. They couldn’t hit. The bullpen was woefully unreliable. And the starting pitching, particularly Jose Quintana in a two-inning, seven-run outing in Game 5, was not what it was last fall.

But if you hear that laundry list of offenses over the course of the next few days, weeks and months, remember to give some credit where credit is due, because these Dodgers look a lot like last year’s Cubs.

“The better team won over the course of these five games,” Joe Maddon said after his team’s season came to a close. “They played really well. They kind of out-pitched us and everything else. So give them credit.

“You know what it feels like coming off of last year, we were celebrating versus them in this exact same spot. So they've had themselves a spectacular year.”

The Dodgers have the elite starting pitching, as evidenced throughout this series and most specifically in two of the three games here on the North Side, where Yu Darvish (Game 3) and Clayton Kershaw (Game 5) showed why they’re two of the top pitchers in the game.

Thursday night, Kershaw did what he couldn’t do to the Cubs last October, stifling that slumping lineup with six innings of one-run ball, the only run surrendered (and just one of the three hits surrendered) a meaningless Kris Bryant home run with the Cubs down 9-0.

Altogether, Dodger pitching posted a jaw-dropping 1.64 ERA in this series. Starting pitchers were the only ones to give up runs, and they gave up just eight of them in 27 innings. The four starters’ ERA was a fantastic 2.67.

And so there’s another part of the Dodgers’ championship combination: that stellar bullpen. The Cubs got just two hits and no runs against the relief corps in the entire five-game series. In 17 shutout innings, the Dodger bullpen was pretty much unhittable.

No one shone more than Kenley Jansen, who faced 13 batters and recorded 13 outs. Cubs fans will remember how big a weapon Aroldis Chapman was out of last year’s bullpen. Well Jansen is just as incredible — and just as meaningful to this postseason run.

Now obviously the Cubs’ hitting woes weren’t exclusively the result of facing Dodger pitching. They carried over from the NLDS — another series featuring some sensational pitching from the opposition — and without the mega-slumps of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and practically everyone else to swing a bat for the Cubs, things would have been incredibly different. But there’s something to shutting down a lineup with superior pitching, and that’s what the Dodgers did.

And then there’s the Dodgers’ offense, which has its own Bryzzo in Chris Taylor and Justin Turner, who were named the NLCS co-MVPs after combining to go 12-for-37 with four homers, 10 RBIs and eight runs scored in five games. Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig are mighty good hitters. And then there’s what Enrique Hernandez did Thursday night: three homers and seven RBIs in the 11-1 mauling.

That’s a fearsome lineup, and while Quintana should’ve gone longer than two-plus innings, you can’t entirely blame Cubs pitching for not being able to quiet these guys over the past four games. Moments like John Lackey giving up that walk-off homer to Turner in Game 2 will live in infamy in the collective memory of Cubs fans, but the guy’s an MVP candidate. Seeing him do something like that isn’t unexpected.

“Sometimes in our game,” Maddon said before Game 5, “there is more of an attempt to vilify as opposed to glorify. In other words, when Turner hits a home run, it's because Turner is good, not because the pitcher is bad or wrong. So I think it's been shifting in a sense that people want to blame somebody as opposed to giving somebody credit. I see a lot of that.”

So yes, there’s no doubting that the Cubs had their problems — big ones — during the 10 postseason games they played this month. And those problems will have huge effects on the offseason and how Theo Epstein & Co. construct the 2018 edition of this team.

But sometimes, as Cubs fans well know from last season’s championship run, there’s one of those teams that has that magic formula. The Cubs were that team in 2016. The Dodgers seem to fit that bill now.

"Oh I absolutely think they played better," Ben Zobrist said Thursday night. "They played better, I wouldn't say they're the better team. They were the better team in 2017. They played better in the regular season, they beat us in the postseason. They were the better team in 2017, but are we capable of being better than we were? Absolutely.

"We didn't execute, they did this series. They played phenomenal baseball and we didn't and that's why they're moving on and we're not."

Grandpa Rossy and the 5 biggest things from Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4

Grandpa Rossy and the 5 biggest things from Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4

The Cubs aren't dead yet.

Once again, this team has proved they play their best when they're forced to with backs against the wall.

The Cubs finally showed some urgency for the first time in the NLCS, continuing to pile on and smashing the narrative that scoring first on an early home run is not a good move. 

The door won't shut on this 2017 season for at least another day, thanks in large part to this guy:

Farewell, Jake

Making what is almost assuredly his last start in a Cubs uniform and at Wrigley Field, Jake Arrieta was masterful, navigating a relentless Dodgers lineup and giving the Cubs a much-needed deep outing, tossing 6.2 innings.

He struck out 9, working around 5 walks and 3 hits while throwing 111 pitches, his most since May 21 against Milwaukee.

And how's this for justice? Arrieta tied the Cubs all-time postseason record with his fifth playoff victory Wednesday night.

Arrieta had his ups and downs Wednesday night, but he did plenty to remind Cubs fans of all he's done in blue pinstripes the last five seasons.

I mean, just look at the movement on some of these pitches:

https://twitter.com/PitchingNinja/status/920838148996911104 https://twitter.com/PitchingNinja/status/920843368523096064

A hat-tip to Arrieta for a brilliant Cubs career:

Grandpa Rossy = Bill Murray?

David Ross went full Bill Murray Wednesday night, hyping up the crowd just by his mere presence. In the first few innings of NLCS Game 4, these were the biggest cheers from the 42,195 in attendance at Wrigley Field:

1. Willson Contreras HR off the video board
2. Javy Baez HR to the left of video board
3. David Ross shown on video board

Ross was hanging around the Cubs before the game, visiting with old teammates and chatting for a few mins with "son" Anthony Rizzo during batting practice.

The Cubs finally looked like the team that displayed legendary resiliency from last fall with Grandpa Rossy in attendance. Don't even try to act like there's no concidence there.

Javy Time

Baez was 0-for-20 this postseason entering Wednesday night and that number bumps up to 0-for-23 when taking into account last fall, too.

So naturally, he hits two bombs and shows everybody why Joe Maddon keeps writing his name in the lineup.

Let's tell the story of Javy's night in GIFs:

Ball don't lie

Joe Maddon wasn't f-in around. He brought in Wade Davis in the eighth inning against the heart of the Dodgers order and of course, this game couldn't end without controversy and some edge-of-your-seat thrills.

A few batters after yet another Justin Turner homer, Davis appeared to have struck out Curtis Granderson on a pitch in the dirt. But after a conference by the umpires, they ruled it a foul ball, despite what seemed like pretty clear evidence on replay that Granderson did not make contact with the ball.

Joe Maddon erupted, leading to a lengthy argument that resulted in his removal from the game.

After nearly 10 minutes without throwing a pitch, Davis roared back and struck out Granderson anyway.

After throwing 34 pitches in the eighth, Davis came back out firing in the ninth to shut the door for a six-out save.

Power plays

Willson Contreras hit a ball 491 feet, nearly taking his own face out on the left field video board.

It was the first Cubs run of the game, giving them the lead for the fourth time in the series off a longball. The other three times in the NLCS all resulted in Cubs losses, but this time, however, they crushed the narrative with one blast after another into the wind blowing out to dead left field. 

The Dodgers responded with their own homers - first by Cody Bellinger in the second inning and then by Turner (also off the scoreboard) in the eighth.

The first five runs in the game were all scored on solo homers.