Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

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USA TODAY

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

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:

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, last place in NL West

Offseason additions: Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco, Tony Watson, Julian Fernandez

Offseason departures: Michael Morse, Matt Cain, Matt Moore, Denard Span, Kyle Crick, Christian Arroyo

X-factor: Brandon Belt

The trades for Longoria and McCutchen are going to get all the attention, but the Giants are sort of acquiring Belt, too. 

Their sweet-swining lefty first baseman only appeared in 104 games in 2017, missing the last few weeks of the season with a bad concussion. When he was on the field, he led the team in both homers (18) and walks (66) despite just 451 plate appearances. 

Belt has turned into one of the most patient hitters in the game and if he is able to stay healthy for a full season, would slot in perfectly in the 2-hole ahead of McCutchen, Longoria and Buster Posey. 

Projected lineup

1. Joe Panik - 2B
2. Brandon Belt - 1B
3. Andrew McCutchen - RF
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Hunter Pence - LF
7. Brandon Crawford - SS
8. Austin Jackson - CF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Ty Blach
5. Chris Stratton

Outlook

The Giants tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2017, surprising many around the league. Absolutely nothing went right for the team, from a lack of power on the field (Belt missed a third of the season and still led the team in homers), injuries (Bumgarner only made 17 starts) and general ineffectiveness (Mark Melancon).

But the Giants are a team that excels in even years, though the Cubs may have broken that juju by knocking San Fran out of the NLDS in 2016.

Still, between the return to health of key players and some big moves that improved the lineup, this team is primed for a return to form.

Watson is a nice piece at the back end of the bullpen and bet on a rebound from Melancon, who was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game from 2013-16 (1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 147 saves).

Expect more out of the rotation with Bumgarner and Cueto a dynamic 1-2 punch. Cubs fans are familiar with what Samardzija can do if he gets on a role, too.

It seems crazy to pick the Giants to finish higher than the Diamondbacks, but they still have the same core of players from the championship years and have a much-improved roster.

Prediction: Second place in NL West, wild-card team

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

Take a break from Machado Mania, here's a new White Sox trade rumor involving Avisail Garcia

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USA TODAY

Take a break from Machado Mania, here's a new White Sox trade rumor involving Avisail Garcia

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Looking to take a short break from Machado Mania? There's a new White Sox trade rumor involving Avisail Garcia.

The outfielder has been the subject of trade speculation this winter, and he's finally getting some reported interest, with USA Today's Bob Nightengale listing both the San Francisco Giants and Toronto Blue Jays as teams that have talked with the White Sox about Garcia.

The Winter Meetings started with questions about potential trade candidates Jose Abreu and Garcia, who both put up great offensive numbers last season. Garcia was statistically one of the best hitters in the American League, ranking second behind only MVP Jose Altuve with a .330 batting average and sixth with a .380 on-base percentage.

That production and the White Sox rebuilding efforts seemed to make Garcia a logical trade chip, someone who could potentially further stockpile the minor league system with more highly touted talent.

The option, of course, also exists for the White Sox to hold on to the 26-year-old outfielder, who despite being in the bigs since 2012 didn't put together a big offensive season until 2017. They could keep him and trade him at a later date, once the rest of baseball finds out if he's capable of repeating what he did last season. Or they could keep him for good, extending him and including him as a part of their long-term core.

Of course, all of that talk was obliterated by the Thursday morning reports about the White Sox and a potential trade for Baltimore Orioles superstar third baseman Manny Machado. Starting with The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal, several national writers reported on the White Sox aggressive push for Machado, who's set to become one of the headlining members of the 2019 free-agent class.

There are pros and cons to trading for Machado, and White Sox general manager Rick Hahn spoke about the team's thinking before departing the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort.

But perhaps Machado isn't the only subject of trade talks on the South Side right now.

Report says Giancarlo Stanton would approve trade to four teams — including the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Report says Giancarlo Stanton would approve trade to four teams — including the Cubs

Here’s an offseason bombshell no one saw coming: Giancarlo Stanton would approve a trade to the Cubs.

The National League MVP is believed to almost surely be traded away from the Miami Marlins in the coming weeks, with the Marlins’ new ownership group led by Derek Jeter looking to shed salary. But while much of the conversation around Stanton’s departure from South Florida has focused on the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers, a Thursday night report suggested that the Cubs are one of four teams that Stanton, who has a full no-trade clause, would approve a trade to.

As you’ll notice, the aforementioned Giants and Cardinals aren’t on that list.

Now, none of this means that the Cubs have shown formal interest or even talked with the Marlins about a deal. In fact, earlier reports laid out that the Marlins had agreed to the frameworks of trades with the Cardinals and Giants and were awaiting Stanton’s approval. But this latest news would seem set to shake everything up, with neither of those teams on his list.

Stanton, a right fielder known for his incredible power, tore the cover off the ball in 2017. He smacked 59 homers, putting him in the top 10 all-time for long balls in a single season. It’s the most anyone’s hit in more than a decade and a half, when Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa hit 73 and 64 home runs, respectively, in 2001. Stanton also led baseball with 132 RBIs and led the NL with a .631 slugging percentage, edging Joey Votto for MVP honors in the Senior Circuit.

The 28-year-old Stanton is about to enter the fourth year of a massive 13-year contract that has him under team control through 2028. Of course, it comes with a hefty price tag. He’s set to make $25 million in 2018, and his annual salary peaks at $32 million a year from 2023 through 2025.

There’s a great argument to be made, though, that he’s well worth hit: Stanton’s already hit 267 homers in his eight big league seasons.

Now, with a depleted farm system after trades for Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana in each of the last two seasons, the Cubs wouldn’t figure to have the minor league assets a rebuilding team like the Marlins might desire. That could mean this is all just a Stanton wish list rather than a rumor with legs. But at the same time, the Cubs have several young, affordable position players at the major league level, guys like Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ, who have been involved in trade speculation this offseason.

Would that be enough to reel in a fish as big as Stanton, though?

While the Cubs have an already-crowded outfield — though in order to land Stanton, it’s a safe bet that one or multiple of those outfielders would have to go to Miami — being able to insert Stanton’s bat into the lineup obviously would mean making him the starting right fielder. That would likely mean Jason Heyward moving to center, a move that’s been suggested plenty this offseason independent of any Stanton news.

Cubs fans and observers have been laser-focused on the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes — of which the North Siders are one of seven finalists for the Japanese superstar who can pitch and hit — but this new information throws a brand-new wrench into the offseason: the prospect of one of baseball’s biggest bats wanting to call Wrigley Field home.