Cubs

Around the NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals offseason in review

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Around the NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals offseason in review

The Cubs have a target on their back.

They enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series and manager Joe Maddon will have them embracing the expectations.

The Cubs committed more than $275 million to free agents this winter, taking the baseball world by storm with the Jason Heyward signing while also bolstering the pitching staff by bringing Trevor Cahill back and acquiring John Lackey and Adam Warren.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs also said goodbye to former franchise icon Starlin Castro to make room for free agent Ben Zobrist, shipping the 25-year-old shortstop to the New York Yankees.

With another month-and-a-half until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, there is still plenty of time for the Cubs to make more moves, with trade rumors swirling around Jorge Soler and the possibility of the Cubs adding another top-of-the-rotation arm.

But as it stands right now, the Cubs already look like an improved team entering 2016.

With the new year upon us, let's take a look how the rest of the National League Central is shaping up.

Manager: Mike Matheny (Record w/Cardinals: 375-273)
2015 record: 100-62
New additions: SP Mike Leake, IF Jedd Gyorko, C Brayan Pena, RP Matt Bowman
Key losses: OF Jason Heyward, SP John Lackey, 1B/3B Mark Reynolds, IF Pete Kozma, RP Steve Cishek, RP Carlos Villanueva, RP Randy Choate, OF Peter Bourjos, C Tony Cruz, OF Jon Jay
X-Factor: Matt Holliday
Biggest question: Can they continue to rise above injuries and age and stave off the Cubs?
Projected lineup:

1. Matt Carpenter - 3B
2. Stephen Piscotty - RF
3. Matt Holliday - LF
4. Jhonny Peralta - SS
5. Matt Adams - 1B
6. Randal Grichuk - CF
7. Yadier Molina - C
8. Kolten Wong - 2B

Projected rotation:

1. Adam Wainwright
2. Carlos Martinez
3. Michael Wacha
4. Mike Leake
5. Jaime Garcia
DL: Lance Lynn

Outlook:

The Cardinals may be coming off a 100-win season, but the Cubs have all the momentum right now. Apart from beating them in the NLDS, the Cubs also stole the top position player (Heyward), and pitcher (Lackey) from the Cardinals' 2015 squad in free agency and look poised to compete for years.

Losing Heyward, Lackey and other key role players - plus Lynn's Tommy John surgery - will be hard to get past, but the Cardinals are essentially acquiring Wainwright, Holliday and Adams, given all three players missed most of 2015 with injury.

Molina - who hurt his thumb when Anthony Rizzo slid into it at home plate late in the regular season - is already starting the season banged up and he will be 33. He's taken a pounding behind home plate in his career, and he took a step back offensively last season (.660 OPS, his lowest since 2006).

[RELATED - Around the NL Central: Pittsburgh Pirates offseason in review]

Holliday is 36, Peralta is 33, Carpenter is 30 and Wainwright is 34. Like Heyward said when he signed with the Cubs - age is catching up to this St. Louis core.

However, in defense of the Cardinals, the new wave has arrived. Piscotty looks like a star, while Grichuk looks promising and Wong is still only 25 and has plenty of breakout potential. Martinez and Wacha are only 24 and the key pieces in the bullpen (closer Trevor Rosenthal, setup men Kevin Siegrist and Jordan Walden, plus Seth Maness and Tyler Lyons are all 28 or under). Lyons and 23-year-old former top prospect Marco Gonzales provide depth for the starting rotation.

The Cardinals lost out in the David Price sweepstakes, but opted to hand Leake a five-year, $80-million deal to help bolster the starting staff after Lackey's departure. That's a hefty price tag for a guy who has never been more than a mid-rotation arm, but then again, the Cardinals have a knack for getting the most out of pitchers.

Keep in mind: There is stll plenty of an offseason left, with top free agents like Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon still available. The Cardinals very well may have another move or two up their sleeves.

The Cardinals are still the Cardinals. Count them out at your own risk.

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.