19 for 19: Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?

19 for 19: Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Are the Cubs the best team in the NL Central?

The entire National League is much improved, with superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper staying in the league despite signing with new teams and other really good players moving over from the American League - Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson, etc.

The NL Central is also quite a bit better, with the Reds making big moves to jump into potential contention and join the other four teams in the division that all finished over .500 a year ago.

The Pirates didn't have a busy offseason (do they ever?), but the Cardinals added Paul Goldschmidt (then locked him up long-term) and Andrew Miller while the Brewers filled a major hole by adding Yasmani Grandal and bringing back Mike Moustakas and now they might add Craig Kimbrel, too.

You already know the story about the Cubs' offseason, where their biggest signings were Brad Brach and Daniel Descalso. Coupled with a return to health from some big names (Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, eventually maybe Brandon Morrow), is that enough to vault the Cubs to the top of the division once again?

It's very possible. The Cubs won 95 games last year despite a whole bunch going wrong - from injuries to a grueling schedule to steps back from key young players like Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber.

Right now, I like the Cubs' chances at outlasting the rest of the division because of their depth. The bullpen is the only hole on the roster, and there's no guarantee it will even be a sore spot for the team this year given how volatile relievers are from year to year. 

They also have the star power with three of the best all-around players in the division (Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez) and a supporting cast that certainly has the potential to be excellent (Contreras, Schwarber, Descalso, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, David Bote). 

Then there's the starting rotation. No team in the NL can boast the type of track record the Cubs have 1-through-5. However, track record is not always an indicator of future performance and the Cubs rotation is aging - Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are 35 and only Kyle Hendricks (29) is under 30. 

Also, depth can be erased in a hurry with a few poorly-timed injuries, as the 2018 Cubs proved. And the current bullpen has obviously seen better days.

The Cubs have a chip on their shoulder for 2019 - they're on a mission and feel like they have something to prove. 

Between that sense of urgency, their talent, experience and depth, give me the Cubs to win the NL Central this year, though the Cardinals and Brewers are close behind and the Pirates and Reds might both finish with winning records.

- By Tony Andracki

In a word? Nope! 

I don't know how anyone can definitively say, today on March 25, that the Cubs are the class of the NL Central. A recap of their last 8 months will show that:

1. They did not, actually, win the NL Central last year
2. Their only offseason addition was Daniel Descalso

There's plenty of reasons to believe in the Cubs. They won 95 games without Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, or Brandon Morrow. They have rotational depth that most teams can't match. Their everyday lineup will almost always feature two bonafide MVP candidates. Still, this is a team that couldn't hold off the Brewers after going into September with a 5-game lead. This is also a team that could not win either game of a do-or-die, 2-game home series. 

As it stands now, another NL Central team matches up well against the Cubs in each facet of the game. The Cardinals and Pirates have equally talented rotations, the Reds offense will hang, and the Brewers bullpen still looks pretty damn good. 

By no means is it a stretch to expect the Cubs to be better than what the Projection-System-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named suggested.  A 3rd place, 80-82 season would be nothing short of a disaster. People would lose their jobs. Still, there was a clearly a complacency issue last season, and it sounds like the Cubs and their fans were shocked by last year's outcome in part because they assumed that the Cubs were the class of the NL Central and were going to fall backwards into the NLCS. Defaulting to that again seems ... curious? A 95-win team doesn't overhaul day-to-day operations if they think the status quo was working. 

Going into 2019, the Cubs aren't the class of the NL Central. The good news is that it doesn't really feel like there *is* a team that could be considered that, anyways. 

- By Cam Ellis 


19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Javy Baez can see the future

Javy Baez can see the future

Javy Baez doesn't have the words to describe Javy Baez.

But then again, that's not what he does.

Analytical breakdowns aren't his game — incredible, heart-stopping physical feats on the baseball diamond are.

On a night at Wrigley Field that felt like one of the October battles of the past between the Cubs and Dodgers, Baez once again wowed and awed.

It wasn't just that ridiculous juke move at first base, though that will undoubtedly go down as one of the top MLB highlights of the year — if not THE top highlight. 

During Tuesday night's 7-2 Cubs win, Baez turned five different ground balls into outs...from the outfield grass. One such play nabbed Cody Bellinger by a split second at first base to end a bases-loaded threat in the eighth inning. 

And there was his seventh homer of the season — his first at home, surprisingly — to give the Cubs some more breathing room as he continues to hit the ball with authority the other way. He now has 15 hits in his last 33 at-bats and 9 of those knocks have gone for extra bases (5 doubles, 3 homers and a triple). 

But back to that play at first base — how did he do it?

After pausing for a few seconds, Baez shrugged and said, "I don't know," before trying to find the words to explain what was going through his head in those few seconds as he was hurtling down the basepath:

"I just saw him really close to the line," Baez said. "Usually on that play, you go around [the base] like it's a base hit. I think if I would've kept going, he was going to run me over because he's a big dude. 

"I saw a play — Billy Hamilton did it like 3 or 4 years ago. I saw it and that was the first thing that came to my mind — to stop or see a reaction and he couldn't stop. I know I didn't leave the line. It was everything good."

It's the last part that's most amazing. 

Here's the play Baez was referencing, from July 11, 2014:

So as he's running down to first base, he has the wherewithal to dip into his encyclopedic cache, pluck out the perfect play from his memory and execute it in glorious fashion...all in a matter of maybe a second-and-a-half.

"I think we all feel his energy all around the place — not only on the field, but in the clubhouse," catcher Willson Contreras said. "We call him The Mago for a reason. I love this guy. To me, he has the best instincts in the game. What he did today was just awesome. That's one of the best base hits ever."

Joe Maddon said he and the Cubs coaches were comparing Baez to legendary Bears running back Gale Sayers in the dugout for that juke move.

"That's him playing on a playground in Puerto Rico somewhere," Maddon said. "That's what I love about him. There's no fear in his game. His game is a game and he sees things in advance and he's fearless. He could strike out three or four times in a row and that is not going to impact his fifth at-bat."

Just about every week throughout the season, Baez shows the baseball world something it's never seen before. 

From his lightning quick tags to his swim move slides to hitting bombs left-handed during batting practice to his rocket arm that has been clocked as high as 98 mph on the infield — even he has to surprise himself every now and then, right? Especially like this play Tuesday night?

"Nah, not really," he said, smirking. "I think if it's in your mind, it's possible. I see a lot of things that people can do and they don't realize it. I realize everything I can do and everything I can't do."

If you ever want to know what makes Baez "El Mago," read that last sentence again:

"I realize everything I can do and everything I can't do."

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Jose Quintana continued his strong run in a dominant 7-inning performance against the Dodgers

Jose Quintana continued his strong run in a dominant 7-inning performance against the Dodgers

During the 4th inning of the Cubs’ 7-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night, LA right fielder Cody Bellinger took a 92 mile per hour fastball from Jose Quintana and sent it right back his way at 96: 

After a quick (maybe unintentional?) grab, Quintana calmly tossed the ball in his glove a few times before walking off the mound without even a grimace.

It was just that kind of night for Quintana, who pitched 7 strong innings while allowing only two runs on four hits and striking out seven. He’s now gone seven innings in three straight starts, all Cubs wins - two of which were against teams that currently sit in 1st place.

“We needed that kind of performance tonight,” Manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “They have a very difficult lineup to navigate and he was once again on top of his game. Great focus - he kept coming back with good pitches. Really the curveball was very pertinent tonight and then he had some good changeups to go with the fastball. He’s pitching.”

Quintana flashed an impressive amount of control while working through one of baseball’s toughest lineups. After walking six batters through his first two starts, Quintana has now only walked three since. 71 of his 114 pitches -- the most thrown by any Cubs pitcher this season, per team notes -- went for strikes. 

“I feel great,” he said after the game. “I know I’ve been throwing the ball really well the last couple of starts. All my stuff’s worked really good.”

“This year he’s been really good,” Willson Contreras added. “He’s using all his pitches which he didn’t do last year very often. I think he has his mind in the right place right now, and we’re in a good place.”

Quintana’s offspeed repertoire was firmly on display all night. Per Statcast, after throwing two changeups to Dodgers leadoff hitter Enrique Hernandez, he didn’t show the pitch again until the 4th. On the night, he threw the change up 12 times; the Dodgers failed to put a single one in play. 

“We’ve been in these types of situations and conversations since Spring Training,” Contreras added. “I saw him working out his change up in [there], which is good. He was a little harder than 84, but today I think was one of the best games he threw with the change up.”

Through 28 innings pitched this season, the lefty now sports a sub-3 FIP (2.89) and is striking out over 11 batters per nine innings. Some pitchers that have a higher FIP include David Price, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. 

“He’s absolutely pitching right now,” Maddon added. “Where in the past I thought he would just pretty much rely on his fastball. He’s becoming a pitch maker.”