Cubs

19 for '19: Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?

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AP

19 for '19: Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?

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

Next up: Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?

By the time the Cubs had their first full-squad workout in spring training, everybody seemed rather anxious to get an opportunity to "stick to sports." 

Between the Addison Russell domestic abuse situation, Joe Ricketts' racist emails, the Cubs-vs.-Tunney political war, the new TV deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group and the Rickettses' continued involvement with President Trump and right-wing politics, there's been a lot of energy expelled discussing non-baseball matters around the Cubs this winter. 

Not every one of those aforementioned conflicts is a hot-button issue with each fan and there are always bound to be off-field controversies with a business as high profile as the Cubs, but it has certainly been an exhausting winter. 

Add in all the drama over the broken state of MLB free agency, the Cubs' budgetary concerns and even the minor war of words between Kris Bryant/Chicago and Yadier Molina/St. Louis and you can see why players and coaches were so eager to talk about batting stances and bunt rotations and velocity.

It's certainly not the way any team would choose to begin their new season, let alone a squad that has lofty goals for the year ahead and plenty to prove on the field.

Even Joe Maddon admitted all the heavy topics were draining.

"Of course. We're here to play baseball," he said in late February. "I know we're part of the social fabric of this country and people watch us all the time and we're very popular as baseball players. But I would prefer to getting back to just talking about baseball. That's what we're here for — we're here to entertain. We're part of the entertainment industry, I think. 

"I know people like to take that respite away from the rest of the world and just get absorbed into those 3 or 3.5 hours [during the game]. It's our job to make sure we're playing well enough to make that an enjoyable 3-3.5 hours and that's what we're here for.

"I understand people doing their jobs, I understand the interest and the reason behind asking very difficult questions. But after all, we need to get back to becoming the baseball team that we are. The fact is, we entertain on a baseball field and that's what we're looking forward to do."

The thing is, many of these issues won't go away and many fans don't have the option of "sticking to sports," especially with issues like abuse, racism and Islamophobia that may hit close to home.

The Russell situation has quieted down now, but it will certainly pick up steam again around the end of April when his suspension is due to end. Who knows how many more Ricketts email leaks Splinter has planned or when they will drop. Discussions over the TV deal and carriage issues will grow louder as time moves on.

There's no guarantee issues like politics, TV rights and emails will penetrate the bubble of the Cubs' locker room, but players will at least be asked about Russell over and over again this year as they try to march toward another World Series.

The Cubs will never admit the Russell situation was a distraction last year in the midst of a playoff race. Maybe it had zero impact on the on-field product, but the simple fact of the matter is, Cubs players, coaches and front office execs were asked about it often and had to discuss the situation while Russell remained silent behind the MLB investigation. 

Instead of talking or thinking about baseball, they were talking or thinking about a heavy topic and trying hard to avoid adding more fuel to the fire with an insensitive comment.

So no matter how badly they may want to stick to baseball, the Cubs won't have that luxury in 2019.

But this is also a veteran-laden locker room and coaching staff, and they're certainly no strangers to dealing with off-field distractions.

Time well tell if it will have any impact on the Cubs' win-loss column or what controversy may be lurking around the next corner, but they have plenty to focus their attention on between the white lines and they're not interested in any excuses. 

The complete 19 for '19 series:

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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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Reds

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USA TODAY

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Reds

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

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:

Cincinnati Reds

2018 record: 67-95, 5th in NL Central

Offseason additions: Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Derek Dietrich, Jose Iglesias, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Zach Duke, Kyle Farmer, Odrisamer Despaigne, Matt Bowman, Anthony Bass

Offseason departures: Homer Bailey, Billy Hamilton, Matt Harvey, Shed Long, Tanner Rainey, Robby Scott

X-factor: Sonny Gray

The 29-year-old right-hander looks to be in line for the Reds' Opening Day start, which somehow makes all the sense in the world and zero sense at the same time.

Gray might have the highest upside of any pitcher in the Reds rotation and he's certainly a lot more established than up-and-comer Luis Castillo. And with fellow newcomer Alex Wood expected to start the year on the injured list, it's easy to make the case that Gray would get the ball Opening Day.

On the other hand, he's coming off a season in which he posted a 4.90 ERA and 1.50 WHIP with the New York Yankees and was banished to the bullpen by the end of the year. Gray has had an up-and-down career, evidenced clearly by his season-by-season ERA:

2013: 2.67
2014: 3.08
2015: 2.73
2016: 5.69
2017: 3.55
2018: 4.90

He was an All-Star in 2015 and finished 3rd in AL Cy Young voting that same year, but then was a disaster the next season, posting a -0.3 WAR with the A's. 

He's still in his prime and a nice buy-low pickup for the Reds, who needed pitching any way they could get it. A move to the NL should help Gray in that he gets to face the pitcher's spot a couple times a game (until the league adopts, the DH, that is), but he's moving to an extreme hitter's park in Great American Ballpark and the NL is loaded with talent this year across every lineup in the league. 

If Gray can pitch like a front-of-the-rotation arm, the $38 million he's owed over the next four seasons will look like a hell of a bargain. If he can't, that's a hefty salary to pay for a mid-market franchise.

That being said, Gray doesn't have to pitch all that well to be considered a "front-of-the-rotation starter" by Cincinnati's standards. The Reds finished 24th in baseball in ERA last year and were 25th in rotation ERA (5.02). They ranked 29th in starter's ERA in 2017 and have not finished outside the bottom 10 in rotation ERA since 2014 when Johnny Cueto was still in town and Homer Bailey was actually good.

Projected lineup

1. Jesse Winker - LF
2. Joey Votto - 1B
3. Eugenio Suarez - 3B
4. Scooter Gennett - 2B
5. Yasiel Puig - RF
6. Scott Shebler - CF
7. Jose Peraza - SS
8. Tucker Barnhart - C

Projected rotation

1. Sonny Gray
2. Luis Castillo
3. Tanner Roark
4. Anthony DeSclafani
5. Tyler Mahle

Outlook

This is a much, much improved roster. That's not to say the Reds will win 90 games this year or even challenge for the NL Wild-Card, but they likely won't lose 95 games again, either. Realistically, we're talking about a team that will probably hover around .500 this year, but that would be a very welcome sight for fans given they haven't finished even close to a winning record since 2013.

Cincinnati's front office took on a bunch of salary to acquire Puig and Kemp, but also were able to shed some of Bailey's salary in the process and added some much-needed outfield depth and right-handed pop to the lineup. The rotation also has a complete makeover, with solid upgrades in Gray, Roark and Wood. None of the three are expected to contend for the NL Cy Young this year and Roark and Wood are free agents after 2019, but as we went over above, this rotation needed some serious help.

Even before the addition of Puig and Kemp, this Reds team had no trouble putting up some nice numbers on the scoreboard. Votto is one of the best hitters in the game and led the NL in on-base percentage for the third consecutive season last year. His power took a preciptous dip (down to 12 homers and 67 RBI after going for 36 and 100 in 2017), but he makes outs at a ridiculously low rate and sets the table for an underrated middle of the order.

Suarez and Gennett combined for 57 dingers and 196 RBI a year ago and now Puig and Kemp are joining the fray. Dietrich and Iglesias were nice buy-low additions for depth, as Iglesias is one of the best defenders in the game while Dietrich is a lefty bat that can play all over the diamond. 

The Reds also have some nice up-and-comers to be excited about in that lineup, between 24-year-old Jose Peraza and 25-year-old Jesse Winker, plus top prospect Nick Senzel who could force his way to the big leagues very soon. Winker is slated for the leadoff role with his .397 OBP in 471 career MLB plate appearances. Peraza hit .288 with some surprising pop (14 homers, 31 doubles) a year after disappointing with a .259 average and only 18 extra-base hits. Senzel, 23, is a consensus Top 10 prospect who has a career .314/.378/.509 slash line in the minors.

The most underrated area of this Reds roster, however, is the bullpen.

Raisel Iglesias is an elite closer who has blown just 6 saves in 64 chances the last two seasons. Jared Hughes is their top setup guy and Cubs fans should be very familiar with him, since he's pitched his entire 8-year MLB career in the NL Central (first with the Pirates from 2011-16 and then with the Brewers in 2017 before joining the Reds last year). He had a 1.94 ERA last year and sports a 2.69 mark for his career. Veterans David Hernandez and Duke are solid and former top prospect Amir Garrett could be ascending. Even failed starters Michael Lorenzen and Matt Wisler are OK options for first-year manager David Bell.

The Cubs play the Reds 19 times this year and went just 11-8 against their divisional rival last year when they were a 95-loss team. It will be a tougher road for the Cubs to turn in even the same 11-8 record this year and don't be surprised if the Reds finish with better team-wide offensive numbers than the Cubs, even with a healthy Kris Bryant.

Ultimately, the Reds probably don't have enough good starting pitching or overall depth to be legit contenders in the division, but crazier things have happened in this game. From a Cubs' perspective, the Reds potentially flirting with a .500 record is just more fuel to the fire that Joe Maddon's squad has their work cut out for them in a year of reckoning.

Prediction: 5th in NL Central

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals
Milwaukee Brewers

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19 for '19: How much will a renewed focus on vocal leadership help the Cubs?

19 for '19: How much will a renewed focus on vocal leadership help the Cubs?

Early on in Spring Training, Cubs' SS/2B/tag wizard Javy Baez made headlines with this quote: 

"I think it's the little things," he said. "Last year, I didn't run full speed to first base and I would get back to the dugout and no one would say anything. This year, if I don't do it, someone will hopefully say something and it's not to show you up, it's to make our team better."

It's a noteable bite, but not exactly surprising; Joe Maddon has a history of publicly taking players to task over hustle issues - just ask Wilson Contreras (or Baez or Jorge Soler or BJ Upton or Delmon Young). 

The Cubs undoubtedly struggled with accountability and communication last year. It was not the largest issue on their plate, (and it won't be this year) but the team had leadership issues that needed to be addressed. 

The good news, at least, is that the Cubs are *more* than prepared to have someone step up. Jason Heyward proved that in 2016. Jon Lester was forged in the fire of fried chicken and beer. Anthony Rizzo's consistent excellence on and off the field commands a certain level of respect. That's not even mentioning Cole Hamels -- whose $20 million option would have been less of a no-brainer if not in some part for his leadership -- Ben Zobrist, and new addition Daniel Descalso. Their lineup on any given day is going to feature a half-dozen guys that other teams would love in leadership roles. 

Veteran leadership is a hard thing to quantify. There's absolutely value in it - the term pro's pro is trite beyond belief, but it didn't show up out of thin air. With that said, for every pro's pro there's a Mike Matheny out there, deploying Bud Norris to spy on the rest of the clubhouse. Being a veteran doesn't make you a leader, and there's a certain danger in expecting anyone who's ever seen a playoff game speaking up at the first sign of trouble. If the wrong person -- and for the sake of this exercise let's give him some random name like Jonathan Papelbon -- takes discipline into his own hands, you end up on the floor of the dugout getting choked out. 

Ultimately, the biggest motivator for "correct" behavior is winning. When you're winning you're having fun, and when you're having fun, admiring a double against the Reds in September maybe isn't a Capital Offense. 

There's not going to be some overhaul in clubhouse vibe, though; a tight ship just isn't Joe Maddon's style. But as the Cubs' current window begins to start looking smaller, it stands to reason that the urgency to bust tail on every play would increase. The Cubs have what it takes to self-police a clubhouse - the bigger question is who's up to the task, and how they'll go about it. 

The complete 19 for '19 series:

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?

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.