Cubs

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

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USA TODAY

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

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:

Atlanta Braves

2018 record: 90-72, 1st in NL East

Offseason additions: Josh Donaldson, Brian McCann

Offseason departures: Brad Brach, Kurt Suzuki, Lucas Duda, Rene Rivera, Ryan Flaherty, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, Peter Moylan

X-factor: Josh Donaldson

Anytime you're the biggest offseason addition, there's already a target on your back and expectations that come with the territory. That's especially true of Donaldson.

He's the only big addition to a team that surprised the baseball world by claiming the division a year ago before losing out to the Dodgers in the in the NLDS. Donaldson is also a former MVP who signed for only a 1-year deal as he looks to remake his market and cash in again next winter.

Donaldson turned 33 in December and is coming off a year in which he played just 52 games due to lingering calf issues. He managed only 113 games played in 2017, but still hit 33 bombs with a .944 OPS that season.

This is a player who finished in the Top 10 in AL MVP voting four years in a row from 2013-16 with the Oakland A's and Toronto Blue Jays, slashing .284/.375/.518 (.893 OPS) with an average of 33 homers, 103 RBI, 106 runs scored and 84 walks per year. He also racked up 31.3 WAR in that span while playing elite defense at third base.

If that's the type of player Donaldson will be in 2019, the Braves have created a fantastic situation for themselves, adding another legitimate, top-notch bat to a lineup that already includes veterans Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis plus budding stars Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies. 

If Donaldson doesn't put up that type of production whether due to injuries or anything else, the Braves are lucky they only have him under contract for one season. But it would certainly have a huge impact on that one season, when the rest of the division is also much-improved this winter.

Projected lineup

1. Ender Inciarte - CF
2. Josh Donaldson - 3B
3. Freddie Freeman - 1B
4. Ronald Acuna Jr. - LF
5. Nick Markakis - RF
6. Ozzie Albies - 2B
7. Brian McCann - C
8. Dansy Swanson - SS

Projected rotation

1. Julio Teheran
2. Kevin Gausman
3. Sean Newcomb
4. Touki Toussaint
5. Mike Foltynewicz*

Outlook

Foltynewicz is the Braves' ace, but he's not expected to be ready for Opening Day as he's currently nursing elbow tightness. Atlanta won't need a fifth starter for a while anyways due to the off-days early on in the schedule. Assuming Foltynewicz is able to avoid serious injury and return mid-April, the Braves will be in good shape. He finished 8th in NL Cy Young voting last year, going 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 202 strikeouts in 183 innings.

If he is forced to miss more time or unable to pitch at the top of his game due to the injury, the Braves could be in trouble. They have arguably the best stable of pitching prospects in the game, but none are proven in the big leagues. Instead, the rest of the rotation consists of Teheran, Newcomb and Gausman — a trio of arms who are on the right side of 30 and have flashed star potential but their careers are mostly marked by inconsistency. Toussaint, 22, made his MLB debut last year and only has 29 big-league innings under his belt.

All those other young pitchers are coming (led by Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson), but it's hard to predict what kind of success they'll have in The Show. Meanwhile, the Braves have expectations to contend in 2019 in a division that boasts three other teams with similar thoughts about how their season should go.

The lineup should be fantastic once again, regardless of what Donaldson provides. Freeman is a bonafide MVP candidate and Acuna may well join that conversation, too, at a ripe old age of 21 years old. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year hit .293 with a .917 OPS, 26 homers and 16 stolen bases in just 111 games last season as a 20-year-old. Over a full campaign, those numbers extrapolate out to 38 homers and 23 stolen bases. Maybe a sophomore slump is coming, but this is a ridiculously talented young player.

Around the rest of the lineup, the Braves hope young second baseman Albies is more like the player he flashed in the first half (.281/.318/.516, 20 homers) than the guy that faded in the second half (.226/.282/.342, 4 homers). But he just turned 22 in January, so he has a lot of development left to do.

Former No. 1 overall pick Swanson is a defensive whiz at shortstop, but hasn't hit at all over the course of his big-league career (.243/.314/.369 career slash). Right now, the Braves don't have room for 25-year-old Johan Carmago in their everyday lineup despite the fact he hit .295 with an .844 OPS after the All-Star Break last year and is a switch-hitter who can play just about anywhere. But he represents depth to give guys a breather or step in if anybody goes down to injury.

Markakis, a 35-year-old veteran, had one of the best years of his career last season and looked to be out the door in free agency before signing a 1-year, $6 million deal in late January. Adding McCann to pair with Tyler Flowers behind the plate gives the Braves another valuable veteran voice in the clubhouse.

The Achilles' heel of this team could be the bullpen. The Braves front office didn't touch the position group this winter and are watching as one of their top relievers (A.J. Minter) is already sidelined due to a shoulder injury suffered in a car accident earlier this winter.

Former Cub Arodys Vizcaino has come into his own as closer, but the rest of the bullpen is one big question mark.

This is a very talented team and has an incredibly bright future, but they may experience too many growing pains in 2019 to hang with the Phillies and Nationals.

Prediction: 3rd in NL East, just out of Wild-Card contention

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
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

As the Cubs managerial search continues, the Astros are vying for their second World Series championship in a three-year span.

Coincidentally, the man leading Houston once envisioned himself doing the same thing on the North Side of Chicago. It’s strange how baseball works sometimes. 

A.J. Hinch — who interviewed for the Cubs managerial job in 2013 — was disappointed when Theo Epstein and Co. chose Rick Renteria to take the reins of the club instead, especially given his managerial experience. But then again, Hinch recognizes he still could have been pushed out a year later for Joe Maddon the same way Renteria was. So, maybe things did work out best for everyone.

Between that history and Hinch's time with Jed Hoyer in San Diego, it explains why Hinch knows a thing or two about what the Cubs brass is looking for in their next manager and the process they are taking to find the right guy to steer the ship.

That guy might end up being Hinch’s current bench coach Joe Espada, who had a second interview with Epstein's front office this week.

“Joe and I were Triple-A roommates back in Oakland,” Hinch said. “I tried to hire him in Arizona as a first- or third-base coach when I became manager in Arizona and he immediately got promoted to the Marlins coaching staff. So when he was with the Yankees and we eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, Cora was just about to be named the manager of Red Sox. I immediately asked for permission to speak to Joe and he was my choice; he was my hand-picked guy [to take over as Astros bench coach] immediately.”

And it appears, Espada will soon become someone else’s “hand-picked guy” to manage.

Will that be with the Cubs?

“He’s a well-rounded baseball man,” Hinch said. “He’s been in a few places and so he’s seen and done virtually everything to prepare himself to manage. From coaching in Miami to being with the Yankees on successful teams, to being a bench coach here. He’s been around decision-making, he’s been around high end winning and he’s intellectually curious.” 

Besides his coaching resume, Espada is thought to bring other innate characteristics to the table that would appeal to any organization. The Cubs liked what they saw and heard enough to bring him in for a second interview, which was no surprise to Hinch.

“He’s organized, diligent, he’s very fair to people, he’s a good family man.” Hinch said. “All attributes that help you build something in the clubhouse that ultimately leads to winning. The only thing untested in him is managing. And any time you talk about someone without managerial experience, I think you’re just going to have to learn on the job, period. There’s been plenty of examples of guys that have done it and Joe is really good. The potential could be very quick for him. A lot of teams have asked about him.” 

Naturally, the same could be said for David Ross, a candidate Hinch also spoke highly about.

“I think he’d be really good," the Astros manager said of Ross. "If he’s all in, I’ll love it because I think he could learn quickly. He’s got immediate credibility. I think the player buy-in is there and it would be interesting to build a staff around him.”

The intrigue will continue to grow in what now seems to be a two-horse race, but with the World Series getting underway the Cubs will likely wait for an off day or the conclusion of the Fall Classic to make an announcement. And even though their team isn’t playing, Cubs fans can still keep an eye on Espada as well as former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as the Astros and Nationals take center stage in the baseball world. 

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

The stats don't lie: Pedro Strop is one of the best relief pitchers in Cubs franchise history.

No pitcher has come close to the 120 holds Strop has notched in a Cubs uniform (Carlos Marmol is second with 83) and he also ranks sixth all time in appearances, ahead of Fergie Jenkins and Ryan Dempster.

Strop even has a better ERA (2.90) and WHIP (1.05) with the Cubs than Lee Smith (2.92, 1.25), who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. 

But at the moment, Strop won't have an opportunity to build upon those numbers as he enters free agency for the first time in his career following the final year of his $17.6 million extension he signed prior to 2017.

He hopes he'll get another chance in Chicago, repeatedly calling the Cubs clubhouse "home."

"I gotta say the Cubs are a priority [in free agency] and I'll work with them first and see if we can work something out," Strop said after the Cubs' final game of the season. "If not, then Plan B — whatever is best for the rest of my career. Right now, I just want to come back and stay home."

Anthony Rizzo is the only player who currently boasts a longer tenure with the Cubs and the team got together after the season finale in St. Louis to toast to Strop, Ben Zobrist and Joe Maddon.

Maddon's departure was already official and while it's still possible Strop and Zobrist return, the Cubs wanted to pay tribute just in case this was the end for them, too. Strop called it an emotional and "sad" moment that he may have to leave the family he built in Chicago, but maintained hope that a reunion was in the future. 

The Cubs think so highly of Strop and his impact behind the scenes (especially on younger players like Javy Baez), Theo Epstein said last fall he hopes the veteran "can be a part of this organization when he's done playing."

Don't start lining Strop up for a coaching gig or a job as a special assistant in Epstein's front office. Not yet, anyway.

Still only 34, he believes he has something left in the tank and the final month or so of 2019 backs him up. Continued issues with his hamstring dragged down his overall season numbers (4.97 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but Strop seemed to find his rhythm again in September with a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 9 innings (though much of that work came in low-leverage situations).

In summing up his season, he wished he had been able to contribute in that way earlier in the year, but felt like he proved a lot in the final month. That could be a nice sales pitch to teams in free agency.

"If I'm starting a negotiation with the Cubs, it doesn't have to be that difficult," Strop said. "They already know what I'm capable of doing when I'm right and they know this is my house here. But I still don't know what's gonna happen."

The Cubs are undergoing a complete renovation of their bullpen this winter, with veterans Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brandon Morrow ticketed for free agency and Derek Holland and David Phelps likely to follow. 

Right now, it appears only Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck are locked into relief spots for 2020, opening up a plethora of options. Kimbrel is a giant question mark after his debut season on the North Side and the other three just enjoyed breakout 2019 campaigns, so there isn't much of a track record there to trust.

There's plenty of room for Strop to come back, but will the Cubs come calling? Is it prudent to chalk up his struggles to the leg injuries and not just overall wear and tear that also saw Strop's fastball velocity drop nearly 2 full mph?

If the price is right, Strop could be a good low-risk/high-reward option for the Cubs to add some veteran depth to the bullpen. Relievers don't often become huge factors in the clubhouse chemistry of a team, but the Cubs have always fed off Strop's relentlessly upbeat attitude and brutal honesty.

Plus, he feels like he has some unfinished business with the Cubs next year.

"We had a contending team [in 2019]," he said. "Teams are getting better in our division. We gotta realize that and we gotta be honest that they're getting better. We just need to come back hungry and try to win. Just go out there, not thinking about whatever happened this year and just compete. We got the guys, we got the group. It's gonna be a really good 2020 Chicago Cubs team."