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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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Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

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USA Today

Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

For those who follow such things, Keith Law's yearly Top 100 prospect rankings is always a highly anticipated read. What would baseball twitter even do with their time if they couldn't spend it vocally disagreeing with subjective lists? Having a handful of Top 100 guys is always a shot in the arm for franchises that maybe aren't doing a whole lot of winning at the major league level; when you know you're not winning a World Series, the debuts of these prospects are high points of the summer. 

There wasn't a whole lot of Cubs' representation this season, which isn't a surprise by any means. Only guys two made Law's list: Brennen Davis at 55, and Brailyn Marquez at 80.  

Law claims Davis has the highest upside of any Cubs' prospect, but isn't necessarily close to a debut: 

Davis is lanky and has barely begun to fill out, so there’s likely to be more power to come, while he’s already shown he can manage at-bats and use the middle of the field to get himself on base. Despite his 6′4″ frame he already has a very balanced swing, and the Cubs will just have to tighten up some mechanical things since he’s got such long levers. A former shortstop, he’s adapted quickly to center field; he projects to stay there and add value with his range. 

He also loves Marquez's stuff – comparing it to Aroldis Chapman's – and says it's the reason why he's team's best pitching prospect since Dylan Cease. You can see the entire rankings, which go pretty in-depth, right here. 

Brandon Morrow sidelined with upper chest strain, no timetable for return

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USA TODAY

Brandon Morrow sidelined with upper chest strain, no timetable for return

Brandon Morrow’s comeback attempt has hit a bump in the road.

Morrow, the Cubs reliever and former closer, has what the club is calling a “mild right upper chest strain,” according to MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. Bastian added Morrow felt the strain in his last bullpen session and there is no clear timeline for his return.

The strain is the latest ailment to sideline the oft-injured Morrow, who hasn't pitched since July 2018 due to a series of arm troubles. The 35-year-old has undergone two elbow surgeries since then (November 2018, September 2019) before becoming a free agent this winter. He rejoined the Cubs on a minor-league deal.

Morrow entered camp optimistic the latest procedure did the trick to get his elbow healthy. The Cubs have been easing him into action — the right-hander is throwing one bullpen every four days. Morrow said earlier this month he’s experienced some aches and pains but attributed those to being part of the rehab process.

Morrow is listed as day-to-day, according to Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago Tribune. But considering his injury history — and the fact he was already unlikely to crack the Opening Day roster —  the Cubs will proceed with extreme caution. There's no need to expedite his return, mild strain or not.

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