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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Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish accomplished something Saturday he has never done in a Cubs uniform — he pitched at least 5 innings in three straight starts for the first time since signing that $126 million deal more  than 14 months ago.

That's not exactly an indicator that Darvish will be contending for the National League Cy Young this season, but it's certainly a step in the right direction from his previous 10 starts in Chicago.

Darvish lasted just 5 innings in Saturday's 6-0 loss to the Diamondbacks, needing 88 pitches to get through those frames before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning. 

He retired 12 of the final 14 batters he faced, including a pair of strikeouts to end his last inning. 

Does he feel like he's still moving forward?

"I think so, especially that last inning," Darvish said. "The fifth inning — mentally — was very good. It's good for next start."

The end line Saturday wasn't great — 5 innings, 5 hits, 3 runs, 3 walks, 7 strikeouts, 2 homers — but he kept his team in the ballgame after giving up back-to-back homers to the second and third hitters of the afternoon.

He was still hitting 96 mph in the fifth inning and acknowledged he could've easily gone another inning if the Cubs weren't trailing 3-0 when his spot in the batting order came up.

"The fastball velocity came up as the game was going on, the breaking ball got sharper," Joe Maddon said. "...They got him quickly and then [Zack] Greinke pitched so well. I thought keeping it at 3, which Yu did do, and that's really not a bad thing after the beginning of that game. We just could not get to Greinke. 

"Had we been able to get back into the game, I think Yu's performance would've been looked on more favorably, because he actually did settle down and do a pretty good job."

Still, the Cubs need more than moral victories every time Darvish takes the ball.

Theo Epstein said earlier this month he doesn't think it's fair to issue a "start-to-start referendum" on Darvish, but this is 5 starts into the season now for the 32-year-old right-hander, who's walked 18 batters and served up 6 homers in 22.2 innings so far. 

Forget the salary or the big free agent deal. This is a four-time All-Star who has twice finished in the Top 10 in Cy Young voting, yet fell to 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 13 starts in a Cubs uniform. 

In those 13 starts, Darvish has walked multiple batters in 11 of them and allowed at least 3 earned runs in 8 outings. He's also averaged less than 5 innings a start overall, and that number is down to just 4.5 innings per outing in 2019. 

Darvish said he wants to pitch into the seventh inning (something he's never done as a Cub) and believes that would be great for his confidence that's been building — slowly but surely — since the start of the season. But he still has to get over that hump.

"His stuff's nasty — plain and simple," Jason Heyward said. "Any time I pitch with Yu in a video game, guarantee at least a 1-hitter. I feel like his confidence is just another thing he'll have to keep building on for himself. 

"Every game is different. Today was — I guess you could say — a step back or whatever. Last start was pretty good and next start, I know he's gonna come out and be hungry again. ... Today was one day. We got a long season. Hopefully next time we can scratch a few runs across."

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Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

The news on Brandon Morrow might not be so positive, but the Cubs did receive very good reports on their injured ace this weekend.

Jon Lester threw a simulated game against a couple of his Cubs teammates Saturday morning at Wrigley Field, tossing 45 pitches in total. In between "innings" of the sim game, Lester was also working out on the side in an effort to ramp up the intensity and simulate more of a game feel to see how his injured left hamstring will respond.

Lester initially went on the injured list two weeks ago after he was removed in the third inning of the Cubs' home opener on April 8, when he hurt his hamstring running the bases.

"[The sim game went] really well," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "I thought he looked very good. Pretty amazing where he's at already. ... Did not hold back at all, so it's very encouraging."

Maddon also said he thought Lester's stuff looked good from where he was watching behind the catcher and pointed out that the Cubs ace was "hypercritical of himself," indicating that Lester's focus was on competing and making good pitches instead of worrying about his hamstring or any physical limitations.

The Cubs don't have a next step mapped out for Lester just yet, as they will see how the 35-year-old feels Sunday after the "rigorous" activity Saturday.

There is currently no timetable for his return, but Maddon didn't rule out the possibility that Lester would be able to pitch sometime in the coming week.

The Cubs rotation has looked very good since Lester went down — combining for a 0.96 ERA in the last 7 games before Yu Darvish struggled early in Saturday's tilt with the Diamondbacks.

Tyler Chatwood gets the ball for the Cubs Sunday to close out the series against Arizona and then the team has Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels lined up for the first two games of the series against the Dodgers when they come to town Tuesday night. 

The Cubs won't need a fifth starter in the rotation again until next Saturday, April 27, so that could be a date to circle for a possible Lester return if all continues to go well in the veteran's recovery.

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