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

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USA TODAY

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

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:

San Diego Padres

2018 record: 66-96, 5th in NL West

Offseason additions: Manny Machado, Ian Kinsler, Greg Garcia, Adam Warren, Aaron Loup, Garrett Richards

Offseason departures: A.J. Ellis, Freddy Galvis, Cory Spangenberg

X-factor: Joey Lucchesi

The Padres made a huge splash with the Machado deal, but they're not necessarily expected to contend in 2019. 

That being said, this is not a bad roster by any means. It wouldn't be all that shocking to see Machado and Co. making a push for the second Wild-Card at some point this year, but if they're going to, it will be because the pitching staff exceeded expectations.

You could put any pitcher's name in here as an X-factor — I just chose Lucchesi because hes lined up as their ace on paper at the current moment. The pitching staff is filled with a bunch of question marks and will likely be the main force holding this team back in 2019. Lucchesi was impressive at times in his rookie season last year, striking out 145 batters in 130 innings, but posting a 1.29 WHIP, 4.08 ERA and serving up 23 homers even while making half his starts in one of the best pitcher's parks in the game.

The 25-year-old southpaw may not turn into anything all that impressive as a starting pitcher or maybe he takes another step forward and emerges as a surefire long-term piece in the Padres rotation. Either way, he will have a pretty sizable impact on the team's overall pitching situation.

Projected lineup

1. Ian Kinsler - 2B
2. Manny Machado - SS
3. Eric Hosmer - 1B
4. Wil Myers - LF
5. Hunter Renfroe - RF
6. Manuel Margot - CF
7. Luis Urias - SS
8. Austin Hedges - C

Projected rotation

1. Joey Lucchesi
2. Robbie Erlin
3. Bryan Mitchell
4. Eric Lauer
5. Luis Perdomo

Outlook

This is a really interesting team that could go either way — challenge for one of the NL Wild-Card spots or challenge for 90+ losses.

Ultimately, I'm pegging them for somewhere in between. I think they're still a year away from emerging as a true contender, but there's a lot of exciting talent here and the arrow is pointed firmly up. 

The Padres are widely considered to have the best farm system in the game, with one of the game's brightest young stars on the verge of the big leagues in shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. But there's so much more beyond him, including a wide array of pitchers coming up through the farm system. Urias and catcher Francisco Mejia are only 21 and 23, respectively, and have high ceilings as well. 

Then there's the young outfield with Myers (28), Renfroe (27), Margot (24), Franchy Cordero (24) and Franmil Reyes (23). It remains to be seen how all those young players will get enough playing time, but there's so much upside here. Myers is already a borderline star when healthy, Renfroe is a slugging machine with a cannon in the outfield, Margot is a perfect post-hype sleeper as a former top prospect who has yet to break out in the majors and Cordero and Reyes are Statcast dreams with their impressive exit velocities.

And now the Padres are adding one of the game's truly elite players to the lineup in the form of a 26-year-old Machado who will be in his prime right as the rest of the top prospects are getting comfortable in their big-league skin.

Kinsler was also a solid add this winter on a relative bargain ($8 million over 2 years). He'll turn 37 in June, but he's still a good defender and decent hitter and will provide valuable veteran leadership. Plus, they eventually won't need to play him every day by the time Tatis is in The Show and forming a middle-infield punch with Urias.

The Hosmer deal last spring (8 years, $144 million) was a terrible decision and the Padres have to be kicking themselves on that to some extent a year later. But it's the only bad contract on the books and there's at least some reason to expect a bit of an offensive rebound. Before posting a .720 OPS and .253/.322/.398 slash line with San Diego a year ago, Hosmer put up a .799 OPS with a .292/.351/.449 slash line over the previous 5 seasons with the Royals. He's in a much tougher hitter's park now than he was in Kansas City, but some regression to the mean is probably in store for the 29-year-old.

As I mentioned above, it will probably come down to pitching with this team more than anything else. The arms just aren't there yet to help supplement an exciting young lineup. 

Padres starting pitchers combined for the 4th-worst ERA a year ago (5.09) despite playing in such a spacious ballpark. That doesn't look to be changing anytime soon, with Richards expected to miss most — or all — of the season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

The saving grace for this staff may be in the bullpen. San Diego finished 6th in baseball in reliever ERA (3.53), even including spending 1/3 of the season without Brad Hand and Adam Cimber at the back end of the bullpen. 

Kirby Yates, Craig Stammen and Matt Strahm are certainly not household names, but they're all coming off fantastic seasons. Warren and Loup are not big signings, but they could be solid adds to help give manager Andy Green an underrated bullpen.

Don't count on seeing the Padres in October this fall, but those days are certainly coming...and fast.

Prediction: 3rd in NL West

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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Reinforcements coming for Cubs pitching staff

Reinforcements coming for Cubs pitching staff

The Cubs pitching staff is about to get some reinforcements.

Not that they really need it right now — Cubs pitchers entered Sunday with a 1.80 ERA in the last 10 games, the best mark in the league in that span by a wide margin (the Pirates were next-closest with a 2.30 ERA).

But they're about to add two of their most important arms to that group, as a pair of veteran southpaws could return from injury as soon as this week.

Jon Lester threw a simulated game Saturday at Wrigley Field and Mike Montgomery is set to make his second rehab start Monday with Double-A Tennessee.

Lester (hamstring) threw 45 pitches Saturday and reports were all positive as he showed up to the ballpark Sunday. He will throw a bullpen either Monday or Tuesday and then the Cubs will reevaluate from there.

There's no specific timetable, but the Cubs have not yet announced a starter for Thursday's game against the Dodgers and acknowledged Lester could slide into that spot.

"He's looking good," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Sunday morning. "We're just still taking it day-to-day to make sure there's no setbacks, he's recovering the way he wants to recover and that everything's on track. He's such a tough guy and competitor — he wants to be out there as soon as he can.

"We got a couple more days to make sure he gets through the bullpen, gets through all the things he wants to get through the next few days, but hopefully we'll be seeing him here pretty soon."

Lester last pitched on April 8 during the Cubs' home opener. If all goes well with his bullpen in the coming days, he wouldn't need a rehab stint to get back up to speed.

Meanwhile, Montgomery (lat) threw 27 pitches with Class-A South Bend last Wednesday and has been working out with the team in Chicago over the weekend. He is expected to throw about 3 innings with Tennessee Monday.

"I felt really good after my last outing," he said. "Even better the last couple days. It's a change and adjusting some of the things I do to prepare — throw/workout-wise to get me feeling right.

"...It's really fun just to go out there and compete. When you're away from it, you kinda miss it and you get that itch to be, 'OK, I gotta do whatever I can do to get back healthy and be effective.' That's where I'm at."

Montgomery knows he's facing minor-league hitters, but he's treating it like a big-league appearance, trying to get himself on track mentally as well as physically. 

He dealt with some shoulder inflammation at the beginning of spring training and he felt like that set him back in terms of getting up to speed and building up strength before the season. 

Montgomery only made 4 appearances before hitting the disabled list, allowing 5 runs on 8 hits in 2.2 innings.

"I feel like I've been playing catch-up so far this year and I haven't been able to get out there and really work on certain pitches in certain zones — working on my cutter/slider and getting that a little sharper, working on curveball command where I can throw it early in counts or bounce it," he said. "That's been missing and so the last week or so, I've gotten back to that.

"...If you're dealing with things physically, it's really hard to work on stuff and perfect the mechanical side of the game. I know with all the tech nowadays, you can shape your pitches the way you want and work on pitches to one side of the plate and the other. 

"When you're really not feeling good, it's more of 'how can I just get through this?' as opposed to really working on stuff. I think I'm at a point where I can really work on stuff and that's a good place to be."

Only Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana have thrown more innings for the Cubs than Montgomery over the last three seasons, as he's made 33 starts and 53 relief appearances. 

Montgomery said he hasn't had any conversations with Joe Maddon or the Cubs about a change in role when he returns, but assuming he slides back into that swingman role, this time off will allow him to build up strength and get stretched out.

He also has a new perspective on life as he and his wife, Stephanie, welcomed their first child early Tuesday morning — a boy named Max. Both sets of grandparents have been in town to help take care of and celebrate the newborn, so Montgomery has also been able to enjoy time with his family and work his rehab activities around that.

"It's been a whirlwind, to say the least," Montgomery said. "But I love it that way. My wife's awesome — she's able to handle the stress of baseball and having a baby. We're still in good spirits; the family's out here helping her out.

"Going home the last couple nights makes you get a little emotional, but at the same time, it makes you really understand what is important. For me, I think that's just me being good at my job of pitching and taking care of the family. 

"That's where I'm at, so it's a good experience to have and we're gonna take it from here."

The Cubs will also have options for the bullpen beyond Montgomery, as both veterans Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette are on the recovery path from their respective injuries. Cedeno made his second rehab appearance with Double-A Tennessee Saturday and Barnette will throw his first outing with Triple-A Iowa Sunday.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Flashback to Jake Arrieta's second no-hitter

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Flashback to Jake Arrieta's second no-hitter

Luke Stuckmeyer takes a trip down memory lane on the 3rd anniversary of Jake Arrieta's no-hitter against the Reds in Cincinnati. You'll hear all the biggest calls of the game from Len & JD, plus Jake's immediate reaction after tossing his second no-no in a span of 11 regular season starts.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: