Cubs

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Bryce Harper and the Phillies

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AP

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Bryce Harper and the Phillies

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:

Philadelphia Phillies

2018 record: 80-82, 3rd in NL East

Offseason additions: J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, David Robertson, Jose Alvarez, Juan Nicasio, Drew Butera, Sean Rodriguez, Andrew Romine...and some guy named Bryce Harper?

Offseason departures: Carlos Santana, J.P. Crawford, Wilson Ramos, Jorge Alfaro, Justin Bour, Asdrubal Cabrera, Luis Avila, Jose Bautista, Aaron Loup

X-factor: Jake Arrieta

It looks like Aaron Nola will contend for the NL Cy Young every year for at least the next half-decade and this offense certainly won't have a hard time scoring runs. But what about the rest of the rotation and pitching staff?

Arrieta has the highest profile and is paid the most of any other arm on the roster, not to mention he won a Cy Young just three short years ago. So if the Phillies are truly going to be a playoff team in a powerhouse NL East, it would seem to be a difficult endeavor if the former Cubs ace is unable to pitch up to his capabilities.

Between calling out the Phillies' shifting and defense (rightfully so, as they ranked among the worst in baseball in terms of value) and a second-half downturn, it wasn't exactly the smoothest of debut seasons for Arrieta in The City of Brotherly Love in 2018.

He was very good before the All-Star Break, going 7-6 with a 3.23 ERA and 1.22 WHIP despite only 6.3 K/9. But he struggled in the second half, going 3-5 with a 5.04 ERA and 1.38 WHIP...though he did up his whiffs to 8.5 K/9.

Arrieta is now 33 and has seen his numbers take a turn for the worse across the board every season since his 2015 Cy Young campaign. The Phillies aren't sure what they're going to get from the rest of their rotation, so they're going to need to lean heavily on the veteran of the staff.

Projected lineup

1. Andrew McCutchen - RF
2. Jean Segura - SS
3. Bryce Harper - LF
4. Rhys Hoskins - 1B
5. J.T. Realmuto - C
6. Odubel Herrera - CF
7. Maikel Franco - 3B
8. Cesar Hernandez - 2B

Projected rotation

1. Aaron Nola
2. Jake Arrieta
3. Nick Pivetta
4. Vince Velasquez
5. Zach Eflin

Outlook

Just look at that lineup. It seriously looks like it could be an All-Star batting order; any of the Top 5 hitters could realistically wind up on the NL roster for the Midsummer Classic this year. 

This team was in contention last year as late as mid-August and all they did this winter was add arguably the top two free agent outfielders (Harper and McCutchen), traded for the top catcher in the game (Realmuto), added one of the best relief arms on the market (Robertson) and upgraded at shortstop in a big way (Segura over Crawford). They also improved their defense overall by dealing away Santana and moving Hoskins back to first base from left field (where he was an atrocious fielder).

McCutchen is 32 now and certainly does not look like he'll challenge for another NL MVP Award, but he's also not a shell of his former self either. He posted a .368 on-base percentage last year and walked 95 times while also rating more positively as a defender now that teams are no longer trying to stick him in center field. He's also known as a great clubhouse guy and has hit at least 20 homers for eight years running.

Realmuto is still only 28 and under team control for another two seasons. Segura is 29 and under team control for another four seasons plus a team option for 2023. Harper obviously isn't going anywhere after his 13-year deal.

On top of that, Nola also just signed an extension worth $45 million over the next four years. This core is not going anywhere anytime soon.

That doesn't even include Scott Kingery, who began last year as a consensus Top-35 prospect in the game and signed a 6-year, $24 million team-friendly contract before he even played a big-league game. The 24-year-old had a tough rookie season (.226 AVG, .605 OPS), but he was inexperienced and can play all over the diamond. The problem at the moment is he doesn't appear to have a full-time spot at any one position, though maybe operating in a Ben Zobrist-type utility role can help both him and the team.

With all the added star power, the Phillies have taken a ton of pressure off their previous core — including Kingery. Now, the team doesn't have to lean so much on guys like Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, two young players who have yet to put it all together and find the consistency needed to take the next step toward stardom.

But imagine if they're able to do so, entering their age 27 (Herrera) and 26 (Franco) seasons. 

Then throw in 25-year-old outfielder Nick Williams who was ranked the No. 27 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2016 and currently doesn't even have a place to play in this lineup. There's also underrated second baseman Cesar Hernandez who's posted 7.7 WAR and a .366 on-base percentage over the last 3 seasons.

Oh yeah and there's also the only holdover star — Hoskins, who turns 26 this weekend and has smashed 52 homers with a .525 slugging percentage in his first 203 big-league games.

The pitching is the concern at the moment. Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin have all shown flashes of their tantalizing potential but still lack consistency. 

The bullpen is in a better spot with Robertson now to pair with 24-year-old Seranthony Dominguez who enjoyed a breakout 2018 campaign. But things are a bit hazy after that, especially if Hector Neris can't regain his form. 

Neris posted a 2.79 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 10.9 K/9 while saving 28 games from 2016-17 but then imploded last year (5.10 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) despite a huge bump in whiffs (14.3 K/9). Neris turns 30 in June, so at this point, this may just be who he is — a highly volatile reliever with nasty stuff.

This pitching staff could wind up being better than advertised — only Arrieta, Robertson and Pat Neshek are older than 30 — but right now, it looks to be an inferior group that may hold the team back from winning the division.

That being said, this offense looks to be talented enough to carry this team to one of the NL Wild-Card spots.

Prediction: 2nd in NL East, wild-card team

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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Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

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USA Today

Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over, and over, and over, again, it’s always remained framed in relatively vague terms. Something wasn’t right over the last two seasons, and – perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager that’s still clearly liked within the Cubs’ clubhouse – specifics were avoided. It was just that a change was needed, and Rossy knows what, etc. 

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why he feels such a talented team has fallen far short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” the Cubs’ star shortstop said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Baez’s comments certainly track. Maddon’s widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that’s clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality, until, as you saw, it isn’t. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact, but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players, maybe even incidentally, let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he added. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also explicitly promised that this year would feature far more organization and rigidity. They’ll stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team (presumably even during the cold months!), and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that maybe slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only going so far to say that negotiations were “up-and-down.” He’d like to play his whole career here, and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is just on recapturing some of that 2016 drive, and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself. 

He may have lost the service-time battle, but Kris Bryant's got eyes on winning the war

He may have lost the service-time battle, but Kris Bryant's got eyes on winning the war

He always knew it was going to be an uphill battle. Kris Bryant just expected the climb to last a couple weeks, not a couple years. 

“Yeah, jeez. That took forever,” he said on Saturday, in regards to the grievance he filed against the Cubs back after the 2015 season. “It really did. At the beginning of it, I was told that it’d take maybe a couple weeks, so I was ready for it. And then the off-season kept going on and I was like, ‘All right, come out with it, let’s go.’”

Fast-forward 200 or so weeks, and the Cubs’ star third baseman got an answer – just not the one he, his agent Scott Boras, and the MLB Players Association was looking for. An independent arbitrator disagreed with the notion that the Cubs had manipulated Bryant’s service time in order to keep him under contract longer, and ruled that he would remain under team control until after the 2021 season. While many felt that what the Cubs did violated the spirit of the law, ultimately they didn’t infringe on the letter. 

“Obviously we had a disagreement. We handled it respectfully,” Bryant said. “I’m very thankful that Theo and the team saw it through. I saw it through to the end because it was something that I really believed in. My Mom and Dad told me to always stand up for what I believed in, and I was going to see the process through, and I saw it through. Respect on both ends, there’s definitely no hard feelings, so let’s definitely put that narrative to bed.” 

Despite one of the strongest cases in the history of these contractual disputes, there were ultimately too many ambiguities involved to reward Bryant with free agency one year earlier. Getting a substantial raise would have been nice, but much of Bryant’s motivation behind filing the grievance in the first place came from a sense of responsibility to bring to light what many feel are unfair labor laws within the current collectively-bargained agreement. It’s certainly not one extra year of market value salary, but as baseball barrels towards a contentious stretch of negotiations, bringing the issue to light – according to Bryant – is a win within itself. 

“I definitely felt that responsibility to take it on and be like, I want to be the guy that fights for this because I believe this is right,” he said. “And it’s going to help us in 2 years.

“I think it’s good for us to go through stuff like this. You identify the problems that you see, and you try to make it better. This last round, I think we, as players, really took a whoopin’. It’s up to us to fight for things that we think are right.” 

Don’t be surprised when Bryant continues to be a public figure throughout the next 24 months (or more) of discussions. He’s one of the game’s most recognizable faces, and from the very start, his five-year career has been tied to the hip of MLB’s service time manipulation controversy. He was vocal about squashing any idea that he held ill-will towards the Cubs front office, but did concede that the gray area which many front offices love to exploit has opened the door for uncomfortable, unnecessary friction. 

“The team doesn’t want to go through it,” he said. “I mean, Theo doesn’t want to have to make decisions like that, and cause … I wouldn’t say problems, but disagreements between players and the front office. I don’t want to be put in that situation either, so let’s just make it black and white. It’d make things a whole lot easier.” 

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