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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Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...

Bryzzo

We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

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CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

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USA TODAY

CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

Former Cubs TV analyst Todd Hollandsworth talks with Luke & Kap and gives an outside perspective on the 2019 Cubs.

—Holly talks about being in the the TV booth and on the road every day with the Marlins. (0:46)

—Todd shares his thoughts on the 2019 Cubs and how the team was built through the draft. (1:51)

—Holly breaks down Jose Quintana's recent run of great starts. He Also talks about Yu Darvish and if what we saw Monday was for real. (4:03)

—Todd talks about the N.L. Central. Draws similarities to the N.L. East. He says the Cubs still win the division - IF they pitch. (5:37)

—Holly shares his thoughts on former Marlin Christian Yelich and his dominant start to the 2019 season. (8:05)

—Todd talks about the "Yelich" trade and how the deal has worked out (so far) for the Marlins. (11:09)

—Holly discusses Javy Baez sliding into second base and the replay review system in MLB. Where do they go next? How can MLB fix the problem with aggressive base-running vs. being too cautious when sliding. (13:17)

 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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