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:
2018 record: 96-67, 1st in NL Central
Offseason additions: Yasmani Grandal, Alex Claudio, Ben Gamel, Bobby Wahl, Cory Spangenberg, Brett Lawrie, Tuffy Gosewisch, Jake Petricka...and maybe Craig Kimbrel??
Offseason departures: Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, Jonathan Schoop, Wade Miley, Xavier Cedeno, Curtis Granderson, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles, Dan Jennings, Joakim Soria
X-factor: Jimmy Nelson
The 29-year-old right-hander emerged as the ace of the Milwaukee pitching staff with a breakout 2017 campaign (12-6, 3.49 ERA, 10.2 K/9) but hasn't thrown a pitch in a game since Sept. 8 of that season.
He's been dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him on the shelf all of last season and will ensure he won't break camp with the club this spring. But he is currently on the comeback trail and still expected to take a spot in the rotation at some point early this year.
When he returns, what kind of pitcher will he be? Is he the guy that struck out 199 batters and walked only 48 in 175.1 innings (as he did in 2017)? Or is he the pitcher that led the NL with 86 walks against only 140 whiffs in 179.1 innings in 2016?
And how healthy will Nelson be? After missing an entire season, will his innings limit be somewhere around 100 frames?
Not much has changed for the Brewers from a year ago in that they still have a clear weakness in their rotation but a dynamite bullpen. But they obviously made it work last year.
If Nelson can return and give the Brewers some really valuable innings to begin games before he hands it over to Josh Hader and Co., that could be a huge asset to a squad that won 96 games and made it a one victory shy of the World Series without him.
1. Lorenzo Cain - CF
2. Christian Yelich - RF
3. Jesus Aguilar - 1B
4. Travis Shaw - 3B
5. Ryan Braun - LF
6. Mike Moustakas - 2B
7. Yasmani Grandal - C
8. Orlando Arcia - SS
1. Jhoulys Chacin
2. Chase Anderson
3. Zach Davies
4. Corbin Burnes
5. Freddy Peralta
For all the talk of the Cubs' quiet winter, the Brewers were just as silent. Then again, they were the ascending team heading into the winter after they caught the Cubs from behind to win the NL Central and took the Dodgers to a Game 7 in the NLCS.
The Cubs finished 11-9 against the Brewers in 2018 with a +4 run differential, illustrating how neck-in-neck the two teams were a year ago. But the Brewers' arrow is pointing up in the rivalry while the Cubs now have a Year of Reckoning.
The Cubs jumped out to a 7-1 record against their neighbors to the north by the end of April, but that took a turn for the worse as Milwaukee went 8-4 the rest of the way (including that Game 163).
The Brewers also didn't necessarily need to add much to their roster this winter since they had so many answers in house to fill needs.
Still, they're potentially close to making a huge splash to further improve an area of great strength. Reports trickled out from Ken Rosenthal and Robert Murray of The Athletic Tuesday night that the Brewers were in talks with free agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Jon Heyman doubled down on that info and said the talks were "getting serious" Wednesday afternoon:
That would be an incredible addition to what was already the best bullpen in the NL a year ago. Pairing Kimbrel with Josh Hader and Corey Knebel puts three of the best relievers in the game at the back end of the Milwaukee relief corps. That unit would only get better once veteran Jeremy Jeffress returns after his bout with shoulder discomfort that's limited him this spring.
The Brewers adding Kimbrel would also be a huge slap in the face to the Cubs, who have a clear need for elite bullpen arms yet maintain they don't have "any more money" to spend on the roster.
Beyond that, the Brew Crew made some shrewd moves this winter in bringing back Moustakas and also adding Grandal on one-year deals.
Grandal is one of the best defensive catchers in the game and shores up a potential hole on the Milwaukee roster. Last season, the Brewers finished 13th in MLB in catcher WAR, but much of that was based on defensive value. The collection of catchers — Manny Pina, Erik Kratz and Jett Bandy — ranked 21st in OPS (.657) from the position. Grandal has a career .782 OPS and has hit at least 22 homers every year since 2015.
Moustakas wasn't necessarily a game-changer for the Brewers last year when he came over in a midseason trade (.767 OPS), but he gives the lineup more length and has clubbed 66 homers with 180 RBI the last two seasons combined.
There are certainly question marks about this group of position players.
Aguilar was fantastic last year while clubbing 35 homers with 108 RBI, but he had just 16 homers in his MLB career prior to 2018 and he was a completely different hitter in the second half. Before the All-Star Break (and his appearance in the Home Run Derby), the big slugger hit 24 homers, knocked in 70 runs and posted a .995 OPS. After the break, he hit just 11 homers with 38 RBI while sporting a .760 OPS and watched as his slugging percentage fell nearly 200 points. Was that a sign the league figured him out? Was the first half simply a hot stretch and the real Aguilar is a late bloomer who is a servicable slugger, but not necessarily a 35 homer/100 RBI threat each year?
Shaw crushes righties but can't hit lefties. Braun is 35 now and coming off arguably the worst season of his career. Cain had a fantastic first season in Milwaukee, but he's 33 now it's certainly possible his best seasons are behind him. Yelich is a legit star, but will he put up a .598 slugging percentage and 1.000 OPS again this year?
And what will Arcia's production look like? Already a defensive whiz at shortstop, the 24-year-old hit .310 with a .733 OPS the final six weeks of 2018, including going 4-for-4 against the Cubs in that Game 163.
All that being said, the Brewers should have no trouble putting up runs this year and have some remarkable depth with Eric Thames, Hernan Perez and Ben Gamel on the bench, plus guys like Spangenberg in the minors and top prospect Keston Hiura potentially right around the corner.
Milwaukee is also one of the best teams in baseball in terms of executing the shift and preventing runs, especially with elite defender Cain patrolling the outfield. That run prevention will help a rotation that again has concerns.
Chacin-Anderson-Davies isn't exactly a three-headed monster, but they've all had good seasons in the past (including Chacin last year when he certainly had the Cubs' number).
Then there's Nelson, who could play a huge role this year as well as young arms Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff — all guys who can pitch at the back end of the rotation or move to the bullpen and help bridge the gap ahead of Hader and Knebel (and maybe Kimbrel??).
The reason I have the Brewers in the middle of the pack in the division is the Chuck Tanner Rule, as David Kaplan has discussed several times on the CubsTalk Podcast. So many guys on the Brewers roster had career seasons and baseball typically normalizes over a larger sample with regression to the mean. Some of those breakouts are legit (Yelich, particularly), but to what extent?
Meanwhile, the Cardinals improved their roster this winter the Cubs are banking on positive regression for their group. Make no mistake: Even with a slight regression across the board, the Brewers are still plenty good enough to contend for the NL Central crown and potentially even the NL pennant.
Adding Kimbrel to the Brewers bullpen might push them over both the Cardinals and Cubs in my personal projections. But really, you could create any combination of how these three teams finish in the division and it'd be an easy sell.
For now, let's go with the Brewers in 3rd place, close behind the Cubs and Cardinals in the division and just out of the final Wild-Card spot.
Prediction: 3rd in NL Central, just outside the Wild-Card race
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