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

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AP

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

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:

Milwaukee Brewers

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.

Projected lineup

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

Projected rotation

1. Jhoulys Chacin
2. Chase Anderson
3. Zach Davies
4. Corbin Burnes
5. Freddy Peralta

Outlook

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

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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Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel is one step closer to joining the Cubs bullpen.

According to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, Kimbrel will join Triple-A Iowa and make his first appearance on Tuesday, against the Sacramento River Cats.

While the Cubs officially signed him on June 7, Kimbrel has yet to pitch in actual games. The 31-year-old has been in a condensed spring training program at the Cubs' Arizona complex, throwing live batting practice on both Thursday and Saturday.

The Cubs haven't revealed an official timeline for Kimbrel to join the 25-man roster, as they are basing things off of how he feels. The expectation is he will pitch in about five games with Iowa before joining the Cubs. However, both Theo Epstein and Kimbrel acknowledged how the goal isn't to rush the closer back into MLB action.

"We're not gonna rush it," Epstein said. "It's gonna be tempting to get him here as soon as possible, but we're trying to plan this thing the right way so that he could be in a position to succeed not just immediately but in October. That's gonna be our guiding principle as we go."

"We sat down and put a gameplan together — something to work off of," Kimbrel said. "But at the end of the day, it's based off how I recover, how I get ready. This isn't about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came here to do for this team."

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Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

There were some added stakes to Saturday night’s Cubs-Dodgers matchup. Darvish made his first start at Dodger Stadium since his infamous Game 7 loss in the 2017 World Series, looking for a great effort in front of a fan base that had their up-and-downs in terms of their relationship with him. He (maybe) took a small jab at the Dodgers before the game had even started, telling the Los Angeles Times that he wasn't worried about being booed because “the Dodgers don't have many fans here in the first three innings, so maybe it will be on the quieter side.”

Well Dodgers faithful certainly got the message and made sure to let Darvish hear it.

However, Darvish got the last laugh on Saturday night. He pitched a stellar seven innings. Over those seven innings, Darvish gave up 1 ER on 2 hits and also notched 10 strikeouts.

Darvish has been hitting his stride as of late, maintaining a 2.96 ERA over his last four starts.

All of that being said, it would be remiss of me not to mention the contributions of Darvish’s teammates. His great outing helped keep the Cubs in the game, but the gutsy performances of Anthony Rizzo and Pedro Strop are what won the contest.

Dodgers All-Star relief pitcher Kenley Jansen had a 10-game scoreless streak coming into Saturday night, but one swing of Rizzo’s bat was all that was needed to restore balance to the everlasting battle of pitcher versus hitter. After Jansen hit Kris Bryant with a pitch to put him on base, Rizzo activated “clutch mode”, mashing a 400-foot bomb out to right field.

Though small, Saturday night’s homer gives Rizzo a three-game hitting streak, perhaps forecasting that things are trending  upwards for the first baseman as the Cubs look to close out the series against the Dodgers with a win on Sunday night. And not to be left out of the fun, Pedro Strop came in to face the Justin Turner, MVP hopeful Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Matt Beaty to nail down the save.

Never afraid of high-pressure moments, Stop came through big time.

Strop got a ground out from Turner, struck out Bellinger and Beaty in his 15-pitch save effort. This was a much-needed win for the Cubs, who have well-documented struggles on the road. As they look to split the four-game set with the Dodgers on Sunday night, the Cubs can be pleased with their fight this week.

Saturday’s win over the Dodgers was the Cubs first win of the season after trailing through six innings, as they were 0-23 in such situations prior to the victory. Amid a season that has been fraught with injury and general roster construction concerns, it was wonderful to see the Cubs pull out a tough win lead by the much-maligned Darvish and the never-quit attitude of his teammates.