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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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According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

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USA Today

According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over and over again, it’s always been framed in relatively vague terms. Perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager who is still well-liked within the clubhouse, specifics were always avoided. It was just a change that was needed.

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

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” Baez 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.”

Related: What to love, and hate, about the Cubs heading into 2020

The star shortstop's comments certainly track. Maddon is 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 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 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 said. “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 promised that this year would be far more organized and rigid. They will stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that may have 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 saying 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 on recapturing some of that 2016 drive and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself.

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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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