2019 is the Year of Reckoning for the Cubs.
There's a lot on the line as we head into Joe Maddon's final year under contract, now two full seasons removed from the 2016 World Series championship.
Will the Cubs once again be in first place on the last day of the season...and avoid losing that spot in a Game 163? Will they get back to The Promised Land and bring another trophy back to the North Side?
We don't know any of that, but here are 7 things we do know (kind of):
1. At least 4 Cubs players will receive votes for the 2019 NL MVP.
The Cubs haven't had four players show up on NL MVP ballots since 2016, when Kris Bryant won the award and Anthony Rizzo finished 4th (Addison Russell was 19th and Kyle Hendricks 23rd). Hell, they haven't even had THREE guys on the list since then, despite winning 95 and 92 games the last two seasons.
So why the confidence this year?
Well, Bryant has received MVP votes every year he's been healthy and Rizzo's been on the list five years running. So those two are pretty easy calls.
Unless Javy Baez is hit with some pretty serious regression or suffers an extended injury, he should garner some votes, too.
Beyond that, there's a number of scenarios that could play out to get another Cub on the list.
Maybe Willson Contreras has a big rebound year. He looked like a potential candidate in 2017 before he injured his hamstring in August and missed a month.
Maybe Kyle Schwarber puts it all together this year. Maybe it's a pitcher like Yu Darvish with a huge campaign that draws a vote or two.
It seems crazy now, but prior to 2016, did anybody actually expect either Russell or Hendricks to wind up on the list?
Looking bigger picture here — the Cubs got four players on the list in 2016 because they won 103 games and looked like the class of the NL. If they have four players getting MVP votes in 2019, that would be a very, very good thing for the overall state of the season.
Luke Stuckmeyer and David Kaplan provided their own bold predictions for the season on the latest CubsTalk Podcast:
2. Kris Bryant will spend more time in the leadoff spot this year than Anthony Rizzo.
Rizzo has made 45 starts in the leadoff spot in his career vs. only 7 for Bryant. And Rizzo is the self-proclaimed Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time.
We've already outlined the reasons why Bryant might be the better fit atop the Cubs order than anybody else this season.
It seems like the Cubs will like rolling out an order of:
1. Ben Zobrist/Albert Almora Jr.
2. Kris Bryant
3. Anthony Rizzo
4. Javy Baez
Zobrist expects to get most of the starts at leadoff against right-handed pitchers. If he goes down to injury, I could see a very real possibility Maddon decides to just move his top three hitters up to the top three spots in the lineup.
Or hey, maybe neither Bryant nor Rizzo spend any time in the leadoff spot this season and this all becomes a moot point.
3. Carl Edwards Jr. will lead the Cubs in saves in 2019.
We know Brandon Morrow is "the guy" whenever he's healthy, but we don't know how much he'll actually be healthy in 2019. As of right now, he projects to return sometime around early May, but when he does get back, there's no way the Cubs will want to roll him out in back-to-back-to-back days. They may not even want to throw him back-to-back days for several months. They're going to want to maximize his innings and do everything they can to ensure he's healthy in September and October (if they get there).
Pedro Strop looks like the closer to begin the year and he did a phenomenal job in the role last year in Morrow's stead. But what if injuries strike? He's had two hamstring issues in the last 6-7 months and he turns 34 in June.
Edwards might be the most important reliever on the Cubs roster and they maintain he has all the makings of a "future closer." Maybe that future is this season and they need him to step up in the ninth inning.
4. Nico Hoerner will be up in Chicago before August.
Following in the path of guys like Bryant, Schwarber and Ian Happ before him, Nico Hoerner will shoot up the ranks in the Cubs system and hit Chicago earlier than initially anticipated.
Hoerner has done nothing but impress since the Cubs made him the 24th overall selection in the MLB Draft last June. He raked in 14 games at three minor-league levels, then was injured and lost several months to an elbow injury.
The Cubs challenged him by sending him to the elite Arizona Fall League and all he did there was hit .337 with an .867 OPS. And whenever he's gotten an opportunity this spring, he's continued to mash (.533 AVG, 1.811 OPS).
Put that all together, and the 21-year-old has hit .353/.419/.595 in 172 plate appearances in professional baseball. That's...really good.
Who knows what to expect of Addison Russell if he even returns to the active roster. Forget off-field drama, he's struggled to produce on-field for two years.
It's a very real possibility the Cubs may want — or need — some middle infield depth well before rosters expand in September and right now, David Bote is the only shortstop depth after Baez. If Hoerner keeps hitting, he can force the Cubs' hand and debut at Wrigley this summer.
5. Kyle Hendricks will lead the National League in wins.
Wins aren't an end-all, be-all stat, but it can still shine some light on how valuable a pitcher is.
When he's on, Hendricks has plenty of leash from Joe Maddon to go deep into games. Between that and a very good defense behind him, he's often in a good position to get wins late in games. He has a career 3.07 ERA and is the best bet in the Cubs rotation to stay healthy all year.
With a little more luck and a little more offense behind him, maybe Hendricks can finish among the NL leaders in Ws this season.
6. The Cubs will hit 230 homers as a team in 2019.
The franchise record in team homers for the season is 235, set in 2004. As ridiculous as it might sound, I think the 2019 team can approach that.
The 2017 Cubs set a franchise record with six players hitting at least 20 homers — Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Schwarber, Contreras and Ian Happ. They hit 223 as a team that year to finish 9th in baseball.
Last year, only three players hit 20 bombs (Baez, Schwarber, Rizzo) and the Cubs finished 22nd in MLB with only 167 longballs.
Between the return to health from Bryant and potential bouncebacks from Contreras and Happ (once he returns to the big leagues), the Cubs shouldn't have much trouble topping their total from a year ago.
Even Rizzo and Schwarber saw modest dips in the power department last year, hitting only 26 and 25 homers, respectively, after combining for 62 longballs in 2017.
This is probably the least likely situation to happen on this list, as so many things would have to go right — particularly in terms of health.
But it's more of a bigger projection — I'm all-in on the Cubs offense this season. Call it rose-colored glasses, but I could see a very real scenario in which Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Schwarber all top 30 dingers with Contreras and Happ both eclipsing 20 homers once again.
Happ hit 24 homers as a rookie in 2017 and he didn't debut until mid-May. He's definitely capable of reaching the 20-homer mark once again even though he won't start the season in the big leagues.
7. Albert Almora Jr. will make his first All-Star appearance.
Remember, to be an All-Star in baseball, you really only need a good half-season. Don't forget about Bryan LaHair's All-Star nod in 2012 and he hasn't played in the big leagues since then.
Almora has certainly shown a potential to put together a hot stretch for a couple months in a row. He hit .319 with a .795 OPS in the first half last year and there was actually some talk hovering around him about whether or not a trip to the Midsummer Classic was in his near future.
If he does it again in the first half this season, maybe he gets some national love. We know the defense will be there and he sure seems to have an opportunity to play nearly every day now that Happ is in the minors.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.