Cubs

Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

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AP

Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

As the Cubs welcome the Milwaukee Brewers to Wrigley Field Friday for the first time since the National League Wild Card game last October, let's take a look at the division rival.

The Cubs have already played the Brewers this season up in Milwaukee, but quite a bit has changed since then — for example, the Cubs have been on a roll, going 8-0-1 in series since.

These aren't your 2018 Brewers. They're still good — 23-16 and in second place, 1 game behind the Cubs. But this is not the team Cubs fans remember in many regards.

The Brewers are 7 games above .500 and are riding a 6-game winning streak into Chicago, but they have just a +2 run differential — a far cry from the Cubs' +57 run  differential, which leads the National League.

1. Christian Yelich is as good as ever.

These might not be the same Brewers, but some things never change. 

The reigning NL MVP is slashing .356/.462/.797 (1.258 OPS) with 16 homers and 37 RBI. He's on pace for 66 homers, 154 RBI and 129 runs despite the face he's on track for only 490 at-bats (he missed time earlier this season with a back issue). Half his homers (8) have come against the Cardinals, so the Cubs can't complain too much about that.

But the good news for the Cubs is Yelich has been insanely successful at home and not so good on the road. He's posted a 1.665 OPS and hit 15 of his homers at Miller Park and on the road, he's just been a pedestrian hitter — .766 OPS, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 14 K in 54 at-bats.

The Cubs were actually really good at minimizing Yelich's damage last year, as they did not give up a homer to the star outfielder and permitted only a .213/.279/.246 slash line (.525 OPS). 

But he's already hit a homer and driven in 5 runs in 3 games against the Cubs this season, so how do they plan on stopping him this time around?

"It's one thing to plot and plan, it's the next thing to execute," Joe Maddon said Thursday. "You could go out there with the greatest intentions and if you can't really throw the ball where you want to, then that becomes moot. I think to this point, we've had a decent plan. He still looked good the first time we saw him. 

"You gotta come up with the right plan, yes, but then you gotta execute the plan. I sit right next to [Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello] the whole time and [pitching coach Tommy Hottovy] and we're constantly talking about the next pitch, next pitch — 'how does this sound right here?' ... But guys like him, man, they're an enigma. They're so good."

2. However, the rest of the Milwaukee offense is not...

Besides Yelich, the Brewers have only 2 players with an OPS north of .800 — Mike Moustakas (.901) and Eric Thames (.840).

Lorenzo Cain is slashing only .250/.310/.395 the year after playing like an MVP candidate (though he's still a fantastic defender). 

Jesus Aguilar was in the Home Run Derby a year ago and finished the season with 35 homers, 108 RBI and an .891 OPS. But he did not end 2018 strong (.245 AVG, .760 OPS, 11 HR, 38 RBI) and he is off to a woeful start to 2019 (.181 AVG, .591 OPS, 3 HR, 14 RBI). 

Travis Shaw has hit 30 homers each of the last two seasons, but is batting just .172 with a .561 OPS and 4 dingers to begin 2019.

But with the way the Brewers have played the Cubs the last few months of regular season action, how much comfort is it really that a few key Milwaukee guys are off to a poor start?

3. This is not the same pitching staff from a year ago. 

The Brewers rank 21st overall in Major League Baseball with a 4.58 ERA and they're even worse as a starting staff (4.92 ERA, 23rd in league). 

Their plan to integrate their young right-handers (Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta) into the rotation has not gone well and the Brewers have had to sign Gio Gonzalez again to help eat innings. Even Jhoulys Chacin — who victimized the Cubs often in 2018 — has a 5.03 ERA to begin the year.

But Milwaukee has never invested much into its rotation and got one win away from the World Series last fall on their dominant bullpen. However, that's also been an issue in 2019. 

Josh Hader has given up 4 homers, but otherwise has still been ridiculous, with 10 saves, a 2.95 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. Over his last 9.1 innings, he's struck out 26 batters.

Beyond him, however, the Brewers have a 4.18 bullpen ERA and are without their closer from a year ago (Corey Knebel — Tommy John surgery) while the other part of their three-headed monster (Jeremy Jeffress) is recovering from a shoulder injury and has lost 3 mph on his fastball.

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Cubs free agent focus: Dallas Keuchel

Cubs free agent focus: Dallas Keuchel

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

With Cole Hamels off to Atlanta, the Cubs officially have an opening in their 2020 starting rotation.

Hamels signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves on Wednesday, similar to the $17.8 million qualifying offer the Cubs elected not to tender him a month ago. That salary would’ve put the budget-conscious Cubs in a tight position, similar to when they picked up Hamels’ $20 million option for 2019 last offseason.

The Cubs could address their rotation vacancy with internal candidates Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood or Alec Mills. But if they look to the open market, Braves’ free agent sinkerballer Dallas Keuchel is an intriguing possibility.

Keuchel boasts an impressive résumé featuring two All-Star Game appearances, four Gold Gloves, a Cy Young and a championship — all coming from 2014-18 with the Astros. He’s reliable and durable, holding a 3.33 ERA, 3.58 FIP and 1.198 WHIP since 2014 while making at least 26 starts in four of those seasons. The lone exceptions are 2017 (23 starts) and 2019 (19).

Keuchel missed time in 2017 with a pinched neck nerve, the only time he’s hit the injured list as a big leaguer. He remained a free agent into June last season, like Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel. Both signed deals after the draft pick compensation attached to them — due to being tendered a qualifying offer last offseason — was lifted.

After his extended free agency last offseason, Keuchel is more likely to accept a multi-year deal this time around. He made $13 million with Atlanta in 2019, though the deal was prorated, so it was worth about $21 million for a full season.

$13 million annually seems reasonable for Keuchel’s next contract and it'd also be more affordable for the Cubs than what Hamels earned from Atlanta. Keuchel has been good since his 2015 Cy Young season (3.77 ERA, 102 starts), but he’s not an annual candidate to win the award like fellow free agents Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. He also isn’t a strikeout pitcher (career 7.2 K/9), something the Cubs lack among their starters outside of Yu Darvish.

Starting pitchers are always in demand on the open market. Good-not-great Zack Wheeler got five years and $118 million from the Phillies on Wednesday, so someone could be willing to pay Keuchel closer to $15-20 million a season. This would likely put him out of the Cubs’ price range, if they were interested in him.

As is the case with every free agent this winter, it’ll come down to whether or not the Cubs can afford Keuchel. But if they're able to add him, they'd be rounding out their rotation with a solid, experienced arm.

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Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves

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USA TODAY

Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves

It didn’t seem like Cole Hamels was likely to return to the Cubs considering they didn’t tender him a qualifying offer, but it is now reality that Hamels is leaving the North Side.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Hamels has agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves. The deal has since become official.


The qualifying offer he would have received from the Cubs would have been $17.8 million, just under what he ended up getting from the Braves.


This now leaves the Cubs with a question as to who will be the team’s fifth starter next season. Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and José Quintana are under contract and figure to lock in the top four rotation spots. Tyler Chatwood, Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills all figure to be candidates for that spot.

Hamels turns 36 two days after Christmas and an oblique injury limited him in the second half of last season. He had a 2.98 ERA before the All-Star break and a 5.79 ERA in 42 innings after it.

Hamels was a big part of the Cubs’ push in 2018 when he had a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts after arriving from Texas just before the trade deadline.

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