Cubs

Cubs opposition research: Previewing the 2018 San Diego Padres

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USA TODAY

Cubs opposition research: Previewing the 2018 San Diego Padres

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

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:

San Diego Padres

2017 record: 71-91, fourth place in NL West

Offseason additions: Eric Hosmer, Chase Headley, Freddy Galvis, A.J. Ellis, Tyson Ross, Bryan Mitchell, Kazuhisa Makita

Offseason departures: Erick Aybar, Yangervis Solarte, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Jhoulys Chacin

X-factor: Hunter Renfroe

Renfroe has been heralded as one of the top prospects in the game in recent years and while he hit 26 homers in only 445 at-bats in 2017, it was some pretty empty power. He posted just a .284 on-base percentage and struck out 140 times compared to only 27 walks. 

With seemingly everybody hitting 20 homers nowadays, the Padres will need more out of Renfroe if they have even a prayer of contending in 2018. 

But with Hosmer now in place at first base, it moves Wil Myers back into right field, leaving Renfroe without a position for the time being. He'll have to force his way into the lineup and back into the future of this rebuilding team.

Projected lineup

1. Manuel Margot - CF
2. Carlos Asuaje - 2B
3. Wil Myers - RF
4. Eric Hosmer - 1B
5. Chase Headley - 3B
6. Jose Pirela - LF
7. Freddy Galvis - SS
8. Austin Hedges - C

Projected rotation

1. Clayton Richard
2. Tyson Ross
3. Bryan Mitchell
4. Dinelson Lamet
5. Luis Perdomo

Outlook

Look, when 34-year-old Clayton Richard is your ace and your projected No. 2 starter is a guy in spring training as a non-roster invitee, you don't have much hope of contending.

Richard joins Matt Szczur and Christian Villanueva as former Cubs projected to make the Padres' Opening Day roster, but the Friars are still probably a couple years away from challenging the Cubs in the National League.

Don't get me wrong: The Padres have some nice pieces. Myers is only 27, Hosmer brings instant credibility as a very good (but not superstar) player, the 23-year-old Margot is one of the most exciting young outfielders in the game and Hedges is an intriguing catcher with pop and solid skills behind the plate. Lamet and Perdomo could wind up as being staples in the San Diego rotation for the next half-decade or more.

But there's just not enough pitching depth or high-end talent to really classify the Padres as a serious contender in 2018. 

Prediction: Fifth place in NL West, no playoffs

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves
New York Mets

 

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

They began play Sunday night with a chance to sweep their division rivals in St. Louis and sitting in first place in the National League Central, percentage points up on the Milwaukee Brewers. A +100 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157) and Boston Red Sox (+102) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-12 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.

Cubs optimistic Javy Baez avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

Cubs optimistic Javy Baez avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

ST. LOUIS — Cubs nation can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

The team announced Javy Baez has a left elbow contusion after taking a 90 mph fastball off it in the third inning of Sunday night's game. Baez will still undergo X-rays to be sure there is nothing more sinister at play, but for now, it looks as if he has avoided serious injury.

Still, this is not what the Cubs wanted to see.

The Cubs entered play Sunday night having gone 24-12 since getting swept out of St. Louis in the first weekend of May. They were feeling good about themselves, starting to get their mojo back and playing more like the team everybody expected.

And then Baez took a fastball off the left elbow.

After a couple minute delay, Baez was led off the field and Addison Russell came in off the bench to replace him at first base.

The 25-year-old was in the midst of a breakout season for the Cubs, sitting 5th in the National League with 46 RBI and on pace for a near 30-30 seaosn (33 homers, 29 stolen bases). 

He had slowed a bit (.175 average, .502 OPS in June) but still gives the Cubs so much energy and versatility on a daily basis with his ability to move around the infield and lineup.

If the Cubs are going to be without Baez for any length of time, it could be a huge blow to a team that was just hitting its stride.