Cubs

Ben Zobrist has reemerged as one of the Cubs' most important players

Ben Zobrist has reemerged as one of the Cubs' most important players

What a difference two weeks makes.

Ben Zobrist won't ever tell anybody that he was relieved the Cubs were bounced from the postseason on Oct. 19 last fall without another trip to the World Series. But those extra two weeks off and not grinding out at-bats against the best pitchers in the world have done wonders for the veteran utility man after back-to-back World Series runs.

"Last year, just a lot of little bumps and bruises," Joe Maddon said. "Two World Series in a row — there's some long seasons involved. I don't think his body responded as well.

"He spent a lot of time this offseason specifically trying to be ready for this season. I tell you what, he's looked great. ... He did something about it this offseason."

Many people were quick to write off Zobrist after a down 2017 campaign, assuming the former World Series MVP would just fade into the background in 2018.

Zobrist turns 37 next week, but the only way you'd know that is the fact he is constantly given days off to rest his aging body by Maddon.

Don't let the part-time role or the recent CleatGate ordeal distract you from the fact Zobrist has been very, very important to the Cubs' success over the first quarter of the season.

When he's been on the field, it's been shades of 2016 Zobrist, when he emerged as arguably the most important cog in the Cubs lineup. Everybody expects Bryzzo Souvenir Co. to put up gaudy numbers each summer but in that magical 2016 season, Zobrist spent a lot of the year in the cleanup spot, providing protection to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

This year, Zobrist has been asked to do something totally different — set the table for the big boppers.

And with the ascension of Javy Baez at second base, Zobrist has also been asked to play more and more in the outfield — 13 starts in right or left field compared to only 5 starts at second base. In 2016-17, Zobrist made 178 starts at second vs. 69 starts on the outfield grass.

After an injury-plagued 2017 campaign in which he hit .232 with a .318 on-base percentage and .693 OPS, Zobrist decided not to take any swings for a while over the winter to let his ailing wrist heal, but he had no intentions of sitting around, taking his usual four weeks off from working out.

"As time has gone on, taking time off is not necessarily good," Zobrist said. "When you get your body going and you're in good shape, you try to stay in shape. Maybe you lose it a little quicker as you get a little bit older and you're playing the game.

"Time off would be like staying away from working out for a month to let your body heal, which is what I did for most of my career. Three or four weeks of just activity I would do as a normal person, like I might play with my kids, I might shoot hoops or sometehing like that. But I'm not doing any sort of work out to try to be in shape.

"This year, it was like, OK, even though mentally I don't want to start yet, physically I need to stay in it 'cause I don't wanna lose that shape I was in at the end of the season."

Zobrist didn't even start swinging a bat until mid-December to let his wrist heal fully and focused instead on "building a foundation" for his body.

All that work he spent in the offseason sure seems to be paying off.

He's hitting .290 with a .365 on-base percentage on the season and has 2 of the 4 Cubs game-winning hits on the season — in Miami in the first week and then again Tuesday night in Atlanta.

As Maddon works to navigate the lineup on a daily basis, Zobrist has become the clear favorite to lead off against right-handed pitchers in most games.

But he's also hit second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh while filling in at first base when Rizzo was injured and also serving as a defensive replacement for Kyle Schwarber in left field often.

Even still, Zobrist is only on pace for 116 games played and 386 at-bats as Maddon tries to keep him frisky. Since becoming a full-time player in 2009, Zobrist has never played in fewer than 126 games in a season and has racked up at least 435 at-bats every year.

After games in which he does start, you can find Zobrist sitting with Cubs advanced scouting hitting coordinator Nate Halm, going over video and talking passionately about Zobrist's swing and how his physical movements match up with his thoughts and approach.

"That's where I'm trying to be more detailed ahead of the game and after the game with, 'OK, well, what was I thinking? What did I do and what about it did I like? What did I not like?" Zobrist said. "Bouncing stuff off him so he can hear those thoughts coming out."

It's just more proof that Zobrist is one of the best offensive minds in the Cubs clubhouse, always thinking along with the game.

Even if the Cubs are worried about his body holding up over the course of the long season, Zobrist's mind doesn't appear to be fading any time soon.

And when the game is on the line in a crucial moment, who else would Cubs fans rather have up at the plate right now?

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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19 for '19: What type of season can we expect from Javy Baez

19 for '19: What type of season can we expect from Javy Baez

2018 was a year of career-bests for Javy Baez. 

He logged the most plate appearances (645), hit the most home runs (34) and had the most RBIs (111) of his short career. Baez's 2018 WAR (5.3) marked the first time he was worth more than 2.5 wins. He finished 2nd in MVP voting, though the gap between him and winner Christian Yellich was pretty substantial. His slashline improved across the board, and he was - by wRC+ - an above-average hitter for the first time ever. 

The skeptic among us would look at those numbers and notice that they're all notably above his career norms. Still, there's reason to believe that Baez, who's 26 and headed into his 4th full season with the Cubs, is simply hitting his prime. 

When taking a look at season-by-season trends, there are a few metrics that help best provide a predictive picture. One of the first places worth going to is a player's batting average on balls in play (BABIP). No one stat tells the whole story, but BABIP goes a long way in showing us just how lucky or unlucky a player was last year. Here are Baez's BABIP's since he was on the major league roster for a full season: 

2016 (450 PAs) - .336
2017 (508 PAs) - .345
2018 (645 PAs) - .347

Were last year's numbers a fluke, it's likely that Baez's 2018 BABIP would have been much higher. Someone with a profile like Baez (doesn't walk, slightly above league-average K-rate) is always going to have a high BABIP, just because of the sheer volume of balls he puts in play. The fact that Baez wasn't unusually-fortunate at getting on base points toward the theory that he may have taken the infamous Next Step. 

Baez's contact numbers also provide optimism. He's a free-swinger, yeah, but the contact he did make last year was excellent. His flyball percentage dropped four percentage points, his groundball percentage dropped three percentage points, and his linedrive percentage rose -- you guessed it -- seven percentage points. What's more, Baez had an exit velocity (89.5 mph) above the league average (87.4) for the first time in his career. He barreled up 12.6 percent of balls he hit, a number that puts him in the top-10 percent of all hitters. He was raking.  

People have been waiting for Baez's power to fully form since he was called up, and 2018 looked like the final product. 34 homers, a .264 ISO, and a .554 SLG is impressive. Doing that all while getting closer to a league-average strikeout rate is REALLY impressive. Baez has talked with reporters this spring about trying to see the ball better this year, and improve his plate discipline, though it'll be interesting to see if the Cubs are on the same page about that; I'd be surprised if they're totally down with sacrificing some of that power for a marginally better walk or strikeout rate. 

Injury notwithstanding, it's hard to see how Baez isn't close to MVP form again this year. Outside of walks, which have never been a part of his game, Baez's year-over-year results paint a clear picture of someone who's gotten significantly better each season. He'll play flashy, terrific defense alongside his flashy, terrific baserunning, too. Maybe he doesn't post a 131 wRC+ this year, but with the addition of a healthy Kris Bryant back in the lineup, he doesn't even necessarily need to. Baez is the heart of this Cubs' team, and arguably their best player now; when it's all said and done, don't be surprised when he finishes Top-5 in MVP voting.

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