Cubs

Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Brewers are out to prove 2017 was no fluke

brewers_scouting_report_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Brewers are out to prove 2017 was no fluke

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:

Milwaukee Brewers

2017 record: 86-76, 2nd in NL Central

Offseason additions: Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Jhoulys Chacin, Matt Albers, J.J. Hoover, Boone Logan, Christian Bethancourt

Offseason departures: Neil Walker, Lewis Brinson, Matt Garza, Anthony Swarzak

X-factor: Ryan Braun

Cubs fans might not realize this given the way Braun mashes against Chicago pitching, but he has not often shown the stud that he used to be against other teams. Though, the main reason for that is injury.

Braun has averaged just 115 games the last five seasons and has not topped 140 in that span. He played in just 104 games last year and when he was on the field, posted his worst value as a hitter in his 11-year big-league career. He had a 111 OPS+ (relative to the rest of the league) in 2017, meaning he was only 11 percent better than the league average hitter. His previous worst career season was a 113 OPS+ in 2014.

Oh yeah, and Braun is 34 now, so don't expect him to suddenly turn into a fixture of health in his mid-30s.

But if Braun can keep the injuries mostly at bay — especially when the Brewers play the Cubs — it would be good news for a lineup that figures to have to score a bunch of runs to win games with a pitching staff that took some steps back this winter.

It will also be key to see how Braun and Domingo Santana get into the lineup on a regular basis together with Yelich and Cain slotted in for everyday roles in the outfield. Though, a move to first may help cut down on Braun's injuries, but would it be the best thing for the team to keep trotting Braun out there and sitting the 25-year-old Santana or the resurgent Eric Thames?

Projected lineup

1. Christian Yelich - LF
2. Lorenzo Cain - CF
3. Travis Shaw - 3B
4. Ryan Braun - 1B
5. Domingo Santana - RF
6. Manny Pina - C
7. Orlando Arcia - SS
8. Jonathan Villar - 2B

Projected rotation

1. Chase Anderson
2. Zach Davies
3. Brent Suter
4. Jhoulys Chacin
5. ??

Outlook

That starting rotation is suspect, regardless of who they get to fill that final spot. Jimmy Nelson was emerging as the ace of the stuff, but is out due to a shoulder injury and may not be back until June. 

Veteran journeyman Wade Miley looked like a lock for that final spot before he, too, went down with an injury. Junior Guerra could've been in the rotation, but he has been sent down to Triple-A already.

Regardless of what the Brewers do in the rotation, it will be a weakness for the team, even if Nelson comes back at 100 percent health and pitches effectively from the second he gets the ball.

The lineup and the bullpen are the strengths of this team. This was already one of the best offenses in baseball before they added two exceptional top-of-the-order tablesetters in Yelich and Cain.

Corey Knebel and Josh Hader represent two of the best strikeout pitchers in the game at the back end of the 'pen while Jacob Barnes and Jeremy Jeffress are solid and Matt Albers was a decent pickup.

The Brewers are excited about the potential of Hader, Suter and Brandon Woodruff taking on larger roles on the pitching staff, but that's still not enough.

However, the Brewers have plenty to choose from if they wanted to make a deal for the top arms on the market like Chris Archer. Milwaukee could always trade Santana or else they could build a package around young outfielder Brett Phillips or Keon Broxton, a player who's already proven he can be a solid contributor at the big-league level.

All told, this Brewers team got a taste of what contention was like last season and they're hungry for more. Expect them to be on the Cubs' heels all season and probably for the next few years.

Prediction: 2nd in NL Central, wild-card team

ESPN to broadcast two of Cubs' first four games in 2020

ross_1.jpg
AP

ESPN to broadcast two of Cubs' first four games in 2020

It won't be long before baseball fans get their first look at the Cubs under new manager David Ross.

ESPN announced Thursday they will broadcast two of the Cubs' first four games in 2020: March 29 against the Brewers in Milwaukee (Sunday Night Baseball) and March 30 against the Pirates (3 p.m. first pitch). The latter game is the Cubs' 2020 home opener.

Ross worked as a color analyst for ESPN from 2017-19 before the Cubs hired him as manager in October. So, not only will his club be in the national spotlight early in the season, but his former co-workers will be the ones analyzing him as his managerial career kicks off.

The Cubs open the season on March 26 against the Brewers.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal

willson_contreras_usa_today.png
USA TODAY

Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal

This is the best thing the White Sox have done for the Cubs in years.

The White Sox made a big splash in free agency Thursday, signing catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million contract. Grandal joins the South Siders from the Brewers, where he played an integral role in Milwaukee making a second-straight postseason appearance in 2019.

Grandal led qualified catchers in on-base percentage (.380) last season, also posting career highs in home runs (28) and RBIs (77). He’s also an excellent pitch framer, tying for fourth in RszC (runs saved by catcher framing) among all catchers with 9.

Milwaukee’s payroll reached a franchise-high $122.5 million in 2019 and their farm system (No. 29 in MLB, per Baseball America) is lacking. How they replace Grandal’s production is a major question mark, which in turn is a win for the Cubs this offseason.

But besides plucking him from the NL Central, the White Sox signing Grandal early in the offseason helps the Cubs, who have important decisions of their own to make.

Although Cubs president Theo Epstein said to take any trade rumors with a “mouthful of salt,” multiple teams believe catcher Willson Contreras is available for trade. The Cubs need to retool their roster and replenish a farm system that has been depleted in recent seasons from numerous “win now” trades.

The Cubs and White Sox made the notorious José Quintana trade in July 2017, but it’s unlikely the two would have matched up for a Contreras trade. The Cubs need young assets; trading away young assets is the last thing the White Sox want to do as their championship window opens.

So, Grandal landed with a team that was unlikely to be involved in any potential Contreras trade talks. Grandal was the best free agent catcher; Contreras is the best catcher that can be had in a trade.

Other teams interested in Grandal — such as the Reds — can no longer turn to him in free agency. The Rays have made addressing the catcher spot this winter a priority, but they have one of MLB’s lowest payrolls each season. Signing Grandal wasn’t going to happen, but Tampa Bay has the farm system (No. 2 in baseball, per MLB.com) to make a big trade.

Contreras is the best catcher available — for the right price, obviously — so the ball is in the Cubs' court. They don’t get better by dealing their two-time All-Star backstop, but Contreras’ trade value is high. With Grandal off the market, it just got even higher.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.