Cubs

What Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff's oblique strain means for Cubs, NL Central

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USA TODAY

What Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff's oblique strain means for Cubs, NL Central

The Brewers’ pursuit of second-straight NL Central championship suffered a devastating blow on Monday, as staff ace Brandon Woodruff landed on the injured list with a left oblique strain.

Woodruff, who exited Sunday’s game against the Diamondbacks in the fourth inning, is expected to be out for about six weeks. The 26-year-old is enjoying a breakout 2019 season in which he was named an All-Star for the first time. He ranks first among Brewers starting pitchers in wins (11), strikeouts (136) and innings (117 2/3) while ranking second in ERA (3.75) among pitchers with at least 10 starts.

The timing of Woodruff’s injury is unfortunate for the Brewers, who enter Monday two games behind the Cubs for first place in the NL Central at 53-48. Most teams aren’t equipped to lose their best starting pitcher for an extended period, especially in the thick of a pennant race. This is especially true for the Brewers, whose starting pitching has struggled in 2019.

Entering Monday, the Brewers starting pitchers rank 18th in MLB with a 4.73 ERA. This is a far cry from last season, when they ranked 11th with a 3.92 ERA. So, while Woodruff’s injury complicates matters, the Brewers already had a need for starting pitching.

The Brewers have a tough decision to make. They could swing a trade (or two) to give their rotation a much-needed boost. Potentially available pitchers include Madison Bumgarner of the Giants, Mike Minor of the Rangers, Matthew Boyd of the Tigers, Zack Greinke of the Diamondbacks and Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays, among others.

Acquiring a single pitcher isn’t going to solve the team’s woes, however, which Matt Clapp from The Comeback pointed out.

As Clapp said, any trade will likely require some form of prospect capital, and teams would be unwise not to ask the Brewers for rookie phenom Keston Hiura in negotiations. Hiura, 22, is hitting .331/.387/.613 with nine home runs in 37 games, though, so it’s tough to imagine the Brewers parting with him in any deal.

Thus, the Brewers either must create an enticing enough package without Hiura or stand pat. If they were to do the latter, they risk losing ground in the NL Central standings to the Cubs and Cardinals amid a tough stretch in their schedule.

From July 15-Aug. 4, the Brewers will play 16 games out of 19 against teams with .500 or better records. Although they’re currently 5-2 in that stretch, Milwaukee went 9-17 from June 14-July 14, a stretch of 26-straight games against teams with losing records. Woodruff’s injury, therefore, comes at a point in the Brewers’ schedule where it’s make or break time.

The Cubs have come out of the All-Star break hot, going 7-2 to give themselves the slightest amount of breathing room in the NL Central standings. With how the Cubs are playing, the division could become out of reach for the Brewers if they can’t stay afloat during their current stretch – let alone until Woodruff returns. Not to mention the Cardinals, who are 7-3 since the break and sit just a half game behind the Brewers in the division standings.

Of course, the Brewers were five games back of the Cubs in the NL Central entering September last season, only to win the division in Game 163. Their current position is certainly not ideal, but the Cubs and Cardinals aren't out of the woods yet. There has been a great sense of urgency within the NL Central all season due to the compact standings. For the Brewers, that urgency certainly is higher than ever now.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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