Cubs

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

around_the_nl_nats_slide.jpg
AP

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

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:

Washington Nationals

2018 record: 82-80, 2nd in NL East

Offseason additions: Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Adams, Anibal Sanchez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Tony Sipp

Offseason departures: Bryce Harper, Tanner Roark, Matt Wieters, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Mark Reynolds, Joaquin Benoit, Tim Collins, Trevor Gott

X-factor: Victor Robles

The 21-year-old outfielder is a big part of the reason why the Nationals don't feel like the sky is falling without Harper. Robles enters 2019 as the No. 4 prospect in baseball by MLB.com and has been a consensus Top 10 prospect the last few winters.

He dealt with an elbow injury last year that limited him to just 73 games between the minors and majors, but he hit .288 with an .874 OPS in 66 plate appearances with Washington. He is a career .300 hitter in the minors and has an enticing blend of speed and contact and has shown flashes that he may add power as he grows and gets stronger.

If Robles becomes the player everybody thinks he can be, it will make the Nationals and their fans forget about Harper every now and then. He may never be as good as Harper (and certainly not this season), but Robles at least should make the Washington defense better with his excellent range in center.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - RF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Anthony Rendon - 3B
4. Juan Soto - LF
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Brian Dozier - 2B
7. Yan Gomes - C
8. Victor Robles - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Patrick Corbin
4. Anibal Sanchez
5. Jeremy Hellickson

Outlook

Sure, the Nationals failed in bringing back Harper this winter. And yes, it will be brutal for them (and their fans) to watch as they play against their former superstar slugger 19 times a season. 

But the Nationals might actually have a better overall roster to begin 2019 than they finished 2018 with.

Last year, Washington ranked 15th in baseball with a 4.05 bullpen ERA. The only playoff teams they finished ahead of were the Braves (4.15) and Indians (4.60). They also ranked 26th in bullpen WAR (0.4) by FanGraphs' calculation.

Their two main additions in that area — Rosenthal and Barraclough — have solid track records. Rosenthal was worth 1.6 WAR the last year he pitched (2017) and he only threw 47.2 innings that season. Barraclough was rough last year (-0.6 WAR), but posted 2.7 WAR in the previous two seasons combined in the Marlins bullpen.

There's obviously risk with both arms (Rosenthal is coming off Tommy John surgery), but there's also upside with a pair of 28-year-olds who have absolutely nasty stuff. Couple them with elite closer Sean Doolittle and the Nats have the makings of a very good three-headed monster in the bullpen. Their most recent relief reinforcement — Tony Sipp, signed earlier this week — had a 1.86 ERA with the Astros last year and has a career 3.67 ERA in 580 appearances.

The Nationals also made some major upgrades to their catching position. They finished 25th in OPS from that spot last year (.624), which was the second-worst mark in the NL. FanGraphs pitted Washington as 24th in the league in catcher's WAR (0.5), so it wasn't just the offense.

The two new veteran additions — Gomes and Suzuki — combined for 4.2 WAR last year on their previous teams (the Indians and Braves, respectively). They should form a much better more productive pairing than the Wieters-Pedro Severino-Spencer Kieboom catching group from a year ago.

Want to keep going? The Nationals wound up with Wilmer Difo as their primary second baseman for most of last year because Daniel Murphy only played in 56 games due to injury and the late-season trade to Chicago. Dozier should help stabilize second base for Washington and provide more offensive firepower as even during a down year in 2018 (.696 OPS), he still far outperformed Difo. Dozier scored 100 runs in four straight seasons in Minnesota and clubbed a combined 76 homers with 192 RBI from 2016-17 while finishing in the Top 15 in AL MVP voting each season.

Corbin is a huge addition for the rotation, even if it took a lot of money ($140 million over 6 years). It gives the Nationals the best 1-2-3 punch in baseball...if they can all stay healthy.

The Nationals also have a budding star in Soto, which should help ease the pain of Harper leaving. As the youngest player in the big leagues last year, Soto hit .292 with a .406 on-base percentage, 22 homers and 70 RBI in only 116 games. Between the majors and minors, he crushed 36 bombs, drove in 122 runs and drew 108 walks in 155 games. Oh yeah, and did we mention he just turned 20 in October?

This lineup shouldn't struggle to score runs, which is an impressive feat given they relied so much on Harper and Murphy the last few seasons. The rotation is better, the bullpen is better and they have more depth than ever before.

The only question about this team is the window of contention. The Nationals have a huge payroll even without Harper (Opening Day payroll projected at just under $200 million) and there's definitely a sense of urgency to win NOW. After 2019, Rendon becomes a free agent, Zimmerman has a $20 million team option that almost assuredly won't be picked up and they'll have to make decisions on options for Eaton, Gomes and Doolittle.

The Nationals also have more than $80 million tied up in just their three starting pitchers for next year, which could leave them in a tight spot in any attempts to add to the roster.

The only members of their core guaranteed to be back in 2020 is the trio of arms plus Turner, Soto and Robles. 

The championship window may well be closing after this year, so it's another season of "now or never" for the Nationals. And we know that mindset and level of expectations haven't worked out well for them in the past, even when they had Harper.

But I'm betting on the improved roster across the board to take control of the powerhouse NL East and this very well could be the year they finally advance beyond the NLDS. Imagine that for Year 1 post-Harper.

Prediction: 1st in NL East

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

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

Cubs Talk Podcast: Brewers scouting report with Jeff Levering

brewers-323.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Brewers scouting report with Jeff Levering

Luke Stuckmeyer catches up with Brewers radio broadcaster Jeff Levering to get the inside scoop on Milwaukee heading into the 2019 season.

The pair discuss how the potential addition of Craig Kimbrel would impact the Brewers bullpen (3:30), and whether or not Christian Yelich can repeat his MVP performance (8:00), how the NL Central will shake out this year (14:00) before Jeff gives us some personal insight into the great Bob Uecker (19:00).

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

In a surprise move, Cubs option Ian Happ to Triple-A

In a surprise move, Cubs option Ian Happ to Triple-A

In a surprise move, Ian Happ will not be on the Cubs roster on Opening Day.

Joe Maddon told reporters on Saturday afternoon that Happ will begin the season with Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs have since made the move official. Happ debuted with the Cubs in May of 2017 and had been up with the Cubs ever since.

The move means the Cubs will likely start the 2019 season with Albert Almora Jr., Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber as the team's outfielders. Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant can also play in the outfield, but both are expected to be regular starters on the infield. With Addison Russell still serving his suspension, Zobrist is expected to start at second base. Bryant will occupy his regular spot at third, but can also play in the outfield with David Bote filling in at third as needed. Additionally, Daniel Descalso is expected to be ready for Opening Day after enduring a left shoulder injury and gives the team versatility on the infield.

Happ, 24, hit .253/.328/.514 with 24 home runs as a rookie in 2017. Last season his numbers dipped to .233/.353/.408, including .196/.313/.340 after the all-star break. He has played in 257 games in the past two seasons with the Cubs.

Happ has been struggling at the plate this spring. He is hitting .135/.196/.192 in 17 Cactus League games.

"We just want to make sure that he gets down there and really gets a lot of consistent at-bats, especially from the left side," Maddon said. "Obviously we consider him a huge part of our future, but just based on the conclusion of last year and what we're seeing at this point this year, we think it's really important."

Happ's move comes as a surprise, but it may not be a long-term move. With Happ being optioned to Triple-A, that gives the Cubs an extra roster spot that could be used for a reliever.

Additionally, pitchers Dillon Maples and Alec Mills and catcher Taylor Davis were optioned to Triple-A along with Happ. Two non-roster invitees, infielder Cristhian Adames and outfielder Johnny Field, were assigned to minor league camp.

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