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

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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

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Bold predictions for the Cubs' 2019-20 offseason

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USA TODAY

Bold predictions for the Cubs' 2019-20 offseason

The Cubs are just a couple of weeks away from a pivotal offseason that could see a lot of change coming to Chicago's North Side.

Then again, we thought the same thing a year ago and it turned out Theo Epstein's biggest move last winter was signing Daniel Descalso to a two-year deal.

But after missing the playoffs in 2019, the Cubs are now at a crossroads as an organization. 

The NBC Sports Chicago crew previewed the offseason on the latest CubsTalk Podcast with some bold predictions for the winter.

Listen here and check out the fearless calls below:

(Note: Rationale and more context on each bold prediction in the podcast.)

David Kaplan

1. Cubs are going to take a page out of the Yankees' book and retool on the fly rather than go all-in to contend in 2020.
2. Jose Quintana has thrown his last pitch as a Cub.
3. This will be the second-to-last offseason for Theo Epstein as the Cubs president of baseball operations.

Kelly Crull 

1. Cubs re-sign Nick Castellanos and trade away Kyle Schwarber.
2. Tyler Chatwood will be in the 2020 rotation.
3. John Lackey will be named quality assurance coach on David Ross's coaching staff. (Kidding, but only kind of...)

Tony Andracki

1. Before the Cubs play a Spring Training game, Javy Baez will sign an extension that will keep him in Chicago through at least 2023.
2. Willson Contreras will be traded this winter and the Cubs will get some much-needed pitching help in return.
3. Cubs sign Howie Kendrick this winter as the professional bat and lefty-masher they craved in 2019.
4. Ben Zobrist will return on a one-year deal and finish his playing career in a Cubs uniform.
5. David Bote, Albert Almora Jr. and Addison Russell will all be traded or non-tendered this winter as the Cubs remake their bench/depth.

Jeff Nelson

1. Willson Contreras will sign a contract extension.
2. Ben Zobrist will return as a player/coach.
3. Jose Quintana will be traded for minor league depth.
4. Terrance Gore will be signed to be the 26th man on the roster under the new rules.

Theo Epstein’s dog damages Arizona rental property with excessive urine

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USA Today

Theo Epstein’s dog damages Arizona rental property with excessive urine

In the midst of an intensive hiring process for the new Cubs manager, Theo Epstein is being sued by an Arizona couple claiming Epstein’s dog, Winston, damaged their house. The cause of damage? Peeing excessively inside the property Epstein rented for spring training in 2015.

Yes, you read that right, Epstein’s dog peed so much he’s being sued.

The lawsuit was filed this Tuesday in Maricopa County, according to the Phoenix New Times, citing Epstein’s dog left “a terrible odor and urine-stained carpeting” in the Paradise Valley, Ariz., home where he and his family stayed.

Winston is a rescue mutt, weighing in at around ten pounds. He can’t pee that much, right?

The lawsuit states the dog "peed prolifically in the $1 million house, staining tile and stone flooring, wood door jams, cabinets, and furniture."

John and Mary Valentino referenced a 2017 quote by Epstein as proof that Winston had a peeing problem. When asked about being named the world’s greatest leader by Fortune magazine after the Cubs 2016 World Series win, Epstein said: “I can’t even get my dog to stop peeing in the house.”

Epstein left the rental property two weeks early due to a scorpion infestation later was shown a repair estimate of $51,405, according to the report.

Julian Green, the Cubs vice president of communications, told the New Times the lawsuit was “baseless.” He also said that an exterminator discovered 45 scorpions on the property that “put (Epstein’s) family at risk every time they put their children to sleep.” The Epsteins moved into a different house for the last two weeks of spring training.

The owners kept the $5,000 security deposit, and according to a source the Epsteins did not hear from them again for more than four years until the suit was filed Tuesday.

When asked about the lawsuit, Epstein replied, “As I said, we have no untouchables. Winston is definitely available in the right trade.”

We’ll be keeping tabs on this story as it unfolds. In the meantime, it’s good to see Epstein still has a sense of humor, even with a dog urine lawsuit and a Cubs managerial search on the line.

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