Andrew Miller

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

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AP

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

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:

St. Louis Cardinals

2018 record: 88-74, 3rd in NL Central

Offseason additions: Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew Miller, Matt Wieters, Chris Beck, Drew Robinson

Offseason departures: Luke Weaver, Tyson Ross, Bud Norris, Matt Adams, Carson Kelly, Patrick Wisdom

X-factor: Marcell Ozuna

The Cardinals traded for Ozuna last winter, expecting to get the hitter that just put up 37 homers, 124 RBI, a .924 OPS and hit .312 while coming off back-to-back All-Star appearances.

Instead, they got a solid hitter who was only slightly above average (106 OPS+) and saw a major dip in power (23 homers, 88 RBI). 

Which player is the real Marcell Ozuna?

He's still only 28 and is a free agent after this season. The Cardinals are counting on him to be one of their big bats in the middle of the lineup, likely hitting cleanup and lending protection to Goldschmidt.

We know Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter are going to hit if they're healthy and we know guys like Paul DeJong, Yadi Molina, Kolten Wong and Harrison Bader will be thorns in the Cubs' side at various points in 2019. But we don't know what type of player Ozuna will be.

You could say the same thing about Dexter Fowler, who has hit just .230 with a .739 OPS in a Cardinals uniform after signing an $82.5 million deal with the organization before the 2017 season. He still has three years left on his contract and if he can't regain his form, will the Cardinals be forced to stick a guy making more than $16 million a year on the bench in favor of better offensive options Jose Martinez or Tyler O'Neill?

Projected lineup

1. Matt Carpenter - 3B
2. Paul DeJong - SS
3. Paul Goldschmidt - 1B
4. Marcell Ozuna - LF
5. Dexter Fowler - RF
6. Yadier Molina - C
7. Kolten Wong - 2B
8. Harrison Bader - CF

Projected rotation

1. Miles Mikolas
2. Jack Flaherty
3. Adam Wainwright
4. Michael Wacha
5. Dakota Hudson

Outlook

The last time the Cardinals were in the playoffs, they watched as Javy Baez sent Wrigley Field into a frenzy with a blast to the right-centerfield bleachers. That 3-run shot came off John Lackey and both he and Jason Heyward had yet to don a Cubs uniform. Only one pitcher that threw for the Cubs in that game is still on the team (Pedro Strop).

Oh yeah, and the Cubs were still a year away from winning their first championship in more than a century.

In other words: It was a long time ago. It feels like a lifetime given how often the Cardinals were in the postseason prior to 2016.

So yeah, this organization and their fanbase are hungry as hell to get back to October. They proved that this winter.

The Cardinals didn't make a ton of moves over the offseason, but the decisions they made are very impactful — trading for Goldschmidt and signing Miller and Wieters.

Then they went out and reportedly extended Goldschmidt through the 2024 season. He is one of the best players in the NL and brings a legitimate stud to the middle of the lineup. Now the Cubs are forced to face him 19 times a season for at least the next half-decade and he carries a .353/.471/.699 slash line (1.170 OPS) against Chicago pitching in 43 career games. (The somewhat good news is that Goldschmidt also tears up Brewers pitching to the tune of a .366/.478/.652 slash line in 46 career games.)

Miller had a rough 2018 season, sporting a 4.24 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching only 34 innings due to injuries. But he's still only 33 and was arguably the best reliever in the game from 2014-17 when he posted a 1.72 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and 14.5 K/9 in 260 appearances. If he's even close to that pitcher again, that's a huge stabilizing force at the back end of the Cardinals bullpen. However, he's had a really rough go of it in spring training thus far:

Wieters has never turned into the star many were expecting him to become, but he'll be good depth for St. Louis behind Molina.

This offense should be just fine, especially once Jedd Gyorko returns from injury and if they can somehow find a way to get Martinez and O'Neill in the lineup often.

The defense is also going to be great, with speedster Bader chasing everything down in the outfield and Molina/Wong/DeJong up the middle.

The pitching staff is where most of the questions lie. 

Carlos Martinez has been their ace in the past, but he experienced shoulder issues this spring and it's unknown how much time he'll miss or if he'll be a starter or reliever when he returns. He only pitched 118.2 innings last year due to the same injury.

Veteran relievers Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson are also both dealing with arm injuries and not expected to be in the Opening Day bullpen.

Miles Mikolas was an incredible find for the Cardinals last year and after a fantastic season (18-4, 2.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP), they made sure to lock him up for another four years. 23-year-old Jack Flaherty was a Top-50 prospect entering 2018 and exploded onto the MLB scene with a very good season that included a ridiculous 10.8 K/9 rate. He looks like a potential Cy Young contender this year and gives the Cardinals a nice 1-2 punch in the rotation even without Martinez.

After that, however, it's up in the air. Adam Wainwright is 37, Michael Wacha has been injured/inconsistent and rookie Dakota Hudson (just named the team's fifth starter Thursday) has only 27.1 MLB innings under his belt.

Meanwhile, in the bullpen, 22-year-old Jordan Hicks is looking like the closer with his 100+ mph fastball, but he also has some control issues (5.2 BB/9 in his rookie season) and blew more games (7) than he saved (6) last year. After him and Miller, there's a hodge podge of unproven guys like John Brebbia, Dominic Leone, Chasen Shreve and others. Former top prospect Alex Reyes is looming as a potential X-factor in the bullpen, but he has pitched only 27 innings since he had Tommy John surgery after the 2016 season.

Expect this to be a three-team race in the NL Central all year and it would not be at all surprising to see the Cardinals on top come October. 

But for now, I'll put them just behind the Cubs only because I have question marks about their outfielders (Ozuna and Fowler) and some of their pitching. I also think the Cubs have more depth than any team in the division and are better built for the marathon that is a 162-game season.

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

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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Report: Cardinals nearing a deal for Andrew Miller

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USA TODAY

Report: Cardinals nearing a deal for Andrew Miller

According to MLB reporter Ken Rosenthal, the St. Louis Cardinals are nearing a deal for free-agent relief pitcher Andrew Miller.

The 6-foot 7 pitcher had an injury-shortened season last year that saw him pitch only 34 innings and finish with a 4.24 ERA, his highest ERA since 2011. Prior to that Miller had an ERA around 2 or so every season dating back to 2013.

This move helps further improve  a St. Louis bullpen that finished last season 12th in the league in earned runs.

At the Winter Meetings both Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon chimed in on how strong the NL Central is shaping up to be.

Epstein stated, “It was a great division before...and even better now.”

“It reinforces that the NL Central is to be earned and we have our work cut out for us and that’s how it should be.”

Maddon was a little more direct in his praise of the division.

“I think we have the best division in baseball, I really do, team-for-team I think we’re the best because of the ascension of these other groups. Playing the Cardinals is no fun....again.”

“Our division is going to be very difficult,” added Maddon.

The acquisition of Miller follows up the Cardinals move to acquire six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt from Diamondbacks. And the Brewers have also made moves this offseason to add pitching depth to their NL Central winning roster from last season.

Epstein was spot on when he stated that the NL Central will have to be earned.

As Cubs search for bullpen help, how much should they weigh closing experience?

As Cubs search for bullpen help, how much should they weigh closing experience?

The Cubs undoubtedly will add options to their bullpen this winter, but in what form remains to be seen.

Will they acquire a high-leverage left-hander or continue to fill in the roster with veterans and unproven young southpaws and hope lightning strikes? Will they add more guys capable of throwing multiple innings per outing? Do they need to add another pitcher with closing experience?

Let's tackle that last question.

The Cubs signed Brandon Morrow during the MLB Winter Meetings last year and tabbed him as the closer assuming no other deals with Wade Davis or another stopper came to fruition.

Obviously no other deal came about, with Morrow and Steve Cishek serving as the top bullpen additions last winter. The Morrow Experience got off to a great start as he went 7-for-7 in save opportunities and didn't give up a run until May 5.

But then disaster struck — first in the form of a bad pants-taking-off experience in mid-June and then a bone bruise in his forearm in mid-July. The end result was Morrow missed the entire second half of the season, only throwing off a mound twice before being shut down in September.

Pedro Strop stepped in at closer and did a fantastic job...before he, too, went down with an injury in mid-September.

That left Joe Maddon to piece together a closer on a daily basis from Cishek (who seemingly ran into a wall in the season's final month from overuse), Justin Wilson and Jesse Chavez. Heck, even Randy Rosario (Sept. 13) and Jorge De La Rosa (Sept. 14) picked up saves in that span.

Morrow and Strop are in line to be 100 percent healthy by spring training and Cishek is well rested, but Chavez is gone and Wilson is expected to sign elsewhere this winter.

The Cubs have tabbed Carl Edwards Jr. as a future closer, but he needs to rebound from his most recent late-season fade and prove he can be a consistent, dominant force for a full season before jumping into that role.

Theo Epstein historically does not hand out megadeals to closers, understanding the volatility of relievers and how risky it is to sink so much of a team's payroll into a guy whose performance can fluctuate wildly from year-to-year and who will only throw 60-70 innings a season even in a best case scenario. That stands to reason this winter more than any other given the financial constraints the Cubs are working under.

So does that take the Cubs out on free agent pitchers like Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino and Zach Britton?

"Just weigh all the alternatives," Epstein said last month. "I do believe getting those last outs can be a little bit more challenging than getting the other outs, so it's not just any job. But I'm a lot more concerned with just like the overall [bullpen]. The way we look at it is I want as many really talented options as we can in the 'pen. That's what we ask ourselves more than do we have a 'closer'?

"...I just want to make sure we have a really talented 'pen with lots of different options and see how things shake out. I don't think given our other needs, given our roster and payroll situation now and going forward that investing long-term at closer at big money is really high up our priority list right now. But stranger things have happened. I think we have some other areas to address."

The Cubs took that same approach to building the bullpen the last two winters, opening the season with at least 5 arms they felt could be "even or ahead" guys - pitchers who can come in and get outs in high-leverage spots.

The Cubs would ideally add to their current stable of "even or ahead guys" — Morrow, Strop, Edwards, Cishek, Mike Montgomery (if he's not needed in the rotation) — but considering they are already projected to eclipse the $206 million luxury tax threshold even before any other signings or deals this winter, it'd be hard to see Epstein and Co. out-bid the rest of the market.

There are other guys on the open market with closing experience who probably won't break the bank this winter (Greg Holland, Ryan Madson, A.J. Ramos, Joakim Soria, etc.), but it's a matter of whether the Cubs feel those guys can become reliable pieces in the 2019 bullpen.

The issue hasn't been a lack of talent on the Opening Day roster, but rather injuries and late-season slumps. Edwards isn't the only Cubs reliever who has run into a wall in August or September.

However, the key may not lie in the season's final months, but rather in April and May, when the Cubs' top bullpen arms are being utilized early and often.

"We have to provide that depth," GM Jed Hoyer said. "It's hard. If the same guys are pitching in every close game, you're gonna wear them out. We have to have a deep enough bullpen where Joe has more options. When you're a good team — and we're a good team — you play a lot of close games. You win a lot of close games and the games you don't win are usually close and that wears down your bullpen.

"It's easier to protect your relievers if you're getting blown out every fourth or fifth day. When you're playing games that are in the margins all the time, it's hard. So going in, the only thing you can do is have depth."

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