Chris Archer

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

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USA TODAY

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

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:

Pittsburgh Pirates

2018 record: 82-79, 4th in NL Central

Offseason additions: Lonnie Chisenhall, Erik Gonzalez, Melky Cabrera, Jordan Lyles, Francisco Liriano, Brandon Maurer, Tyler Lyons

Offseason departures: Ivan Nova, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Jordan Luplow, Tanner Anderson

X-factor: Chris Archer

Archer looms as one of the biggest X-factors in the entire division. He certainly has the potential to be one of the game's true aces, but he's over 30 now and has yet to actually live up to that potential. 

He hasn't finished with an ERA under 4.00 or WHIP under 1.20 since 2015 despite the fact that he's averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings in that span. Even a move to the NL wasn't enough to boost Archer's numbers, as his line was nearly identical in both Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh last season.

The Pirates gave up a ton to get Archer (intriguing young outfielder Austin Meadows and starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow), especially considering this is a franchise that does not have the money to fill holes on their roster in free agency. Archer needs to pitch like an ace (or at least like a No. 2) to match what the Pirates gave up for him and justify the team picking up his $9 million option this coming winter.

The good news for Archer is he's had a full offseason with his new team to get acquainted and go about righting the ship. The bad news for him and the Pirates is they play in a stacked division that features four very, very good offenses.

The Pirates have plenty of good options to throw out on the mound every fifth day (just ask the Cubs, who struggled to score against anybody in a yellow and black uniform last year), but they really need Archer to step up and form a dynamic 1-2 punch with Jameson Taillon.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Frazier - 2B
2. Starling Marte - CF
3. Corey Dickerson - LF
4. Jung Ho Kang - 3B
5. Josh Bell - 1B
6. Francisco Cervelli - C
7. Lonnie Chisenhall - RF
8. Erik Gonzalez - SS

Projected rotation

1. Jameson Taillon
2. Trevor Williams
3. Joe Musgrove
4. Chris Archer
5. Jordan Lyles

Outlook

The Pirates are giving Archer a little more time after offseason hernia surgery, which is why he's projected for lower in the rotation. Taillon is my early pick for NL Cy Young after a breakout 2018 season. Williams and Musgrove both look like solid mid-rotation arms (Williams went 7-3 with a 1.38 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in the second half last year) and neither have turned 27 yet. Lyles has turned into a journeyman, but the Pirates also have top prospect Mitch Keller on the cusp and other arms like Liriano and Steven Brault as potential rotation fillers.

The bullpen is highly underrated, led by dominant closer Felipe Vazquez and guys like Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick, who are not household names but were very good last year (2.47 ERA and 2.39 ERA, respectively). 

Then there's Keone Kela, another pitcher the Pirates traded for ahead of the deadline last summer. The right-hander is about to turn 26 and saved 24 games in 25 chances with the Rangers last year before making the trek to Pittsburgh. He's had a rough spring (3 homers, 7 hits allowed in 4 innings) but he could be one of the best setup men in the division and maybe even the entire NL.

The lineup is the big question mark with this Pirates team, especially with Gregory Polanco expected to miss the start of the season after offseason shoulder surgery. When he returns, he and Starling Marte still form a pretty solid outfield with Corey Dickerson.

The infield is suspect. Is this the year Josh Bell finally puts it all together? Jung Ho Kang has been solid when he's able to suit up, but he's had some bad off-field drama the last few years (plus that broken leg on the Chris Coghlan slide in 2015). Adam Frazier has shown some flashes, but that's about it. Gonzalez has just 275 big-league plate appearances under his belt, during which time he's posted only a .681 OPS.

It'll be very interesting to see how often 26-year-old Colin Moran plays this year. The third baseman was the former 6th overall pick in 2013 (four spots after the Cubs selected Kris Bryant) but got his first true taste of MLB action last year after coming over from the Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade. The big issue with Moran is his complete inability to do anything against left-handed pitchers (.177 AVG, .503 OPS last year).

We know the Pirates will pitch well (especially against the Cubs) and they're usually a very fundamental team in the field and on the basepaths. The question will be if they can score enough runs to be a serious contender in a really tough division. At the very least, this will be a pesky squad that will make life difficult on the rest of the league.

Prediction: 4th in NL Central

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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Whoa: The Pirates are for real and they're making sure the Cubs and everybody else knows it

Whoa: The Pirates are for real and they're making sure the Cubs and everybody else knows it

The Pirates have come out of nowhere to emerge as a surprise threat to the Cubs in the National League Central.

Pittsburgh woke up Tuesday morning 7 games back of the Cubs in the division and 3.5 out of the second Wild-Card spot, but they've won 15 of their last 19 contests this month, including an 11-game winning streak. So they turned into sudden buyers, turning the baseball world on its head by trading for Rangers closer Keone Kela and then dropped a bomb by pulling off a Chris Archer megadeal with the Rays roughly a half-hour before the league's non-waiver trade deadline. 

Archer, 29, has been a popular Cubs target in trade rumors in recent years and is under team control through the 2021 season under a very affordable price (owed less than $30 million over the next three-plus years).

He's having a down year (4.31 ERA, 1.39 WHIP), but boasts a career 3.69 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and is striking out 9.7 guys per nine innings over his 179 MLB appearances (177 starts). 

The return is gargantuan, as the Pirates dealt away a pair of young talents in pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows (plus a player to be named later).

Glasnow turns 25 next month and has a 5.79 ERA and 1.70 WHIP over 141.1 big-league innings, but he was rated as a Top 10 prospect in the game by MLB.com ahead of the 2017 season. 

Meadows, 23, made his big-league debut earlier this season and boasts a .292 average with a .795 OPS. He's been ranked as a Top 50 prospect in the game by every outlet the last few seasons. 

That's a heck of a lot to give up for a team that is only 3 games above .500, but Archer and Kela can provide a huge boost for the Pirates pitching staff.

Archer figures to slot in alongside Jameson Taillon atop a rotation that also features steady veteran Ivan Nova and 25-year-old Joe Musgrove. Kela provides a dynamic right-handed option in the back of the bullpen along with left-handed closer Felipe Rivero.

Kela, 25, has 24 saves for the Rangers this season while striking out 44 batters in 36.2 innings.

Both pitchers are under team control through the 2021 season, so even if the Pirates can't overtake the Cubs or Brewers in the division in 2018, the Buccos just ensured they're gonna be a threat for at least the next three seasons. This is an interesting series of moves for a team that traded away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutcher over the winter.

Meanwhile, in a bit of good news for Cubs fans, the Pirates acquiring Archer means the Brewers cannot (Milwaukee was also rumored to be in on the former Rays ace). The Brewers have a roster more suited to winning right now and remain just a game back of the Cubs in the division, so adding a pitcher of Archer's caliber on the Brewers roster would be much tougher to swallow.

The Cubs are in Pittsburgh Tuesday and Wednesday night and Archer was slated to throw Wednesday's game for the Rays, so it's possible he could debut in this abbreviated series.

Cubs reportedly still in the market for another starter

Cubs reportedly still in the market for another starter

With the addition of Cole Hamels, the thought was that the Cubs were likely finished adding starters for the rotation and were intensely focused on another reliever as a finishing touch to their bullpen. However, the Athletic's Ken Rosenthal dropped a bombshell of a tidbit Monday morning that would prove the Cubs might still have big plans in mind. 

As Rosenthal mentions, the Cubs clearly lack desirable elite prospects and are dealing with a limited pool of available talent to choose from to make one of these deals an obvious match. However, that isn't going to stop the Cubs front office from putting together an almost hail-mary like offer to teams like the Mets and Rays for guys like Jacob deGrom and Chris Archer. 

Ian Happ's turned his season around after a rough start, slashing .269/.399/.403 with 4 home runs and 12 RBI since June 1st, and with the Cubs constantly showing off his defensive versatility, the 23-year-old could be a potential headline piece in a deal. 

Rosenthal only mentioned Happ by name but another name to consider in a deal for a controllable pitcher would be Addison Russell, who has quietly put together a collectively better season than his disappointing 2017. There will always be off the field baggage that follows Russell, but the defensive stud shortstop has raised his walk rate to over 9% while also lowering his strikeout rate by over 3%. 

For what it's worth, there were rumors last week about the Cubs being one of the teams still showing interest in Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer, who has long been rumored to the Cubs. But as Rosenthal alluded too, the Cubs acquiring someone like deGrom or Archer is an absolute longshot, but that's not going to stop Theo Epstein or Jed Hoyer from venturing into those discussions.