Cincinnati Reds

Here's what to love, and hate, about the Cubs heading into 2020

cubs_arb_figure_salaries_slide_photo.jpg
USA Today

Here's what to love, and hate, about the Cubs heading into 2020

It’s Valentine’s Day! Happy Valentine's Day to everyone who celebrates, which is really only you people out there that just started a relationship within the last 6 months.  There are a lot of things to love about Valentine’s Day, like, for instance, the chocolate, and the romance, and how it’s over after 24 hours. How are the Cubs spending Valentine’s Day? Outside of filming over-produced bits for their YouTube channel, I’m not sure. Hitting baseballs probably? Definitely catching baseballs? Maybe both. 

Timely, holiday-themed content waits for no man – and the Cubs’ clubhouse was particularly slow this morning – so on a day that celebrates love, here are a few things to Love, and hate, about the Cubs and their upcoming season: 

LOVE: PECOTA’s projections
Look, gang. This is like 95% of the same Cubs’ team that missed the playoffs by five games in 2019. They were not close. This year, PECOTA has them not only winning more games, but it has them in the playoffs. What even is the point of PECOTA when you just agree with them. Where does all the rage go now?! They were also *extremely* right about the Cubs last season, so maybe they won’t break your heart after all. 

HATE: The payroll issue
This is not news, but it’s the most fun low-hanging fruit that the Cubs have to offer. There are reports out there from the group of reporters that Tom Ricketts likes the best saying that there was no mandate to get under the luxury tax, and yet the Cubs’ company line is that it’s a “strategic disadvantage” to talk about money issues on the record. If you want to carry their water say that salary shedding was a necessary move at this point, so be it. There’s certainly some validity to the idea that this current CBA’s draconian penalties for being over the cap requires a reset of sorts. But this was a system that was collectively bargained, and Cubs’ brass certainly won’t get in the way of you placing all the blame in the lap of the Player’s Union. And yeah, a third year over the cap would mean fees up near $50 million. That’s a lot of money. You know what is also a lot of money? The $452 million in yearly revenue that the team’s bringing in, according to an April 2019 estimation from Forbes. Since we’re talking about big numbers, their gate take alone ($202 million) is almost $20 million higher than their current 2020 payroll ($183 million). There’s a commitment to team building and then there’s a commitment to bottom lines. You’re free to pick which path you think the Cubs are taking. 

LOVE: choRIZZO 

View this post on Instagram

He’s not a sausage, he’s choRIZZO!

A post shared by Anthony Rizzo (@arizz_44) on

LOOK at that long boi. He’s wearing a hat! How fun. Dogs don’t normally wear hats. I love you, choRIZZO. 

HATE: The Reds I guess?
PECOTA has them winning the division, so we’ll start there. Otherwise, here’s a team that signed away Nicholas Castellanos and employs Trevor Bauer, so the heels are there. They were a thorn in the Cubs’ side last year, winning the season series 11-8 – then they got way better this off-season. Getting mad online about the Cardinals is so easy, so let’s get mad about the Reds this year. Who even needs 15 throwback jerseys. 

LOVE: The tee work of one Adrian Javier Baez Marquez

I mean just LOOK at this form: 

Hands driving to the ball, no excess motion, and knocking it the other way. Somewhere, Joe Maddon nods in approval. If the Cubs act soon they can probably get three full seasons of salary arbitration out of him! 

How the Cubs stack up in the NL Central after Nick Castellanos signs with Reds

How the Cubs stack up in the NL Central after Nick Castellanos signs with Reds

The NL Central featured more parity in 2019 than any season of this current era of Cubs baseball. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers were locked in a three-way battle for the NL Central crown deep into September, while the up-and-coming Reds tallied their most wins (75) since 2014 (76).

On the heels of a disappointing, 84-win season, the Cubs have yet to make a significant splash this winter. Kris Bryant’s ongoing grievance case is a factor, as is the club’s proximity to the luxury tax threshold.

After missing the postseason in 2019 for the first time in five years, the Cubs are set to return largely the same roster in 2020. Bringing that group back has been misconstrued as the Cubs suddenly not having a talented team.

The NL Central is up for grabs and the Cubs will be a contender, though they realistically could finish anywhere from first to fourth in the standings. A look at the state of a competitive division:

Pirates

The division is up for grabs, but the Pirates won’t be in contention for the crown. After holding a 44-45 record at the All-Star break last season, Pittsburgh entered a freefall in the second half, going 25-48 the rest of the way.

The collapse cost manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neil Huntington their jobs with two years remaining on their contracts. Monday, the Pirates traded center fielder Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks. Ace starter Jameson Taillon underwent his second Tommy John surgery in August and could miss the 2020 season.

Closer Felipe Vazquez’s career is likely over, as he's in jail stemming from statutory sexual assault charges. He now faces counts of child pornography and unlawful sexual contact with a minor.

New manager Derek Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington face an uphill climb towards relevancy. The Pirates have solid young pieces — first baseman Josh Bell, shortstop Kevin Newman, outfielder Bryan Reynolds — but won’t be a contender for the foreseeable future.

Brewers

The Brewers are coming off back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in team history, but a chunk of the 2019 team won’t be back this season, including:

-Catcher Yasmani Grandal
-Infielder Mike Moustakas
-Infielder Hernan Perez
-Infielder Travis Shaw
-First baseman Eric Thames
-Outfielder Trent Grisham
-Starter Jordan Lyles
-Starter Zach Davies
-Starter Chase Anderson
-Starter Gio Gonzalez
-Reliever Drew Pomeranz

That’s a lot of production to replace, highlighted by Grandal and Moustakas — 2019 All-Stars. Grisham, a promising 23-year-old outfielder, was sent to the Padres with Davies for infielder Luis Urías, a former top prospect, and starter Eric Lauer.

Lauer, former Cub Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom — whose career was revitalized in Korea — are new starting options. Adrian Houser was better as a reliever (1.47 ERA, 30 2/3 innings) than starter (4.57 ERA, 18 starts) in 2019 but will get an opportunity at the latter in 2020.

There’s potential in that rotation, led by ace Brandon Woodruff, but the group will again be a major talking point. The Brewers have been successful in recent seasons relying on a cast of starters and their bullpen, especially closer Josh Hader. They will do so again in 2020.

Christian Yelich is an annual MVP candidate; Lorenzo Cain is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game and is a bounce back candidate after being hampered by injuries last season. Ryan Braun is 36 but coming off his best season is several years. Second baseman Keston Hiura is an ascending force at the plate.

The Brewers’ must replace a ton of talent and hope their rotation moves pay off. They won’t be projected to win the division, but manager Craig Counsell has proven the past two seasons to never count his squad out.

Reds

The Reds are one of the most improved teams this winter and a candidate for champions of the offseason. Cincinnati has added four impactful free agents in Moustakas, starter Wade Miley, and outfielders Shogo Akiyama and former Cub Nicholas Castellanos, the latter officially joining the club on Monday

Miley sported a 3.98 ERA last season, though a rough September (16.68 ERA in five starts) hurt him. He joins what already figured to be one of the best rotations in baseball, featuring Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray.

The Reds’ have put the NL Central on notice but winning the offseason doesn’t guarantee success on the field. Longtime first baseman Joey Votto didn’t have a bad 2019 offensively (.261/.357/.411) but it was his worst as a big leaguer. Jose Iglesias isn’t known for his bat, but he and his phenomenal defense are now with the Orioles.

With Castellanos in the fold, the Reds have a conglomerate in the outfield. There isn’t enough playing time for Castellanos, Akiyama, Aristides Aquino, Phillip Ervin, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winkler. The Reds are reportedly considering trading Senzel, a former top prospect entering his sophomore season.

Even with the odd outfield dynamic, the Reds are greatly improved from 2019, when they were a thorn in the Cubs’ side (11-8 against the North Siders). For the first time since 2013, the Reds are a true threat to win the NL Central.

Cardinals

Like the Cubs, money has been a factor in the Cardinals’ offseason. Owner Bill Dewitt Jr. said in November he didn’t anticipate a major bump in the team’s payroll.

The Cardinals added starter Kwang-Hyun Kim in December to fill out their rotation. Earlier this month, they dealt slugger Jose Martinez and young outfielder Randy Arozarena to the Rays for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, the No. 16 pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.

St. Louis reached the NLCS last season and they’ll return a similar squad in 2020. Cleanup man Marcell Ozuna recently signed with the Braves, creating a void in the heart of the Cardinals lineup.

Yadier Molina is one of the top catchers in the game, though he turns 38 in July. Setup man Andrew Miller turns 35 in May and sported a 4.45 ERA last season. Longtime starter Adam Wainwright is back to eat up innings but turns 39 in August. Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter had the worst seasons of their careers in 2019. Closer Jordan Hicks will miss at least a chunk of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last June.

Goldschmidt and Carpenter are good bets for some positive regression. Jack Flaherty is a 2020 Cy Young Award candidate, and Dakota Hudson is a solid No. 2. The bullpen features up-and-coming arms in Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley. Youngsters Tyler O’Neill and Tommy Edman will take on larger roles.

The Cardinals are always a factor in the division and that won’t change in 2020. They just won’t be heavily favored and will face stiff competition to defend their title.

Cubs

The Cubs are hoping David Ross replacing Joe Maddon as manager will change the dynamic of a team that hasn’t ascended to dynastic status after 2016. The group has question marks — jobs up for grabs include five in the bullpen, one in the rotation and the starting second base and center field roles.

The rotation is another year older and lost Cole Hamels, who signed with the Braves. Jon Lester surrendered a league-high 205 hits in 2019, sporting a 4.46 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. However, he said at the end of last season he and the Cubs found some helpful adjustments and wished they found them sooner, though didn’t elaborate on what they found.

The Cubs are counting on Yu Darvish to continue where he left off last season and Kyle Hendricks to remain his consistent self. Jose Quintana is good for 30+ starts each year and had the third-highest WAR (3.5) among Cubs pitchers last season. He’s shown flashes of brilliance as a Cub while also struggling at times. The Cubs need more of the former in 2020 — the last of Quintana’s deal.

The pitching staff is a concern, but the position player core is chock full of talent. Like Darvish, the Cubs need Kyle Schwarber to carry over his torrid 2019 second half. Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. ascending offensively would go a long way.

If Bryant isn’t traded by Opening Day — a deal looks increasingly unlikely as the grievance case drags on — the Cubs will once again challenge for the division’s crown. That will require internal improvements, as the division is too strong for them to start off slow and fall behind their rivals.

It will be up to Ross to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which wasn’t the case in 2019.

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

Even with Nicholas Castellanos, can the Reds — or anyone — challenge the White Sox for baseball's best offseason?

Even with Nicholas Castellanos, can the Reds — or anyone — challenge the White Sox for baseball's best offseason?

Winning the offseason is meaningless if you don't win in the regular season and the postseason.

Everyone knows this, particularly the big league clubs who are making all these offseason moves. White Sox general manager Rick Hahn talked just last week about this very thing.

“Quite candidly, we haven't accomplished anything yet, we haven't won yet,” he said during his pre-SoxFest press conference last Thursday. “This whole process was about winning championships, was about finishing with a parade at the end of October down Michigan Avenue. Until that happens, I don't think any of us are really in a position to feel satisfied or feel like we've accomplished anything.

“We've had a nice winter. ... We think very bright days are ahead of us, and we look forward to enjoying them. But in terms of feeling like we've accomplished something or feeling satisfied, ask me after the parade.”

That being said, the White Sox seemingly have won the offseason. By adding a slew of accomplished veterans to a young core that broke out in a big way in 2019 there are justified playoff expectations on the South Side. Look no further than an extremely excited fan base buzzing during SoxFest over the weekend.

But, you know, other teams have had good offseasons, too. Here's a look at some baseball's best winters. Let's make sure the White Sox really have earned the fictional and totally meaningless title of "offseason champions."

White Sox

Before we reach across the league, let's run through what Hahn & Co. have done since the book closed on 2019's 89-loss campaign:

— The White Sox signed Yasmani Grandal to the richest contract in team history, adding an All Star behind the plate for the next four years. Obviously, he's one of the better offensive catchers in the game. And as we've seen, Grandal's skills as a totally committed guiding force for the pitching staff are already having an effect,

— They gave a three-year contract to Jose Abreu, the face of the franchise. While Abreu rightfully earns a ton of credit for his off-the-field work with the White Sox younger players, which will remain important over the next three seasons, especially with fellow Cuban Luis Robert hitting the majors this season, let's not pretend like he's washed up or anything like it. Abreu just had one of the most productive seasons of his career as a 32-year-old in 2019, leading the American League in RBIs and coming three homers away from a career high.

— They traded for a new everyday right fielder in Nomar Mazara, who has hit 79 homers in four big league seasons. He might just be a "bridge" (a descriptor Hahn unleashed last week) to the organization's still-developing outfield prospects, but White Sox brass keeps touting the untapped potential they think they can coax out of the one-time top prospect, who's still just 24 years old.

— They added Gio Gonzalez to the starting rotation, a reliable back-of-the-rotation piece who will finally get his chance to pitch for the organization that drafted him a decade and a half ago — then traded him, twice.

— They signed Dallas Keuchel to a three-year contract (with an option for a fourth), bringing in the accomplished front-of-the-rotation starter they needed to team with Lucas Giolito this winter. Keuchel has a Cy Young Award, a World Series ring and a closet full of Gold Gloves on his resume and brings the winning experience this roster was lacking. With question marks in the middle and back of the rotation, Keuchel's steady hand figures to be of great benefit.

— They signed Edwin Encarnacion, the veteran slugger, to a one-year deal (with an option for a second) that not only added the thump they needed to the lineup but signaled that these White Sox are indeed trying to win and win big in 2020. The other, longer term deals could have pointed to a solid though perhaps more cautious belief that the contention window might still be a little ways off from opening. Not the one-year pact with Encarnacion, though, which showed the White Sox are serious about contending this year with a 37-year-old bopper hitting a bunch of dingers.

— They gave a six-year contract extension (with a pair of options that could push it all the way to eight) to Luis Robert, the No. 3 prospect in all of baseball. For the second straight offseason, the White Sox locked up a young player who's yet to play a game in the majors. But Robert and Eloy Jimenez figure to be powering this team for the better part of the next decade. The extension cleared the way for the five-tool Robert to be the White Sox starting center fielder come Opening Day, and 162 games' worth of a guy expected to be a superstar is better than any lesser alternative.

— They added Steve Cishek to the bullpen, complementing back-end pitchers Alex Colome and Aaron Bummer with a veteran who proved both effective and dependable in his two seasons on the North Side, posting a 2.55 ERA in a whopping 150 appearances.

So that's all pretty good. Can anyone else can compete with that? Let's see.

Cincinnati Reds

If anyone's coming close to challenging the White Sox for that ridiculous title of "offseason champs," it's the Reds. Much like the White Sox, the Reds are a team with some great young talent looking to capitalize on a weaker division and make some noise. The Reds have positioned themselves to do just that, adding the biggest piece of their offseason haul Monday morning with the signing of outfielder Nicholas Castellanos. He was on a lot of White Sox fans' wish lists, particularly the ones not sold on Mazara as a confidence-inspiring option in right field. But Castellanos is finally off the market, getting a four-year deal from the Reds (that includes opt-out clauses after each of the next two seasons).

Castellanos now anchors a lineup that already included a pair of newcomers: slugging infielder Mike Moustakas, who White Sox fans know well from his days with the Kansas City Royals, and center fielder Shogo Akiyama, who came over from Japan this winter. Add those guys to an already potent group of hitters that included Eugenio Suarez, Joey Votto, Aristides Aquino and highly rated prospect Nick Senzel (coming off shoulder surgery), and you've got yourself a contender — if not the favorite — to win the NL Central crown. And, oh yeah, their pitching staff ain't half bad, either, with Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer as perhaps the best 1-2-3 punch in the NL. They added Wade Miley this offseason, too, bolstering (if not in a huge way) that rotation further.

That's a great offseason, no doubt, and if you don't count Robert as a true offseason addition on the South Side — he was already part of the organization — then it's not a stretch to say that Castellanos and Moustakas are a better pair of lineup improvements than Grandal and Encarnacion, though it's close. On the new-pitching front, Keuchel, Gonzalez and Cishek make for a more appealing group than Miley by himself. It seems like the White Sox addressed more areas — and more glaring needs — than the Reds, but both teams are well positioned to challenge for a Central Division title.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves, like the White Sox, got to work early and often. They're the two-time defending NL East champs, yet they've been ousted in the NLDS in each of the last two postseasons, then had to watch the division-rival Washington Nationals win the World Series. So they understandably loaded up this winter. They added perhaps the biggest name on the relief-pitching market, Will Smith, to an already significantly remade bullpen that included midseason acquisitions Mark Melancon and Shane Greene. They added Cole Hamels to their starting staff, bringing in the kind of winning experience and veteran know-how the White Sox found in Keuchel.

While White Sox fans spent months debating whether they wanted Marcell Ozuna on the South Side, the Braves found a seeming bargain in getting Ozuna on just a one-year deal. While there were justifiable red flags in Ozuna's numbers during his two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, he has the potential to be an impact bat in the middle of a championship lineup. And with Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman already in the Braves' lineup, it's not like Ozuna has to shoulder the load.

The Braves also added a new catcher in Travis d'Arnaud and brought back Nick Markakis. In the same division as the team that just won it all, the Braves might still be the favorites to repeat in the NL East.

Washington Nationals

The reigning champs had their biggest offseason success in retaining Stephen Strasburg, the World Series MVP who proved during the postseason that he's among baseball's best hurlers. Of course, they couldn't retain Anthony Rendon, one of the most consistently excellent hitters in the game. But had they lost both to greener bank accounts the winter after winning the whole thing, that would have been brutal. Keeping Strasburg counts as a huge win, even if the Nationals have lost their biggest bopper in each of the last two offseasons: first Bryce Harper, now Rendon. But they won the World Series without Harper, so ... 

The Nationals also retained former White Sox pitching prospect Daniel Hudson, who played such a huge role out of the bullpen en route to their championship, and Howie Kendrick, who hit that unforgettable game-winning grand slam to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers and send the Nationals to the Fall Classic. New guys include Will Harris, who along with bringing Hudson back goes a long way toward solidifying a bullpen that was the team's weakest link throughout the regular season in 2019. Eric Thames and Starlin Castro join the position-player side of things, though they won't be expected to make up for Rendon's departure like the guys who were already there: Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Victor Robles and the like.

It's hard to say the Nationals are anything but worse, on paper, than they were when they won the World Series three months ago, but hey, that's what happens when you lose a perennial MVP candidate. Still, even with the Braves' big offseason (and status as defending NL East champs), the Nationals remain right in the thick of things in their division thanks to an elite 1-2-3 in the rotation of Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.

Philadelphia Phillies

Attempting to keep pace in the NL East, the Phillies followed up their spending spree from an offseason ago by handing out another huge contract, this one going to Zack Wheeler, who turned down a richer offer from the White Sox to pitch on the East Coast. Wheeler provides a nice safety net for a Phillies rotation that needed an infusion after big ERA increases for both Jake Arrieta and Aaron Nola last season (though Wheeler's 2019 ERA was still higher than Nola's). The Phillies also brought in Didi Gregorius, who was very good in his tenure with the New York Yankees, to be their new starting shortstop.

The Phillies, especially offensively, appear to be loaded, with Gregorius joining Harper, Rhys Hoskins, Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, and Scott Kingery. The pitching staff has its issues but also has some arms that have been/could be very potent. So what's the problem? Well, they play in baseball's most competitive division. They looked loaded last year, too, and finished fourth. They've got to prove they can hang with the Braves and Nationals and horribly underwhelm with a .500 finish like they did in 2019.

New York Yankees

I'm going to fly through these next three teams, not because they didn't have good offseasons but because their good offseasons are based on the addition of one superstar player. The Yankees reeled in the biggest fish in the free-agency pond, adding Gerrit Cole, who showed during the postseason that he might just be the best pitcher in baseball. It looked like he was going to land on the West Coast. Instead, he landed on the East Coast, giving the Yankees a much-needed dominant force at the top of their rotation. The AL pennant — thanks in part to Cole's defection and in part to the Astros losing their general manager and manager in the wake of their cheating scandal — looks like the Yankees' to lose.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins did more than just signing Josh Donaldson. They brought back Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda and added Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. That's four starting pitchers, and yet their starting rotation is still a question mark. What's not a question mark is their lineup, which last season set the record for the most home runs hit in a single campaign. They might hit even more of them now that they've got Donaldson, a perennial MVP candidate who the White Sox now have to worry about trying to get out 19 times a year for the next half decade. The White Sox had a better offseason than the Twins, yes. But the Twins are still looking like one heck of a challenge in the AL Central, not because they won 100 games last season and still employ Nelson Cruz, but because they now also employ Donaldson.

Los Angeles Angels

The aforementioned Rendon is now in the same lineup as Mike Trout. Dear god. Of course, this is the Angels we're talking about, a team that has made the postseason all of one time in Trout's eight full major league seasons. The guy who's arguably the best baseball player ever has played in just three playoff games and won zero of them. So is Rendon going to single-handedly change that? No, probably not. Joe Maddon might, though, and the new skipper in Anaheim could prove a bigger addition than his new middle-of-the-order bat. But if there's ever been a time to jump up and dethrone the Astros, it's now, considering they could be in for a season of disarray in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal that cost them their GM and their manager. The Angels have a big-time outfield prospect coming up in Jo Adell. But how have they fortified their worrisome starting rotation? With Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy. Ok, maybe the Astros will be fine.

Toronto Blue Jays

Certainly, the Blue Jays have been active, most of their efforts directed at remaking their rotation. They landed one of the bigger fish on the starting-pitching market in Hyun-Jin Ryu, as well as bringing in Chase Anderson, Tanner Roark and Matt Shoemaker. How good those moves are remain to be seen, as those three have plenty to prove. Ryu is obviously a nice acquisition after he won the NL's ERA crown last season. Travis Shaw was the big addition to the lineup.

The thing with the Blue Jays is not only are most of these moves not terribly exciting, they do little to make a dent in the AL East race. The Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays still seem much better after their playoff appearances last season, and though the Boston Red Sox suffered a crippling World Series hangover last year — and face a ton of questions about their future, given their financial commitments — they still have the kind of talented roster to win more games than the Blue Jays. So, in the end, how effective was this offseason for Toronto?

———

The verdict: The White Sox won the offseason.

As established, of course, that means nothing until it turns into on-the-field success. But it allows for some changing expectations in certain places, the South Side included, which gets to reap realistic playoff hopes from the work of the front office.

But as for whether the team has actually accomplished anything, do what Hahn says and ask him after the parade.

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