Clayton Kershaw

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

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USA TODAY

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

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 bolstered 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:

Los Angeles Dodgers

2018 record: 92-71, 1st in NL West

Offseason additions: A.J. Pollock, Russell Martin, Joe Kelly, Brad Miller

Offseason departures: Manny Machado, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Brian Dozier, Yasmani Grandal, John Axford, Ryan Madson, Daniel Hudson

X-factor: Clayton Kershaw's health

This still an incredibly talented team even if Kershaw never throws a pitch in 2019, but that obviously would make their road to another division title much more difficult.

Kershaw has a shoulder issue that leaves his short-term future in doubt and certainly no pitcher wants to start out the year with an injury like this that could linger. He's about to turn 31 later this month and has only averaged 27 starts the last five seasons, topping 30 starts just once.

The southpaw is still one of the best pitchers in the game, but he looks a whole lot more human than he used to. 2018 was the first time he failed to average more than a strikeout per inning since 2013 and notched fewer than 10 wins for the first time since 2009. 

There's still so much pitching depth on this team (even without Kershaw, big-league ready arms like Julio Urias, Brock Stewart and Caleb Ferguson could all start the season in the minors), but the 3-time Cy Young winner remains their most important player.

Projected lineup

1. A.J. Pollock - CF
2. Corey Seager - SS
3. Justin Turner - 3B
4. Cody Bellinger - RF
5. Max Muncy - 1B
6. Chris Taylor - 2B
7. Joc Pederson - LF
8. Austin Barnes - C

Projected rotation

1. Hyun-Jin Ryu
2. Walker Buehler
3. Rich Hill
4. Kenta Maeda
5. Ross Stripling

Outlook

The Seager return is huge for the Dodgers and you can look at it as something of an offseason addition given he played just 26 games in 2018. When he's been on the field, the 24-year-old shortstop is one of the best all-around players in baseball and he's now expected to be healthy after surgeries on his elbow and hip this winter.

A healthy Justin Turner would also be a big boost, as he missed 60 games a year ago. Pollock was a nice addition, but he fits in among the Dodgers' stars in that he also has not been able to stay off the disabled list (now injured list) recently. But he's still a great option as a leadoff hitter and centerfielder when in the lineup.

Even with all the purging of depth and star power this winter, the Dodgers still have an awful lot of talented players. They probably won't miss guys like Wood, Puig, Dozier or Kemp much and Seager's return helps make up for the loss of Machado in free agency. The same can be said of the trade for Russell Martin, replacing the departed Grandal. 

It's going to be very interesting to see how manager Dave Roberts maneuvers the lineup to get playing time for everybody, but he has plenty of options at his disposal, especially if top prospect Alex Verdugo is going to be in the big leagues all year.

The bullpen could still be a bit of a question mark, especially if Kenley Jansen has more health problems with his heart issue. He's one of the best relievers in the game and the Dodgers are adept at getting the most out of under-the-radar pitchers in the bullpen. But there are definite concerns about how good Joe Kelly will be (even after an awesome postseason run with the Red Sox) and the arms at the back of the bullpen. 

Still, the Dodgers are so talented, so well-run and so deep this team should once again be the class of the NL West and very well may be the class of the entire NL. Who knows if they'll make it to a third straight World Series, but that would not be even remotely shocking if that's how 2019 played out.

Prediction: 1st in NL West

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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Cubs Mailbag: What to do with Chatwood and Russell and how to fix the offense

Cubs Mailbag: What to do with Chatwood and Russell and how to fix the offense

Welcome to the first edition of the Cubs mailbag.

We'll be answering your burning Cubs questions once a week throughout the offseason, so stay tuned to @NBCSCubs and fire away when you see the prompt for the next upcoming mailbag.

This week, we're addressing the futures of guys like Tyler Chatwood and Addison Russell while also diving into the Cubs offense, if the designated hitter will come to the National League and — of course — Bryce Harper and the star-studded free agency class.

Enjoy:

How can we improve the offense without spending an exorbitant amount of money? I would really like us to bring Chavez, Hamels, and Strop back in the fold. — Brandon Hembrough (@BrandonJHembro)

Man, fans are SO worried about all the money the Cubs are spending. I'm curious — why? The Red Sox have the highest payroll in baseball and just took a 2-0 lead in the World Series. It's not like the Cubs spending more money on payroll increases how much it'll cost to go to a game. Ticket prices go up each year anyways. Fans obsessing over a team's payroll has never made sense to me — it's not their money.

That being said — the answer to Brandon's question here is via trade if you really don't want the Cubs to spend money to improve an offense that led baseball with 40 games where they scored 1 or 0 runs. Given the Cubs are not currently in the business of trading AWAY pitching, they would have to deal from their group of young position players — which means they'd be trading offense for offense. Whoever they get in return would have to be a more stable, consistent presence in the lineup than whoever they trade away (think: Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, etc.). That's hard to pull off. 

The easiest way the Cubs can improve their offense without spending an exorbitant amount of money is to just sit back and count down the days until 2019 spring training. Because that's when Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras will be talking about how they can't wait to get back out there and show everybody that 2018 was just a down year. Which...it was. Bryant is a perennial MVP candidate and Contreras looked like he could challenge for the NL accolade in 2017. Unless these guys somehow forgot how to hit, bet big on a rebound in 2019 and that will be a HUGE boon for the Cubs lineup to get those two back to normal.

What happens to the first 1st round pick by Theo  Almora? A step forward or trade bait? — Bala Ramachandran (@Bala8105)

Great question and one we may not find the answer to for some time. It's entirely possible Albert Almora Jr. is traded away this winter, but only if the Cubs get something of value in return. It's tough to see that come to fruition simply because Almora is an unproven commodity offensively and though he's a very good defender in center field, he's also not very fast and could struggle to turn out the same value defensively playing regularly in a more spacious outfield than Wrigley. The Cubs won't trade him away just to trade him, so chances are higher he'll be on the 2019 team at least as a backup outfielder with a chance to play his way into a larger role if he can take steps forward offensively.

How soon will the National League switch to the DH and do you think a realignment of divisions and the timeline that is possible to happen? — Kathy Kummer (@PrincessKathy)

Interesting question. It wasn't long ago that we heard rumblings about the NL possibly adopting the designated hitter before 2020, but that looks to be highly unlikely now. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement goes through Dec. 1, 2021, so I can't imagine the DH coming to the NL before then. But it should happen. It's silly that there's such a drastic rule change between the two leagues. America's other professional sports don't have that. Imagine if the Bears got to use an extra offensive player every time they faced the Patriots or another AFC team on the road. That'd create an uprising.

As for the divisions, I doubt that happens anytime soon, either. Baseball is rich in tradition and history and it would be very difficult to uproot that to realign divisions. It was a big deal when MLB moved the Astros from the NL Central to the AL West. 

Based on Theo’s postseason comments, do you think Joe will make more of an effort to go with a consistent/steady lineup and leadoff man? — Stephanie Marmolino (@CubbySteph)

Yes...and no. Yes in that Maddon will absolutely make more of an effort to go with a consistent lineup and stable leadoff man, but no in the sense that it simply may not be possible. Look at the Dodgers. They're in the World Series and the class of the NL this year by having a platoon system where only a couple of players (Justin Turner, Manny Machado) are in the lineup each day regardless of who the opposing pitcher is. If the Cubs dont drastically change their personnel, there probably won't be much of a change atop the batting order or filtering down through the rest. 

However, if the Cubs do make some major changes to their group of position players — which very well may happen — it could be in an interest to get a more stable lineup and a "you go, we go" type of leadoff hitter in the Dexter Fowler mold.

Will we be seeing more David Bote in 2019? — kimberly. (@kimisrad)

Once again, we'll go with: "Yes...and no" as the answer here. As it stands right now, Bote is a valuable piece for the 2019 Cubs both in his defensive acumen, positional versatility and as a cost-effective option as the payroll starts to skyrocket past the luxury tax. That being said, Bote may not draw as many starts as he did in 2018 when he filled in for Kris Bryant.

Bote figures to be a utility infielder for the Cubs moving forward and possibly even see some time in the outfield, as Maddon suggested in September.

If Kershaw becomes available... Do the Cubs get him or a big name piece like Machado or Harper? — Payton Arendt (@ArendtPayton)

Kershaw will almost assuredly not become available by anything other than a technicality. He can opt out of his contract, but everybody expects him to just renegotiate a contract with the Dodgers for more money. The Cubs are not currently in the market for starting pitchers and that includes Kershaw. Assuming they bring Cole Hamels back, the Cubs have 8 options for the 2019 rotation and there's a valid case to be made for each of those 8 guys pitching every fifth day. Starting pitching is probably the one area the Cubs won't touch this winter, just because it's the lowest on the priority meter at the moment.

I do believe the Cubs get a big-name piece and I feel like Harper is the guy. The link between Harper and the Cubs has been public knowledge for years (he named his dog Wrigley, you guys!!!) but beyond that, his bat fits in this lineup perfectly as a feared left-handed hitter to form a scary heart of the order alongside Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez. Some other team may wind up offering Harper a ridiculous amount of money that takes the Cubs out of it, but I expect them to be serious players for Harper this winter.

If the Cubs don't get Harper or Machado, who else could they target for another hitter or two? With Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, and Hamels likely coming back, who will be the fifth starter? Will it be a rotation in that spot alone? — Kyle Gore (@Cubsfan122112)

Great question. Everybody is focused on Harper and Machado  and rightfully so  but there are a lot of other bats on the market as well. Andrew McCutchen and Nick Markakis are two such options, as we discussed on the latest CubsTalk Podcast. D.J. LeMahieu makes a degree of sense given his offensive profile, solid glove and the fact the Cubs need a second baseman besides Ben Zobrist, but the former Rockie is heading into free agency with some ugly home/road splits.

As for the rotation question, the answer is clearly Yu Darvish. Assuming he's healthy, he will 100 percent be in the Cubs rotation. 

Will the Cubs trade Tyler Chatwood, or will they attempt to fix him? — Sam (@CptnDonuts

The answer is possibly both. They may try to "fix" him this winter, but if everybody's healthy in spring training, Chatwood could be come a superfluous piece in the rotation and thus Epstein's front office could package him in a deal with the Cubs eating some of the remaining money on Chatwood's contract. 

The Cubs can't afford to just stick him in the bullpen  that's the worst place for a guy with head-scratching command issues  and they also can't send him down to the minors. If he doesn't look much-improved in spring training, they may unload him to anybody who would want to take a flier on a 29-year-old pitcher with the Cubs footing a bunch of the $25.5 million remaining on the contract.

What should the Cubs do with Addison Russell? — Capper John T.F. (@johnroy76)

I'm not sure. We're in unprecedented territory here from a Cubs perspective. The day after the Cubs season ended and just a few minutes after Russell was handed a 40-game suspension, Epstein said he felt the Cubs organization needed to be there to support Russell. Releasing or non-tendering the shortstop would not be all that "supportive."

It's hard to see any other MLB team wanting to trade for him right now with all the off-the-field baggage on top of the on-the-field struggles over the last two seasons. The Cubs may just let Russell serve out his suspension, bring him back in May, let him play a little bit and boost his value, then deal him away midseason as they retool for a stretch run. 

That may not be the answer a lot of Cubs fans want to hear given Russell's suspension for domestic violence, but it certainly makes the most sense from a baseball standpoint. I can't pretend to know how Cubs personnel truly feels about Russell after he maintained his innocence to them for over a year, only to then accept the 40-game suspension without a fight or appeal. It's entirely possible that emotion could sway the Cubs to make a decision that goes against "baseball sense."

Who will the Cubs look at to fill their other middle infield hole? With Addison likely gone, as well as Murphy's contract expired, what are some ideas to fill that second base spot? — Pat Doll (@mrpatsi2)

The answer could lie in the previous question  Russell would solve the middle infield hole after April. If the Cubs retain Russell, they could go with a combination of Ben Zobrist and David Bote at second base until the suspension has run its course. 

If it's not Russell, a couple solid veterans are in free agency and flying under the radar. The Cubs have been fans of Jordy Mercer's game from afar and though he's aging, he can still be a valuable defender in the middle infield and provide some solid at-bats. Jose Iglesias is another option as a glove-first shortstop who could come off the bench or draw some starts at shortstop, pushing Baez to second or third base.

How pumped up does it make y'all to hear chants of "Let's Go Cubbies" when playing away from home? — Little Bear (@Little_beartx22)

You do know we're not the actual Cubs, right?

Computerized strike zone...will it happen in my lifetime? — Marnita Curry (@13woman)

Well, it depends on how old you are and how long your lifetime is.

I'll say "no" as my official answer just because I find it hard to believe baseball will get rid of the human element altogether.

But if Ben Zobrist were fielding this question, I think we can all agree the answer would be a resounding "YES!"

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.