Corey Seager

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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The state of the National League is good news for the Cubs

The state of the National League is good news for the Cubs

Now is the time for the Cubs to strike in the National League.

Yes, it's only May and the season isn't even a quarter of the way over yet.

But the NL powerhouses may not get any weaker than it is at this very moment and the Cubs are primed to take advantage.

Take the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example.

The team that made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series and the squad that bounced the Cubs from the postseason last year woke up Friday morning with a 16-21 record after losing to the Cincinnati Reds Thursday night. For perspective, the Dodgers have only 5 more wins this year than the Reds — a rebuilding team without a prayer of contending and already fired their manager weeks ago.

"We talk about it in the clubhouse: This isn’t a ‘try’ league," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Thursday night. "Everyone is trying. You’ve got to get production. When you can’t get separation, it stresses everyone. We’ve got to be better at all facets of the game, to be honest."

The Dodgers will not play a single game with both Corey Seager and Justin Turner in their lineup in 2018, given that Turner is still not back from a wrist injury and Seager is now done for the year after Tommy John surgery. Given their importance to the L.A. lineup, that's the equivalence of the Cubs never playing a game with both members of Bryzzo in the lineup together at the same time.

As Joe Maddon has astutely pointed out twice in the last week, the Dodgers always use the 10-day disabled list liberally, but they're also currently without Clayton Kershaw, Logan Forsythe, Tony Cingrani and Hyun-Jin Ryu (who is expected to be out for months) and they just got Yasiel Puig and Rich Hill back off the shelf. That's a significant chunk of the roster's impact players.

The Dodgers' best hitter all year has actually been Matt Kemp (.333 AVG, .913 OPS), who was acquired as a flyer of sorts in a salary dump trade with the Atlanta Braves.

Let's move to the NL East, where the Washington Nationals haven't had much better luck on the injury front.

It was just announced late Thursday Adam Eaton would be out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his tricky ankle. He's played just 31 games in a Washington uniform since coming over in the deal with the White Sox before the 2017 season.

Daniel Murphy hasn't played a game yet this season, Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters have missed time and a slew of pitchers (Joe Ross, Koda Glover, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Grace, Jhonatan Solano) are on the disabled list recovering from arm injuries.

All that has led to Bryce Harper in the leadoff spot (the only way new manager Davey Martinez can find protection in the lineup for Kris Bryant's bestie), a mildly disappointing 21-18 record and third place standing in the division behind both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies.

Coming into the season, the Dodgers and Nationals were seen as the Cubs' main competitors in the race to the NL pennant and both teams have gotten off to slow starts.

In the Cubs' own division, they sit in fourth place, but just 1.5 games behind the leading Cardinals who just swept Bryzzo and Co. in St. Louis last weekend.

The Cardinals also just lost their ace and the NL leader in ERA — Carlos Martinez — due to a lat injury. Of course, St. Louis is also without its heartbeat as Yadier Molina will miss more than a month after taking a Kris Bryant foul tip to the groin last Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers woke up Friday morning with a run differential of 0, which would normally not lend itself to a 22-16 record. Josh Hader and the Milwaukee bullpen have been incredible, but the first six weeks of the season have not answered many questions about the longevity and staying power of the Brewers rotation.

The Cubs will tell you they only care about themselves and can't waste their energy focusing on their competitors in the NL. But now could be a prime time to stack a bunch of wins together and this is the right part of the schedule to do so.

The Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense has received a major gift from the MLB schedule-makers, beginning with the three games against the Marlins earlier in the week. That kicked off a stretch where 9 of 13 Cubs games come against three of the six worst pitching staffs in baseball (Marlins, White Sox, Reds). The other four games are against a Braves pitching staff that has been overperforming to date based on their peripheral stats.

Sure, the Cubs embarked on an 11-games-in-10-days run beginning with Game 1 of Crosstown Friday, but when 7 of those games come against the lowly White Sox and Reds and a team has as much position-player depth as the Cubs do, it shouldn't be too hard to put together a couple of nice weeks in a row offensively.

Now it's just a matter of the Cubs taking care of business and doing what they're supposed to do against a soft part of the schedule.

Dodgers look like the perfect landing spot for Jake Arrieta

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USA TODAY

Dodgers look like the perfect landing spot for Jake Arrieta

Super-agent Scott Boras already has the metaphor ready for Jake Arrieta, trying to sell his client as an updated version of Jon Lester, someone with big-game experience, proven durability and the presence to energize an entire clubhouse.   

“He’s a big squirrel,” Boras said. “He has a lot of nuts in his tree.”

That’s exactly what the Los Angeles Dodgers need now after their super-team broke down against the Houston Astros. Losing a World Series Game 7 could create a new sense of urgency and push even the most analytical organization outside its comfort zone.  

You didn’t need to be sitting in the Boras Corporation’s front-row seats at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night to see what could be coming next. One year after the Cubs finally won the World Series, Arrieta is now a free agent with the perfect landing spot already cleared in Los Angeles.  

Watching Yu Darvish get 10 outs combined in two World Series losses reinforced the perception that Arrieta is the best starting pitcher on the open market and the Dodgers whiffed by not signing Max Scherzer three years ago or trading for Justin Verlander last winter or this summer.

The Dodgers built a 104-win team with a lot of mix-and-match pieces, layering depth and versatility into the roster, elements that kept showing up across a 162-game season.

But there are lingering questions about Clayton Kershaw’s playoff performances – 7-7 with a 4.35 ERA in 122 career innings – and the three-time Cy Young Award winner can opt out of the final two years of his $215 million contract after the 2018 season.     

The Dodgers didn’t let Rich Hill go longer than five innings in any of his four playoff starts this year, allowing him to only face 18 or 19 hitters each time. Kenta Maeda didn’t get nearly as much exposure to lineups, reinventing himself as a bullpen weapon this October.

The Dodgers paid roughly $37 million to Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Scott Kazmir this season and got almost 220 innings combined and zero playoff starts out of those investments. Julio Urias, the elite pitching prospect once compared to Fernando Valenzuela, underwent season-ending surgery on his left shoulder in June.   

Arrieta is already playoff-tested after dominating the Pittsburgh Pirates with a complete-game shutout in the 2015 National League wild-card game, beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road during last year’s World Series and putting up a 3.08 ERA in nine postseason starts.

Arrieta will be 32 next season, but Boras will point to his relatively low pitching odometer (1,161 career big-league innings) and how that compares to Scherzer when he signed his seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals (almost 1,240 innings).   

A sprawling Los Angeles front office saturated with Big Data should appreciate Arrieta’s numbers across the last four seasons when compared to all major-league pitchers: third in ERA (2.67) and batting average against (.201); tied for fifth in WAR (18.5) and soft-contact percentage (22); and sixth in WHIP (1.03).

Five years in a row, the Dodgers have won the NL West, a division that featured two other playoff teams this year (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies) and a franchise that has won three World Series titles since 2010 (the San Francisco Giants).

Arrieta would help the Dodgers stay ahead in that arms race and could be the missing piece for October. It’s not 108 years, but the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988, or the year Kershaw was born. That sense of history would appeal to Arrieta’s ego and sense of purpose.

So would iconic Dodger Stadium, an ideal pitching environment where Arrieta threw a no-hitter on national TV during his 2015 Cy Young Award campaign and walked into the postgame press conference wearing a onesie covered in moustaches.

Arrieta is someone who dropped into Second City improv classes, posed nude for ESPN the Magazine’s body issue, developed his own Pilates/nutrition program and lives in Austin, Texas, during the offseason. Think Hollywood opportunities and the Southern California lifestyle might be more attractive than, say, living in St. Louis for the next five seasons and playing under The Cardinal Way?  

The Dodgers also have a core of 20-something hitters – Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes – to go with widely respected manager Dave Roberts and All-Star closer Kenley Jansen.    

After splitting the last two NL Championship Series – while also looking like contenders for years to come – imagine Arrieta returning to Wrigley Field next October in Dodger blue.