Freddie Freeman

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

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USA TODAY

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

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:

Atlanta Braves

2018 record: 90-72, 1st in NL East

Offseason additions: Josh Donaldson, Brian McCann

Offseason departures: Brad Brach, Kurt Suzuki, Lucas Duda, Rene Rivera, Ryan Flaherty, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, Peter Moylan

X-factor: Josh Donaldson

Anytime you're the biggest offseason addition, there's already a target on your back and expectations that come with the territory. That's especially true of Donaldson.

He's the only big addition to a team that surprised the baseball world by claiming the division a year ago before losing out to the Dodgers in the in the NLDS. Donaldson is also a former MVP who signed for only a 1-year deal as he looks to remake his market and cash in again next winter.

Donaldson turned 33 in December and is coming off a year in which he played just 52 games due to lingering calf issues. He managed only 113 games played in 2017, but still hit 33 bombs with a .944 OPS that season.

This is a player who finished in the Top 10 in AL MVP voting four years in a row from 2013-16 with the Oakland A's and Toronto Blue Jays, slashing .284/.375/.518 (.893 OPS) with an average of 33 homers, 103 RBI, 106 runs scored and 84 walks per year. He also racked up 31.3 WAR in that span while playing elite defense at third base.

If that's the type of player Donaldson will be in 2019, the Braves have created a fantastic situation for themselves, adding another legitimate, top-notch bat to a lineup that already includes veterans Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis plus budding stars Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies. 

If Donaldson doesn't put up that type of production whether due to injuries or anything else, the Braves are lucky they only have him under contract for one season. But it would certainly have a huge impact on that one season, when the rest of the division is also much-improved this winter.

Projected lineup

1. Ender Inciarte - CF
2. Josh Donaldson - 3B
3. Freddie Freeman - 1B
4. Ronald Acuna Jr. - LF
5. Nick Markakis - RF
6. Ozzie Albies - 2B
7. Brian McCann - C
8. Dansy Swanson - SS

Projected rotation

1. Julio Teheran
2. Kevin Gausman
3. Sean Newcomb
4. Touki Toussaint
5. Mike Foltynewicz*

Outlook

Foltynewicz is the Braves' ace, but he's not expected to be ready for Opening Day as he's currently nursing elbow tightness. Atlanta won't need a fifth starter for a while anyways due to the off-days early on in the schedule. Assuming Foltynewicz is able to avoid serious injury and return mid-April, the Braves will be in good shape. He finished 8th in NL Cy Young voting last year, going 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 202 strikeouts in 183 innings.

If he is forced to miss more time or unable to pitch at the top of his game due to the injury, the Braves could be in trouble. They have arguably the best stable of pitching prospects in the game, but none are proven in the big leagues. Instead, the rest of the rotation consists of Teheran, Newcomb and Gausman — a trio of arms who are on the right side of 30 and have flashed star potential but their careers are mostly marked by inconsistency. Toussaint, 22, made his MLB debut last year and only has 29 big-league innings under his belt.

All those other young pitchers are coming (led by Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson), but it's hard to predict what kind of success they'll have in The Show. Meanwhile, the Braves have expectations to contend in 2019 in a division that boasts three other teams with similar thoughts about how their season should go.

The lineup should be fantastic once again, regardless of what Donaldson provides. Freeman is a bonafide MVP candidate and Acuna may well join that conversation, too, at a ripe old age of 21 years old. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year hit .293 with a .917 OPS, 26 homers and 16 stolen bases in just 111 games last season as a 20-year-old. Over a full campaign, those numbers extrapolate out to 38 homers and 23 stolen bases. Maybe a sophomore slump is coming, but this is a ridiculously talented young player.

Around the rest of the lineup, the Braves hope young second baseman Albies is more like the player he flashed in the first half (.281/.318/.516, 20 homers) than the guy that faded in the second half (.226/.282/.342, 4 homers). But he just turned 22 in January, so he has a lot of development left to do.

Former No. 1 overall pick Swanson is a defensive whiz at shortstop, but hasn't hit at all over the course of his big-league career (.243/.314/.369 career slash). Right now, the Braves don't have room for 25-year-old Johan Carmago in their everyday lineup despite the fact he hit .295 with an .844 OPS after the All-Star Break last year and is a switch-hitter who can play just about anywhere. But he represents depth to give guys a breather or step in if anybody goes down to injury.

Markakis, a 35-year-old veteran, had one of the best years of his career last season and looked to be out the door in free agency before signing a 1-year, $6 million deal in late January. Adding McCann to pair with Tyler Flowers behind the plate gives the Braves another valuable veteran voice in the clubhouse.

The Achilles' heel of this team could be the bullpen. The Braves front office didn't touch the position group this winter and are watching as one of their top relievers (A.J. Minter) is already sidelined due to a shoulder injury suffered in a car accident earlier this winter.

Former Cub Arodys Vizcaino has come into his own as closer, but the rest of the bullpen is one big question mark.

This is a very talented team and has an incredibly bright future, but they may experience too many growing pains in 2019 to hang with the Phillies and Nationals.

Prediction: 3rd in NL East, just out of Wild-Card contention

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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With Josh Donaldson in tow, the Braves are putting the National League on notice

With Josh Donaldson in tow, the Braves are putting the National League on notice

While most Cubs fans are focused on Bryce Harper or the Cardinals or Brewers, the Atlanta Braves just put the baseball world on notice.

The Braves inked former AL MVP Josh Donaldson and veteran catcher Brian McCann to a pair of one-year deals Monday afternoon, totaling $25 million (Donaldson will make $23 million). 

McCann may be 35 by next year and Donaldson will be 33 and coming off a season in which he played only 52 games due to injury, but they will provide valuable veteran leadership and approach to a Braves team with one of the youngest rosters in the game, headlined by two exciting young stars in Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies (who will be 21 and 22 on Opening Day, respectively).

The Braves already won 90 games last season before losing to the Dodgers in the NLDS and the only main pieces they're losing to free agency are Nick Markakis and catcher Kurt Suzuki (who has already signed with the Nationals). They can now slot Donaldson in behind Acuna, Albies and superstar Freddie Freeman (.946 OPS the last three seasons) atop the batting order.

Donaldson could've been a great fit on the Cubs, though they were not linked as a major player for him prior to the one-year deal with the Braves. For a team with financial constraints that may take them out of the market for the top hitters like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, Donaldson could've been a real nice "Plan B" of sorts (though obviously not for $23 million/year), something our David Kaplan was all about

The former Cubs farmhand (he was traded to Oakland for Rich Harden in 2008) has only played 165 games the last two seasons, but hit 41 homers with 101 RBI, 95 runs and a .900 OPS in that time while also rating as a positive defender at third base. During his heyday with the A's and Blue Jays (2013-16), Donaldson posted an .893 OPS while averaging 33 homers and 103 RBI and finished no lower than 8th in the AL MVP voting — taking home the accolade in 2015.

With his injury woes, Donaldson undoubtedly would not have received $23 million per season for multiple years, but this was a nice boom-or-bust gamble for him as he bet on himself in a big way. For the Braves, it's a low-risk, high-reward move that could pay off in a huge way. And if it doesn't or Donaldson gets hurt again, they don't lose anything beyond 2019.

As for McCann, the Cubs are in the market for a veteran backup catcher to give Willson Contreras some rest and the 34-year-old would've made a lot of sense. His production fell off with Houston in 2018 as he failed to hit at least 18 homers in a season for the first time since his rookie year of 2005. Known as a valuable defender with some pop, McCann still has plenty to offer a contender and for $2 million, the risk is essentially nonexistent.

But he clearly wanted to return to Atlanta — where he spent the first 9 years of his career — and will now pair with former White Sox backstop Tyler Flowers to help lead a young pitching staff.

Also, there's this:

The Cubs play the Braves real early in 2019 - the second series of the year from April 1-4 in Atlanta - and then will host Donaldson and Co. from June 24-27 at Wrigley Field.

With Cubs in need of a reliable lefty in bullpen, Drew Smyly could be a wild card down the stretch

With Cubs in need of a reliable lefty in bullpen, Drew Smyly could be a wild card down the stretch

Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office are always trying to evaluate the franchise's major weaknesses, looking for potential leaks that could sink the ship.

It's only Aug. 2, but one such issue flew to the forefront Thursday evening.

After trade deadline pickup Jesse Chavez gave up a 3-run homer (the first runs he's allowed as a Cub), the game was still in shouting distance for the Cubs. But a pair of lefties — Justin Wilson and Brian Duensing — combined to allow 3 runs in the final three frames to break the game wide open for the Padres.

Wilson walked a batter and gave up a pair of hits in one inning of work. Duensing also walked a batter and gave up 4 hits over 2 innings. 

Right now, the two are the only left-handed options out of the Cubs bullpen and they've each endured their various level of struggles this season.

As the Cubs get down to the most pivotal part of the regular season and hope to roll it into the playoffs, can they get by with the pair of question marks in the bullpen?

"Justin's been good," Joe Maddon said after the Cubs' 6-1 loss. "We've been having to get Duensing straightened out for a bit, but I do like [Carl] Edwards against lefties and I like [Brandon] Kintzler against lefties. 

"But I did not want to use them in those situations tonight. I think Justin's been fine."

Wilson has certainly pitched better than he did in his two-month debut with the club last fall. But he still has 30 walks in 42.2 innings and carries a worrisome 1.43 WHIP despite a solid 3.38 ERA. He ran into major control issues last year and was a non-factor for the Cubs in the postseason because of it.

Duensing has struggled for months and now sports a 7.34 ERA and 1.83 WHIP on the season with more walks (26) than strikeouts (22). 

If the Cubs have to face Bryce Harper or Freddie Freeman or Cody Bellinger in the playoffs or need some big outs against Travis Shaw and Christian Yelich in September, Wilson and Duensing may not inspire a whole lot of confidence in the fanbase watching on the edge of their respective seats.

Rookie lefty Randy Rosario was just sent down to Triple-A Iowa earlier in the week to clear room for Brandon Kintzler on the big-league roster and while his stats were good (4-0, 1.97 ERA), the underlying numbers indicate he was due for a pretty serious regression — 1.34 WHIP, 5.10 FIP, almost as many walks (16) as strikeouts (19) in 32 innings.

Rosario will undoubtedly be back up in Chicago soon and could be a factor out of the Cubs bullpen come playoff time. But that's a lot to throw on the shoulders of a 24-year-old with only 28 MLB games under his belt.

The answers, ironically, may come in the form of the two left-handers who pitched before Wilson and Duensing Thursday.

Drew Smyly threw a simulated game at Wrigley Field before the Cubs and Padres faced off and could be set to go on a rehab assignment in the very near future.

Mike Montgomery started for the Cubs and got 16 outs, continuing his trend of solid work in the rotation over the last couple months. But the Cubs also want to be cautious of Montgomery's innings and don't want to run the tall southpaw into the ground before what they hope is another run into late October. 

At some point in the regular season, they may opt to move Montgomery back into the bullpen to limit those innings. And even if they don't, it's possible the Cubs opt to flip Montgomery back to the swingman role in the bullpen for the postseason, choosing to fill out the potential playoff rotation with the likes of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels.

Smyly and Yu Darvish are the wild cards here. 

The Cubs aren't counting on anything from Darvish the rest of this season, but almost two months remain until the first playoff game. If he can actually kick this arm injury, he figures to have a spot in the rotation locked up and Montgomery is the natural choice to move back to the bullpen given he has plenty of recent experience in that role.

Smyly is recovering from Tommy John surgery and hasn't thrown a pitch in a big-league game since 2016, but he could fill a variety of roles for the Cubs down the stretch — a left-handed reliever capable of going multiple innings, a starting pitcher or something else entirely.

It's impossible to just assume a guy will find his form and command in less than a month of actual game action on a rehab assignment before the minor league seasons wrap up.

But Smyly and the Cubs were encouraged after his 30-pitch sim game Thursday.

"Good. I thought he finished strongly," Maddon said. "He agreed with that. His fastball started to jump that second 15 pitches. Little bit of command issues with his curve and his changeup. Not sharp, but only threw three in each set.

"But fastball got better and it finished really strong and he felt good about himself. ... Smyly left smiling."

The Cubs clearly believe in Smyly enough to give him a 2-year, $10 million contract last winter despite a guarantee he would miss at least the first four months of the 2018 season.

The 29-year-old lefty pitched for Maddon briefly for the Tampa Bay Rays at the tail end of the 2014 season. He has also worked with first-year Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey the last three-and-a-half seasons between Tampa Bay and Chicago.

Epstein said on the last homestand the Cubs plan to stretch Smyly out whenever he's able to get down to the minors and start a rehab assignment. So that leaves open the possibility that he can serve as some rotation depth.

But the most likely scenario is Smyly contributing in some form out of the Cubs' bullpen. It's been a few years, but he has a solid track record as a reliever — 7-0, 2.47 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.7 K/9 in 71 appearances out of the bullpen.

When it comes time for a big at-bat by a dangerous left-handed hitter in September or October, it may be Smyly that Maddon turns to out of the bullpen, not Wilson or Duensing.