Johnny Cueto

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

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USA TODAY

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

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:

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, last place in NL West

Offseason additions: Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco, Tony Watson, Julian Fernandez

Offseason departures: Michael Morse, Matt Cain, Matt Moore, Denard Span, Kyle Crick, Christian Arroyo

X-factor: Brandon Belt

The trades for Longoria and McCutchen are going to get all the attention, but the Giants are sort of acquiring Belt, too. 

Their sweet-swining lefty first baseman only appeared in 104 games in 2017, missing the last few weeks of the season with a bad concussion. When he was on the field, he led the team in both homers (18) and walks (66) despite just 451 plate appearances. 

Belt has turned into one of the most patient hitters in the game and if he is able to stay healthy for a full season, would slot in perfectly in the 2-hole ahead of McCutchen, Longoria and Buster Posey. 

Projected lineup

1. Joe Panik - 2B
2. Brandon Belt - 1B
3. Andrew McCutchen - RF
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Hunter Pence - LF
7. Brandon Crawford - SS
8. Austin Jackson - CF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Ty Blach
5. Chris Stratton

Outlook

The Giants tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2017, surprising many around the league. Absolutely nothing went right for the team, from a lack of power on the field (Belt missed a third of the season and still led the team in homers), injuries (Bumgarner only made 17 starts) and general ineffectiveness (Mark Melancon).

But the Giants are a team that excels in even years, though the Cubs may have broken that juju by knocking San Fran out of the NLDS in 2016.

Still, between the return to health of key players and some big moves that improved the lineup, this team is primed for a return to form.

Watson is a nice piece at the back end of the bullpen and bet on a rebound from Melancon, who was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game from 2013-16 (1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 147 saves).

Expect more out of the rotation with Bumgarner and Cueto a dynamic 1-2 punch. Cubs fans are familiar with what Samardzija can do if he gets on a role, too.

It seems crazy to pick the Giants to finish higher than the Diamondbacks, but they still have the same core of players from the championship years and have a much-improved roster.

Prediction: Second place in NL West, wild-card team

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves
New York Mets

Anthony Rizzo knows how Cubs have to respond now: ‘This isn’t my first rodeo’

Anthony Rizzo knows how Cubs have to respond now: ‘This isn’t my first rodeo’

SAN FRANCISCO – Anthony Rizzo isn’t so much the leader of the Cubs as he’s a good dude who came along with the right attitude for this team at the right time. A franchise burdened by history needed guys to play loose, without constantly feeling that weight of 1908 on their shoulders. A young team responded to someone who had been there during the lost years, reminding them to have fun and stay relaxed.

Most of all – in a bottom-line business – this is a Silver Slugger/Gold Glove first baseman in position for his third straight 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Rizzo attacked his weaknesses, overhauling his swing, making adjustments against left-handed pitchers and choking up with two strikes. The kind of growth the Cubs are still waiting to see from some of their other 20-something hitters.

Rizzo has shown the ability to carry a team, that when he gets hot, it seems like the rest of the lineup can feel it. Willson Contreras had become that guy – until he felt something in his right hamstring during Wednesday’s painful loss to the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Whatever comes out of Thursday’s MRI in the Phoenix area, you know Rizzo will be the same guy on Friday when he goes back to work.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” Rizzo said. “I’ve had guys go down around me. Guys get traded. It’s part of the game. I’m not going to change who I am, my approach. I’m going to stay within myself. That’s the only thing you can do. You start pressing, you’re going to find yourself in a bad spot.”

Contreras emerging as a legitimate cleanup hitter – combined with the Jose Quintana trade, a roster getting closer to full strength and the refreshed feeling from a mini-vacation – explains the Cubs winning 13 of their first 16 games after the All-Star break leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.

But the defending World Series champs have since lost three consecutive series to two likely playoff teams – the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals – and an organization that might wind up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.

The National League Central opened on Thursday with four teams separated by less than four games, with the Cubs getting a day off in the desert before this weekend’s three-game series against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

“We’re losing games we got to win,” Rizzo said. “That’s it. There’s really nothing more to it. You just got to win baseball games.”

Doing that consistently becomes so much harder without Contreras, the young catcher who had put up 10 of his 21 homers and a 1.080 OPS since the All-Star break.

But there was nothing easy about how the Cubs avoided an elimination game against Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner last October, survived a 21-inning scoreless drought against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series and beat the Cleveland Indians in an epic World Series Game 7.

“What can you do?” Rizzo said. “It’s part of the game. Guys get hurt. You got to be ready for it. Obviously, you don’t want someone in the middle of your order – especially the year he’s having – to go down. It’s upsetting for him, and for us, too. But we got to keep playing baseball.”

How Cubs are positioned for a Giant run – right now and in the future

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USA TODAY

How Cubs are positioned for a Giant run – right now and in the future

SAN FRANCISCO – Since last October, the San Francisco Giants have gone from nearly pushing the Cubs into a dreaded elimination game against Johnny Cueto to racing the White Sox to the bottom for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
 
The Cubs are headed for that Giant crash someday. Maybe Theo Epstein leaves Wrigley Field in a gorilla suit, the players tune out Joe Maddon’s “Easy Rider” act and Jon Lester’s $155 million left arm finally breaks down and the pitching infrastructure collapses.
 
Who knows? Perhaps all those young hitters weren’t quite as good as we thought they were. Years of drafting near the bottom of the first round and spending restrictions within the collective bargaining agreement will slow down – if not stop – the flow of young, blue-chip talent to Wrigleyville.

Nothing lasts forever.

But San Francisco’s free fall into last place in the National League West – 36 games behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers – is a reality check for the relative struggles of a first-place team and a reminder of how well the defending champs are positioned for the future.

Because as much as the Cubs obsessed about the Boston Red Sox during the rebuilding years, the Giants represented an ideal of business/baseball synergies with stable leadership, a spectacular waterfront stadium, big-market payrolls, a talented homegrown core and the mental toughness to win World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

To put it in perspective now: Anthony Rizzo will turn 28 on Tuesday and is only 14 months older than Joe Panik, the Gold Glove/All-Star second baseman viewed as the young guy in San Francisco’s clubhouse.

Jason Heyward was born the day after Rizzo in 1989. Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. are all between the ages of 25 and 23. Ian Happ will turn 23 this weekend. It won’t just be seeing the black and orange all around AT&T Park during a three-game series that begins Monday night and returning to the scene of last year’s epic Game 4 comeback and raucous celebration in the visiting clubhouse.

“When we go play other teams, I’m still struck by how we’re always the youngest team on the field,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We have this young core of position players at basically every position who are guys that were all top-10, top-15 prospects in baseball who are wearing rings on their finger from last year.”

So, no, the Cubs aren’t worried about the “Bottom of the Barrel” label that Baseball America put on their farm system, ranking it as one of the industry’s worst after the July 31 trade deadline and aggressive moves for Jose Quintana, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.

“Certainly, we’ve traded a number of prospects to go out and win a World Series and strengthen ourselves for the future,” Hoyer said. “Prospect rankings are valuable in some ways. I think how big your prospects are is – in some ways – a good view into sort of organizational health. But we’re unusual in that way.

“It’s really difficult or challenging to look at our organization in that way, because on the one hand, yes, we’ve traded a number of prospects. But on the other hand, we’ve really protected that core of players that are in the big leagues. And that’s a very deep core of super-talented players who are young and under control for a long time. We’re an incredibly healthy organization from a young-talent standpoint.”

The guess here is that the Cubs brand is so strong, team officials are so good at marketing their young players and there are enough legitimate assets to get some names on Baseball America’s 2018 top 100.

But looking back at those rankings heading into the 2012 season – the first full year for the Epstein regime – shows how unpredictable this business can be: Brett Jackson placed 32nd on a top 100 where the top five went Bryce Harper, Matt Moore, Mike Trout, Yu Darvish and Julio Teheran.

Baseball America slotted Rizzo at No. 47 in between Randall Delgado and Billy Hamilton. Matt Szczur landed at No. 64, or one spot ahead of Sonny Gray. At No. 61, Baez fell two spots behind George Springer, who got this blurb: “Figures to battle Rangers’ Mike Olt for title of best UConn position player in the big leagues.”

Sooner or later, the Cubs will have a new TV deal that will enhance all their built-in advantages over the small-market franchises in the NL Central. The potential departures of free agents like Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Wade Davis, Jon Jay, Koji Uehara, Brian Duensing and Avila could create more than $50 million in payroll space.

Quintana’s club-friendly deal – which will make him an anchor for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations at just under $31 million – allows the Cubs to think big and add another star player. Epstein’s front office also structured long-term contracts for Lester and Ben Zobrist with a curve that made upfront payments, took their ages into account and decreased the financial commitment on the back end.

So while 1908 hung over everything the Cubs once did, in reality the operating philosophy could be summed up like this: Get into the playoffs, say, seven times in 10 seasons and there should be a year – or two or maybe even three – where your team stays healthy, gets hot, runs into the right matchups and makes enough plays for a parade down Michigan Avenue.

The 2017 Cubs are staying in the picture.