Justin Wilson

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

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USA TODAY

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

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:

New York Mets

2018 record: 77-85, 4th in NL East

Offseason additions: Robinson Cano, Wilson Ramos, Edwin Diaz, J.D. Davis, Jeurys Familia, Jed Lowrie, Adeiny Hechavarria, Keon Broxton, Justin Wilson, Luis Avilan, Hector Santiago, Arismendy Alcantara, Rajai Davis, Carlos Gomez

Offseason departures: David Wright, Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Wilmer Flores, Jerry Blevins, Jose Reyes, Austin Jackson, A.J. Ramos, Jose Lobaton, Kevin Plawecki 

X-factor: Noah Syndergaard

This Mets team got a whole lot better this winter, but they will still need to lean heavily on the guys they already had in-house prior to the offseason. Syndergaard is chief among them.

When healthy, Thor is one of the best pitchers in baseball, capable of hitting triple digits with his fastball to pair with a wicked slider in the low-90s. The problem is, Syndergaard hasn't been all that healthy lately. He's pitched just 184.2 innings over the last two seasons and made only 25 starts a year ago. 

It seems like it's been eons since the Mets pitching staff overwhelmed the Cubs in the 2015 NLCS. All those young aces haven't been healthy all at the same time since then, plus the Mets broke up the group when they dealt away Matt Harvey last year.

The 2019 Mets have the potential to be very good, but it's hard to see them keeping up with the rest of the top teams in the powerhouse NL East unless both Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom are healthy all year.

Projected lineup

1. Brandon Nimmo - CF
2. Jeff McNeil - LF
3. Robinson Cano - 2B
4. Wilson Ramos - C
5. Michael Conforto - RF
6. J.D. Davis - 3B
7. Dominic Smith - 1B
8. Amed Rosario - SS

Projected rotation

1. Jacob deGrom
2. Noah Syndergaard
3. Steven Matz
4. Zack Wheeler
5. Jason Vargas

Outlook

There was a strong case to crown the Mets the winners of the offseason before the Phillies added Bryce Harper a couple weeks ago. Who knows how it will all play out, but new GM Brodie Van Wagenen has put together a very good team on paper that is significantly better than the roster that surprisingly hung around the .500 mark a year ago.

Adding Cano and Diaz were the huge splashes, but Ramos and Lowrie are steady contributors, bringing back former closer Familia was a nice move and adding depth guys (Wilson, Broxton, Hechavarria, Avilan, Rajai Davis, Gomez, etc.) were key. 

But their most underrated acquisition might just be infielder J.D. Davis, a slugger whom they acquired from the Astros in a January trade. At the moment, it appears he has the inside track to be the Mets' Opening Day starter at third base while Todd Frazier and Lowrie are hurt. Davis turns 26 in April and hit .342/.406/.583 (.988 OPS) with 17 homers and 81 RBI in just 85 Triple-A games last year in the Houston farm system.

Between Davis and a pair of power-hitting first base prospects (Dominic Smith, Pete Alonso), the Mets have some young offensive talent ready for the big leagues, plus Nimmo and McNeil — who enjoyed breakouts in 2018. 

If the Mets are goin to keep pace with the rest of their division, they're going to need depth and it looks like they have it in spades right now. They have three quality big-league catchers with solid resumes (Ramos plus Travis d'Arnaud and Devin Mesoraco) plus Juan Lagares, who might be their best defensive outfielder. 

Once Frazier and Lowrie return shortly after Opening Day and Yoenis Cespedes follows sometime around midseason, this could be a very, very good lineup. Just think what this offense might look like if 23-year-old Rosario finally puts it all together and shows why he was a consenus Top 10 MLB prospect prior to the 2017 campaign.

However, there are still a ton of question marks with this team that are holding it back right now. Is this the year Conforto takes that next step into stardom? Will Cano and Ramos stay healthy (and can Lowrie avoid further injury when he returns)? How much will Cespedes produce in 2019? Is Nimmo the guy that put up a Joey Votto-esque .450 OBP and walked more than he struck out in August and September or is he more like the guy who posted a .346 OBP with 74 whiffs in 50 games in June and July?

This pitching staff is also very top-heavy. After deGrom and Syndergaard in the rotation and Diaz and Familia in the bullpen, nobody knows quite what the Mets will get from the rest of their arms. Wheeler and Matz enjoyed bounceback seasons a year ago, but they still need to prove their checkered injury histories are in the rearview mirror.

There's more than enough talent on this team to compete, but will they have enough to compete with the likes of the Phillies, Braves and Nationals? I'm not betting on it, but hey, I've been wrong before (just once, though, and it was back in my high school days).

Prediction: 4th in NL East, a few games behind in the Wild-Card race

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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Former Cubs reliever Justin Wilson signs with Mets

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USA TODAY

Former Cubs reliever Justin Wilson signs with Mets

It didn't appear Justin Wilson was in the future plans of the Cubs' bullpen, but the left-handed reliever has found a new home.

According to multiple reports, Wilson has signed with the Mets. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic was first to report the news. Jon Heyman of MLB Network added terms of the deal.

The Cubs traded for Wilson at the 2017 trade deadline and he had an up and down tenure on the North Side. Wilson was extremely erratic with his control after joining from the Tigers. He walked 19 batters in 17 1/3 innings with the Cubs that season, after walking 16 in 40 1/3 innings with the Tigers earlier in the year.

Wilson improved in 2018 though. He still struggled with his command (33 walks in 54 2/3 innings), but had 69 strikeouts and a 3.46 ERA. The 31-year-old was second on the Cubs with 71 appearances.

Brian Duensing, Randy Rosario and potentially Mike Montgomery, if he moves back to the bullpen after making 19 starts in 2018 could, are currently in line to be the Cubs' lefties out of the pen in 2019.

This comes just a day after it was reported the Cubs signed righty reliever Brad Brach.

 

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The state of Cubs pitching staff for the win-or-go-home Wild-Card game

The state of Cubs pitching staff for the win-or-go-home Wild-Card game

"Jon Lester."

That was Steve Cishek's response when he was asked why he feels so confident that his team is going to come away winners in the National League Wild-Card game Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.

Hard to argue with that. There's a very strong case to be made that my article here should've stopped after those two words, since the state of the Cubs' pitching rests on Lester's shoulders (namely his left) against the Colorado Rockies.

But there are a lot of factors at play here, though none of them are really all that comforting for Cubs fans beyond the fact that Lester is the starter.

This is exactly what the Cubs have had in mind for weeks (if they needed it) - Jose Quintana for a potential Game 163 against the Brewers and Lester in the Wild-Card Game.

Cole Hamels will also be available for Cubs manager Joe Maddon in Tuesday's game if anything crazy happens (extra innings, injury, etc.). Kyle Hendricks warmed up in Monday's game, but Maddon said he will not be available Tuesday, instead holding him back for a potential Game 1 of the NLDS if the Cubs can get there.

"Those guys are amenable," Maddon said. "That permitted me to be even more aggressive with the bullpen knowing you had Kyle in the background today and tomorrow you have Cole."

The bullpen has been a major focus on this Cubs team all season and particularly over the last month as Brandon Morrow's comeback fell short and Pedro Strop injured his hamstring in Washington D.C. almost three weeks ago.

Maddon wasn't sure if Strop would be available Tuesday, but the Cubs reliever told ESPN's Marly Rivera he'll be ready for the Wild-Card game:

Cishek is the other big question mark after working three days in a row coming into Tuesday (and five out of the last six days), but he insisted he'll be ready.

"All arms on deck - it's October baseball," Cishek said after Monday's 3-1 loss. "I'm gonna say I'm good no matter what. I know I'll have a chip on my shoulder. As a team, there's no doubt we will."

Even though he's had so much work recently, Cishek hasn't thrown a ton of pitches - totaling just 27 over the last three games. 

Still, four games in a row is not something any reliever is used to, especially when Cishek just set a new career high in appearances (80) and innings (70.1) in his age-32 season.

"Cishek - he's the guy that's been pitching often, but very briefly. The cameo appearances," Maddon said. "Shek is the guy I really gotta pay attention to, but more recently, I've just been trying to jab with him as opposed to throwing him out there for a whole inning."

Maddon leaned on Jesse Chavez for two innings Monday, but the 35-year-old righty needed only 16 pitches to get those six outs and should have no limitations for Tuesday.

Justin Wilson threw just 8 pitches Monday so should be fresh for Tuesday, but it will be curious to see how he'll be used. He's allowed 4 runs on 5 hits over his last two outings while recording just 2 outs, watching his season ERA climb from 2.83 to 3.46.

Carl Edwards Jr. did not throw Monday, but he's also struggled over the last month and is on the bubble of Maddon's circle of trust despite possessing the best pure stuff of any pitcher in the Cubs bullpen.

Jorge De La Rosa should be ready to roll Tuesday after not pitching Monday.

With only two starters needed on the 25-man roster, the Cubs figure to have room for at least two extra arms in the bullpen against the Rockies. 

Who those two arms are is still a major question, especially since Mike Montgomery - who was projected to roll back into the postseason bullpen - may not be available after throwing 33 pitches Sunday. 

Alec Mills also worked a lot (49 pitches) Sunday and probably won't be available for the Wild-Card game.

If Montgomery can't go, the Cubs can choose from a collection of these guys:

Randy Rosario
Brian Duensing
Dillon Maples
James Norwood
Allen Webster
Tyler Chatwood

Veterans Jaime Garcia and Brandon Kintzler are both question marks after throwing 38 and 36 pitches, respectively, over the last two days.

Still, it all comes down to Lester - the guy the Cubs signed to a $155 million deal to transform their clubhouse and pitching staff (which he has absolutely done).

"It is comforting. Jon's out there, Jon's been there, done that. Jon will be ready to roll," Maddon said. "Again, you're gonna have a little bit longer leash with him - let him pitch through some moments if it gets thick. But feel pretty good about Jonny out there tomorrow."