Kyle Schwarber

Bold predictions for the Cubs' 2019-20 offseason

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USA TODAY

Bold predictions for the Cubs' 2019-20 offseason

The Cubs are just a couple of weeks away from a pivotal offseason that could see a lot of change coming to Chicago's North Side.

Then again, we thought the same thing a year ago and it turned out Theo Epstein's biggest move last winter was signing Daniel Descalso to a two-year deal.

But after missing the playoffs in 2019, the Cubs are now at a crossroads as an organization. 

The NBC Sports Chicago crew previewed the offseason on the latest CubsTalk Podcast with some bold predictions for the winter.

Listen here and check out the fearless calls below:

(Note: Rationale and more context on each bold prediction in the podcast.)

David Kaplan

1. Cubs are going to take a page out of the Yankees' book and retool on the fly rather than go all-in to contend in 2020.
2. Jose Quintana has thrown his last pitch as a Cub.
3. This will be the second-to-last offseason for Theo Epstein as the Cubs president of baseball operations.

Kelly Crull 

1. Cubs re-sign Nick Castellanos and trade away Kyle Schwarber.
2. Tyler Chatwood will be in the 2020 rotation.
3. John Lackey will be named quality assurance coach on David Ross's coaching staff. (Kidding, but only kind of...)

Tony Andracki

1. Before the Cubs play a Spring Training game, Javy Baez will sign an extension that will keep him in Chicago through at least 2023.
2. Willson Contreras will be traded this winter and the Cubs will get some much-needed pitching help in return.
3. Cubs sign Howie Kendrick this winter as the professional bat and lefty-masher they craved in 2019.
4. Ben Zobrist will return on a one-year deal and finish his playing career in a Cubs uniform.
5. David Bote, Albert Almora Jr. and Addison Russell will all be traded or non-tendered this winter as the Cubs remake their bench/depth.

Jeff Nelson

1. Willson Contreras will sign a contract extension.
2. Ben Zobrist will return as a player/coach.
3. Jose Quintana will be traded for minor league depth.
4. Terrance Gore will be signed to be the 26th man on the roster under the new rules.

What goes into the Cubs' decision on Nicholas Castellanos' future

What goes into the Cubs' decision on Nicholas Castellanos' future

It did not take long for Nicholas Castellanos to endear himself to Cubs fans.

In fact, you might say it happened immediately, on Opening Day...

The marriage between the Cubs and Castellanos could not have gone any better. Neither side could dream up a more perfect pairing over the final two months of this 2019 season.

Castellanos instantly became a huge part of the Cubs offense and his passion and energy was palpable. He said he was stoked to be in the MLB playoff race for the first time since 2014 (his rookie season) and his actions spoke even louder than his words. 

Case in point:

As Joe Maddon famously said, Castellanos reminded the Cubs "what hunger looks like."

That particular quote maybe rubbed some of the players in that clubhouse the wrong way, but Castellanos certainly did not. He quietly became a leader and earned the respect of his new teammates in a very short time.

So what's next for the Castellanos-Cubs pairing?

He's a free agent right after this fall's World Series ends, but Cubs fans have already been petitioning for months to re-sign him. 

Don't worry, they're not alone in that desire.

"Man, I love everything about Nick Castellanos," Theo Epstein said in his end-of-season presser Monday afternoon. "What a job he did coming in. I don't think you can ask more of an in-season trade acquisition than what he did. The production, the consistency, the dynamic at-bats that he had and then the way he went about it — just with a lot of passion, a lot of professionalism, a lot of hard work, a team-oriented approach. Really became invested in the Cubs and his teammates in a short period of time. 

"Love the way he plays the game and would love to have him back. It's obviously a more complicated issue than just we do love to have the guy back. He's worked long and hard to get to free agency. He had an unbelievable year — especially his time with the Cubs — and he deserves the right to take that into the free-agent market. He knows that we'd love to have him back, but he also knows that it's not as simple as that."

How good was Castellanos' run with the Cubs?

In only 51 games (a third of a season), he racked up 2.0 WAR by FanGraphs' metric, ranking sixth among all Cubs position players in 2019. That's more than Jason Heyward (1.9 WAR in 147 games), David Bote (1.5 WAR in 127 games), Victor Caratini (1.4 WAR in 95 games), Addison Russell (0.5 WAR in 82 games) and Albert Almora Jr. (-0.7 WAR in 130 games).

Castellanos hit more home runs (16) with the Cubs than he did with the Tigers (11) in half the games. But he still rated negatively as a defender in Chicago and it's hard to expect he'll hit .321 with a 1.002 OPS forever when he has never hit over .300 or posted an OPS over .863 in a full season in his career. 

It would be unfair to extrapolate Castellanos' production from the two months in a Cubs uniform over a full season year over year. But he doesn't turn 28 until March, this was only his second season playing the outfield full time and right field at Wrigley is not exactly an easy place to get used to quickly with the wind, sun and having the stands right on top of the foul line.

Castellanos also provides an impact that can go far beyond the back of his baseball card or what his Baseball Reference page says.

The Cubs are prioritizing a focus on coming together more as a team and avoiding the "winner's trap" — common themes throughout Epstein's end-of-season presser. For an organization trying to forge a new identity and winning culture, what better guy to help lead that charge than one who thrives on pressure and is extremely hungry and driven to win?

"I love expectations and pressure to win," Castellanos said last weekend in St. Louis when asked what he learned about himself in his two months with the Cubs. "I loved being in the pennant race. I loved it. And I think being in that environment brought the best out of me."

After toiling away in Detroit with an organization that has lost 310 games over the last three seasons, Castellanos made no secret about how grateful he was to be in the thick of a postseason race with the Cubs until the final week or so of the season.

"I mean, I haven't played baseball like this since I was in high school, really," he said. "So I don't know what I was doing. I was just being myself and everything that you guys saw was just genuine, raw emotion because of how much I wanted to win and I wanted to be in October baseball. I wanted to win, man. I won a lot as an amateur baseball player. I was on a lot of cool teams that did a lot of cool things — won a gold medal in Venezuela, won state championships in high school, summer ball tournaments. 

"I haven't been able to do that at all as a professional. None of my minor -league teams finished out too good. I was able to celebrate a Division Series in '14, but I was so young and the game was so fast, I didn't really get to appreciate it yet. To be back in it this year, I enjoyed the shit out of it."

When asked if he would like to return to the Cubs next season, Castellanos turned to the reporter and in his direct — but not standoffish — manner, asked, "What do you think?" That provided a stronger, clearer answer than anything else he could've said.

But he did elaborate on how it felt with the way Cubdom embraced him and welcomed him in so quickly.

"I love the fans here," he said. "Being able to walk to and from the park, just seeing how much they genuinely love the Cubs. Winning by 10 or losing by 10 — they're in it and they're focused and they love their Cubs and I think that it's awesome. It's great. It's pure and it was a lot of fun to be a part of it."

"Pure" is maybe the best word to describe Castellanos' time as a Cub in 2019 — from the fan's love for him to his passion and energy on the field and motivation to win. 

He plans on heading into free agency with an open mind and will particularly pay attention to how Epstein maneuvers the Cubs' offseason and how much change is truly coming to the North Side of Chicago.

Ultimately, it might be a tough fit for the Cubs given Kyle Schwarber's hold on one of the corner outfield spots after a breakout campaign. Would they want to move Jason Heyward to center field full-time? He just turned 30 and was a five-time Gold Glover in right field. 

Castellanos is also repped by Scott Boras, so don't expect any sort of discount to return to the Cubs — especially since his final two months should make him an appealing target for just about any team on the open market.

There is a lot to be decided if the Castellanos-Cubs pairing is going to continue. But one thing's for sure, he sees the potential of this club:

"[They] have a group of unbelievably talented kids here," he said. "And it was a lot of fun to be their teammate and play with them and see what makes them tick."

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Glass half-full: Some September positives for the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Glass half-full: Some September positives for the Cubs

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs just got swept by the last-place, 91-loss Pirates and haven't "flown the W" since Sept. 16.

Thursday marked the very first game in the Joe Maddon era that had zero playoff implications for the Cubs. It was also the first such experience for Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr. in the big leagues.

So it's understandable if Cubs fans aren't feeling too "glass half full" right about now. 

But things haven't been all bad during September. Zooming out and looking big picture, there are some clear positives to take away from what was otherwise a disastrous month for the Cubs.

Yu Darvish

Darvish's season is done, with the Cubs announcing Thursday they're shutting down the 33-year-old right-hander. He finishes 6-8 with a 3.98 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 229 strikeouts on the year — an enormous bounceback season in his second season in Chicago.

After accounting for just 40 innings across 8 starts in his first year of a $126 million contract, he pitched 178.2 innings in 31 starts this season. 

Darvish will go down as one of the Cubs' MVPs of the season with a huge second half that included a 2.39 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in September with 46 strikeouts against only 4 walks. That's especially impressive considering he began the month with a forearm issue.

All the "new year, new Yu" talk about Darvish in spring training came to fruition and he will head into the offseason and 2020 on a high note. That's huge for a team that will be facing some big decisions on the pitching staff.

Nico Hoerner

Once a wrist injury cost him two months of the season, nobody expected the Cubs' top prospect up in the big leagues in 2019. But injuries to Javy Baez and Russell prompted the promotion and the rookie has impressed in a huge way. 

Hoerner has hit .288 with a .789 OPS and his elite contact skills have transferred from the minors to the big leagues. It sure looks like he's going to play a big part on the 2020 roster — potentially even on Opening Day.

"You cannot have possibly asked for more than you’ve got out of Nico," Maddon said. "And the thing is, he’s gonna keep getting better. This guy is a gym rat when it comes to baseball. He loves doing this and he does it really, really well. He’s a solid, really good baseball player and he’s gonna keep getting better. I really believe that."

Hoerner has had some hiccups at shortstop in the big leagues, but he has also shown he can clearly be valuable insurance to Javy Baez there next season. He played a lot of second base and center field in the minors and Maddon said he will roll Hoerner out in those roles over the final series in St. Louis.

Mix that all with his composure, competitive nature and team-focused mindset and it looks like the Cubs have found a core piece of the team moving forward.

Future pitching options

The 2020 bullpen is emerging as one of the most intriguing storylines surrounding the Cubs this winter and the Wi(e)cks are a big reason why. 

Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck each pitched 9.2 innings in September and in those outings combined for 26 strikeouts while allowing just 6 hits and 3 earned runs. 

Wick had already emerged as a high-leverage reliever earlier in the season, but with injuries to Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler, he ascended as Maddon's most trusted bullpen arm in the season's final month. Wieck quickly earned high-leverage opportunities, as well, and not only as a situational lefty. 

Both guys figure to play key roles for the 2020 team.

Beyond that, Alec Mills also impressed in his 4 appearances (0.84 ERA) this month, including a spot start last week against the Cardinals where he tossed 4.2 shutout innings. He will start against St. Louis again Friday and enters the winter in the swingman mix on next season's pitching staff.

Tyler Chatwood is firmly in that swingman mix, if not the frontrunner for the Cubs' fifth starter spot. Including a spot start and six relief appearances in September, Chatwood posted a 1.38 ERA in September to go along with a 0.85 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 13 innings. That lowers his season ERA to 3.76 in his resurgent campaign. 

Chatwood has been dealing with a mild shoulder injury, so the Cubs don't know yet if he will pitch again this season.

On more of a personal level, the Cubs also had the opportunity to give Danny Hultzen his first MLB experience and potentially send Pedro Strop out on a good note. 

Hultzen, 29, was the second overall pick back in 2011 and faced a tough road to the big leagues after a variety of injuries. His six games haven't been perfect (4 hits allowed, 2 walks, 1 hit-batter and he also committed an error), but he has yet to give up a run and has 5 strikeouts in 3.1 innings since his debut on Sept. 8.

If this is the end of the line for the 34-year-old Strop in a Cubs uniform, he'll go down as one of the best relievers in franchise history. He's a free agent after this season and his 2019 was marred by injury and struggles on the mound (4.99 ERA). But he has a 1.29 ERA in September and he was — fittingly — the last Cub to throw at pitch at Wrigley this season.

Short-term injuries

This month's injuries will be near the top of reasons why this 2019 season won't end in any playoffs for the Cubs. But the good news is none of the injuries figure to impact the players for 2020 or beyond.

Kimbrel's elbow inflammation was minor and he was at least hitting 96 and 97 mph on the gun during his difficult return to the mound against the Cardinals last weekend. 

Anthony Rizzo's nasty-looking sprained ankle somehow healed enough in three days to allow him to heroically suit up against the Cardinals, but now that the Cubs are officially eliminated, they won't risk any further injury by playing him. The same goes for Bryant, who felt very fortunate he didn't suffer a bad knee injury or anything else when he slipped on first base Sunday at Wrigley Field.

Baez's fractured thumb did not require surgery and he's been able to pinch-hit once and run the bases a few times over the last week, even if he hasn't been well enough to play the field. 

Zobrist's return

It feels like so long ago, but this month actually began with the return of Ben Zobrist to the active roster after four months tending to his family situation.

It was clear the Cubs missed him both as a player and as a person and the fans were ecstatic to have their 2016 World Series MVP back. As far as production on the field, the 38-year-old Zobrist looked like he hadn't missed any time, hitting .295 with a .377 on-base percentage and .787 OPS. 

With his contract up after this season, it was good to see him get back on the field and have an opportunity to potentially end his career in Chicago on a high note instead of on personal leave. 

Schwarber keeps mashing

Schwarber continues to rake in the second half of the season and enters the weekend series with a .341 batting average and 1.086 OPS in 94 September plate appearances. He also leads the team in RBI for the month (18) and looks to have taken a step forward as an overall run producer since the All-Star Break. 

After getting the day off Thursday, Schwarber will rejoin the starting lineup in St. Louis and a huge series could net him 40 homers and 100 RBI for the season (he's currently at 37 and 91, respectively). 

With the way he's finished the season, he's silenced a lot of doubters and looks to be key piece for this team in 2020 and beyond.