Milwaukee Brewers

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

nl_look_ahead_brewers_slide.jpg
AP

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

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:

Milwaukee Brewers

2018 record: 96-67, 1st in NL Central

Offseason additions: Yasmani Grandal, Alex Claudio, Ben Gamel, Bobby Wahl, Cory Spangenberg, Brett Lawrie, Tuffy Gosewisch, Jake Petricka...and maybe Craig Kimbrel??

Offseason departures: Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, Jonathan Schoop, Wade Miley, Xavier Cedeno, Curtis Granderson, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles, Dan Jennings, Joakim Soria

X-factor: Jimmy Nelson

The 29-year-old right-hander emerged as the ace of the Milwaukee pitching staff with a breakout 2017 campaign (12-6, 3.49 ERA, 10.2 K/9) but hasn't thrown a pitch in a game since Sept. 8 of that season.

He's been dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him on the shelf all of last season and will ensure he won't break camp with the club this spring. But he is currently on the comeback trail and still expected to take a spot in the rotation at some point early this year.

When he returns, what kind of pitcher will he be? Is he the guy that struck out 199 batters and walked only 48 in 175.1 innings (as he did in 2017)? Or is he the pitcher that led the NL with 86 walks against only 140 whiffs in 179.1 innings in 2016? 

And how healthy will Nelson be? After missing an entire season, will his innings limit be somewhere around 100 frames?

Not much has changed for the Brewers from a year ago in that they still have a clear weakness in their rotation but a dynamite bullpen. But they obviously made it work last year.

If Nelson can return and give the Brewers some really valuable innings to begin games before he hands it over to Josh Hader and Co., that could be a huge asset to a squad that won 96 games and made it a one victory shy of the World Series without him.

Projected lineup

1. Lorenzo Cain - CF
2. Christian Yelich - RF
3. Jesus Aguilar - 1B
4. Travis Shaw - 3B
5. Ryan Braun - LF
6. Mike Moustakas - 2B
7. Yasmani Grandal - C
8. Orlando Arcia - SS

Projected rotation

1. Jhoulys Chacin
2. Chase Anderson
3. Zach Davies
4. Corbin Burnes
5. Freddy Peralta

Outlook

For all the talk of the Cubs' quiet winter, the Brewers were just as silent. Then again, they were the ascending team heading into the winter after they caught the Cubs from behind to win the NL Central and took the Dodgers to a Game 7 in the NLCS.

The Cubs finished 11-9 against the Brewers in 2018 with a +4 run differential, illustrating how neck-in-neck the two teams were a year ago. But the Brewers' arrow is pointing up in the rivalry while the Cubs now have a Year of Reckoning. 

The Cubs jumped out to a 7-1 record against their neighbors to the north by the end of April, but that took a turn for the worse as Milwaukee went 8-4 the rest of the way (including that Game 163).

The Brewers also didn't necessarily need to add much to their roster this winter since they had so many answers in house to fill needs. 

Still, they're potentially close to making a huge splash to further improve an area of great strength. Reports trickled out from Ken Rosenthal and Robert Murray of The Athletic Tuesday night that the Brewers were in talks with free agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Jon Heyman doubled down on that info and said the talks were "getting serious" Wednesday afternoon:

That would be an incredible addition to what was already the best bullpen in the NL a year ago. Pairing Kimbrel with Josh Hader and Corey Knebel puts three of the best relievers in the game at the back end of the Milwaukee relief corps. That unit would only get better once veteran Jeremy Jeffress returns after his bout with shoulder discomfort that's limited him this spring.

The Brewers adding Kimbrel would also be a huge slap in the face to the Cubs, who have a clear need for elite bullpen arms yet maintain they don't have "any more money" to spend on the roster. 

Beyond that, the Brew Crew made some shrewd moves this winter in bringing back Moustakas and also adding Grandal on one-year deals.

Grandal is one of the best defensive catchers in the game and shores up a potential hole on the Milwaukee roster. Last season, the Brewers finished 13th in MLB in catcher WAR, but much of that was based on defensive value. The collection of catchers — Manny Pina, Erik Kratz and Jett Bandy — ranked 21st in OPS (.657) from the position. Grandal has a career .782 OPS and has hit at least 22 homers every year since 2015. 

Moustakas wasn't necessarily a game-changer for the Brewers last year when he came over in a midseason trade (.767 OPS), but he gives the lineup more length and has clubbed 66 homers with 180 RBI the last two seasons combined.

There are certainly question marks about this group of position players.

Aguilar was fantastic last year while clubbing 35 homers with 108 RBI, but he had just 16 homers in his MLB career prior to 2018 and he was a completely different hitter in the second half. Before the All-Star Break (and his appearance in the Home Run Derby), the big slugger hit 24 homers, knocked in 70 runs and posted a .995 OPS. After the break, he hit just 11 homers with 38 RBI while sporting a .760 OPS and watched as his slugging percentage fell nearly 200 points. Was that a sign the league figured him out? Was the first half simply a hot stretch and the real Aguilar is a late bloomer who is a servicable slugger, but not necessarily a 35 homer/100 RBI threat each year?

Shaw crushes righties but can't hit lefties. Braun is 35 now and coming off arguably the worst season of his career. Cain had a fantastic first season in Milwaukee, but he's 33 now it's certainly possible his best seasons are behind him. Yelich is a legit star, but will he put up a .598 slugging percentage and 1.000 OPS again this year? 

And what will Arcia's production look like? Already a defensive whiz at shortstop, the 24-year-old hit .310 with a .733 OPS the final six weeks of 2018, including going 4-for-4 against the Cubs in that Game 163.

All that being said, the Brewers should have no trouble putting up runs this year and have some remarkable depth with Eric Thames, Hernan Perez and Ben Gamel on the bench, plus guys like Spangenberg in the minors and top prospect Keston Hiura potentially right around the corner.

Milwaukee is also one of the best teams in baseball in terms of executing the shift and preventing runs, especially with elite defender Cain patrolling the outfield. That run prevention will help a rotation that again has concerns.

Chacin-Anderson-Davies isn't exactly a three-headed monster, but they've all had good seasons in the past (including Chacin last year when he certainly had the Cubs' number).

Then there's Nelson, who could play a huge role this year as well as young arms Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff — all guys who can pitch at the back end of the rotation or move to the bullpen and help bridge the gap ahead of Hader and Knebel (and maybe Kimbrel??).

The reason I have the Brewers in the middle of the pack in the division is the Chuck Tanner Rule, as David Kaplan has discussed several times on the CubsTalk Podcast. So many guys on the Brewers roster had career seasons and baseball typically normalizes over a larger sample with regression to the mean. Some of those breakouts are legit (Yelich, particularly), but to what extent?

Meanwhile, the Cardinals improved their roster this winter the Cubs are banking on positive regression for their group. Make no mistake: Even with a slight regression across the board, the Brewers are still plenty good enough to contend for the NL Central crown and potentially even the NL pennant.

Adding Kimbrel to the Brewers bullpen might push them over both the Cardinals and Cubs in my personal projections. But really, you could create any combination of how these three teams finish in the division and it'd be an easy sell.

For now, let's go with the Brewers in 3rd place, close behind the Cubs and Cardinals in the division and just out of the final Wild-Card spot.

Prediction: 3rd in NL Central, just outside 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

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

NL Central could get even tougher as Brewers enter talks with Craig Kimbrel

freeagentfocuscraigkimbrel112718_1920x1080.jpg
USA TODAY

NL Central could get even tougher as Brewers enter talks with Craig Kimbrel

According to a tweet from MLB insider Ken Rosenthal, the Milwaukee Brewers may be in the midst of making a big addition to their already dangerous bullpen.

In 2018, Kimbrel posted a 2.74 ERA with 96 strikeouts and 42 saves in 47 opportunities. His five wins in ‘18 were also tied for his career-high in a season.

If he officially signs with the Brewers, Kimbrel would join Josh Hader in the pen, who just finished the ‘18 season with 143 strikeouts and the NL Reliever of the Year award.

Kimbrel would also be joining Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress, all of whom posed big problems for the Cubs at one point or another.

The news of Kimbrel and the Brewers being in talks, combined with the recent news that new catcher Yasmani Grandal’s contract is structured in a way that will allow him to test the market again in 2020, shows that Milwaukee is extremely serious about trying to repeat as back-to-back NL Central champions.

With just over two weeks until the first Cubs-Brewers regular season game of 2019, it certainly appears that winning the NL Central is going to be an arduous task for the North Siders.

How Bryce Harper-Phillies deal will affect Cubs moving forward

How Bryce Harper-Phillies deal will affect Cubs moving forward

Now that the dust has settled on Bryce Harper's record deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, we can now turn (most of) our attention to the season ahead.

Only a few high-profile free agents remain, but otherwise we know pretty much where everybody will spend their 2019 campaign and which teams are expecting to contend.

With that, let's take a look at how Harper's 13-year contract affects the Cubs this year and moving forward:

The Cubs' road just got tougher and 2019 just got a bit more dire

While the Cubs stayed mostly stagnant this winter, the rest of the National League around them got quite a bit better.

Harper hasn't been linked to an American League team in months, but now it's official he will remain in the NL, joining forces with J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura on a much-improved Phillies team.

As a matter of fact, you could describe a bunch of NL teams as "much-improved" — on paper, at least.

The Phillies, Mets, Padres, Reds and Cardinals all got significantly better this winter while the Nationals still look every bit a contender even without Harper.

The Braves, Rockies, Brewers and Dodgers all enter 2019 with largely the same roster that earned them a trip to the playoffs a year ago, though each squad added a pretty-high profile player in free agency to improve their teams (Josh Donaldson, Daniel Murphy, Yasmani Grandal, A.J. Pollock).

Even the Pirates continue to boast an underrated roster amid their standard quiet winter.

Only the Diamondbacks got worse while the Marlins and Giants also figure to be on the outside looking in at the playoff race this year even if their roster isn't markedly worse.

Don't get me wrong — the Cubs have a great roster, too, and they have plenty of reason for optimism in the year ahead.

But don't expect the Cubs to roll through the NL this year like they did in 2016.

Their division is the hardest in baseball and it could shape up to be the toughest from top to bottom since the NL East in 2005, when the Nationals finished in last with a .500 record (81-81). 

Unless the Pirates or Reds underperform expectations in 2019 (which is entirely possible), the Cubs won't get to catch their breath within the division all year and they certainly won't get a break playing against the NL East (with 4 contending teams) or West (with potentially 3 contenders).

The NL is going to be a dogfight from start to finish and the Cubs will need every bit of their internal improvement/new sense of urgency they prioritized over the winter.

The future of Kris Bryant and others

It's probably going to be tougher for the Cubs to sign star players to extensions in the future — namely Bryant and Javy Baez.

Anthony Rizzo is a special case in that he already agreed to a team-friendly extension way back when he was in pre-arbitration, so it's definitely possible he would be open to another deal to extend his time as a Cub. He'll also be 32 by the time he hits free agency (after 2021) and leaving the prime of his career, increasing the liklihood he may just opt to re-sign with the Cubs.

But Bryant will only be 30 and Baez will be 29 as the two stars head into free agency after that 2021 season. 

With how long free agency dragged on this winter, we heard more and more talk about star players like Harper and Manny Machado possibly having to settle for short-term, high-value deals. Only a handful of teams were involved and even as recently as mid-February (at the start of spring training), nobody knew if Harper or Machado would even be able to get to the $300 million threshold they both desired.

This winter was largely a scary time for free agents. Many baseball players saw how difficult the process has become and decided they didn't want to hit the market, instead rethinking extensions with their current teams.

We've seen a bunch of that recently, as Nolan Arenado, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Nola, Luis Severino and Miles Mikolas all inked deals with their respective teams to avoid hitting free agency in the near future.

But with Machado netting $300 million over 10 years and Harper $330 million over 13 seasons, it was enough of a sigh of relief for select free agents — the stars. 

Free agency is still completely broken, especially for the guys in the middle of the pack. But Machado and Harper proved the game's truly elite players could still net record deals on the open market and Bryant and Baez may well still be among the game's elite when they hit free agency. They'll both still be firmly in the midst of their prime.

That likely doesn't change a whole lot at the negotiating table between the Cubs and Bryant's/Baez's respective camps now. But if Harper or Machado had been forced to take short-term deals or did not get the money they desired, it would've painted a scarier picture of free agency and given the Cubs a better hand to play in extension talks.

Are the Cubs nearing the end of the championship window?

Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester and Mike Montgomery join Bryant, Baez and Rizzo as notable Cubs who hit the open market after that 2021 season. 

Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana are under team control for only another two seasons.

Just about the entire bullpen is unsigned after this year and Cole Hamels and Ben Zobrist will also hit free agency in 9 months.

The farm system is ranked among the worst in the game and no stars appear to be on the cusp of hitting the big leagues.

The Cubs' championship window isn't shut by any means, but it's certainly closing. The possible end is in sight.

The Cubs already felt the need for a stronger sense of urgency in 2019, but they also are running out of time to win another ring and potentially reignite all that "dynasty" talk.

Of course, Theo Epstein's front office will continue to add to the team and build up the farm system over the next few years in an effort to keep that window of contention open longer, but this winter was a prime chance to greatly improve their roster for this season and they were instead forced to pinch pennies and only make minor additions.

Harper signing with the Phillies Thursday officially slammed the door shut for any Cubs fans who were holding out hope that all the talk of the budget woes were just to drive the price down.

And it officially eliminated any possibility of the Cubs making a huge splash before Opening Day, as Harper was essentially the last free agent that would've been a major upgrade on some area of the Cubs' roster. (Craig Kimbrel would obviously help the Cubs bullpen, but Epstein has never paid big money for a closer and the Cubs have not been linked to the right-hander at all this winter.)

So the Cubs will head to Opening Day with only Daniel Descalso, Brad Brach and possibly another bullpen arm or two as the only additions to the 25-man roster.

Who will be Cubs fans' next big target?

Now that Bryce Harper won't be available again until 2032, Cubs fans have no choice but to cross him off their free agent wish list and move on to the next name.

Will it be Anthony Rendon or Chris Sale next winter? Mike Trout, Mookie Betts or Jacob deGrom after 2020? Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa or Clayton Kershaw after 2021?

No matter who fans rally behind, we probably won't ever see anything quite like this Harper circus again.

One thing's for certain: The next free agent crush of the fanbase won't hit the open market with a dog named "Wrigley."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.