NL Central

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

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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.

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

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USA TODAY

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

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:

Cincinnati Reds

2018 record: 67-95, 5th in NL Central

Offseason additions: Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Derek Dietrich, Jose Iglesias, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Zach Duke, Kyle Farmer, Odrisamer Despaigne, Matt Bowman, Anthony Bass

Offseason departures: Homer Bailey, Billy Hamilton, Matt Harvey, Shed Long, Tanner Rainey, Robby Scott

X-factor: Sonny Gray

The 29-year-old right-hander looks to be in line for the Reds' Opening Day start, which somehow makes all the sense in the world and zero sense at the same time.

Gray might have the highest upside of any pitcher in the Reds rotation and he's certainly a lot more established than up-and-comer Luis Castillo. And with fellow newcomer Alex Wood expected to start the year on the injured list, it's easy to make the case that Gray would get the ball Opening Day.

On the other hand, he's coming off a season in which he posted a 4.90 ERA and 1.50 WHIP with the New York Yankees and was banished to the bullpen by the end of the year. Gray has had an up-and-down career, evidenced clearly by his season-by-season ERA:

2013: 2.67
2014: 3.08
2015: 2.73
2016: 5.69
2017: 3.55
2018: 4.90

He was an All-Star in 2015 and finished 3rd in AL Cy Young voting that same year, but then was a disaster the next season, posting a -0.3 WAR with the A's. 

He's still in his prime and a nice buy-low pickup for the Reds, who needed pitching any way they could get it. A move to the NL should help Gray in that he gets to face the pitcher's spot a couple times a game (until the league adopts, the DH, that is), but he's moving to an extreme hitter's park in Great American Ballpark and the NL is loaded with talent this year across every lineup in the league. 

If Gray can pitch like a front-of-the-rotation arm, the $38 million he's owed over the next four seasons will look like a hell of a bargain. If he can't, that's a hefty salary to pay for a mid-market franchise.

That being said, Gray doesn't have to pitch all that well to be considered a "front-of-the-rotation starter" by Cincinnati's standards. The Reds finished 24th in baseball in ERA last year and were 25th in rotation ERA (5.02). They ranked 29th in starter's ERA in 2017 and have not finished outside the bottom 10 in rotation ERA since 2014 when Johnny Cueto was still in town and Homer Bailey was actually good.

Projected lineup

1. Jesse Winker - LF
2. Joey Votto - 1B
3. Eugenio Suarez - 3B
4. Scooter Gennett - 2B
5. Yasiel Puig - RF
6. Scott Shebler - CF
7. Jose Peraza - SS
8. Tucker Barnhart - C

Projected rotation

1. Sonny Gray
2. Luis Castillo
3. Tanner Roark
4. Anthony DeSclafani
5. Tyler Mahle

Outlook

This is a much, much improved roster. That's not to say the Reds will win 90 games this year or even challenge for the NL Wild-Card, but they likely won't lose 95 games again, either. Realistically, we're talking about a team that will probably hover around .500 this year, but that would be a very welcome sight for fans given they haven't finished even close to a winning record since 2013.

Cincinnati's front office took on a bunch of salary to acquire Puig and Kemp, but also were able to shed some of Bailey's salary in the process and added some much-needed outfield depth and right-handed pop to the lineup. The rotation also has a complete makeover, with solid upgrades in Gray, Roark and Wood. None of the three are expected to contend for the NL Cy Young this year and Roark and Wood are free agents after 2019, but as we went over above, this rotation needed some serious help.

Even before the addition of Puig and Kemp, this Reds team had no trouble putting up some nice numbers on the scoreboard. Votto is one of the best hitters in the game and led the NL in on-base percentage for the third consecutive season last year. His power took a preciptous dip (down to 12 homers and 67 RBI after going for 36 and 100 in 2017), but he makes outs at a ridiculously low rate and sets the table for an underrated middle of the order.

Suarez and Gennett combined for 57 dingers and 196 RBI a year ago and now Puig and Kemp are joining the fray. Dietrich and Iglesias were nice buy-low additions for depth, as Iglesias is one of the best defenders in the game while Dietrich is a lefty bat that can play all over the diamond. 

The Reds also have some nice up-and-comers to be excited about in that lineup, between 24-year-old Jose Peraza and 25-year-old Jesse Winker, plus top prospect Nick Senzel who could force his way to the big leagues very soon. Winker is slated for the leadoff role with his .397 OBP in 471 career MLB plate appearances. Peraza hit .288 with some surprising pop (14 homers, 31 doubles) a year after disappointing with a .259 average and only 18 extra-base hits. Senzel, 23, is a consensus Top 10 prospect who has a career .314/.378/.509 slash line in the minors.

The most underrated area of this Reds roster, however, is the bullpen.

Raisel Iglesias is an elite closer who has blown just 6 saves in 64 chances the last two seasons. Jared Hughes is their top setup guy and Cubs fans should be very familiar with him, since he's pitched his entire 8-year MLB career in the NL Central (first with the Pirates from 2011-16 and then with the Brewers in 2017 before joining the Reds last year). He had a 1.94 ERA last year and sports a 2.69 mark for his career. Veterans David Hernandez and Duke are solid and former top prospect Amir Garrett could be ascending. Even failed starters Michael Lorenzen and Matt Wisler are OK options for first-year manager David Bell.

The Cubs play the Reds 19 times this year and went just 11-8 against their divisional rival last year when they were a 95-loss team. It will be a tougher road for the Cubs to turn in even the same 11-8 record this year and don't be surprised if the Reds finish with better team-wide offensive numbers than the Cubs, even with a healthy Kris Bryant.

Ultimately, the Reds probably don't have enough good starting pitching or overall depth to be legit contenders in the division, but crazier things have happened in this game. From a Cubs' perspective, the Reds potentially flirting with a .500 record is just more fuel to the fire that Joe Maddon's squad has their work cut out for them in a year of reckoning.

Prediction: 5th in NL Central

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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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."

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