NLDS

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Will the Nationals finally win it all before Bryce Harper leaves?

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USA TODAY

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Will the Nationals finally win it all before Bryce Harper leaves?

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:

Washington Nationals

2017 record: 97-65, 1st place in NL East

Offseason additions: Miguel Montero, Matt Adams, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Reynolds, Jeremy Hellickson, Tommy Milone

Offseason departures: Adam Lind, Stephen Drew, Jose Lobaton, Jayson Werth, Matt Albers, Oliver Perez, Joe Blanton

X-factor: The health of their stars

Health is an X-factor for any team, but it carries more weight in D.C. than anywhere else in baseball.

Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Stephen Strasburg are three of the Nationals' best players and yet three guys that can't seem to stay healthy for a full season. Couple that group with leadoff hitter Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy coming off knee injuries, the health questions are running rampant in Washington.

Those are the Nationals' projected Top 4 hitters and No. 2 starter. If they all stay healthy, they'll put up some whopping numbers. But if history repeats, it will make the road quite a bit tougher despite a weak NL East.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - LF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Bryce Harper - RF
4. Anthony Rendon - 3B
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Howie Kendrick - 2B
7. Matt Wieters - C
8. Michael Taylor - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Gio Gonzalez
4. Tanner Roark
5. A.J. Cole

Outlook

When healthy, this may be the most talented roster in the NL. Harper, Rendon, Murphy and Turner could all wind up as serious contenders in the 2018 MVP race while Scherzer and Strasburg figure to garner some Cy Young votes once again.

The Nationals also have the advantage of a pretty rough division, at least on paper. Three teams are rebuilding and the Mets haven't made the playoffs in a couple years now. Getting to play 18+ games against all four of those teams is a godsend.

Which is good news for a Nationals fanbase that is absolutely starving for some actual postseason success. Wade Davis and the Cubs knocked Washington out last fall and 2018 represents what figures to be the final chance to win it all (or even win A playoff series) with Harper before he gets a $400 million deal elsewhere (like Chicago??).

The 2018 Nationals have no holes. If any of their starters falter, they have Hellickson available. If any of their position players struggle, they have depth in the form of Kendrick (once Murphy is healthy), Montero, Adams, Wilmer Difo and Brian Goodwin.

And the bullpen is very, very good thanks to a bunch of moves before the 2017 Trade Deadline and also have Benoit and Koda Glover expected to start the season on the DL.

The Nationals will be playing in October this year. But what they do in the postseason is a question that won't be answered for 6 months. 

Prediction: 1st in NL East, playoffs

How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

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How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

One year ago today, it finally happened.

The Cubs erased 108 championship-less years in its franchise history, battling through — and coming out on top — one of the greatest baseball games ever played.

2016's Game 7 was far more entertaining than 2017's iteration, even if this fall's World Series was undeniably epic in its own right.

Watching as the Houston Astros reveled in all their euphoria late Wednesday night, the Cubs and their fans obviously wished it was the boys in blue celebrating a second straight world championship.

The Cubs are no longer defending or reigning champs. But as 2017 gets further in the rearview mirror and the focus shifts to 2018 and beyond, Theo Epstein knows exactly what he's got in his team.

"I'm proud of the players because to me, now, the identity of the organization is: This is a team you can count on to play into October, you can count on them to play deep into October, you can count on them to play some epic games in October and you like their chances of winning those games," Epstein said on Oct. 20, the day after the Cubs' season ended.

"And that's a hard-fought identity that our players and a lot of guys behind the scenes have worked really hard to attain. I'm proud of them for that.

"And part of our job is to help create that identity and put them in position to achieve as many of those goals as they can."

Epstein's point about the Cubs' epic games is an interesting one.

Obviously the contest known simply as "Game 7" is up there, with the most famous rain delay in sports — and Chicago — history. 

But then there's Game 5 of the NLDS this fall, when the Cubs somehow outlasted the Washington Nationals in a winner-take-all game of epic proportions. 

There was a time not too long ago when it was even a question if the Cubs would put together three straight winning seasons, let alone three trips to the playoffs (done for the first time since 1906-08) or three straight years as one of the top two teams in the National League.

That task was much tougher in 2017, when the entire organization was nursing a World Series hangover that they know publicly admit was as real as the 108-year drought. And they were able to somehow play 10 postseason games despite a historically bad offensive showing.

The memories of 2003, 2007 and 2008 are in the distant past, with expectations now that this Cubs team challenge for the title each season.

"The identity of this organization has changed in a lot of ways that are meaningful and positive," Epstein said. "Looking around at those guys, any year in which we went to our third straight NLCS, if we're being honest — there was a tinge of disappointment, obviously.

"And to have disappointment in a year in which you reach the NLCS for the third straight year shows just how much the expectations have been raised around here and how high the bar is. That is a great thing.

"...We didn't reach our ultimate goal, but there's real value in getting back to October, to winning a series, to giving your fans thrilling baseball."

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

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Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

The Washington Nationals must have been sitting at home, watching the National League Championship Series and wondering: How did we lose to this team?

The Cubs poured so much physical effort, mental focus and emotional energy into those five playoff games against the Nationals that they didn’t have much left in the tank for the bigger, better Los Angeles Dodgers team that dominated the defending World Series champs in every phase and captured the NL pennant on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

By midday Friday, the Nationals announced that manager Dusty Baker will not return for the 2018 season, while the contracts for the big-league coaching staff have also expired, leaving a franchise with chain-of-command issues in damage-control mode.

This is a bitter disappointment for Baker, who needs a World Series ring as a manager to put the final bullet point on a Hall of Fame resume and still grumbles about how things ended in 2006 after four up-and-down years managing the Cubs.

Baker, 68, a former Marine, All-Star player and all-around Renaissance man with a great feel for dealing with people and managing the clubhouse, apparently couldn’t overcome last week’s elimination-game meltdown at Nationals Park, where the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory and forced Washington into its fourth first-round playoff exit since 2012.

Baker’s in-game decision-making was already under the microscope and his teams have now lost 10 straight postseason close-out games, a major-league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Nationals also needlessly subjected Stephen Strasburg to withering criticism when Baker said the $175 million pitcher was feeling under the weather — maybe because of Chicago mold and hotel air-conditioning units — and being saved for Game 5. Only to flip-flop and watch Strasburg throw seven scoreless innings in a dominant Game 4 performance at Wrigley Field.

That unforced error and yet another manager search is not a good look for the Nationals, who made the announcement through the Lerner family ownership group after general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly signaled that he expected to reach a new agreement with Baker after winning 192 games combined in two years and back-to-back division titles.

Since the franchise relocated from Montreal and abandoned the Expos logo in 2005, the Nationals have employed seven different managers and will be starting all over again in 2018, when Bryce Harper will be in his last season before becoming a free agent and probably wondering if Washington can finally get its act together.