Patrick Corbin

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

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AP

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

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:

Washington Nationals

2018 record: 82-80, 2nd in NL East

Offseason additions: Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Adams, Anibal Sanchez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Tony Sipp

Offseason departures: Bryce Harper, Tanner Roark, Matt Wieters, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Mark Reynolds, Joaquin Benoit, Tim Collins, Trevor Gott

X-factor: Victor Robles

The 21-year-old outfielder is a big part of the reason why the Nationals don't feel like the sky is falling without Harper. Robles enters 2019 as the No. 4 prospect in baseball by MLB.com and has been a consensus Top 10 prospect the last few winters.

He dealt with an elbow injury last year that limited him to just 73 games between the minors and majors, but he hit .288 with an .874 OPS in 66 plate appearances with Washington. He is a career .300 hitter in the minors and has an enticing blend of speed and contact and has shown flashes that he may add power as he grows and gets stronger.

If Robles becomes the player everybody thinks he can be, it will make the Nationals and their fans forget about Harper every now and then. He may never be as good as Harper (and certainly not this season), but Robles at least should make the Washington defense better with his excellent range in center.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - RF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Anthony Rendon - 3B
4. Juan Soto - LF
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Brian Dozier - 2B
7. Yan Gomes - C
8. Victor Robles - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Patrick Corbin
4. Anibal Sanchez
5. Jeremy Hellickson

Outlook

Sure, the Nationals failed in bringing back Harper this winter. And yes, it will be brutal for them (and their fans) to watch as they play against their former superstar slugger 19 times a season. 

But the Nationals might actually have a better overall roster to begin 2019 than they finished 2018 with.

Last year, Washington ranked 15th in baseball with a 4.05 bullpen ERA. The only playoff teams they finished ahead of were the Braves (4.15) and Indians (4.60). They also ranked 26th in bullpen WAR (0.4) by FanGraphs' calculation.

Their two main additions in that area — Rosenthal and Barraclough — have solid track records. Rosenthal was worth 1.6 WAR the last year he pitched (2017) and he only threw 47.2 innings that season. Barraclough was rough last year (-0.6 WAR), but posted 2.7 WAR in the previous two seasons combined in the Marlins bullpen.

There's obviously risk with both arms (Rosenthal is coming off Tommy John surgery), but there's also upside with a pair of 28-year-olds who have absolutely nasty stuff. Couple them with elite closer Sean Doolittle and the Nats have the makings of a very good three-headed monster in the bullpen. Their most recent relief reinforcement — Tony Sipp, signed earlier this week — had a 1.86 ERA with the Astros last year and has a career 3.67 ERA in 580 appearances.

The Nationals also made some major upgrades to their catching position. They finished 25th in OPS from that spot last year (.624), which was the second-worst mark in the NL. FanGraphs pitted Washington as 24th in the league in catcher's WAR (0.5), so it wasn't just the offense.

The two new veteran additions — Gomes and Suzuki — combined for 4.2 WAR last year on their previous teams (the Indians and Braves, respectively). They should form a much better more productive pairing than the Wieters-Pedro Severino-Spencer Kieboom catching group from a year ago.

Want to keep going? The Nationals wound up with Wilmer Difo as their primary second baseman for most of last year because Daniel Murphy only played in 56 games due to injury and the late-season trade to Chicago. Dozier should help stabilize second base for Washington and provide more offensive firepower as even during a down year in 2018 (.696 OPS), he still far outperformed Difo. Dozier scored 100 runs in four straight seasons in Minnesota and clubbed a combined 76 homers with 192 RBI from 2016-17 while finishing in the Top 15 in AL MVP voting each season.

Corbin is a huge addition for the rotation, even if it took a lot of money ($140 million over 6 years). It gives the Nationals the best 1-2-3 punch in baseball...if they can all stay healthy.

The Nationals also have a budding star in Soto, which should help ease the pain of Harper leaving. As the youngest player in the big leagues last year, Soto hit .292 with a .406 on-base percentage, 22 homers and 70 RBI in only 116 games. Between the majors and minors, he crushed 36 bombs, drove in 122 runs and drew 108 walks in 155 games. Oh yeah, and did we mention he just turned 20 in October?

This lineup shouldn't struggle to score runs, which is an impressive feat given they relied so much on Harper and Murphy the last few seasons. The rotation is better, the bullpen is better and they have more depth than ever before.

The only question about this team is the window of contention. The Nationals have a huge payroll even without Harper (Opening Day payroll projected at just under $200 million) and there's definitely a sense of urgency to win NOW. After 2019, Rendon becomes a free agent, Zimmerman has a $20 million team option that almost assuredly won't be picked up and they'll have to make decisions on options for Eaton, Gomes and Doolittle.

The Nationals also have more than $80 million tied up in just their three starting pitchers for next year, which could leave them in a tight spot in any attempts to add to the roster.

The only members of their core guaranteed to be back in 2020 is the trio of arms plus Turner, Soto and Robles. 

The championship window may well be closing after this year, so it's another season of "now or never" for the Nationals. And we know that mindset and level of expectations haven't worked out well for them in the past, even when they had Harper.

But I'm betting on the improved roster across the board to take control of the powerhouse NL East and this very well could be the year they finally advance beyond the NLDS. Imagine that for Year 1 post-Harper.

Prediction: 1st in NL East

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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Even if they don't get Bryce Harper back, the Nationals just ensured they'll be a threat to Cubs, NL in 2019

Even if they don't get Bryce Harper back, the Nationals just ensured they'll be a threat to Cubs, NL in 2019

The Washington Nationals may not re-sign Bryce Harper, but they certainly won't be on the outside looking in at the National League pennant race.

The Nats shook up the baseball world Tuesday afternoon when they inked Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million deal, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.

The exact details of the contract are unknown, but Corbin gets a deal the same length as Yu Darvish's with the Cubs, only with an extra $14 million added on. That gives Corbin the 18th-highest AAV (average annual value) contract in baseball and the Nationals already boast Max Scherzer (6th) and Stephen Strasburg (10th) on that same list.

It pushes the Nationals' estimated payroll to about $196 million for 2019, which is only $10 million under the luxury tax. 

That may make it impossible for them to go out and sign Harper to a megadeal unless the Nats front office can unload some major salary somewhere along the line, but Corbin certainly legitimizes Washington's playoff chances. On the other hand, bolstering the rest of the roster is a nice recruiting pitch to Harper as the Nats front office can prove they're all about trying to bring a championship to D.C.

A three-headed monster of Scherzer-Corbin-Strasburg in the rotation is absolutely incredible assuming they can all stay healthy (something Strasburg has not been able to accomplish yet in his career). The Nationals then roll out Tanner Roark and Joe Ross — who most certainly are no slouches — as their Nos. 4 and 5 options on the starting staff.

Even without Harper, the Top 4 in the Nats lineup still has to rank among the best in the NL with some combination of:

1. Adam Eaton
2. Trea Turner
3. Anthony Rendon
4. Juan Soto

The Nationals have been very aggressive this offseason, supplementing their lineup with a pair of veteran catchers acquired via trade (Yan Gomes) and free agency (Kurt Suzuki). They also picked up two low-risk/high-reward bullpen arms in Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to work in front of incumbent closer Sean Doolittle.

The Corbin deal gives the Nats 25/1 odds to win the World Series:

That's bad news for any Cubs fans under the illusion the Nats would fade into obscurity without Harper. 

The good news for the Cubs is the NL East may waste all their energy beating up on each other in the 2019 regular season as the Braves and Phillies are going all-in and the Mets just pulled off a big trade for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

That's a lot of talent headed to one division this winter:

Good thing for the Cubs they only have to play each of those teams 6-7 times a year.

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It sounds like every player you want the White Sox to get is going to end up on the Phillies

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USA TODAY

It sounds like every player you want the White Sox to get is going to end up on the Phillies

White Sox fans don't normally need to dedicate too much brain space to worrying about the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Phillies play in the NL East, nowhere near the AL Central, and since reaching back-to-back World Series in 2008 and 2009 (they won the first), they haven't demanded much postseason attention, either.

But the Phillies seem poised, if you believe all the reports simmering on the Hot Stove, to be everyone's — including the apparently aggressive White Sox — main competition this offseason.

You want the White Sox to sign Bryce Harper? Oh well, too bad, everyone thinks he's going to end up on the Phillies. OK, how about Manny Machado? Yeah, the Phillies want him, too. Jeez, what about Patrick Corbin, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller or Nathan Eovaldi? Phillies. Lord, well at least the White Sox can land a big fish via trade, right? Well, actually, the Phillies are going after those guys, too.

You've got to be ph'ing kidding.

The Phillies owner has already declared his intention to spend big and "maybe even be a little stupid about it," a good sign that his club could end up winning several bidding wars that the financially flexible White Sox might be involved in. In specific regards to Harper, The Athletic's Jayson Stark wrote "it’s amazing how many people inside this sport almost assume that the Phillies will be the highest bidder in this auction." The South Siders are reportedly interested in Harper, Machado and Eovaldi, the first two of which are expected to receive a couple of the biggest contracts in baseball history. But even if Rick Hahn's front office seems willing to spend, can anyone compete with "stupid" spending?

If the Phillies end up doing what they seem so intent on doing and land not one but multiple big-ticket items this winter, they'll be instant contenders. But while that might leave teams like the White Sox without a date to this offseason's dance, it could provide a promising template for future offseasons — because it wasn't long ago the Phillies were a rebuilding team themselves.

Yes, the Phillies, now poised to take the baseball world by storm, just spent the past six seasons with sub-.500 records. They haven't finished higher than third in the NL East since their run of five straight division titles ended in 2011. And so, rebuild. That process has worked, to a degree, with the Phillies looking last season like one of baseball's fun, young teams on the verge of contention. Problem is they're still on that verge after nosediving in the second half and missing the playoffs yet again.

But that's where what Hahn calls "finishing pieces" come in. The Phillies made a couple big additions last offseason in Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, though they might be trying to move on from the latter. They've got a young core of guys — Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins, Seranthony Dominguez — that they want to bolster and bolster in a big way. Harper, Machado, Corbin, whoever. Those are "finishing pieces," the cappers to a rebuilding effort that vault a team over the top.

The White Sox will be there one day. They might be trying to add "finishing pieces" now, while they have the opportunity to do so with a talent like Harper or Machado, before the waves of highly touted prospects starts washing up on the South Side, but they still fall into that category. Whether they do it this offseason, next offseason or in an offseason after that, that time is coming. And given the White Sox financial flexibility, it's not at all difficult to envision them having an offseason in which they add multiple "finishing pieces" of a high caliber.

But this winter, they'll have competition, every team in the game will have competition, because the Phillies are there now.

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