World Series

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

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USA TODAY

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

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 bolstered 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:

Los Angeles Dodgers

2018 record: 92-71, 1st in NL West

Offseason additions: A.J. Pollock, Russell Martin, Joe Kelly, Brad Miller

Offseason departures: Manny Machado, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Brian Dozier, Yasmani Grandal, John Axford, Ryan Madson, Daniel Hudson

X-factor: Clayton Kershaw's health

This still an incredibly talented team even if Kershaw never throws a pitch in 2019, but that obviously would make their road to another division title much more difficult.

Kershaw has a shoulder issue that leaves his short-term future in doubt and certainly no pitcher wants to start out the year with an injury like this that could linger. He's about to turn 31 later this month and has only averaged 27 starts the last five seasons, topping 30 starts just once.

The southpaw is still one of the best pitchers in the game, but he looks a whole lot more human than he used to. 2018 was the first time he failed to average more than a strikeout per inning since 2013 and notched fewer than 10 wins for the first time since 2009. 

There's still so much pitching depth on this team (even without Kershaw, big-league ready arms like Julio Urias, Brock Stewart and Caleb Ferguson could all start the season in the minors), but the 3-time Cy Young winner remains their most important player.

Projected lineup

1. A.J. Pollock - CF
2. Corey Seager - SS
3. Justin Turner - 3B
4. Cody Bellinger - RF
5. Max Muncy - 1B
6. Chris Taylor - 2B
7. Joc Pederson - LF
8. Austin Barnes - C

Projected rotation

1. Hyun-Jin Ryu
2. Walker Buehler
3. Rich Hill
4. Kenta Maeda
5. Ross Stripling

Outlook

The Seager return is huge for the Dodgers and you can look at it as something of an offseason addition given he played just 26 games in 2018. When he's been on the field, the 24-year-old shortstop is one of the best all-around players in baseball and he's now expected to be healthy after surgeries on his elbow and hip this winter.

A healthy Justin Turner would also be a big boost, as he missed 60 games a year ago. Pollock was a nice addition, but he fits in among the Dodgers' stars in that he also has not been able to stay off the disabled list (now injured list) recently. But he's still a great option as a leadoff hitter and centerfielder when in the lineup.

Even with all the purging of depth and star power this winter, the Dodgers still have an awful lot of talented players. They probably won't miss guys like Wood, Puig, Dozier or Kemp much and Seager's return helps make up for the loss of Machado in free agency. The same can be said of the trade for Russell Martin, replacing the departed Grandal. 

It's going to be very interesting to see how manager Dave Roberts maneuvers the lineup to get playing time for everybody, but he has plenty of options at his disposal, especially if top prospect Alex Verdugo is going to be in the big leagues all year.

The bullpen could still be a bit of a question mark, especially if Kenley Jansen has more health problems with his heart issue. He's one of the best relievers in the game and the Dodgers are adept at getting the most out of under-the-radar pitchers in the bullpen. But there are definite concerns about how good Joe Kelly will be (even after an awesome postseason run with the Red Sox) and the arms at the back of the bullpen. 

Still, the Dodgers are so talented, so well-run and so deep this team should once again be the class of the NL West and very well may be the class of the entire NL. Who knows if they'll make it to a third straight World Series, but that would not be even remotely shocking if that's how 2019 played out.

Prediction: 1st in NL West

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 Daniel Descalso plans to win over Cubs locker room

How Daniel Descalso plans to win over Cubs locker room

In the hours after the Cubs were stunned by the Rockies in the National League Wild-Card game, as the attention turned toward the offseason, the way the year ended sure seemed like it was going to be the impetus behind a winter of change around the franchise.

Back then, listening to Theo Epstein talk on that sunny Oct. 3 afternoon, if you had predicted the biggest addition the Cubs would make in the offseason would be Daniel Descalso, you would have been laughed out of the room. 

That's not taking anything away from Descalso, but the Cubs offense faded badly down the stretch last year and he's a 32-year-old utility player who has never notched even 375 at-bats in a season. 

However, Descalso may be just what the Cubs need, especially in an offseason with very little wiggle room in the budget.

His value to this team could go far beyond the stat sheet. He might even be — dare I say — the next David Ross?

That's a lot of pressure to put on a newcomer on this team. Ross has been retired for two years now, but still casts a large shadow in that clubhouse as a respected leader and presence — not to mention the popularity he has with fans and media.

Descalso isn't trying to be the next Ross. He'll settle for the next Jon Jay — especially because Descalso and Jay are great friends who came up together in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

Jay only spent one season with the Cubs (2017), but players still bring up his impact and leadership unprompted. He's now across town playing for the White Sox, so he and Descalso are reunited in Chicago (even if their schedules won't match up much).

This winter, Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer talked a lot about the need to add some leadership into the clubhouse to help convey a sense of urgency on a daily basis — something they felt was lacking in 2018. 

They landed on Descalso to help fill that void.

"He brings leadership and a lot of intangibles that can't be measured," Jay said of Descalso. "He's a guy that can have that tough conversation with a player and he's not afraid to do it. He can lead by example, he knows exactly when to say the right things at the right times. He's really good for any clubhouse. 

"... Any team can benefit from a Daniel Descalso. He makes everybody better. Just knowing those guys — they're gonna love him. He's a great example for a veteran player, a young player, for coaches. He really knows the game well. He's gonna help bring out the best in anybody."

How Descalso goes about accomplishing that will be tricky. The roster has not had a ton of turnover lately and the core players — particularly the position players — have been together for quite a while. And they've clearly been very successful, with four straight trips to the playoffs and a World Series championship.

That's not an easy environment for a new player to come in and assume a leadership role in.

Descalso understands he was brought in to help emerge as a vocal leader, but he isn't putting pressure on himself or trying to do too much too quickly. 

He also isn't entering a team completely devoid of leadership, especially with Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Ben Zobrist all making a concerted effort to step up more as leaders in 2019.

"I've been the new guy in the clubhouse a couple times," Descalso said. "If you come in and you're the loud guy and you start ruffling feathers right away, you could put some guys off. I think you just come in, kinda feel your way out in the early parts of spring training and into the season and then you really get a feel for a team and clubhouse and how things work and go from there.

"I'm not gonna come in right away and stand up on the couch and give a rah-rah Knute Rockne speech."

Descalso may not be an everyday player, but he's entering his 10th year in the big leagues and has an idea of how to go about his business while still carrying the self-awareness to know he doesn't have all the answers. He also knows plenty about winning, having gone to the playoffs five times in his career with the Cardinals and Diamondbacks — racking up 48 games in October and notching a World Series ring with St. Louis in 2011.

So what does "leadership" mean to a guy with a resume like that?

"You can lead in a variety of different ways," Descalso said. "You don't have to be a veteran to lead. You can be a young guy and lead by example the way you show up and compete every day. But I think as you get older, you stick around. Maybe you develop a reputation, then you can start to be a little bit more vocal.

"You pick your spots. You have to know the individual you're approaching — is it a guy you can pat on the back? Is it a guy you can get after a little bit? For me, I'm not gonna come in here and be a rah-rah guy. I'm gonna sit back and learn my teammates and get to know them individually and go from there."

Descalso's focus early on in his Cubs tenure is building that trust and rapport. He doesn't have much of a history with the guys on the roster apart from playing against each other over the years.

When Jay was with the Cubs, he didn't really find his voice as a leader until a couple months into the season, especially since the rest of the roster was still riding high off that emotional World Series.

Descalso also has an advantage Jay didn't — the security of a multi-year deal. That allows him to feel more established and comfortable in building rapport with players and assuming a leadership role, knowing he'll make his home here for the next 2-3 years (the Cubs hold a team option on Descalso for 2021).

"Yeah, it's nice to know I'm going to be around here for a couple years, so you can really invest in those relationships," Descalso said. "Not that you wouldn't on a 1-year deal, but it's just not as easy. You have time to build up that trust and build up that camaraderie. I'm looking forward to being around this group for a couple years."

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Cubs have sixth-best 2019 World Series odds, according to Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook

Cubs have sixth-best 2019 World Series odds, according to Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook

Las Vegas' oddsmakers are high on the Cubs' chances of having a successful 2019 season.

Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook released its over/under win total, World Series, pennant, division and playoff odds for each MLB team for the 2019 season. In comparison to the rest of MLB, the Cubs have the sixth-best odds to win the World Series (second-best in the National League).

Here's how the Cubs' odds stack up at the infancy stage of the MLB season:

Odds to win World Series: 12-1 
Odds to win NL pennant: 6-1 
Odds to win NL Central: +180
Odds to make playoffs: Yes -110; No -110
Over/under win total: 89.5

Vegas' odds differ from Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system. The latter, of course, projects the Cubs to finish last in the NL Central in 2019. PECOTA initially pegged the Cubs to finish 82-80 in 2019, though their most up-to-date projection has the Cubs finishing 79-83 this season.

As a reminder, both PECOTA and Vegas are not fortune tellers. While they are fun talking points for fans in the offseason, one should not get too caught up and overreact to where their favorite team stands.

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