2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Bryce Harper and the Phillies originally appeared on nbcsportschicago.com
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:
2018 record: 80-82, 3rd in NL East
Offseason departures: Carlos Santana, J.P. Crawford, Wilson Ramos, Jorge Alfaro, Justin Bour, Asdrubal Cabrera, Luis Avila, Jose Bautista, Aaron Loup
X-factor: Jake Arrieta
It looks like Aaron Nola will contend for the NL Cy Young every year for at least the next half-decade and this offense certainly won't have a hard time scoring runs. But what about the rest of the rotation and pitching staff?
Arrieta has the highest profile and is paid the most of any other arm on the roster, not to mention he won a Cy Young just three short years ago. So if the Phillies are truly going to be a playoff team in a powerhouse NL East, it would seem to be a difficult endeavor if the former Cubs ace is unable to pitch up to his capabilities.
Between calling out the Phillies' shifting and defense (rightfully so, as they ranked among the worst in baseball in terms of value) and a second-half downturn, it wasn't exactly the smoothest of debut seasons for Arrieta in The City of Brotherly Love in 2018.
He was very good before the All-Star Break, going 7-6 with a 3.23 ERA and 1.22 WHIP despite only 6.3 K/9. But he struggled in the second half, going 3-5 with a 5.04 ERA and 1.38 WHIP...though he did up his whiffs to 8.5 K/9.
Arrieta is now 33 and has seen his numbers take a turn for the worse across the board every season since his 2015 Cy Young campaign. The Phillies aren't sure what they're going to get from the rest of their rotation, so they're going to need to lean heavily on the veteran of the staff.
1. Aaron Nola
2. Jake Arrieta
3. Nick Pivetta
4. Vince Velasquez
5. Zach Eflin
Just look at that lineup. It seriously looks like it could be an All-Star batting order; any of the Top 5 hitters could realistically wind up on the NL roster for the Midsummer Classic this year.
This team was in contention last year as late as mid-August and all they did this winter was add arguably the top two free agent outfielders (Harper and McCutchen), traded for the top catcher in the game (Realmuto), added one of the best relief arms on the market (Robertson) and upgraded at shortstop in a big way (Segura over Crawford). They also improved their defense overall by dealing away Santana and moving Hoskins back to first base from left field (where he was an atrocious fielder).
McCutchen is 32 now and certainly does not look like he'll challenge for another NL MVP Award, but he's also not a shell of his former self either. He posted a .368 on-base percentage last year and walked 95 times while also rating more positively as a defender now that teams are no longer trying to stick him in center field. He's also known as a great clubhouse guy and has hit at least 20 homers for eight years running.
Realmuto is still only 28 and under team control for another two seasons. Segura is 29 and under team control for another four seasons plus a team option for 2023. Harper obviously isn't going anywhere after his 13-year deal.
On top of that, Nola also just signed an extension worth $45 million over the next four years. This core is not going anywhere anytime soon.
That doesn't even include Scott Kingery, who began last year as a consensus Top-35 prospect in the game and signed a 6-year, $24 million team-friendly contract before he even played a big-league game. The 24-year-old had a tough rookie season (.226 AVG, .605 OPS), but he was inexperienced and can play all over the diamond. The problem at the moment is he doesn't appear to have a full-time spot at any one position, though maybe operating in a Ben Zobrist-type utility role can help both him and the team.
With all the added star power, the Phillies have taken a ton of pressure off their previous core - including Kingery. Now, the team doesn't have to lean so much on guys like Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, two young players who have yet to put it all together and find the consistency needed to take the next step toward stardom.
But imagine if they're able to do so, entering their age 27 (Herrera) and 26 (Franco) seasons.
Then throw in 25-year-old outfielder Nick Williams who was ranked the No. 27 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2016 and currently doesn't even have a place to play in this lineup. There's also underrated second baseman Cesar Hernandez who's posted 7.7 WAR and a .366 on-base percentage over the last 3 seasons.
Oh yeah and there's also the only holdover star - Hoskins, who turns 26 this weekend and has smashed 52 homers with a .525 slugging percentage in his first 203 big-league games.
The pitching is the concern at the moment. Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin have all shown flashes of their tantalizing potential but still lack consistency.
The bullpen is in a better spot with Robertson now to pair with 24-year-old Seranthony Dominguez who enjoyed a breakout 2018 campaign. But things are a bit hazy after that, especially if Hector Neris can't regain his form.
Neris posted a 2.79 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 10.9 K/9 while saving 28 games from 2016-17 but then imploded last year (5.10 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) despite a huge bump in whiffs (14.3 K/9). Neris turns 30 in June, so at this point, this may just be who he is - a highly volatile reliever with nasty stuff.
This pitching staff could wind up being better than advertised - only Arrieta, Robertson and Pat Neshek are older than 30 - but right now, it looks to be an inferior group that may hold the team back from winning the division.
That being said, this offense looks to be talented enough to carry this team to one of the NL Wild-Card spots.
Prediction: 2nd in NL East, wild-card team
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