The Rundown: Sizing Up NL, Lester Tabbed for Opening Day, Cactus Cubs Keep Rolling

All winter long, the talk among Cubs fans and baseball forecasters has centered on the team’s imminent regression on both sides. It’s a record as broken as offense Theo Epstein lamented while dissecting the season following Chicago’s elimination loss to the Rockies in last year’s wild card game. Disappointment may have led the Cubs president of baseball operations may have been premature in naming the cause of death before performing a full autopsy. He’s corrected that course a bit by sticking with basically the same roster to start this season that finished 2018.

And it’s true that the National League as a whole has improved vastly over the winter. The 15 senior circuit teams are going to be a lot more compressed this year and there will be tight races that could go four teams deep in both the East and Central. Still, the Cubs aren’t the piece of coal in the diamond patch that they’ve been portrayed as since last season ended.

But what about their NL rivals?

The Dodgers are widely considered the favorites to make the World Series, but they did not improve their team this year, signing A.J. Pollock while trading away Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Alex Wood, not to mention losing Yasmani Grandal to free agency. Staff ace Clayton Kershaw has been fighting a bum left shoulder all spring.

The Brewers signed Grandal and he’s a big addition to an offense that raked all season and was downright terrorizing the last month of 2018. But they let Wade Miley walk, and the veteran may be peaking right now. He should have a great season with the Astros and Milwaukee will miss his veteran presence in a rotation that has a few question marks. Lorenzo Cain is an OBP machine and gets better every year, posting a .395 last season. Can he continue? Christian Yelich saw his OBP jump 30 points above his career average last year. It would seem he’s likely to regress from that lofty .402 mark, a difference of nine runs and one win.

The Cardinals signed Paul Goldschmidt, who has been a Cubs killer. In fact, his 1.170 OPS and 150 OPS+ against Chicago pitching is the best he’s put up against an NL opponent. He’s equally impressive against Milwaukee, but has struggled in comparison against the Reds and Pirates. Adding a 5-WAR player to an 88-win team makes St. Louis a legitimate threat this season.

Though they lost Bryce Harper, the Nationals should be considered the best team in the National League. They’ve undergone a radical offseason change and are said to be frontrunners to sign Craig Kimbrel. They’ve added Patrick Corbin to a lights-out rotation, and Juan Soto might lap Harper’s production of last season. They’re a 95-win team with their current roster. Adding Kimbrel would lengthen an already sick back end of the bullpen and make Washington a threat to win 100 games.

And what about the Cubs? They won 95 games last season with a run differential of +116 despite being shut out or held to one run in 40 games. They finished tied for first with no production from Yu Darvish or Tyler Chatwood and a 2-WAR season from Kris Bryant, who missed 61 games with a shoulder injury. Considering the on- and off-field struggles of Addison Russell, the Cubs played with half of their starting infield all year, and three-fifths of their season-opening rotation until trading for Cole Hamels.

Javier Baez is the only regression candidate on offense among the regulars. Maybe Ben Zobrist, as well. But overall the Cubs should be just as good as they were last year. Projection algorithms skew heavily against age and most recent performance. That the Cubs best pitchers are a year older, and their best players are coming off of down years has hurt them considerably. Bounceback seasons from Darvish, Bryant, Willson Contreras, and Russell should help offset those negatives, though nothing is guaranteed.

Will the Cubs win 95 games again this year? That’s doubtful. But 88-89 wins in a heavily compressed division and league would be a highly successful season and seems attainable.

Cubs News & Notes

  • Major League Baseball recently announced rule changes on technology use and replay systems, demanding all TV monitors available to players and coaches be placed on an eight-second delay during games to combat sign stealing. Cubs relievers watch the games from their enclosed bullpen beneath Wrigley Field’s bleachers. Those home run dances will now come on an eight-second delay.
  • Joe Maddon has named Jon Lester the team’s opening day starter against the Rangers in Texas. The honor will be the eighth of his career and fourth with the Cubs.
  • Lester’s velocity showed an increase as the weather warmed up last year.
  • Bryant is as healthy as he’s ever been and it shows in his swing so far this year. “Right when I picked up a bat, the first time I was swinging, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is night-and-day,'” Bryant said on 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show. “I don’t feel anything at all. Everything feels like it’s completely healed.”

Spring Training Notes

Jose Canseco wants to make Tim Tebow a home run-hitting machine. Canseco certainly did wonders for Mark McGwire.

Ross Stripling has inherited the hybrid role for the Dodgers, who will deploy him the same way the Cubs use Mike Montgomery.

Kershaw has the longest consecutive streak of Opening Day starts in baseball, but his injured left shoulder has cast doubt that he will continue that streak at the end of this month.

The Padres will be without outfielder Travis Jankowski for a significant amount of time after tests confirmed he broke his left wrist diving for a ball Sunday. The outfielder stole a team-high 24 bases last year.

It seems nobody wants to sign Dallas Keuchel.

The Giants’ board of directors said President and CEO Larry Baer made a request that was accepted to take personal time away from the club in the wake of an ugly public incident involving his wife over the weekend. Its executive team, including president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, will manage day-to-day operations.

Extra Innings

Albert Pujols and his wife have been honored for their help in putting an end to human trafficking. On Friday, the U.N. Women for Peace Association gave its Humanitarian Award to Pujols, wife Deidre, and their “Strike Out Slavery” anti-human trafficking group. The Pujols family have devoted themselves to their cause in the U.S. and around the world.

At least four big league teams (the Angels, Nationals, Mets and Royals) will host events this season to raise awareness on behalf of the Pujols’ organization.

This Week’s New Spins

  1. In Through the Out Door by Led Zeppelin – It has been a real pain in the ass trying to find a version with its paper bag cover intact. But I found a third print (of five original) for $12 online this week. This was Zep’s last studio album and was a favorite of mine freshman year. I’d sneak a can of Hamm’s that my stepdad drank and pretend I was all grown up dropping the needle on this LP in my fully furnished basement bedroom. Yup, I was chock full of ’70’s cliches. I’m Gonna Crawl is an achingly great song.
  2. Steel Wheels by the Rolling Stones – By the time the ’90s arrived, the Stones were just hitting their stride as a touring nostalgia show, but this album and Voodoo Lounge are incredibly strong back nine efforts. Steel Wheels was released in September of 1989 and contains a number of songs that are staples in their most recent concert tours. I’m a fan of Almost Hear You Sigh, which carries great memories of my first true love with every play.
  3. Vision Quest Soundtrack (Various Artists) – It’s a cheesy soundtrack from an equally cheese-ball-o-rama of a movie that has a B-side that is significantly better than its A-side, which is borderline pathetic. Picked up a sealed original pressing for a buck and I may have taken a retail gouging. In college I used to listen to Lunatic Fringe before I played my opponents in racquetball tournaments. Yup, I was chock full of ’80’s cliches, including my combination perm, mullet, and Japanese headband.

Tuesday Walk Up Song

If I Should Fall From Grace With God by The Pogues. I ask forgiveness of my savior and Editor-in-Chief for the absurd length of this article.

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