2018 Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs.

Perhaps motivated by a 2017 season that underwhelmed, the Cubs did anything but stand pat. The club won 92 games, winning the NL Central, but that marked an 11-win decline from the previous season in which they won the World Series. This past October, they were knocked out of the NLCS by the Dodgers in five games. During the offseason, the Cubs signed Yu Darvish (six years, $126 million), Tyler Chatwood (3/$38M), Brandon Morrow (2/$21M), Steve Cishek (2/$13M), Drew Smyly (2/$10M), and Brian Duensing (2/$7M).

Darvish and Chatwood marked the Cubs’ answer to losing Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to free agency. Between the Rangers and Dodgers last year, Darvish posted a 3.86 ERA with 209 strikeouts and 58 walks across 186 2/3 innings. He had two solid starts in Game 3 of both the NLDS and NLCS, but he famously struggled in the World Series against the Astros. It was revealed after the fact that Darvish had been tipping his pitches. That’s something new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey must be confident in being able to fix and prevent going forward.

Chatwood, meanwhile, has spent most of his major league career with the Rockies. His numbers are underwhelming, but he has significant splits. At Coors Field, his home park since 2012, he has a 5.17 ERA. At other teams’ ballparks, he owns a 3.31 ERA. While Wrigley Field isn’t the most pitcher-friendly park, it looks like Petco Park in comparison to Coors Field. Chatwood should enjoy his new digs.

Both Darvish and Chatwood will pitch behind Jon Lester, who had his worst season last year since 2012. The lefty finished with a 4.33 ERA and a 180/60 K/BB ratio in 180 2/3 innings. Lester’s walk rate hit a five-year high, he allowed home runs at his highest rate as a percentage of fly balls, and was markedly worse at stranding runners who reached base. The 34-year-old is clearly not out of gas yet – he finished second in NL Cy Young balloting in 2016 – but things are going to get tougher and tougher the deeper into his 30’s he gets.

Kyle Hendricks returns for his fourth full season in the majors. He has quietly become one of the most reliable starters in the game. He finished third behind Lester in Cy Young voting in 2016, then followed that up last year with a 3.03 ERA and a 123/40 K/BB ratio in 139 2/3 innings. Hendricks’ fastball sits in the mid-80’s, but he uses tremendous movement and deception to induce weak contact. Comparisons to Greg Maddux are hackneyed, but they do get the point across.

Jose Quintana rounds out the Cubs’ incredible starting rotation, which probably ranks as the best in baseball. After coming over from the White Sox last July, Quintana made 14 starts for the Cubs, posting a 3.74 ERA with a 98/21 K/BB ratio in 84 1/3 innings. For a No. 5 starter, it’s hard to do better than this.

Brandon Morrow replaces Wade Davis as the Cubs’ closer. The oft-injured right-hander has been a lights-out reliever when he’s healthy, but he has racked up a total of 59 2/3 innings over the last two seasons and is entering his age-33 season. Thankfully, the Cubs do have a handful of capable relievers who could step up and close out games if Morrow were to succumb to an injury again. They include the aforementioned Cishek and Duensing as well as Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Justin Wilson, and Mike Montgomery.

On offense, the Cubs have the same lineup. Willson Contreras will start behind the plate, backed up by either Chris Gimenez or Victor Caratini. Last season, Contreras hit a solid .276/.356/.499 with 21 home runs and 74 RBI in 428 trips to the plate. He has also become one of baseball’s better defensive catchers, showcasing a powerful arm. His caught stealing rate was right at the league average (27 percent) but it would be higher if his pitching staff were better at limiting the running game.

Perennial MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo returns to first base. He had a nearly identical year to 2016 as in both years he hit 32 home runs and knocked in 109 runs. He posted a slightly lower OPS, at .899, but stole 10 bases and scored 99 runs. Rizzo also brings with him a fine defensive acumen at first base, an often overlooked and undervalued skill.

Javier Baez, one of the most fun players in baseball to watch, will once again handle second base for the Cubs. He hit .273/.317/.480 last season with 23 home runs and 75 RBI in 508 PA. Like Rizzo, Baez also flashes some good leather at his position – emphasis on the word “flashes” as he’s a very flashy defender as well.

Addison Russell has been quite good for the Cubs in his three seasons, but his bat was underwhelming last year. He hit .239/.304/.418 with 12 home runs and 43 RBI in 385 PA. He battled plantar fasciitis, which almost certainly impacted his output. When healthy, he’s among the best defensive shortstops in the National League and can be more capable with the bat as well.

Rounding out the infield, 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant reprises his role at the hot corner for the Cubs. He followed up his MVP season by hitting .295/.409/.537 with 29 home runs and 73 RBI in 665 PA last year, finishing seventh in MVP balloting. His HR and RBI totals weren’t as prodigious as they were a season prior, but thankfully we live in a time where those are not the only barometers by which we measure players. His OPS was slightly better at .946 compared to .939 and come out about identical with adjusted OPS (143 to 146) which factors in ballparks and league quality. In a league that also includes Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, and Justin Turner, it’s impossible to say Bryant is unequivocally the best third baseman in the NL, but there’s at least an argument to be had.

Kyle Schwarber will cover left field for the Cubs. Normally, that would’ve been a setup for someone in the comments to make a fat joke, but Schwarber is a more svelte man now, having lost about 20 pounds over the offseason. He hopes that will translate to better defense and more impact with the bat. Despite hitting 30 homers and knocking in 59 RBI last year across 486 PA, Schwarber had a pedestrian .211/.315/.467 batting line.

Center field appears to be a platoon including Albert Almora and Ian Happ. The right-handed Almora hit a solid .298/.338/.445 in 323 PA last year. The switch-hitting Happ blasted 24 home runs with 68 RBI in 413 PA last year. He is following that up with a tremendous spring, hitting .342 with five home runs and 10 RBI in 38 at-bats.

Jason Heyward returns to right field. He’s been something of a disappointment after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs in December 2015. Over the past two seasons, he has a meager .669 OPS, but he has made up for it by playing Gold Glove-worthy defense in right field. According to FanGraphs, only Mookie Betts and Adam Eaton have been better defensively in right field than Heyward over the last two years. The Cubs would, of course, love it if Heyward were to figure things out on the offensive side of things, but they have more than enough offense out of the other eight spots and Heyward carries his weight with his glove anyway.

The Cubs also have Ben Zobrist, who functions as a super-utility player with the ability to play seven positions. The 36-year-old struggled mightily at the plate in 2017, batting .232/.318/.375 in 498 PA, but it was his first down year of his career. It’s not a trend yet and, at any rate, Zobrist is a tremendous asset off the bench.

This Cubs roster doesn’t really have any weaknesses. As mentioned, Morrow’s health is always a question, but the Cubs will be able to deal with that situation easily should it arise. Compared to their other NL Central competition, this is a very complete and deep roster. FanGraphs is projecting 94 wins while PECOTA has them at 92. I’m a little more optimistic.

Prediction: 96-66, 1st place in NL Central

Olson blasts two HRs, Acuña has 4 hits as Strider, Braves overpower Phillies 11-4

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ATLANTA – Given a seven-run lead in the first inning, Atlanta right-hander Spencer Strider could relax and keep adding to his majors-leading strikeout total.

“That game felt like it was over pretty quick,” Strider said.

Ronald Acuña Jr. drove in three runs with four hits, including a two-run single in Atlanta’s seven-run first inning, and the Braves beat the Philadelphia Phillies 11-4 on Sunday night to split the four-game series.

“Getting a lead first is big, especially when you get that big of a lead,” Strider said. “… When we’re putting up runs, my job isn’t to be perfect. My job is to get outs.”

Following the game, Braves manager Brian Snitker announced right-hander Michael Soroka will be recalled to make his first start since the 2020 season on Monday night at Oakland.

Matt Olson hit a pair of two-run homers for Atlanta, and Strider became the fastest pitcher in modern history to reach 100 strikeouts in a season.

“It’s incredible,” said Acuña through a translator of Strider. “Every time he goes out to pitch it seems like he’s going to strike everybody out.”

Acuña hit a run-scoring triple in the fifth before Olson’s second homer to center. Acuña had two singles in the first when the Braves sent 11 batters to the plate, collected seven hits and opened a 7-0 lead. Led by Acuña and Olson, who had three hits, the Braves set a season high with 20 hits.

Strider (5-2) struck out nine while pitching six innings of two-run ball. The right-hander fired a called third strike past Nick Castellanos for the first out of the fourth, giving him 100 strikeouts in 61 innings and topping Jacob deGrom‘s 61 2/3 innings in 2021 as the fastest to 100 in the modern era.

“It’s cool,” Strider said, adding “hopefully it’ll keep going.”

Olson followed Acuña’s leadoff single with a 464-foot homer to right-center. Austin Riley added another homer before Ozzie Albies and Acuña had two-run singles in the long first inning.

Phillies shortstop Trea Turner and left fielder Kyle Schwarber each committed an error on a grounder by Orlando Arcia, setting up two unearned runs in the inning.

Strider walked Kody Clemens to open the third. Brandon Marsh followed with a two-run homer for the Phillies’ first hit. Schwarber hit a two-run homer off Collin McHugh in the seventh.


Michael Harris II celebrated the one-year anniversary of his major league debut by robbing Schwarber of a homer with a leaping catch at the center-field wall in the second. As Harris shook his head to say “No!” after coming down with the ball on the warning track, Strider pumped his fist in approval on the mound – after realizing Harris had the ball.

“He put me through an emotional roller coaster for a moment,” Strider said.


Soroka was scratched from his scheduled start at Triple-A Gwinnett on Sunday, setting the stage for his final step in his comeback from two torn Achilles tendons.

“To get back is really a feather in that kid’s cap,” Snitker said.

Soroka will be making his first start in the majors since Aug. 3, 2020, against the New York Mets when he suffered a torn right Achilles tendon. Following a setback which required a follow-up surgery, he suffered another tear of the same Achilles tendon midway through the 2021 season.

Soroka suffered another complication in his comeback when a hamstring injury slowed his progress this spring.

Acuña said he was “super happy, super excited for him, super proud of him” and added “I’m just hoping for continued good health.”

Soroka looked like an emerging ace when he finished 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 2019 and placed second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting and sixth in the NL Cy Young voting.

The Braves are 0-3 in bullpen committee games as they attempt to overcome losing two key starters, Max Fried (strained left forearm) and Kyle Wright (right shoulder inflammation) to the injured list in early May. Each is expected to miss at least two months.

RHP Dereck Rodriguez, who gave up one hit in two scoreless innings, was optioned to Gwinnett after the game to clear a roster spot for Soroka.


Phillies right-hander Dylan Covey (0-1), claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 20, didn’t make it through the first inning. Covey allowed seven runs, five earned, and six hits, including the homers by Olson and Riley.


Phillies: 3B Alex Bohm was held out with hamstring tightness. … LHP José Alvarado (left elbow inflammation) threw the bullpen session originally scheduled for Saturday. Manager Rob Thomson said there was no report that Alvarado, who was placed on the injured list on May 10, had any difficulty.


Phillies: Following an off day, LHP Ranger Suárez (0-1, 9.82 ERA) is scheduled to face Mets RHP Kodai Senga (4-3, 3.94 ERA) in Tuesday night’s opener of a three-game series in New York.

Braves: Soroka was 1-2 with a 4.33 ERA in eight games with Triple-A Gwinnett. He allowed a combined four hits and two runs over 10 2/3 innings in his last two starts. RHP Paul Blackburn (7-6, 4.28 ERA in 2022) is scheduled to make his 2023 debut for Oakland as he returns from a finger injury.