Tech mistake |The National League Central Division race was still young last season when Craig Counsell was asked what he thought of the Cubs.
“They’ve won the division title the last two years,” he said, “and they have great talent and teams know they’ll have to go through the Cubs to win the division. But we know the talent we have on our roster and we’re not afraid of ’em,” rasped the Brewers manager who went out and proved his point by helping guide Milwaukee to its first division title in six years.
Counsell will probably take a similar stance as the clubs prepare for spring training, and the Cubs remain a favorite to win the division. But the Brewers will enter the campaign with a target on their backs as the team to dethrone.
The Cubs and Brewers will be the front-runners to win the division, but will be joined by the improved, and always dangerous St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, who most experts couldn’t see for dust early last year. The Pittsburgh Pirates also have some emerging talent on a club that will be competitive.
Make no mistake, the N.L. Central will be a combative division in 2019.
The Cubs, as now constituted, have the most balanced ball club in the division.
They have depth, power, speed, defense, and they still have good pitching.
They also have desire.
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Don’t mistake their failure to repeat the 2016 World Series championship doesn’t tug at their egos and their ability to close out the season as the best team in the majors.
So, that brings up the question—what are the key factors for the Cubs to have a successful 2019 season?
Here are my 7 keys:
That is the No. 1 concern for every major league team. Each club will suffer injuries, but it’s those teams that avoid a key player spending considerable time on the disabled list that extend their season into a deep October run.
According to spotrac, the Cubs had 14 players spend time on the DL in 2018 that totaled 580 days at a cost of $33,023,226.
That is significant. The most important players to lose playing time were Yu Darvish (138 days), Brandon Morrow (83 days), Kris Bryant (54 days), Brian Duensing (46 days), C.J. Edwards (38 days), Jason Heyward (28 days), Mike Montgomery (14 days), Addison Russell (11 days), Anthony Rizzo (9 days), and Ben Zobrist (8 days).
Injuries are bound to arise during a six month, 162-game season, so luck will have a lot to do with the Cubs remaining healthy along with hard work during the offseason and into the 2019 campaign.
Here’s crossing our fingers for the players to remain free from significant DL time.
- STRONG BULLPEN
The Cubs have proven performers at every position, but with the uncertainty of closer Brandon Morrow’s health heading into spring training and the inconsistency at the end of last season of other bullpen members, the relief role will continue to be a concern until proven otherwise.
The front office still has time before the season opener to strengthen the weakness that prevented them from winning a third consecutive division title last season—a healthy, versatile, and deep bullpen.
Before biceps and back issues sidelined Morrow for most of the year, he performed well as the team’s closer—22 saves in 24 opportunities, 31 strikeouts in 30.2 innings, and a 1.47 ERA.
Various health concerns have plagued Morrow throughout his 12-year major league career and he is already questionable for the start of 2019. That is a disturbing development for Cubs president Theo Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer, and manager Joe Maddon.
The Cubs have been linked to some free-agent relievers who were unsigned through the first week of January—Cody Allen, Adam Ottavino, Brad Brach, and Jake Diekman. But fans should be confident the Cubs will resolve the bullpen issue by adding relievers they believe will plug up the hole that seeped poor performances in the final weeks of the 2018 season.
With a healthy Morrow and Pedro Strop, the Cubs have two solid shutdown right-handed arms. The addition of middle men Steve Cishek, Duensing, Brandon Kintzler, Randy Rosario, Edwards, Dillon Maples, Alex Mills, and James Norwood could give the team the much-needed depth the bullpen requires.
And hopefully the versatility of Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery will allow them to contribute as spot starters and effective relievers.
These names don’t sing World Series contenders, so I would guess some new bullpen dancers will be joining the Cubs relief corps before March 28.
- CONSISTENCY BEHIND THE PLATE
Back in the days when we were absorbing some of the finer points of the game, we learned to understand the importance of a good catcher to a winning team.
Catchers need to excel defensively. If they can add production with the bat into their game, so much the better. But basically, a team needs a catcher who is neat and decisive in their work behind the plate.
A good catcher combines durability with nimbleness. His legs have to be strong enough to take the constant strain of squatting behind the plate, yet he has to be quick enough to pounce on bunts or track down spinning pop fouls. He should also have a powerful and accurate throwing arm.
He must have the mental capacity to catalogue the batting strengths and weaknesses of opposing hitters and be sharp in working with every pitcher on the staff on how to “set up” a hitter and know when to call for a pitchout or when to throw to a base.
That in a nutshell is the description of Willson Contreras, but the consistency of the tools he possesses—to become one of the game’s best backstops—must improve.
He arguably has the best arm in the majors behind the plate and his potential in the batter’s box is limitless. Contreras has shown flashes of brilliance with bat and glove during his three MLB seasons while his leadership abilities continue to rise.
If he can put his defensive and offensive capabilities together in an unswerving manner in 2019, the Cubs will be in great shape behind the plate.
- RELIABLE ROTATION
On paper the Cubs have a deep starting corps— Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Yu Darvish—that could put up some outstanding numbers. But Lester and Hamels are a year older, Hendricks and Quintana had some stretches in which they struggled, and Darvish was a complete disaster.
So, here’s what to hope for in the upcoming year:
For Darvish to bounce back from an injury plagued 2018 season in which he earned $20 million for 40 innings, and prove he can pitch in a big city for a pennant-contending team and be a major factor.
For Hamels and Hendricks to pick up where they left off from last season—in the final two months of the campaign, the two combined to go 11-5 with a 2.43 ERA in 148.1 innings.
For Quintana to be dependable for the length of a full season and not just have half a season in which he performs well and half a year of unreliable outings.
For Lester, 35, to put another noteworthy year together and continue as the staff ace.
- KILLER INSTINCT
It has always been a conviction in these quarters that beneath the surface of most champions lies an intangible force known as a “killer’s instinct.”
In baseball, the paying public often can only sense this force because sometimes it’s hard to perceive. The fans aren’t always in the know to what goes on in the minds of the players, or to what is said on the field, in the dugout, or in the clubhouse.
In 2016, when the Cubs won the World Series, that aggressive tenacious urge to dominate proved to be a major factor in their success.
That “killer’s instinct” or “edge” seemed to dissipate in many must win games for the Cubs over the last two years. If they can regain their swagger and know they are the team to beat, then the Cubs will be the most dangerous team in the N.L.
- RETURN OF BRYZZO
During much of the 2018 season, the middle of the Cubs lineup was Bryzzo-less—Rizzo without Bryant. That’s like Ruth without Gehrig, Maris without Mantle, Ramirez without Ortiz, Stargell without Clemente, Hodges without Snider, McCovey without Mays . . . you get the picture.
The Cubs offense performs at a different level when Bryant and Rizzo are healthy and producing. If Bryant can overcome his shoulder issues that sidelined him for considerable time last year and robbed him of his power, and if Rizzo can continue his consistency of four consecutive 100-RBI seasons, then the Cubs will be in great form to outscore their opponents.
- CONTINUED IMPROVEMENT
Despite numerous injuries to key players, the Cubs still won 95 games because of the emergence of Javier Baez, the play of Albert Almora, Jr., and the improvement of Jason Heyward.
Baez will remain as the most spectacular defensive infielder in the game and perhaps the most important commodity the Cubs have with his ability to perform at an all-star level at second base, third base, and shortstop.
But the N.L. RBI champion must reproduce his offensive standards he set for himself last year when he hit .290 with 40 doubles, 34 homers, 101 runs, and 111 RBIs.
How Almora was not a finalist for a Gold Glove Award among center fielders last season baffles me. He is clearly one of the top defensive players at his position and his hitting continues to improve—.286 BA, 62 runs, and 24 doubles in ’18.
His offensive numbers suffered terribly after the All-Star break last year, but if he can put together a full season like he did the first half of 2018—.319, 19 doubles, 48 runs, 28 RBI—Almora will become an added bonus to the Cubs’ offensive attack.
Heyward is the best defensive right fielder in the N.L. and if he can continue to re-emerge as a threat with a bat in his hands, then his $20 million salary will be easier to accept.
Last year was his best at the plate for the Cubs, but a .731 OPS is still not what the team is looking for from their highest paid position player.
Those are 7 major keys to success for the Cubs in 2019, but there are other factors that could benefit the club in a positive direction.
If Ben Zobrist, who will turn 38 in May, can avoid Father Time and continue his all-around play and fuel his quality of mentoring the team’s younger generation of stars.
If Kyle Schwarber can reach his full potential as a hitter and not be distracted by his defensive inadequacies.
If Addison Russell can repair his personal strife and reclaim the shortstop position. If he can do that, the Cubs could field the best up-the-middle defense in baseball.
The Cubs are a relatively young team, still on the rise. Like most clubs, they have a few question marks. But that’s true of most contenders. Usually, it’s just a question of having everything come together and at this point it appears that the Cubs are hungry to repeat their success from two years ago.
I have served as an associate editor, managing editor and editor for Baseball Digest magazine from July 1, 1987 through June 4, 2018, covering the MLB game as a writer. I have been a member of the BBWAA for 25 years and a Hall of Fame voter since 2004. I am the author of two…
Bob Kuenster is a contributing columnist for Forbes.com. He can be found on Twitter at @bobkuenster