Chicago Cubs 2019 Preview: a return to form … Mostly

Ryan O'Rourke, IV Leader Sports Writer

Spring Training is just over a month away and the Chicago Cubs are preparing to come back with a vengeance. After losing game 163 and the wild card game at Wrigley last year, the team found themselves on the outside looking in for the first time since 2014. Naturally, it did not sit well with fans. While the cries for changes and the signing of the almighty Bryce Harper were many, the organization seems to be putting trust in the talent already present to take back the NL Central. Aside from a few signings, losses via trade and free agency, and coaching shake ups, one can expect the usual suspects to return to Wrigley Field this spring.

Perhaps the biggest problem the Cubs need an answer to this year is that of Yu Darvish. Darvish spent the majority of last season out with an injury and his short time on the mound didn’t instill much confidence. A return to form for Darvish could be the key the Cubs need to overcome the ever-improving Brewers and Cardinals. Theo Epstein and company hope this is the case given the massive contract Darvish inked last February. At the very least, the return of Cole Hamels will solidify the rotation in case of emergency.

There’s also the issue of Kris Bryant and Brandon Morrow. Bryant also spent significant time on the DL with shoulder issues last year. Even after he returned, his power was missing in action. A quick look on Baseball Reference shows that his slugging percentage was the lowest it had been in his major league career. At his best, Bryant is a genuine superstar who can hit close to 40 home runs a season, yet he only hit 13 in 2018. Having him back at full strength alongside MVP runner-up Javier Baez and team captain Anthony Rizzo will certainly be something to look forward to in 2019.

As for Brandon Morrow, it may be awhile before the flame-throwing closer is back in action. ESPN’s Jesse Rogers reported back in early December that due to shoulder surgery, it was probable that Morrow would miss opening day. While not unusual for the 34-year-old, it is disappointing to see arguably the Cubs’ best reliever out yet again.

Aside from injury, the Cubs most notably lost Justin Wilson, Jesse Chavez, and Daniel Murphy to free agency while also trading away pinch hitter extraordinaire Tommy La Stella and pitcher Drew Smyly. The loss of Wilson and Chavez will take a toll on an already lackluster bullpen. Aside from Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop (and to a lesser degree Alec Mills), the Cubs’ bullpen was shakier than the numbers showed last year. Fortunately, Mike Montgomery will be returning the bullpen to provide some much-needed depth, but it would be wise for the team to add another arm. There is also a possibility of Tyler Chatwood appearing out of the bullpen, but that depends on whether or not he has fixed his control issues.

To make up for the loss of La Stella and Murphy, the Cubs did bring in utility infielder Daniel Descalso. Descalso is no impact bat, hitting only .238 with 13 home runs last year, but his presence will help the Cubs cope with the 40-game suspension of shortstop Addison Russell. He is expected to cover second base while Javier Baez will take care of shortstop.

The Cubs are also running with a mostly new coaching staff. While Joe Maddon will be returning to serve out the final year of his contract, he will now be joined by Rangers hitting coach Anthony Iapoce, newcomer pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, and bench coach Mark Loretta. The addition of Iapoce in particular should add some familiarity to the staff for the young Cubs considering his former role in the team’s minor league staff.

Finally, here are a few other key players to keep a close eye on in 2019.

  • Kyle Hendricks: This is an important year for Hendricks given his co-ace Jon Lester’s age. There’s no telling how much longer Lester can continue to perform at his current level, so it’s time for Hendricks to step up and become the true ace of the club. He certainly has the potential, having placed third in Cy Young voting in 2016 and pitching to a respectable 3.44 ERA last year.
  • Wilson Contreras: After making the all-star team in the first half, Contreras struggled mightily at the plate and even somewhat behind the dish. He’s looking to get back on track in 2019. Perhaps signing another veteran backup catcher will aid in his growth as a player.
  • Ian Happ: Joining Contreras on the bounce back trail, Ian Happ never got off the ground in 2018. He has potential and a lot of pop in his bat, but he still has a lot of room to grow.
  • Albert Almora Jr: The young center fielder dazzled last year with his stellar defense and was very consistent with the bat during the first half. While unlikely to be a superstar like Baez and Bryant, Almora shows a lot of promise and has a chance to further improve in 2019.

The Cubs haven’t made a big splash this year by signing Bryce Harper because they don’t have to. The talent is already there, and while last year was riddled with injury and disappointment, they still won 95 games. They could still sign a bullpen arm or veteran catcher, but these are minor issues on an otherwise terrifying squad. This team can make noise and if their homegrown talent continues to develop as such, 2019 will be the loudest the Cubs have ever been.