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2019 Chicago Cubs Season Preview: Pressure on for talented roster to deliver playoff wins

Editor’s note: Baseball is back and Yahoo Sports is previewing all 30 teams over the next month. This year’s previews will focus on fantasy and reality, as our MLB news staff and our fantasy baseball crew come together to assess each team before opening day. Next up, the Chicago Cubs.

If you remember the post-2016 World Series hype, we were supposed to have been on year four of a Chicago Cubs dynasty by now. Another division title followed, but so did an early playoff exit. Last year, it was a second-place finish and a loss in the wild-card game.

The Cubs haven’t been able to seize on all their talent again like they did in 2016. Last year, injuries were a big part of it. They still won an excellent 95 games, but were topped by the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central as Yu DarvishKris Bryant and others didn’t meet expectations because of injuries.

Now the question seems to be becoming: Can the Cubs even keep up in the NL Central?

[Batter up: Join or create a 2019 Yahoo Fantasy Baseball league for free today]

The talent is there, no question. Bryant is one of the best players in the gameJavy Báez nearly won the MVP last year. There’s Anthony RizzoWillson ContrerasKyle Schwarber. The pitching is full of well-known names like Jon LesterCole Hamels and José Quintana, but the Cubs’ pitching situation sounds better than it actually is, as most everyone has a question mark.

The Chicago Cubs are counting on stars like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to take them back to playoffs. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Plenty of them will sounds good on your fantasy team too. Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Contreras are all seemingly safe picks, Darvish, Schwarber, Lester, Quintana are all a bit riskier, but people will latch on to them because they’re the Cubs.

But what exactly does it means to be the Cubs these days? We’re going to have to find out in 2019. Either this is a team whose deep lineup roars back and its pitching holds up, or it’s going to flop again. - Mike Oz

Cubs’ offseason grade

The Cubs’ offseason consisted of adding — *shuffles around desk, looking for the right piece of paper* — Brad Brach and Daniel Descalso?! Yep, that’s all the Cubs did. It certainly wasn’t the year they signed Jon Lester.

The Cubs’ decision to stand pat was a controversial one on the North Side and around baseball. As the Brewers and Cardinals got better this year, the Cubs stayed the Cubs. They’ve got the talent to justify that stance, but they certainly didn’t get it done last year despite 95 wins.

In a National League where there’s no clear favorite, the Cubs could have become that with the right move or two. Instead? Here we are. If the Cubs falter again, their offseason strategy could be a huge point of contention.

Our grade: D — Brach will help the bullpen, but “hoping everybody’s healthy” isn’t exactly the greatest offseason strategy. - Mike Oz

Chicago’s projected lineup and pitching staff

(Yahoo Sports)

Who will be the Cubs’ fantasy breakout?

Look, some of us will just never be able quit Kyle Schwarber. It’s a weakness. At least this year we aren’t paying for an expected jump in value; his ADP in Yahoo leagues is a perfectly reasonable 168.4. We know Schwarber has scoreboard power, so it’s hardly insane to think his power ceiling is 35 (or more) bombs. He also improved substantially as a defensive outfielder last season, a key to earning additional late-game at-bats. On a team with very few unknowns, Schwarber is probably the closest thing to a potential breakout star. -Andy Behrens

What is Chicago’s biggest fantasy question?

Brandon Morrow is currently injured (elbow) and notoriously susceptible to strains and fatigue and various issues. So the ninth inning plan for Chicago is a major question. Presumptive early-season closer Pedro Strop has dealt with a hamstring problem this spring, but he’s expected to be ready for opening day. Assuming he is, we have to consider him a strong candidate to run away with the closing gig. Strop is coming off a year in which he delivered excellent ratios (2.26 ERA, 0.99 WHIP) while producing another outstanding K-rate. His worst full-season WHIP over the past five seasons is 1.18. He’s good, and, unlike Morrow, there are no worries about his availability to pitch on consecutive days. Assuming he gets save chances to open the season, expect him to keep a tight grip on the job. -Andy Behrens

Cubs prospect to watch

The Cubs farm system is going through a rebuild. The team has graduated a number of impact players to the majors in recent seasons and traded away other talented players to help the major-league team stay competitive.

In 2019, pitcher Adbert Alzolay is one of the few impact prospects the team could use in the majors. Alzolay made it to Triple-A in 2018, and could have eventually reached the majors if not for a lat injury. He’s been used primarily as a starter in the majors, but like most non-elite pitching prospects, he could be broken into the majors as a reliever in 2019. - Chris Cwik

Things that MUST go right for Chicago

1. Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood bounce back: The Cubs didn't spend much money this winter. One year earlier, they spent a lot but got little return from Darvish and Chatwood. The Cubs got a total of five wins from the right-handers. Darvish was limited by injury. His season ended with surgery to address a stress reaction in his elbow. Chatwood was doomed by a lack of command. In 103 innings, he walked 95 batters while striking out only 85. With $106.5 million still due to the duo, the Cubs need more in 2019.

2. Healthy Kris Bryant: The Cubs third baseman has a chip on his shoulder, which is better than the ache that helped limit his power last season. The former NL MVP missed time and struggled to the finish line, finishing with a .272/.374/.460 batting line and just 13 homers. The Cubs offensive output dipped as a result, going from back-to-back top five finishes in runs scored to ninth. Yeah, it might not sound like much, but their 50 fewer runs compared to 2017 made a big difference in the standings.

3. Bullpen excellence: The Cubs bullpen was vital to their success last season. Their relievers posted a collective 3.35 ERA, which was second only to the Astros. It's an even deeper group this season too. New additions Brad BrachGeorge KontosXavier CedeñoKyle Ryan and Tony Barnette, will join returnees Pedro StropSteve Cishek, Brandon KintzlerMike MontgomeryCarl Edwards Jr. and Brandon Morrow. That's the good news. The concern is Morrow's health, and the seemingly inevitable step back several pitchers could take. The Cubs will need a strong core to emerge or Joe Maddon will be mixing and matching like crazy. - Mark Townsend

If this team had a walk-up song, what would it be?

The Cubs are, no-doubt, one of the most-talked-about teams in baseball and their decision to not gear up this offseason is quite intriguing. Ultimately, though, you can’t tell the Cubs nothing.

So here’s their 2019 walk-up song, Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” The Cubs, like Ye, are going to do things their way. As Kanye says early in the song, “I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny ...” - Mike Oz

More 2019 MLB Previews From Yahoo Sports

Baltimore | Miami | Kansas City | Detroit | Texas | Toronto | San Diego

Chicago (AL) | Minnesota | San Francisco | Pittsburgh | Arizona | Seattle

Cincinnati | Los Angeles (AL) | Oakland | Tampa Bay | Colorado | Cleveland

New York (NL) | St. Louis | Atlanta | Philadelphia | Milwaukee | Chicago

Washington | Los Angeles (NL) | Houston | New York (AL) | Boston