MLB In Full Bloom - Cubs Preview - 3/14/2014

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18– Number of days until Opening Day

76.296– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Chicago Cubs Preview

The big question - Is the wait almost over? It has been 105 long years since the north side of Chicago last celebrated a World Series title and in seven months that number will be pushed to 106. Let’s get it out of the way: this 2014 edition of the Cubs is hopeless. There’s not enough firepower in the lineup, not nearly enough quality arms on the pitching staff, and they’ll play in a five-team division that features four much better squads. The Cubs are waiting for several top prospects to make it to Wrigley Field. A total of seven Cubs prospects appeared in last month’s Baseball America Top 100, tied for the second-most of any organization. Javier Baez looks like a star in the making and will likely work his way into the major league infield mix by the end of this summer. He batted .282 with 37 home runs, 111 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 130 games last year between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Kris Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, could also become a starter — at third base — by the end of 2014. Right-handed starter C.J. Edwards and Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler were among the other Cubs prospects. Until these guys arrive, it might as well keep snowing in Chicago.

Key Additions: Jason Hammel, Jose Veres, Wesley Wright, Justin Ruggiano, George Kottaras

Key Departures: Scott Baker, Kevin Gregg, Dioner Navarro, Matt Guerrier

OFFENSE: The lineup isn’t formidable. Anthony Rizzo has promising upside at first base, but his park-adjusted batting numbers were nearly league-average for that premium offensive position during the 2013 season. Fifth-year shortstop Starlin Castro was a complete disaster last summer, hitting .245.  Luis Valbuena, Nate Schieholtz, Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney, Wellington Castillo, and Darwin Barney make up this lackluster lineup.

STARTING PITCHING: As loaded as the Cubs' system is offensively, it leaves a lot to be desired for pitching prospects. Fortunately, the Cubs already have some nice pieces in place. Jeff Samardzija wasn't quite as effective as he was in 2012, but he topped the 200-inning and 200-strikeout marks for the first time. Edwin Jackson's ERA was a full point higher than Samardzija. Travis Wood broke out with a 3.11 ERA in exactly 200 innings. Wood made his first All-Star appearance. Jason Hammel was not as effective in an injury-riddled 2013 season as he was in his injury-riddled 2012 season. Jake Arrieta struggled once again to keep the ball in the park in 2013 and he is just as injury riddled as Hammel. The Cubs also have Chris Rusin, James McDonald, Carlos Villanueva, and Kyle Hendricks in the mix for Arrieta's spot.

BULLPEN: The Cubs ranked 25th in the MLB in bullpen ERA last season with a 4.04 mark, but they look to be an improved group heading into 2014. Jose Veras showed he has the stuff to close during his time with the Astros before serving as one of the Detroit Tigers' primary setup men in the postseason. James Russell has been solid since moving to the bullpen full-time, while Blake Parker quietly enjoyed a breakout season of sorts in 2013. Hector Rondon showed flashes as a Rule 5 pick last season, and he should be in a good position to land a bullpen spot once again. Pedro Strop could be the X-factor here, as he has the stuff to close.

2014 Prediction: There are some interesting pieces in place at the big league level, and the progress of Castro and Rizzo will be an intriguing storyline throughout the season. However, "interesting" only takes you so far in baseball. The Cubs currently lack the talent to get out of the cellar of their division, and it may be another season or two before we start to see them climb up the standings. Given the holes on their roster and the talent atop the Central, a 70-win season would be a huge step in the right direction for Epstein and company.

Final Record: (66-96 Last Place in NL Central)

MLB In Full Bloom - Brewers Preview - 3/13/2014

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19– Number of days until Opening Day

73,519– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Milwaukee Brewers Preview

Key Additions: Matt Garza, Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay, Will Smith, Francisco Rodriguez

Key Departures: Norichika Aoki, Yuniesky Betancourt, Chris Narveson, Mat Gamel, Mike Gonzalez

The 2013 season was a disaster for the Milwaukee Brewers. A 6-22 month of May sent the Brewers crashing down to the bottom of the NL Central standings, and they were never able to fully dig themselves out. The big conversation in Brewers camp this spring has been the return of Ryan Braun to baseball. The response from his teammates has been positive and there is no doubt the team will go as far as Braun can take them in 2014. If the Brewers are going to be relevant, the Brewers not only need Braun to produce, but the starting pitching must improve as well.

OFFENSE: The Brewers were hampered by injuries and suspension to the middle of their lineup last year. Even with all those challenges, the Brewers still found a way to be an average offensive team in 2013. The Brewers are counting on the return of Ryan Braun and a healthy Aramis Ramirez to improve its offense back among the best in the National League. Finding a leadoff hitter to replace Aoki will be key. Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez, and Jonathan Lucroy join Braun and Ramirez to give the Brewers five potentially dangerous hitters. Mark Reynolds could thrive hitting at Miller Park, but he is competing with Juan Francisco and Lyle Overbay to get regular playing time at first base. Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura are candidates to fill the lead-off spot now that Norichika Aoki was traded to the Rangers.

STARTING ROTATION: The Brewers signed Matt Garza to team up with Kyle Loshe and Yovani Gallardo to give them a top three capable of contending. Wily Peralta was inconsistent during his rookie season in 2013, but he did show flashes of being a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Marco Estrada will likely fill out the rotation. When healthy, Estrada has proven to be a solid back-end option. Milwaukee also has depth in the minor leagues with several pitchers having some big-league experience.

BULLPEN: The Brewers drastically improved their bullpen last season, going from a league-worst 4.66 ERA in 2012 to the fifth-best ERA at 3.19. Jim Henderson will begin the season as the team's closer after saving 28 games in 2013. Brandon Kintzler and Francisco Rodriguez will team up to cover the seventh and eighth innings. Tom Gorzelanny is a versatile lefty that can fill a long relief role as well as short relief. Gorzelanny was acquired in the Aoki trade and Will Smith will give the Brewers another left-handed option. The rest of Milwaukee's bullpen will be filled out with young, inexperienced arms who got their feet wet last year.

2014 PREDICTION: Without Ryan Braun performing at an MVP level, the Brewers are a solid team, but on the outside looking in to the playoff race. The Brewers are better than quite a few teams and they'll be competitive in just about every game they play, but not at the level of the teams that will spend the year leading the wildcard standings. Even with the addition of Matt Garza, there is not enough depth with the starting rotation. The Brewers are better, but they will miss the playoffs.

Final Record - 81-81 (4th Place NL Central)

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