The Atlanta Braves will return to SunTrust Park Monday night for the 2019 home opener against the Chicago Cubs. Chicago figures to be one of the favorites in what should be an interesting race in the NL Central again this season. They won 95 games last year but lost int he Wild Card game.
(Kris Willis) Al you are one of the first names I remember when I started writing for SB Nation back in 2010. How long have you been at Bleed Cubbie Blue and how long have you been watching the Cubs?
(Al Yellon) I go back to the very beginning of SB Nation, was one of what I like to call the “Original Six” SB Nation sites in 2005. I’ve been following the Cubs for over 50 years. Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins were among my childhood heroes.
(KW) A lot of people felt like the Cubs underachieved in 2018 yet a quick check of the standings shows they won 95 games. What was your view of last season?
(AY) The Cubs did underachieve, because I think everyone expected them to win the division again and perhaps make a fourth straight trip to the NLCS. The Cubs didn’t lose the division title so much as the Brewers won it by having a great September. The wild-card game loss was unexpected and brought a lot of soul-searching for the entire organization. Mostly, it was injuries (Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish) and underachieving by several key players, including Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras, that led to their downfall.
(KW) What are your expectations for the team in 2019?
(AY) With a healthy Bryant and Darvish, this team should be ready to resume its place atop the N.L. Central, even though some other teams in the division have also improved, particularly the Cardinals with the acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt.
I believe they will win the division, but it will be a close, tough race.
(KW) What is the situation with Joe Maddon? He is in the last year of his deal and has yet to sign an extension. Is he on the hot seat? Do you think he will be back next season?
(AY) Maddon is definitely on the hot seat, though what happened in 2018 wasn’t really his fault. Maddon came to the Cubs and helped completely change the clubhouse culture into one of winning. He’s a great motivator and leader not just of baseball players, but I think he could be that in just about any business. He’s the best manager the Cubs have had in more than 85 years.
I think the Cubs would be foolish to let him go. Who could do better? That said, I think the benchmark for his return is a N.L. pennant and return to the World Series.
(KW) Kris Bryant was bothered by a shoulder injury during the second half of 2018. Is he healthy now and do you think he will be back putting up MVP level numbers?
(AY) KB is 100 percent healthy and already showing opposite-field power, something he was known for in his MVP season in 2016. He was actually off to a great start in 2018 before the injury. I expect him to get back to his previous level of performance and potentially be a MVP candidate.
(KW) Yu Darvish endured a mostly lost 2018 season but has looked pretty good this spring. Do you think he is primed for a bounce back season? Are there any other Cubs pitchers that we should keep an eye on?
(AY) Darvish had a good spring, though it was marred by a blister in his last spring start. His first start of 2019, on Saturday, was a nightmare -- seven walks, and he didn’t get out of the third inning. It’s unclear whether the blister (which was supposedly healed) had anything to do with that. Hopefully it was a one-off and he’ll be fine for his next start.
One Cubs pitcher to watch is, believe it or not, Tyler Chatwood. Chatwood had an awful 2018, leading the majors in walks and spending the last month on the bench. He has revamped his motion this spring, and while pitching in relief in spring training (11 innings) walked no one. He has great stuff (throws 95-plus) and if he has harnessed his command, he could be a key to the Cubs bullpen.
(KW) Finally, Javier Baez finished second in NL MVP voting in 2018 with a monstrous season. How can a guy who swings at virtually everything be so effective?
(AY) Javy has cut down on his strikeouts and has actually said he’d like to walk more this year. Obviously when he hits the ball it can go a long, long way. But it’s not just that hitting that makes him an MVP threat again. It’s his baseball instincts, which are off the charts. He’s a smart and fast baserunner whose “swim” move has allowed him to avoid tags when stealing bases, and his defense is unmatched. Those are things that don’t show up in the numbers, but people do notice.