Archive for the ‘ Matchups ’ Category

Home Series 3 Preview: Cubs vs. Reds

Billy-Hamilton

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty)

The Reds used a balanced attack to win 90 games and snag the second Wild Card spot in 2013. Even though it was their third playoff appearance in four seasons, manager Dusty Baker was let go, as his team failed to advance in any of their three postseason trips. The organization stayed within the family to find Baker’s replacement, promoting highly respected pitching coach Bryan Price to the top spot. Price could find himself with an even stronger rotation, despite losing Bronson Arroyo to the Diamondbacks, but he must hope rookie speedster Billy Hamilton can fill a giant-sized hole at the top of the lineup created by the departure of on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo. Still, led by perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto, there’s a ton of talent on this roster.

2014 HITTING
(11th in NL, 3.8 RS/G)
The Reds likely won’t be able to replace Choo and his .423 OBP in the leadoff spot, but rookie phenom Hamilton hopes to wreak havoc on the basepaths (though he has struggled with just a .220 on-base percentage thus far). His speed is so disruptive that if he finds his way to first, it’s likely he’ll be in scoring position within a pitch or two. Votto gets dinged for not driving in runs, but there’s no debating he’s one of the most productive offensive forces in the game, with a .446 OBP and the ability to consistently hit 25-plus home runs. Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier are both good complementary run producers, but Brandon Phillips is on the downside of his career and struggled with a .310 OBP and .706 OPS last season.

2014 PITCHING
(5th in NL, 3.4 RA/G)
Despite losing Arroyo, the Reds’ rotation actually has a chance to improve from last season. After making only 11 starts in 2013, ace Johnny Cueto appears to be healthy, and though Homer Bailey is having a rough start to 2014, the right-hander finally started living up to the high expectations that come with being a top prospect last aseaon. He posted career bests in ERA (3.49), IP (209), WHIP (1.12), K% (23.4 percent) and K/BB (3.69). Add Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani and Mat Latos when he returns from a DL stint, and Cincinnati’s rotation is one of the most impressive on paper entering 2014. The bullpen is also excellent, even with closer Aroldis Chapman still recovering from a comebacker to the face in Spring Training. Sam LeCure, Alfredo Simon and J.J. Hoover all posted sub-3.00 ERAs in more than 60 innings of work last season. And the Reds still have veteran arms in Jonathan Broxton and Manny Parra.

1000 Words: Happy Opening Day 2014!

PNC-Park

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty)

At 12:05 CST, the Cubs will kick off the season against the Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Jeff Samardzija will get his second straight Opening Day nod—and his second straight season kick-off in Pittsburgh—against Pirates lefty and 2013 Comeback Player of the Year Francisco Liriano.

Last season, Samardzija gave up only two hits in eight shutout innings to beat then-Pittsburgh starter A.J. Burnett, 3-1. This will also mark Rick Renteria’s first official game as a major league manager.

Happy Opening Day. Here’s to six more months of Cubs baseball.

Here’s the Cubs lineup for the opener:

1. Bonifacio CF
2. Lake LF
3. Castro SS
4. Rizzo 1B
5. Olt 3B
6. Castillo C
7. Schierholtz RF
8. Barney 2B
9. Samardzija P

Cactus Notes: Cubs take on the Angels; doubleheader set for Saturday

The Cubs are looking to get manager Rick Renteria his first win as they head to Tempe this afternoon to take on the Angels in their first road game of the Cactus League season. While the Cubs will get reacquainted with Albert Pujols and get a chance to see superstar Mike Trout, the Angels will get their first look at phenom Javy Baez. The 21-year-old, who hit .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs and 111 RBI last season between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, gets the start at short today.

Left-hander Chris Rusin is on the mound, taking on the Angels Jared Weaver. Rusin will be backed up by lefties Jonathan Sanchez and Tommy Hottovy, and righties James McDonald and Carlos Pimentel.

Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer will have the game on WGN Radio at 2 p.m. CST. It will also be webcast on Cubs.com. In case you missed it, here’s the lineup for Friday’s game.

1. Chris Coghlan DH
2. Darwin Barney 2B
3. Ryan Sweeney CF
4. Nate Schierholtz RF
5. Donnie Murphy 3B
6. Casper Wells LF
7. Javier Baez SS
8. George Kottaras C
9. Chris Valaika 1B
Chris Rusin P

The Cubs also announced lineups for Saturday’s day-night doubleheader. They start the day at home versus the Giants at 2:05 p.m. CST, and finish up against the Diamondbacks in Scottsdale at 8:05 CST. All-Star Travis Wood will take the hill against the Giants, while Edwin Jackson gets his first start of the spring in the nightcap. Rain is currently in the forecast for Saturday, so the games could be threatened. If the weather cooperates, both will be broadcast on Cubs.com. Here are Saturday’s lineups.

Game One
1. Arismendy Alcantara 2B
2. Luis Valbuena 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo 1B
4. Justin Ruggiano CF
5. Welington Castillo C
6. Chris Valaika SS
7. George Kottaras DH
8. Darnell McDonald LF
9. Aaron Cunningham RF
Travis Wood P

Game Two
1. Emilio Bonifacio 2B
2. Junior Lake CF
3. Starlin Castro SS
4. Ryan Roberts 1B
5. Kris Bryant 3B
6. Jorge Soler RF
7. Mike Olt DH
8. Chris Coghlan LF
9. Eli Whiteside C
Edwin Jackson P

Cubs announce lineups for first instrasquad game

Cubs-park1

The Cubs will get a chance to test drive the new Cubs Park stadium for the first time Wednesday in an intrasquad affair at 1 p.m. local time (2 p.m. CST). Gates open at the ballpark at 12:30 local time.

Cubs prospect (and Northwestern alum) Eric Jokisch will start for the “visiting” team against 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year (and recent Dartmouth grad) Kyle Hendricks for the home side.

“[Hendricks] has got a tremendous amount of poise on the hill, and obviously has a mix of pitches,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “But more than anything, from all of these guys, I’m just seeing how they’re locating and how they’re using their secondary pitches. As the spring progresses, we’ll see how they look and if they’re maintaining what they have and how they’re going to go into the season.”

The Cubs first Cactus League game is Thursday at Cubs Park versus the Diamondbacks. Jeff Samardzija will take the hill.

Here are manager Renteria’s lineups for Wednesday’s game:

Visitor
3B Luis Valbuena
CF Junior Lake
SS Starlin Castro
RF Nate Schierholtz
DH Roberts
LF Darnell McDonald
1B Chris Valaika
2B Darwin Barney
C John Baker
P Eric Jokisch

Bench: Logan Watkins, Rafael Lopez, Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Jeudy Valdez, Christian Villanueva, Aaron Cunningham, Mike Olt, Matt Szczur, Luis Flores

Relievers: Tsuyoshi Wada, Arodys Vizcaino, Brian Schlitter

Home
2B Emilio Bonifacio
RF Justin Ruggiano
1B Anthony Rizzo
CF Ryan Sweeney
DH Welington Castillo
3B Donnie Murphy
SS Javier Baez
C George Kottaras
LF Chris Coghlan
P Kyle Hendricks

Bench: Mitch Maier, Ryan Kalish, Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Casper Wells, Eli Whiteside, Will Remillard

Relievers: Chang-Yong Lim, Marcus Hatley, Neil Ramirez, Armando Rivero

Cubs announce regular season TV broadcast schedule

KASPER-L-062811-SG-G2-04

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The Cubs today announced their 2014 regular season television broadcast schedule, and for the sixth season in a row, all 162 games will be available in high-definition in the Chicago area.

WGN will televise the Cubs’ March 31 season opener at the Pittsburgh Pirates at 12:05 p.m. CST, and Comcast SportsNet will have its first broadcast the next game on April 2 in Pittsburgh at 6:05 p.m. CST (on Comcast SportsNet Plus). WCIU will televise its first game on April 20 when the Cubs host the Cincinnati Reds at 1:20 p.m. CST. WGN will have Wrigley Field’s landmark 100th Anniversary game on April 23 vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Cubs games have been televised by WGN since 1948 and by WCIU since 2000. This will be Comcast SportsNet’s 10th season televising the team.

Len Kasper returns for his 10th season in the Cubs’ television booth and will be joined by Jim Deshaies, who is in his second season with the club.

Cubs 2014 Regular Season Broadcast Schedule
3/31 @ Pittsburgh 12:05 PM WGN
4/2 @ Pittsburgh 6:05 PM CSN+
4/3 @ Pittsburgh 11:35 AM CSN
4/4 vs. Philadelphia 1:20 PM WGN
4/5 vs. Philadelphia 1:20 PM CSN
4/6 vs. Philadelphia 1:20 PM WGN
4/8 vs. Pittsburgh 7:05 PM CSN
4/9 vs. Pittsburgh 7:05 PM WGN
4/10 vs. Pittsburgh 1:20 PM WGN
4/11 @ St. Louis 7:15 PM CSN+
4/12 @ St. Louis 1:15 PM CSN
4/13 @ St. Louis 1:15 PM WGN
4/15 @ NY Yankees 6:05 PM CSN
4/16 @ NY Yankees 6:05 PM WGN
4/18 vs. Cincinnati 1:20 PM WGN
4/19 vs. Cincinnati 1:20 PM CSN
4/20 vs. Cincinnati 1:20 PM WCIU
4/21 vs. Arizona 7:05 PM CSN
4/22 vs. Arizona 7:05 PM CSN
4/23 vs. Arizona 1:20 PM WGN
4/24 vs. Arizona 1:20 PM WGN
4/25 @ Milwaukee 7:10 PM CSN
4/26 @ Milwaukee 6:10 PM WGN
4/27 @ Milwaukee 1:10 PM WGN
4/28 @ Cincinnati 6:10 PM WCIU
4/29 @ Cincinnati 6:10 PM CSN
4/30 @ Cincinnati 6:10 PM CSN
5/2 vs. St. Louis 1:20 PM CSN
5/3 vs. St. Louis 12:05 PM CSN
5/4 vs. St. Louis 7:05 PM ESPN
5/5 vs. White Sox 7:05 PM CSN
5/6 vs. White Sox 7:05 PM WGN
5/7 @ White Sox 7:10 PM CSN
5/8 @ White Sox 7:10 PM WGN
5/9 @ Atlanta 6:35 PM CSN
5/10 @ Atlanta 6:10 PM WGN
5/11 @ Atlanta 12:35 PM WGN
5/12 @ St. Louis 7:10 PM CSN
5/13 @ St. Louis 7:15 PM WCIU
5/14 @ St. Louis 7:15 PM CSN
5/15 @ St. Louis 12:45 PM CSN
5/16 vs. Milwaukee 1:20 PM WGN
5/17 vs. Milwaukee 1:20 PM CSN
5/18 vs. Milwaukee 1:20 PM WGN
5/20 vs. NY Yankees 7:05 PM WGN
5/21 vs. NY Yankees 1:20 PM CSN
5/22 @ San Diego 9:10 PM CSN
5/23 @ San Diego 9:10 PM WGN
5/24 @ San Diego 9:10 PM WGN
5/25 @ San Diego 3:10 PM WGN
5/26 @ SF Giants 3:05 PM WGN
5/27 @ SF Giants 9:15 PM CSN
5/28 @ SF Giants 2:45 PM CSN
5/30 @ Milwaukee 7:10 PM WGN
5/31 @ Milwaukee 3:10 PM CSN
6/1 @ Milwaukee 1:10 PM WGN
6/3 vs. NY Mets 7:05 PM CSN
6/4 vs. NY Mets 7:05 PM WGN
6/5 vs. NY Mets 6:05 PM CSN
6/6 vs. Miami 3:05 PM CSN
6/7 vs. Miami 3:05 PM WGN
6/8 vs. Miami 1:20 PM CSN
6/9 @ Pittsburgh 6:05 PM WCIU
6/10 @ Pittsburgh 6:05 PM CSN
6/11 @ Pittsburgh 6:05 PM CSN
6/12 @ Pittsburgh 6:05 PM WGN
6/13 @ Philadelphia 6:05 PM WGN
6/14 @ Philadelphia 2:05 PM CSN
6/15 @ Philadelphia 12:35 PM WGN
6/16 @ Miami 6:10 PM CSN
6/17 @ Miami 6:10 PM WGN
6/18 @ Miami 11:40 AM CSN
6/20 vs. Pittsburgh 3:05 PM WGN
6/21 vs. Pittsburgh 6:15 PM FOX
6/22 vs. Pittsburgh 1:20 PM WGN
6/23 vs. Cincinnati 7:05 PM WCIU
6/24 vs. Cincinnati 7:05 PM CSN
6/25 vs. Cincinnati 6:05 PM WGN
6/26 vs. Washington 7:05 PM CSN
6/27 vs. Washington 3:05 PM WGN
6/28 vs. Washington 12:05 PM WGN
6/28 vs. Washington 6:15 PM FOX
6/30 @ Boston 6:10 PM CSN
7/1 @ Boston 6:10 PM CSN
7/2 @ Boston 6:10 PM WCIU
7/4 @ Washington 10:05 AM WGN
7/5 @ Washington 3:05 PM CSN
7/6 @ Washington 12:35 PM WGN
7/7 @ Cincinnati 6:10 PM CSN
7/8 @ Cincinnati 6:10 PM CSN
7/9 @ Cincinnati 6:10 PM WGN
7/10 @ Cincinnati 11:35 AM WGN
7/11 vs. Atlanta 3:05 PM CSN
7/12 vs. Atlanta 3:05 PM WGN
7/13 vs. Atlanta 1:20 PM CSN
7/14-17 ALL-STAR BREAK (Minnesota – Target Field)
7/18 @ Arizona 8:40 PM CSN
7/19 @ Arizona 7:10 PM WGN
7/20 @ Arizona 3:10 PM WGN
7/22 vs. San Diego 7:05 PM CSN+
7/23 vs. San Diego 7:05 PM CSN
7/24 vs. San Diego 7:05 PM WGN
7/25 vs. St. Louis 3:05 PM WGN
7/26 vs. St. Louis 3:05 PM CSN
7/27 vs. St. Louis TBD WGN or ESPN
7/28 vs. Colorado 7:05 PM CSN
7/29 vs. Colorado 7:05 PM WGN
7/30 vs. Colorado 7:05 PM CSN+
7/31 vs. Colorado 1:20 PM CSN
8/1 @ LA Dodgers 9:10 PM WGN
8/2 @ LA Dodgers 8:10 PM CSN
8/3 @ LA Dodgers TBD WGN
8/5 @ Colorado 7:40 PM CSN+
8/6 @ Colorado 7:40 PM CSN
8/7 @ Colorado 2:10 PM WGN
8/8 vs. Tampa Bay 3:05 PM WGN
8/9 vs. Tampa Bay 3:05 PM WGN
8/10 vs. Tampa Bay 1:20 PM CSN
8/11 vs. Milwaukee 7:05 PM CSN
8/12 vs. Milwaukee 7:05 PM CSN
8/13 vs. Milwaukee 7:05 PM CSN
8/14 vs. Milwaukee 1:20 PM WGN
8/15 @ NY Mets 6:10 PM WGN
8/16 @ NY Mets 6:10 PM WGN
8/17 @ NY Mets 12:10 PM CSN
8/18 @ NY Mets 11:10 AM CSN
8/19 vs. SF Giants 7:05 PM CSN
8/20 vs. SF Giants 7:05 PM WCIU
8/21 vs. SF Giants 7:05 PM CSN
8/22 vs. Baltimore 1:20 PM WGN
8/23 vs. Baltimore 1:20 PM CSN
8/24 vs. Baltimore 1:20 PM WGN
8/26 @ Cincinnati 6:10 PM CSN
8/27 @ Cincinnati 6:10 PM CSN
8/28 @ Cincinnati 11:35 AM WGN
8/29 @ St. Louis 7:15 PM WGN
8/30 @ St. Louis 6:15 PM CSN
8/31 @ St. Louis 1:15 PM WGN
9/1 vs. Milwaukee 1:20 PM WGN
9/2 vs. Milwaukee 7:05 PM CSN+
9/3 vs. Milwaukee 7:05 PM CSN
9/5 vs. Pittsburgh 1:20 PM WGN
9/6 vs. Pittsburgh 3:05 PM CSN
9/7 vs. Pittsburgh 1:20 PM WGN
9/8 @ Toronto 6:07 PM WGN
9/9 @ Toronto 6:07 PM CSN
9/10 @ Toronto 6:07 PM CSN
9/12 @ Pittsburgh 6:05 PM CSN
9/13 @ Pittsburgh 6:05 PM CSN
9/14 @ Pittsburgh 12:35 PM WGN
9/15 vs. Cincinnati 7:05 PM CSN+
9/16 vs. Cincinnati 7:05 PM WGN
9/17 vs. Cincinnati 7:05 PM CSN
9/18 vs. LA Dodgers 7:05 PM CSN
9/19 vs. LA Dodgers 1:20 PM WGN
9/20 vs. LA Dodgers 3:05 PM WGN
9/21 vs. LA Dodgers 1:20 PM CSN
9/22 vs. St. Louis 7:05 PM WGN
9/23 vs. St. Louis 7:05 PM WCIU
9/24 vs. St. Louis 7:05 PM CSN
9/26 @ Milwaukee 7:10 PM CSN
9/27 @ Milwaukee 6:10 PM WGN
9/28 @ Milwaukee 1:10 PM WGN

Series 48 Preview: Cubs at Brewers

Gomez

Carlos Gomez has filled the void for an underachieving Brewers offense. (By Tom Lyons/Getty Images)

The Cubs’ September schedule is brutal, with 16 games against likely playoff-bound teams. But this upcoming four-game set against the Brewers features a team similarly struggling at the big league level. It also represents an opportunity for the Cubs to leap the Brewers for fourth place in the NL Central, with 2.5 games separating them prior to tonight’s game. Milwaukee’s lack of depth has been tested this year, with the team’s few breakout performances obscured by the suspension of 2011 MVP Ryan Braun to a violation of the league’s drug policy, the regression of pitcher Yovani Gallardo, and the inability for 24-year-old starter Wily Peralta to meet his potential. The late-spring signing of Kyle Lohse has looked good on its own but insufficient in context. That could be said about the entire squad: There are some solid pieces, but none that can carry the team.

HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (8th in NL)
With Prince Fielder long gone, Braun suspended, outfielder Corey Hart missing the season, and second baseman Rickie Weeks out the last two months, the Brewers’ offense is no longer a lineup with crooked-number potential. Center fielder Carlos Gomez has taken over as the team’s best position player, not only powering the offense with a mix of speed and pop but also stealing no fewer than five home runs this year from opposing hitters. The four-year, $28 million deal GM Doug Melvin inked Gomez to before the season may turn out to be an excellent play, as it buys out his next three years of free agency. Shortstop Jean Segura, just 23, looks like a piece to build around as well. He was plucked from the Angels in the Zack Greinke deal last summer. Segura also has outstanding speed, a good contact bat, and plays solid defense. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy is one of the league’s best offensive catchers—not named Buster Posey or Yadier Molina—and outfielder Nori Aoki provides good on-base skills and more speed from the leadoff spot. On the other hand, 35-year-old third baseman Aramis Ramirez is on the decline and missed significant time this year. Milwaukee has some solid pieces, but aside from Gomez’s sudden offensive spike, there’s no real difference-maker in the lineup.

PITCHING: 4.4 Runs Allowed/Game (12th in NL)
The Cubs will see two of the Brewers’ top prospects this series: Peralta tonight and Tyler Thornburg on Wednesday. The 25-year-old Peralta is a power pitcher, working his fastball into the 95-97 mph range and complementing it with a sharp, mid-80s slider. But his lack of command has gotten the better of him this year, costing him walks and home runs. He also produces surprisingly few strikeouts. Peralta is the polar opposite of Tuesday’s starter Marco Estrada, who sometimes pays for his utterly average three-pitch mix but also has a 40 percent higher strikeout rate (22.2 percent vs. 15.8 percent). Drafted in the third round in 2010, Thornburg might look small, but he has the ability to work downhill and rear back for a mid-90s fastball. His curve and change-up both show promise for the future, and he has done a good job in 16 big league appearances (five starts). Milwaukee will send out their ace, Lohse—the Cubs’ 29th-round pick in 1995—to close out the series on Thursday. Lohse found the market dry because of draft-pick compensation that was tied to him, but he finally signed a three-year deal with the Brewers in March that has been a relative bargain so far. Command is vital for Lohse, who has an average five-pitch mix, but it seems the gains he made in that area with the Cardinals have stuck. It’s paying off with a 3.46 ERA despite a well below-average strikeout rate. Jim Henderson, who features a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and a hard slider, closes out a mediocre bullpen.

Series 47 Preview: Cubs at Pirates

Martin

Russell Martin’s excellent work with the pitching staff has the Pirates postseason-bound. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

The streak is over! On Sept. 9, the Pirates notched win No. 82 and clinched their first winning season in 21 years. All due credit to General Manager Neal Huntington, who engineered a turnaround that began in October 2007 but did not fully bear fruit until this year. The most impressive aspect of this season has been the total dominance of the Bucs’ pitching staff, even accounting for PNC Park being a pitcher’s environment. All of the team’s starters aside from 2011 first-overall pick Gerrit Cole have been acquired via free agency or trade. It’s a perfect counterbalance to the pre-Huntington era, in which the team tried and failed to assemble a homegrown rotation. In this four-game set, the Cubs will see all but ace A.J. Burnett—whom they have seen plenty this year. Now, the question is whether the Pirates will be able to take the NL Central crown. they presently sit one game back of the Cardinals (and two in front of the Reds) with 17 games to go. The Cubs will have the opportunity to say something about that.

HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (T-9th in NL)
The Pirates have built a solid-but-average offense around cornerstone center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The 26-year-old has backed up last year’s breakout season, virtually matching it with a .326 AVG/.405 OBP/.519 SLG slash line that has him well into the MVP conversation. Perhaps one of the best signs of the franchise’s current health is that McCutchen will be part of the team through at least 2017 (with a team option for ’18). Left fielder Starling Marte has also broken out quickly. He is an aggressive, toolsy player at the plate and on the basepaths, and he’s the team’s second-best hitter at age 24. First baseman Gaby Sanchez, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez all have their flaws at the plate, but they provide enough sock to make up for their low contact rates. Alvarez in particular has shown himself to be an all-or-nothing offensive option, with a 31.5 percent strikeout rate only bested (nominally) by his 32 home runs. Buying low on right fielder Travis Snider apparently wasn’t buying low enough. He hasn’t hit his weight—seriously, a .222 batting average at a listed 235 pounds—and his defense is considered somewhere between below average and average. He has been replaced by comeback-player-of-the-year candidate Marlon Byrd, acquired from the Mets in August. The other big offensive hole is at shortstop, where veteran Clint Barmes continues to provide some of the game’s best defense but has fallen into a split role with fringe guy Jordy Mercer. The fielding overall is quite solid, with a mix of good defenders and aggressive positioning that is the product of a partnership between the field staff and the front office.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in NL)
We haven’t yet mentioned catcher Russell Martin, the veteran backstop who has been credited everywhere he’s landed for his solid work with pitchers. Under his tutelage, the Pirates have been hardly recognizable on the mound. Saturday’s starter, Gerrit Cole, is the team’s most exciting pitcher, a 23-year-old out of UCLA whose four- and two-seam fastballs both sit in the 95-98 mph territory. He pairs those offerings with a couple of hard breaking balls and a good change-up. Many observers have been puzzled by Cole’s sudden erosion in strikeouts (from roughly 25 percent of batters faced to 19 percent), but it has come with a pound-the-zone approach that has him walking just 5.4 percent of batters and getting a lot of ground balls. Both acquired from the Braves in 2009 for Nate McLouth, left-hander Jeff Locke and righty Charlie Morton start tonight and tomorrow. Locke has a decent fastball-curve-change repertoire with reverse platoon splits, but his control issues mean he is probably the odd man out in the playoff rotation. Morton has a power sinker that has led to a career year across the board, though he has been the most hittable of the Pirates’ pitchers. Finally, lefty Francisco Liriano closes things out on Sunday. He has reclaimed his effectiveness, largely by resolving years of serious command issues. The bullpen deserves special attention for its quality and depth, an unbelievable turnaround from what was undoubtedly the team’s downfall in the second half of 2012. Mark Melancon stepped in beautifully for closer Jason Grilli after the latter suffered an injury midseason. The former will hold onto the role for now, but both are ninth-inning assets regardless. Justin Wilson, a power arm from the left side, is just one great option manager Clint Hurdle can use from the seventh inning on.

Cubs announce 2014 schedule

The Cubs announced their tentative 2014 regular season schedule Tuesday.

The team will open the 2014 campaign on the road on Monday, March 31, against the Pirates. This is the second year in a row the Cubs have opened on the road and the 10th time in the last 13 seasons.

Friday, April 4, will mark the Cubs’ home opener, which will be against the Phillies. This is the first time the Cubs have hosted the Phillies for their home opener since 1990. It will also kick off the 100th season of baseball at Wrigley Field.

The 2014 schedule features eight interleague series, including the annual home-and-home set against the White Sox. The Cubs and Sox will again play four games, with the first two taking place at Wrigley Field on May 5-6, immediately followed by two games at U.S. Cellular Field on May 7-8. The North Siders will also host the Yankees from May 20-21, the Rays from Aug. 8-10 and the Orioles from Aug. 22-24.

The Cubs will head to the new Yankee Stadium for the first time in the organization’s history on April 15-16. They will also journey to Fenway Park for a three-game set with the Red Sox from June 30-July 2.

St. Louis comes to town for three series from May 2-4, July 25-27 and Sept. 22-24 next year. Below is the complete schedule.

MARCH/APRIL
@Pittsburgh Pirates – 3/31, 4/2-4/3
Philadelphia Phillies – 4/4-4/6
Pittsburgh Pirates – 4/8-4/10
@St. Louis Cardinals – 4/11-4/13
@New York Yankees – 4/15-4/16
Cincinnati Reds – 4/18-4/20
Arizona Diamondbacks – 4/21-4/24
@Milwaukee Brewers – 4/25-4/27
@Cincinnati Reds – 4/28-4/30

MAY
St. Louis Cardinals – 5/2-5/4
Chicago White Sox – 5/5-5/6
@Chicago White Sox – 5/7-5/8
@Atlanta Braves – 5/9-5/11
@St. Louis Cardinals – 5/12-5/15
Milwaukee Brewers – 5/16-5/18
New York Yankees – 5/20-5/21
@San Diego Padres – 5/22-5/25
@San Francisco Giants – 5/26-5/28
@Milwaukee Brewers – 5/30-6/1

JUNE
New York Mets – 6/3-6/5
Miami Marlins – 6/6-6/8
@Pittsburgh Pirates – 6/9-6/12
@Philadelphia Phillies – 6/13-6/15
@Miami Marlins – 6/16-6/18
Pittsburgh Pirates – 6/20-6/22
Cincinnati Reds – 6/23-6/25
Washington Nationals – 6/26-6/29

JULY
@Boston Red Sox – 6/30-7/2
@Washington Nationals – 7/4-7/6
@Cincinnati Reds – 7/7-7/10
Atlanta Braves – 7/11-7/13
All-Star Game @ Minnesota– 7/15
@Arizona Diamondbacks – 7/18-7/20
San Diego Padres – 7/22-7/24
St. Louis Cardinals – 7/25-7/27
Colorado Rockies – 7/28-7/31

AUGUST
@Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – 8/1-8/3
@Colorado Rockies – 8/5-8/7
Tampa Bay Rays – 8/8-8/10
Milwaukee Brewers – 8/11-8/14
@New York Mets – 8/15-8/18
San Francisco Giants – 8/19-8/21
Baltimore Orioles – 8/22-8/24
@Cincinnati Reds – 8/26-8/28
@St. Louis Cardinals – 8/29-8/31

SEPTEMBER
Milwaukee Brewers – 9/1-9/3
Pittsburgh Pirates – 9/5-9/7
@Toronto Blue Jays – 9/8-9/10
@Pittsburgh Pirates – 9/12-9/14
Cincinnati Reds – 9/15-9/17
Los Angeles Dodgers – 9/18-9/21
St. Louis Cardinals – 9/22-9/24
@Milwaukee Brewers – 9/26-9/28

Series 46 Preview: Cubs at Reds

Votto

Joey Votto has been a big source of the Reds’ offense this season. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Four of the Cubs’ remaining six series put them squarely in the NL Central spoiler role, as they take on each of the division’s top three teams. All three are virtual locks to make the playoffs, but on the line is one berth directly into the NL Division Series round. Tonight’s opponent, the Reds, are 1.5 games back of the Cardinals and in a tie with the Pirates for home field advantage for the one-game playoff. Cincinnati’s season has been a tale of two sides of the ball, with the offense playing out as a stars-and-scrubs affair and the pitching having performed as one of the league’s best from No. 1 to 12. Over the last month, the Reds have been competitive in nearly every contest, with 19 wins in 30 games and just one loss by more than three runs.

HITTING: 4.3 Runs Scored/Game (2nd in NL)
After five months of play, it’s apparent that GM Walt Jocketty could not have done a better job of addressing his team’s most longstanding weaknesses: on-base percentage and the leadoff spot. He killed two birds with one stone by swapping Drew Stubbs for Shin-Soo Choo in center field. Whereas Stubbs brought outstanding defensive range and a huge hole in his swing and plate approach, Choo brings a plan to the dish that has overcome an adventurous year back in the middle of the diamond. Choo’s .291 AVG/.425 OBP/.471 SLG slash line is barely behind first baseman Joey Votto’s .303/.430/.494 performance so far. Both provide plenty of baserunners and power that help Cincinnati make the most of their entire lineup. Votto has a clear leg up against left-handed pitchers, however: Choo has hit .209/.347/.239 against southpaws this season, part of a dramatic downward trend over the last several years. Manager Dusty Baker hasn’t really elected to protect Choo against his platoon issues, however, so tonight’s starter Travis Wood, as well as bullpen lefties James Russell, Zac Rosscup, and Brooks Raley, will be expected to neutralize the top-of-the-order threat. Beyond Choo and Votto, only right fielder Jay Bruce has stood out (both for his production and his strikeouts). Second baseman Brandon Phillips is one of several players with an on-base plus slugging percentage right around .700, though some insightful lineup construction puts his pop in the cleanup spot, a great place to drive in Choo and Votto.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (T-3rd in NL)
The Reds have assembled one of the game’s most unsung staffs, tied with the Pirates for third in run prevention but probably even better than they look considering the hitter’s haven Cincinnati calls home. The three starting pitchers the Cubs will see this series—Bronson Arroyo, Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake—won’t instill fear in any batters, but the numbers suggest they should. Arroyo is having yet another well-above-average season, the fourth in five seasons for the 36-year-old. The right-hander’s fastball doesn’t really get out of the 80s anymore, but a combination of pitching backward, deception and pitchability have him looking as good as ever. As a testament to his athleticism and ability to repeat his delivery, one need look no further than his walk percentage since 2008: 7.8%, 7.0%, 6.7%, 5.3%, 4.2% and finally 3.7%. Cingrani, on the other hand, is far from established, having thrown just five big league innings before this year. The 24-year-old is a 6-foot-4 lefty, who was a 2011 third-round pick out of Rice. He’s thrown his fastball over 80 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball, but it plays up due to good low-to-mid 90s velocity and great extension on the mound. The series closes out against Mike Leake, the 2008 first-round pick who is having his best season in his four big league campaigns.  He’s another Reds pitcher with very good command and the ability to sink or cut his fastball to avoid barrels. The Reds bullpen has been just as outstanding as the rotation, though the relievers provide more firepower. Closer Aroldis Chapman, once again in the triple digits from the left side, leads a group that leads the majors with a 25.6 percent strikeout rate.

Series 42 Preview: Cubs at Dodgers

Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw and the streaking Dodgers have opened up a 9.5-game lead in the NL West. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty)

No team in baseball is as hot—or as dangerous—as the Cubs’ next foe, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Winners of 46 of their last 58 games, the Dodgers’ meteoric rise saved the City of Angels from having two giant busts in 2013. In fact, LA has emerged as the National League’s most feared team, with a lineup and pitching staff that is at peak performance right now. All of this despite their superstar, Matt Kemp, having played only 62 games because of various thigh, ankle and shoulder ailments. In fact, it would be fair to say center field has been the Dodgers’ weakest position this year—with much credit due to the rest of the roster.

HITTING: 4.0 Runs Scored/Game (6th in NL)
Despite some initial concerns, the Dodgers have struck gold with a pair of 31-year-old stars acquired from the Red Sox just over a year ago: left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Crawford has managed to play 91 games this year and has a .300 average and .352 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot, far surpassing his two disappointing seasons with the Red Sox. Gonzalez isn’t a big bopper anymore, but he should clear 20 homers with roughly a .300 batting average and a decent amount of walks. Neither has matched what shortstop Hanley Ramirez has accomplished this year, a striking turnaround after a precipitous three-year decline with the Marlins. In 65 games, Ramirez has hit for a .339 AVG/.390 OBP/.613 SLG line that recalls his age 23-25 seasons. And of course there is right fielder Yasiel Puig, the 22-year-old Cuban defector whom Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully calls the “Wild Horse.” He’ll slug (to the tune of .342/.402/.547 in 73 games), he’ll launch some missiles from the outfield, and he’ll run through any stop sign. Puig also will chase any fastball up in the zone, so Cubs pitchers face the delicate task of getting some whiffs up without leaving a pitch out over the plate. So far, that looks like it’s much easier said than done.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (4th in NL)
For all the balance in the field, the Dodgers may be able to match it on the mound. The Cubs will see three of the Dodgers’ best in this series, starting with Zack Greinke tonight. The right-hander is a true six-pitch pitcher, who will mix it up with a fastball he can sink and cut, a couple of breaking balls, and a change-up. The 29-year-old has lost a little bit of velocity over the years, but he has always had very good command and feel for his fastball. His 2.91 ERA this season would be the second-lowest of his career, behind only his Cy Young-winning season with the 2009 Royals. The Dodgers will then send 2013 Cy Young frontrunner Clayton Kershaw to the mound on Tuesday night. The 25-year-old is rumored to be on the cusp of agreeing to a massive contract worth more than $200 million—and he might just be worth it. The left-hander has established himself as one of the game’s best pitchers, with an remarkable 1.72 ERA that could garner him his third ERA title in a row. Kershaw has not only mastered his own mechanics—an off-balance delivery that created consistency issues in his younger days—he also has taken off with the increased use of a slider the last few years. He’ll overpower with a deceptive mid-90s fastball, a hard slider and a hammer curve that is one of the game’s best. The Cubs wrap up the series against Ricky Nolasco, a veteran right-hander acquired midseason from Miami. He has reinvented himself as a groundball pitcher over the last three seasons and is having the best success of his career. The bullpen closes out with a pair of live arms: Sinkerballer Ronald Belisario sets up the nasty natural cutter of closer Kenley Jansen.

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