Aroldis Chapman is a Necessary Piece to the Cubs Championship Puzzle

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The Cubs needed bullpen help, and Aroldis Chapman provides just that.

Close your eyes. Imagine it’s Game 7 of the NLCS, and the Cubs have a one-run lead heading into the ninth inning with Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy coming up to bat. Aroldis Chapman, baseball’s best relief pitcher who has held opposing left-handed hitters to a .122 batting average in his seven-year career, takes the hill to send the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945.

Open your eyes. How do you feel? Confident? At ease? You should.

Close your eyes again. Imagine it’s Game 7 of the NLCS, and the Cubs are down one run heading into the ninth inning. Aroldis Chapman, baseball’s best relief pitcher who has a mere six blown saves combined in his past 151.2 innings of work, takes the hill to send the Nationals to their first World Series since they left Montreal. The Cubs are batting .226 as a team when behind in any game, second worst in the Majors, and they’ve entered the ninth inning with a deficit 35 times and have never left the inning with a lead. They have 19 come-from-behind wins all season; comparatively, the Giants, Dodgers, Nationals and Cardinals have 30, 28, 27 and 25 such wins, respectively.

Open your eyes again. How do you feel now? Scared? Apprehensive? You should.

This, in a nutshell, is why the Cubs had to get Aroldis Chapman, and they didn’t really have a choice. There are other reasons, of course, that we’ll get into soon, but, if anything, acquiring Chapman’s services keeps him away from the opposition in October. Instead of preventing them from getting to, and winning, the World Series, he’ll (hopefully) do just the opposite.

You may be wondering how you’ve been reading this for a minute and haven’t seen any mention of Chapman’s domestic abuse issue that cost him 30 games to start this season. My response: it has zero impact on whether or not the Cubs win the World Series, so I’m not going to discuss it. I am as harsh as any when it comes to cheating the game and committing domestic abuse. The current penalties in place in all sports are not strong enough. Players should be suspended an entire season for their first offense – no ifs, ands or buts about it. But I don’t make the rules, so we take what we’re given. Chapman served his time, and it’s now in the past. If Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer trust bringing the man into the clubhouse, then I’m cool with it, too.

One of my biggest pet peeves with talking heads and sports fans is when they preface their analysis on a move or transaction with “from a purely baseball perspective.” What the hell else kind of perspective am I looking for? A hygiene perspective? A baking perspective? No shit a baseball trade should be analyzed from a baseball perspective. Just because Chapman did something terrible (and he did do something terrible), you’re not a bad person for actually wanting him on this team. This isn’t Dr. Phil. This is baseball, and the sad reality is, if you have uber talent and you aren’t named Aaron Hernandez, you’re going to be highly coveted, and you’re going to be on a team. That goes for any sport. So leave the non-baseball analysis to the front office, and stop analyzing from anything other than from a baseball perspective. Carry on.

If you’re skeptical of the expensive package the Cubs had to send to New York in order to strike a deal, that’s another story, and your skepticism is valid. The Cubs gave up an absolute haul to get this thing done – there’s no denying that – and it’s all for a three month rental. Gleyber Torres, the organization’s top prospect and the 26th overall prospect according to Keith Law of ESPN, is the big ticket item on the move, but as high as his ceiling might be, he’s still a raw, 19-year-old shortstop who had no clear path to the Cubs big league roster, so long as Addison Russell and Javier Baez are around. The kid is still a good 2-3 years away from the Majors, and he has as good a chance to be a bust as he does to be a star.

Along with Torres goes Billy McKinney, a once highly-touted prospect who the Cubs received from Oakland in the Addison Russell trade. McKinney has really struggled in his second season in Double-A and continues to show no power whatsoever – not a good thing for an every day corner outfielder. Adam Warren, who can surely take his 5.91 ERA back to New York where it came from (he has given up 19 earned runs in his past 15.2 innings of relief work – not a joke), and Rashad Crawford, an unknown High-A prospect who I’m not even going to pretend to know anything about, are the last two pieces included in the deal.

But what Chapman brings to the table cannot be understated. The Cubs have seen their bullpen ERA rise every month, from 2.72 in April to 4.64 in July. Their left-handed relief pitchers have allowed a .956 OPS in July – the sixth-highest OPS allowed by such pitchers this month – while Chapman has allowed a .351 OPS in July, fourth lowest in MLB. He throws harder than any pitcher who has ever played the game, having thrown 1,513 pitches at 100.0 mph or faster, more than the next 18 pitchers on the list combined. Of 533 qualified pitchers over the past seven seasons, not one has allowed a lower opponent batting average (.157) than Chapman, who also owns the highest K/9 (15.2 – min. 250 innings) in MLB history. And perhaps most importantly, Chapman has not allowed a run to the hated St. Louis Cardinals since – get this – 2011. That’s 25 straight scoreless appearances with 46 strikeouts to boot. This dude is nasty. And he’s now a Cub.

Acquiring the flame-throwing Chapman gives Joe Maddon the luxury of sliding Hector Rondon to a setup role, which is a great luxury to have considering the four saves he has blown in his last 10 save opportunities. It also allows Maddon the flexibility to slide the electric Pedro Strop into a 7th inning role, as he has proven to be better served in low and medium leverage situations throughout his career anyways. That trio, along with the slowly improving Justin Grimm (hasn’t given up a run since June 26), Carl Edwards Jr., Travis Wood, Mike Montgomery and either Joe Nathan or Trevor Cahill, helps form the most formidable bullpen in baseball. In October, that will mean everything.

 

The package the Cubs gave up to bring in Chapman may be a tough pill to swallow now, but that’s the sacrifice you have to make when you’re trying to win a World Series. The front office’s ability to stockpile so many valuable assets over the past four years has put them into the enviable situation that they sit in today. The time to win is now – not five years from now – and at some point, some of these young assets have to be leveraged for the present. Nothing is guaranteed in sports, and championship windows are almost always shorter than originally perceived. Today, the Cubs acquired the best relief pitcher in baseball, and when Aroldis Chapman records the last out of the World Series in a Cubs uniform, the price they paid to make that happen will be nothing but a distant memory.

Dwyane Wade to the Bulls: Not as Flash-y as it Sounds

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The signing of Dwyane “Flash” Wade makes no sense for the Chicago Bulls.

Younger and more athletic, or older and more arthritic? Merely a week and a half ago, Gar Forman had us all believing that the Bulls were heading down the path of the former. But, as Forman (and John Paxson) has proven time and again throughout his preposterous seven-year reign as General Manager of this once proud franchise, what he says and what he does are two completely different things. The signing of Dwyane Wade last night just adds more fuel to the white-hot fire that Forman’s adversaries (and there are A LOT of them)  lit for him many years ago.

To be perfectly blunt, the signing of Wade (and Rondo, for that matter) is an absolute joke. It’s a classic example of two guys (Forman and Paxson) trying to save their jobs by making a splash for a former superstar in order to justify striking out with him six years ago and praying that the “talent” works itself out. It’s also a classic example of a geriatric owner, yet again, refusing to hit rock bottom and not allowing his organization to enter into a much needed rebuild. He’s done it with the White Sox for the past five years, and he’s doing it with the Bulls now. At 80 years old, Jerry Reinsdorf has zero interest in undertaking a franchise overhaul, holding on to any sliver of hope that he can take one more ring with him to his grave. It’s the sad reality of a franchise being owned by a stubborn old man who is blinded by his enormous bank account and keeping fans in his seats, and a franchise being run by two incompetents who are lagging 10+ years behind the brilliant analytical minds that have taken over the sports landscape. Recognizing and understanding the loads and loads of data that’s out there, much of which is open to the public, and demonstrating any sort of soft skills when it comes to actually conversing with players and agents, can go a long way towards building a legitimate, sensible roster and keeping it in tact for the foreseeable future.

From a pure basketball standpoint, we are now entering a period where we can already crown an undoubted champion 11 months before the NBA season even begins, and signing Dwyane Wade makes little to no sense whatsoever for a non-contender like the Bulls. Why? It’s easy.

In a world where premier three-point shooting is as valuable as having stock in Apple just four years ago, the Bulls have found a way to piece together a starting back court containing three of the weakest three point shooters in the game. While Wade, Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler combined for a mere 133 made threes last year, 30 other players in the NBA were busy making at least that many threes on their own. Not only that, but these are also three very ball-dominant guards, each of whom actually needs the ball in his hands to be effective offensively. Fred Hoiberg was hired to install his pace-and-space system, which relies heavily on versatility, athleticism and shooting. With three non-shooting, ball-dominant guards running the offense (one of which is a 34-year-old who has missed over 20% of games the past five seasons due to various knee ailments, the other of which is literally afraid to shoot or get fouled because he sucks so much), there will be no pace, and there will certainly be no space.

Last season, Wade’s advanced statistics were either career lows or his worst marks since his rookie season. He shot a career worst 46.8% on twos, and the lack of explosion he once had has strapped him from getting to the basket on a frequent basis. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, during Wade’s peak 2008-09 season, 17.8 percent of his shots came from within the 3 to 16 foot range. By last season, that figure had grown to 40.9 percent, and Wade sunk just 37.8 percent of those attempts. He still ranked fifth in the league in usage percentage last season but managed a measly .517 true shooting percentage, which ranked 11th among the 12 players with usage rates of 30 percent or greater, ahead of only Kobe Bryant (.469).

From a defensive standpoint, Wade is nowhere near the lockdown defender he once was. He posted the lowest steal rate of his career last season and, discounting his rookie season, he has posted his three lowest block rates over the past three seasons. What was once a staple of Wade’s game on the defensive end has rapidly gone from fully expected on a nightly basis to “where did that come from” due to age and mileage on his legs. ESPN’s real plus-minus* even rated Wade in the bottom-third of shooting guards defensively and a below average player overall – worse than guys like Kyle Korver and Monta Ellis.

If you want to take the half-glass full route, go for it – everyone is entitled to their own opinion. There’s no question that Dwyane Wade is one of the four or five greatest shooting guards of all time. He’s a three-time NBA champion, one-time NBA Finals MVP, ten-time All-NBA player, four-time NBA All Defense, 12-time NBA All-Star and three-time NBA scoring champion, and the leadership he’ll bring to the locker room could be invaluable – especially when an overwhelmingly negative presence like Rondo is roaming around. There will be some incredible moments, to be sure, that will excite fans in spurts. But for every incredible moment, there will be many head-scratching moments, too – ones where Wade has to miss time because his knees are aching, something us Bulls fans should not be naive in foreseeing. The Hall of Fame-caliber Dwyane Wade is now in the rear-view mirror, and there’s no sugarcoating what little value Pat Riley saw left in him by letting the greatest and most accomplished athlete in Miami sports history walk out without regret.

 

Trading Derrick Rose was ultimately a good decision for the Bulls, but signing Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade was not. It’s not that the Bulls can’t be better than last season’s 42-40 record – in fact, they probably will. They’ll make the playoffs in a crappy Eastern Conference, bow out early, and earn themselves another bad draft pick. But there’s nothing worse for any sports franchise than toiling in mediocrity, and that’s where the Bulls have found themselves, to no fault but their own. Sure, with the salary cap projected to go up another $8M or so next summer, the Bulls will get a chance to recruit one max free agent , but so will a lot of other teams. Given the track record our front office has when it comes to signing big time free agents, and the bad rap it has received throughout the NBA over the years, whose to say Chicago will be everyone’s top choice?

Gar Forman had a vision that “younger and more athletic” was a necessity for re-tooling the most disappointing team in the NBA last season. Turns out that vision was just another one of his blurry, pixelated pictures that he painted for the rest of the fan base in order to save face. Wade coming back home sounds cool in theory, but envisioning him meshing with the current pieces in place leaves me shaking my head over what lies ahead.

*ESPN’s real plus-minus is a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. RPM takes into account teammates, opponents and additional factors.

It’s Do-or-Die for John Groce and the Illini

Illini Coach John Groce could use a drink before the season has even started.

John Groce seems like a really good dude. The kind of guy I would be down to grab a drink with and talk with about more than just hoops. Much of the time, though, good guys finish last, and that unfortunately seems to the place where Groce is headed.

Groce can coach. Damn well, I might add. His 13-seeded Ohio Bobcats, led by point guard D.J. Cooper (a Chicago product), took down Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.’s Michigan squad in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament and cruised to the Sweet 16 before losing an overtime thriller to top-seeded North Carolina. Given his great success at such a small school (his 2010 Ohio team also won a tournament game as a 14-seed), his energy, his strong Midwest recruiting ties and his background – he was Thad Matta’s right-hand man for seven seasons at Xavier and Ohio State – Groce was one of the hottest coaching commodities on the market – a truly perfect fit for an Illini program coming off yet another disappointing season under Bruce Weber.

When Athletic Director Mike Thomas hired then 40-year-old Groce as his program’s next head coach just days after Ohio’s loss to UNC, fans were excited, and rightfully so. Groce immediately put his recruiting abilities on the Illinois map by getting a transfer commitment from one of the top players in the Missouri Valley Conference – Rayvonte Rice. He then landed a top-15 recruiting class for 2013 by bringing in five ESPN Top-100 recruits (only one – Malcolm Hill – was a Bruce Weber recruit).

For Groce, it was an extremely impressive start to his tenure, which he followed up with a 7-seed and first-round win in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Sure, he inherited a pretty experienced roster, led by seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, but Groce turned a team that had missed the NIT into a top-30 team in one season. With the big-time recruiting class coming in, it was all sunshine and rainbows in Champaign.

And then the 2013-14 season started, and that sunshine and those rainbows quickly turned into darkness and despair. The aforementioned recruiting class underwhelmed miserably in its freshman year, what with only three of the five former high school stars averaging double digit minutes and only one of them playing over 15 minutes per game. The Illini finished the regular season losing 12 of their final 18 games (with an eight game skid in the middle) before falling to Clemson in the second round of the NIT, making them the first Illini team to miss the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons since 1991-92.

On top of that, Groce and his staff have dug themselves into a deep recruiting rut that they simply have not been able to claw out of. Sure, they landed 2014 recruit Leron Black and solidified another top-15 class for 2015, but they have missed on way too many potentially program-changing players: Cliff Alexander (Kansas), Quentin Snider (Louisville), Jalen Brunson (Villanova), Jawun Evans (Oklahoma State), Eiljah Thomas (Texas A&M), Charles Matthews (Kentucky), Marcus LoVett Jr. (St. John’s), Dylan Ennis (transferred from Villanova to Oregon), and Johnny Hill (transferred from UT-Arlington to Purdue). A majority of those players are point guards, a position Groce so desperately needs as the biggest strength for his team given how much he loves to utilize the high pick-and-roll in his offense. Needless to say, Illini fans everywhere are starting to get restless and impatient.

After losing Tracy Abrams, their point guard and team captain, to excruciating injuries in back-to-back seasons, junior Jaylon Tate will step in as the only active point guard on the 2015-16 roster. The Simeon product is one of the worst shooters in the Big Ten, which spells serious trouble for an offense that relies so heavily on point guards who have the ability to make quick decisions in high pick-and-roll situations. If Tate still cannot shoot, or if he’s afraid to shoot (only attempted 76 shots in 652 minutes last season), defenses will just sag off and force him to beat them by converting open looks from the wing – not a good formula for Illinois at all.

And if matters can’t get any worse, junior shooting guard Kendrick Nunn, who was likely the favorite to step in as Tate’s backup at the very least, is out for 6-8 weeks with a broken thumb; starting forward Leron Black is out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury; and junior forward Darius Paul was kicked off the team.

Between freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (coming off a stress fracture in his leg) and freshman forwards Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams, none of whom are actual point guards, someone will have to step up and fill the void at backup point guard, or even starting point guard if Tate cannot get it done. Williams played a point-forward role during his senior year at Simeon, but Groce would have to find a way to mix it up with defensive assignments if he goes that route, as Williams will not be able to guard point guards at the collegiate level just yet.

Sadly enough, the fate of Illinois’ season is in jeopardy before it has even started. They are in serious position to miss the NCAA tournament for the third straight season – totally unheard of for a program of this caliber. If they are going to right this ship, Groce will need last year’s inefficient offense (ranked 129th nationally) to somehow make strides without an efficient and effective point guard. He’ll need some guys to play out of position, step up and find ways to scrape out as many wins as possible in the brutally tough Big Ten.

This season could be what defines John Groce’s tenure as head coach in Champaign. Right now, fair or not, I don’t like his chances of getting out of this alive.

Someone let him know that I’ll buy him that drink whenever he wants.

Northwestern in Prime Position to Snap Forever-Long Tournament Drought

Chris Collins has been better than advertised in his two seasons at Northwestern.

A lot has happened since 1939. World War II. The Vietnam War. The invention of the lava lamp. Steve Jobs was born. Steve Jobs died. Gene Keady’s combover. You get the point.

Maybe the most important thing to have happened, though, was the creation of the NCAA Tournament that very year. In that 76-year span, there’s only one power conference team that has never received a bid to the Big Dance: the Northwestern Wildcats.

In the spring of 2013, after 13 seasons of mind-numbingly boring and unexciting basketball under Bill Carmody, who led the Wildcats to four early NIT exits in his tenure, the Northwestern Athletic Department finally did something right. Mike Krzyzewski’s long-time Associate Head Coach Chris Collins, who had tremendous recruiting ties in the Midwest, was swept off the market just two weeks after the regular season ended and hired as the 24th head coach of the Wildcats men’s basketball program.

Since then, Collins has been better than advertised. In 2014, with Carmody’s meh roster, he revamped the Big Ten’s least efficient defense into the conference’s third, and nation’s 14th, most efficient defense. In 2015, he turned the nation’s 309th ranked offense (96.3 points per 100 possessions) into the nation’s 94th ranked offense (105.7 points per 100 possessions). Prior to the 2015 season, he signed Northwestern’s first ever ESPN Top-100 recruit in Victor Law (now a sophomore) and followed that up with yet another Top-100 recruit in Aaron Falzon, an incoming freshman from the east coast who passed up the likes of UConn, Ohio State and Notre Dame to make an instant impact for Collins at the four this season.

Next step: getting Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. In only his third season, Collins has put together potentially the best roster to ever step foot in Welsh-Ryan Arena, something that Wildcat fans should probably be able to say every year going forward under his watch.

With the defense falling back down to earth last season after the miraculous turnaround in 2014 mentioned above, Collins will need to find a way to balance out his team on both sides of the floor. The Wildcats ranked last in conference play last season at getting to the foul line and creating turnovers, and they were nearly the worst team in the country at converting three point attempts (38.8%). With offensively-challenged Dave Sobolewski now gone, the keys to the Evanston kingdom have officially been handed over to Big Ten All-Freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh, a key building block for the future of this program who has put on nearly 20 pounds of muscle this offseason and can help the team improve in all three categories.

At 6-foot-3, the baby-faced assassin, paired with 6-foot-7 Vic Law, has the length to wreak defensive havoc on the perimeter by increasing deflections and creating turnovers. And after ranking second on the team to senior Tre Demps in both free throw attempts and three-point field goal attempts, expect McIntosh to increase his utilization and efficiency in both categories given the full-time starting spot. The kid was fifth in the Big Ten in free throw percentage as a freshman.

Outside of McIntosh, Collins has the fourth-most experienced major-conference team this season, by way of possession-minutes, per ESPN’s John Gasaway. Big man Alex Olah enters his senior season as Northwestern’s anchor, both offensively and defensively. He led the team in Poss%, OR% , DR% and Blk% last season, and he has improved every year; three-point sniper Tre Demps ranked sixth in conference-only 3P% at 43.0% and put together five 20-point games; Vic Law’s length, athleticism and rebounding prowess gives Northwestern their first true NBA prospect since Evan Eschmeyer; Scottie Lindsey, another athletic forward and a solid Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year candidate, will fill in for Law at the three again if he can’t overcome last season’s struggles; and junior redshirt Sanjay Lumpkin will look to improve upon his role defensively – a guy who can guard the wing and still has the size and length to man up in the post.

Although Northwestern’s lackluster nonconference schedule may hurt their RPI when it’s all said and done, they’ll have a chance to prove themselves in late November against UNC on a neutral court before taking on a somewhat weak Big Ten schedule that has them facing Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State only once while playing Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota twice.

On paper, this Northwestern roster could easily be top-8 or 9 in the Big Ten and, for a conference likely to get that many NCAA tournament bids, the stars seem to be aligning in Evanston.

Can Chris Collins finally end the drought? Only time will tell. As far as the list of things that have happened since 1939 goes, “the Northwestern Wildcats earned a NCAA tournament bid” could very well be added come March.

NLCS Preview: Cubs – Mets

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The Cubs will try to exact revenge on the Mets after what happened in 1969.

It was August 16, 1969. I was zero years old. The Cubs, led by Hall of Famers Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, had a nine-game lead in the NL East over the New York Mets. It was, and may still be, the best Cubs team ever assembled – a team that looked destined to get the lowly Cubs back to the World Series for the first time in 24 years.

Then, the Mets got hot. Really, really hot. On September 9 during a Cubs-Mets game in Shea Stadium, the Cubs still held a 1.5 game lead before a black cat ran onto the field, circled around Ron Santo in the on-deck circle, and disappeared underneath the stands. The Mets finished the season on a 36-11 tear, while the Cubs closed off an 8-17 skid in their last 25 and lost the division by eight games.

Whether it was the black cat omen, fatigue, or a mixture of other things, no one really knows. But the Cubs pulled off one of the biggest choke jobs in sports history that season, and they’ve never had a chance to make Mets fans feel that same devastation and heartbreak ever since. Until now.

Since August 1, the Cubs and Mets have been the two hottest teams in the National League (Pittsburgh would qualify had they won the Wild Card game – whoops) – the Cubs being 46-19, the Mets being 40-23 (both including playoffs). On Saturday night, the two teams will face off in the first game of an epic best-of-seven series. The best group of up-and-coming position players against the best group of up-and-coming starting pitchers. The two biggest markets in baseball and sports. Are the Cubs going to finally break through and reach their first World Series since 1945? Let’s find out.

Hitting

I’m going to lose my shit if I hear one more person say the Cubs will win this series because they beat the Mets all seven times they played each other this season. Enough, ignorant people. Enough. This current New York Mets team is a completely different one than the New York Mets team that the Cubs swept twice earlier in the season. Before the All-Star break, the Mets averaged 3.49 runs per game – good for last in the National League (unless you count the Phillies as a Major League team). From then on, a miraculous turnaround ensued, largely thanks to an incredible trade made by GM Sandy Alderson to acquire Yoenis Cespedes from the Tigers at the deadline. The Mets led the National League in second half scoring with 5.11 runs per game. If the Cubs are going to win this series, it surely will have nothing to do with what was done in the regular season.

Cespedes has been so insanely good (.287/.337/.604, 17-44-39 in 57 games) that he worked himself into the NL MVP discussion after only spending two months in the National League. David Wright, the heart and soul of the Mets over the past decade, came back in August after spending four months on the DL and finished with a strong September. These two, alone, give the Mets lineup a whole different dynamic than the one the Cubs faced. On top of that, Curtis Granderson and Daniel Murphy, two veteran players with great track records who struggled more often than not throughout this season, are both scorching hot. Against the Dodgers in the NLDS, Granderson posted a .389/.476/.500 line with five RBI, while Murphy destroyed them with three home runs and five RBI of his own. Right now, this Mets lineup is as potent as any in the league, and it cannot and should not be taken for granted.

That said, if you think the Mets lineup is scarier than that of the Cubs, you haven’t been paying attention. Does it frighten me that the Cubs who, as you know, had the highest strike out rate in the Majors, will have to tee off against two strikeout machines (Jacob DeGrom and Noah Syndergaard) potentially four times this series? Yes. But after what I witnessed in the NLDS, I can safely proclaim that this Cubs lineup is an uncontrollable beast, hitting with more confidence than any Cubs fan could have ever asked for. 10 home runs combined in Games 3 and 4? The first team ever to hit six home runs in a postseason game? Is that even real?

Dexter Fowler is the catalyst to the Cubs well-oiled hitting machine (seventh in the NL in walks and stole 20 bases); Kyle Scwharber is a goddamn freak of nature, obliterating baseballs from Wrigley Field to Bloomington, IN on the reg (before the break, the Cubs ranked 23rd in baseball in OPS against right-handers at .683; they ranked third after the break, when Schwarbino became a fixture, at .783); future MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, both of whom struggled early on in the NLDS, have righted their ships and are as clutch as can be; and Jorge Soler. Oh, Jorge Soler. The guy who got on base 10 of 13 times and hit two mammoth homers against the Cardinals in the NLDS? Yeah, that guy. Welcome to the big show, big boy.

As I mentioned in my NLDS preview, the Cubs, overall, are one of the worst teams in the league at driving in runners from scoring position (.236) – something that Joe Maddon touched on once again in his interview on PTI on Thursday. The Mets, on the other hand, were middle of the pack (.250) this season. However, most of their damage was done either in the first six innings or with less than two outs. From the seventh inning on, that .250 number dropped to .233 – similar to the Cubs’ .231 average. Even better, with two outs, the Mets (.209) were actually a tad worse than the Cubs (.211) with RISP. Moral of the story: try to keep the Mets off the basepaths early in the game, and feel confident about the Cubs’ chances at getting out of two-out jams.

Advantage: Cubs

Starting Pitching

The Mets have four starters who all legitimately have ace potential for the next ten years. This year, they were led by Jacob deGrom, a late blooming 27-year-old and former Rookie of the Year (last season) whose peripherals were right up there with the likes of Zack Greinke this season. I’ll give you more on him in a minute, but he’s the guy I’m most afraid of right now.

New York’s top three starting pitchers all ranked in the top 11 in the majors in fastball velocity this season. Of pitchers who started at least 20 games, Noah Syndergaard led MLB with an average fastball velocity of 97.1 miles per hour; Harvey was fourth at 95.8; and deGrom ranked 11th at 93.4.

For the Cubs, there’s a silver lining: although they, as a whole, have struggled against fastball pitchers when behind in the count (hit .229 in at-bats ending in a pitch 94+ mph, last in NL), Kris Bryant was in the top 25 in batting average (.330) and slugging percentage (.617) in plate appearances ending against a fastball of at least 94.5 mph, and he was second in the majors with 16 extra-base hits. Kyle Schwarber also went 3-for-8 against flame-throwing Gerrit Cole with a home run in the Wild Card game.

In addition, per ESPN’s Buster Olney, what the Cubs do better than any other team is get deep into ball-strike counts and drive up the pitch count of opposing pitchers. They led the Majors in pitches per plate appearance during the regular season, seeing 3.97 pitches per at-bat. Gotta like this counter attack. Let’s get to the matchups.

Game 1: Jon Lester (11-12, 3.34) vs. Matt Harvey (13-8, 2.71)

A lot of people have been painting Harvey as a guy the Cubs will be able to hit hard. Let’s all chill for a second. Does anyone remember how f***ing good Harvey was in 2013 before sitting out the entire next season recovering from Tommy John surgery? He finished fourth in Cy Young voting and was pegged as the next big thing in baseball. I am certainly not excited to face him.

That said, 2015 hasn’t been as kind to Harvey. The 2.71 ERA looks great and all, but the ERA went up to 3.99 in September/October, and the whole pitch count fiasco was really strange and poorly handled. The Mets were trying to limit his innings down the stretch in order to keep his workload somewhat moderate after he had that surgery. The whole situation really reared its head, but Harvey looked pretty solid in his lone start against LA in the NLDS (5 IP, 2 ER, 7 K). Alderson said Friday that he’s not guaranteed more than one start in the NLCS, but in a seven game series, I’m not buying it. Expect to see him twice if gets to that point.

Jon Lester continued his postseason studliness in Game 1 against St. Louis; the Cubs just couldn’t score that day. I’m fine with the decision to start Lester over Arrieta, as Lester has now had seven days of rest – eight is probably too much. It makes sense and, to be honest, what do you think we’re paying him $155 million for? Exactly these moments. I feel confident in Lester to go out and put us in great position to win Game 1 given his track record of success in October.

And one more thing: for all that talk about Lester’s inability to hold runners on first (he allowed the most stolen bases in the league), the Mets ranked dead last in the NL in stolen bases and second to last in Fangraphs’ speed metric. This is a great thing for Lester.

Game 2: Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77) vs. Noah Syndergaard (9-7, 3.24)

For as young as he is (only 23), the rookie Syndergaard may throw harder than any starter in the league. Goldie Locks pumps out 100 mph fastballs like it’s no one’s business and ranked fourth in the NL (min: 100 IP) in K/9 behind Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. He looked great against LA in both his lone start and relief appearance (11 K in 7.1 total innings).

However, Syndergaard can certainly be got. He was a bit inconsistent throughout the season and had a couple brutal months (June and August). Amongst pitchers who threw at least 150 innings, Syndergaard ranked sixth worst in HR:FB ratio at 14.3%. In his only start against the Cubs, he gave up three runs on six hits and four walks in 5.1 innings. It’s a small sample size, but if the Cubs can get to Syndergaard early, you gotta feel pretty good.

As for Arrieta, well, I’ll still take him in a winner-take-all game over any pitcher still left in the postseason. I don’t care how he looked on Monday against St. Louis. So what if he gave up four runs, matching his total runs given up in his previous 97.1 innings? He’s human. But since August 1, the Cubs have yet to lose a game that Arrieta starts (14-0). When he takes the mound, they expect to win. And I’ll be damned if they lose this one.

Game 3: Jacob deGrom (14-8, 2.54) vs. Kyle Hendricks (8-7, 3.95)

This is where I get worried. deGrom, as I mentioned, was phenomenal this season, and that success has continued into October, as he made Dodger hitters his bitch in Games 1 and 5 of the NLDS (13 IP, 2 ER, 20 K). Amongst starters who threw at least 100 innings, he ranked fifth in the NL in ERA (2.54), fourth in FIP (2.70), and sixth in WAR (5.2). Based on what I saw from him in the NLDS, it’s clear that no moment is too big for him (won both of those games on the road), so pitching in Wrigley Field will not phase him.

But, and this is a big but, deGrom really struggled in two starts against the Cubs this season, giving up 12 hits, six walks, and seven earned runs in only 10.1 innings pitched. Hmmmm…

Kyle Hendricks looked meh against the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS. After giving up a leadoff home run to Matt Carpenter, he settled down and retired 14 of his next 15 batters before allowing back-to-back solo shots in the fifth inning. Joe Maddon has made it clear that the leash with both Hendricks and Jason Hammel will be very short, and he will never be afraid to go to the bullpen if he senses any sort of struggle from these two guys. Hendricks is a decent pitcher with great command, but hitters tend to catch up to his stuff as the game wears on. The Cubs will need to find a way to score some runs on deGrom if they’re going to win this game.

Game 4: Steven Matz (4-0, 2.27) vs. Jason Hammel (10-7, 3.74)

Reigning from Stony Brook, NY, the highly touted 24-year-old Matz was called up to the Majors in June, hit the DL after his second start for two months, then came back in September and pitched pretty well. He has been hit pretty hard his past two starts (16 hits, 6 ER in 10.2 IP), but he has plus stuff and the potential to shut down any lineup. He is the only lefty in the Mets’ rotation, and the Cubs have crushed left-handed pitching in the postseason (.286/.355/.750, 4 HR in 28 AB). Here’s to hoping that continues.

Jason Hammel straight up sucks right now. At this point, he has shown he cannot be relied on to last more than three or four innings. Maddon has no faith in him, and rightly so. He had a huge hit in the clinching game against St. Louis, but he needs to pitch better – it’s as simple as that. I can already see this game turning into a bullpen game very quickly.

After Game 4, the matchups are up in the air. If the matchups play out the way you see above in the first four games, then expect Jon Lester to start Game 5 on normal rest and Jake Arrieta to start Game 6 on an extra day of rest. I’m not even going to attempt to predict what the Mets are going to do, as they’re all over the place right now with trying to manage their young arms. I will say this, though: do not be surprised at all if 42-year-old Bartolo Colon makes a surprise start at some point late in this series.

Advantage: Mets

Relief Pitching

As a whole, the Mets bullpen was average this season (3.48 ERA, 3.60 FIP). They acquired one of the best setup men in the league at the trade deadline in Tyler Clippard, but he struggled mightily in September (6.59 ERA in 13.2 IP) – the worst month he’d had in three years. Former White Sox closer Addison Reed, whom the Mets acquired from Arizona, was unreal in September (0.00 ERA, 15 K in 14 IP), but who knows if he can keep that up given his track record. The guy to really watch is Mets closer Jeurys Familia. This dude is absolutely ridiculous. He’s got a fastball that consistently touches 97-98 mph and counteracts it with a slider that reminds me of Carlos Marmol’s in his prime. After a campaign that saw him post a 1.85 ERA, 86 Ks in 78 innings and 43 saves in 48 chances, the door is all but closed when Familia comes in.

Unsurprisingly, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic in the postseason. Of the four teams left, this ‘pen pitched the least amount of innings in the Divisional Series, which bodes well considering it will be needed a lot going forward given the lack of trust that Maddon has in the back end of the rotation. They’ve gotten the team out of some big time jams, and Maddon went as far as to pitch every single one of them in the clinching game, where they allowed two runs and struck out 13 in six combined innings. What amazes is that three of the mainstays in this bullpen (Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill, Fernando Rodney) were designated for assignment at one point this season, picked up by the Cubs and flourished (sup, Chris Bosio). I absolutely love what I’m seeing from this entire group right now and, for the first time ever, I feel confident about my team’s chances when the game is handed to our bullpen with a lead.

Advantage: Cubs

Fielding

I know I touched on Addison Russell’s defensive impact in my last post, but with him being ruled out of the NLCS with a hamstring strain, I have some stats that you need to see from ESPN’s Jayson Stark:

From the day he took over (Aug. 7), Russell led all shortstops in baseball in defensive runs saved (11), according to Baseball Info Solutions.

• Before Aug. 7, the Cubs ranked 20th overall in baseball in defensive runs saved (with minus-13). After they moved Russell to short, they ranked third (with plus-31).

• After the date Russell shifted to short, the Cubs converted 55.5 percent of all ground balls into outs, the fourth-best rate in baseball. Before that, they ranked 11th (with 52.8 percent).

• Arrieta might have been the biggest beneficiary of that upgrade among the pitching staff. Once Russell was installed at short, the rate of ground balls converted into outs behind Arrieta jumped from 60.3 percent to 68.2 percent.

• And Russell made a big impact on Kris Bryant’s defense at third, too. Bryant’s defensive runs saved trampolined from minus-3 before Aug. 7 to plus-17 afterward. And the left side of the infield as a whole went from minus-4 before Russell’s move to plus-38 afterward — the best left-side defense in baseball over the last two months.

I get that Javier Baez is a really, really good shortstop in his own right, but the impact of losing Russell cannot go understated. The Cubs are still pretty solid elsewhere across the diamond, and Maddon will never hesitate to put his best defensive lineup out there when the Cubs have a lead late.

The Mets are not very good in the infield defensively at all. Losing Ruben Tejada at shortstop was terrible for them – his replacement, Wilmer Flores, had a -2.5 UZR this season. Third baseman David Wright had a -4.1 UZR – one of the worst ratings amongst those who qualify at the position. And first baseman Lucas Duda – nah.

The outfield is their strength defensively. Rookie Michael Conforto is great, and Yoenis Cespedes has an absolute canon. You cannot run on him. If you try to do so, may the odds be ever in your favor.

Advantage: Cubs

Manager

Mets manager Terry Collins is in his 11th season as a manager. This is his first postseason appearance.

Cubs Manager Joe Maddon is in his 10th season as a manger (he ironically replaced Terry Collins as interim manager of the Angels in 1999 after he was fired). This is his fifth postseason appearance and second in the LCS.

Terry Collins is notoriously known for being a terrible bullpen manager (please read this great Grantland piece here if you love baseball); Joe Maddon, as evidenced in the NLDS, is not.

Give me Maddon. The man crush continues to grow.

Advantage: Cubs

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It’s not going to be easy, and I can truly see this series going either way. Both teams are very evenly matched, and both teams could find themselves playing this deep into October for the next 5-10 years.

The death of the black cat is upon us. This is our time. This is our year.

Prediction: Cubs in 6

NLDS Preview: Cubs – Cardinals

Cubs-vs.-Cardinals-NLDS

The Cubs and Cardinals will face off in the postseason for the first time in their storied history.

Before Wednesday night, the last time the Cubs won a playoff game was October 11, 2003. I was on my way to Freshman Homecoming when Aramis Ramirez hit a grand slam in the first inning off of Dontrelle Willis. I went absolutely crazy. The Cubs, behind a rock solid outing from Matt Clement, rode Ramirez and his six RBIs to an 8-3 victory, took a 3-1 series lead and were all but on their way to the World Series for the first time since 1945.

Everyone knows what happened next. I cried myself to sleep the night we lost Game 7, but a fairly young core of Mark Prior-Kerry Wood-Carlos Zambrano-Aramis Ramirez-Moises Alou was still something special. That winter, the Cubs signed Greg Maddux and traded for Derrek Lee. In July, at the trade deadline, they traded for borderline Hall of Fame shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Yet somehow, some way, everything proved to be all for naught.

The Cubs didn’t make the playoffs again until 2007, when they got swept in the NLDS by the Arizona Diamondbacks. The following year, they recorded the best record in the majors, only to get swept in the first round again by the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was home from college that weekend and punched a hole in my parent’s basement door the night of the sweep. I could not stand the pain and heartbreak any longer and, to make matters worse, I knew the Cubs’ window was closing for good.

As expected, things continued to get worse over the next six seasons, but the day the Cubs swiped Theo Epstein from Boston back in 2011 was the most exciting day I’d had as a Cubs fan in a long time. He’d already done the impossible once, having manufactured two World Series rosters in a four-year span for an organization that hadn’t won one in 86 years. Why not do it again? The Cubs finally had a plan in place, and I was all on board.

By now, you all know the outcome. In a nutshell, the plan has worked – faster than anyone, even Epstein, could have ever imagined. It had been 12 full years – nearly half my life – of misery, devastation and embarrassment before the Cubs finally got a playoff victory. Watching Jake Arrieta record his final out was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had. For diehard Cub fans everywhere, the patience is finally paying off.

That said, there’s a long road ahead, and it all starts in St. Louis on Friday night. The 100-win Cardinals and the 97-win Cubs. The two rivals have played against one another 2,363 times but have somehow never faced off in the playoffs before. This is baseball porn for junkies everywhere. Let’s break it down.

Hitting

Since the All-Star Break, the Cubs are second in the National League in runs scored, averaging 4.72 per game (up from 3.85 in the first half). The Cardinals are 12th at 3.89 runs per game (down from 4.08 in the first half). The two lineups have been trending in slightly opposite directions since August began, likely due to Matt Holliday missing all of August and half of September with a nagging hamstring injury that cost him a month prior.

On the whole, the Cubs have the highest K% in the majors (24.5%), yet the second highest BB% (9.1%). They also rank fifth in the NL in home runs (171). The Cardinals don’t strike out nearly as much (20.6%), but they walk a bit less (8.2%) and don’t have a ton of power (137 HR). The Cubs do play in a much hitter-friendlier park in Wrigley Field than the Cardinals do in Busch Stadium, so if you assess the two teams’ wRC+ (Weighted Run Created + – one of the most important and popular catch-all offensive statistics that attempts to credit a hitter for the value of each outcome rather than treating all hits or time on base equally while also controlling for park effects and the current run environment), they are actually identical. They are also dead even in OBP (.321) and four points off in slugging (Cubs’ advantage).

Not only that, but both the Cubs and Cardinals rank in the bottom four in the MLB in batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP). They are just as horrendous with RISP with two outs, as the Cardinals rank 31st in the league (.201) while the Cubs rank 25th (.211).  Yikes.

The biggest point of differentiation that I could find: baserunning. The Cubs have been worth 15.8 baserunning runs, according to Fangraphs, which ranks first in the NL, while the Cardinals have posted 0.6 baserunning runs, a very average number. Not saying this series will come down to baserunning, because it won’t. But it’s interesting nonetheless.

What this matchup really could come down to is health. Yadier Molina, who I f***ing hate, is going to play with a torn ligament in his left thumb (god only knows how he’ll be able to catch major league pitches with that hand); Matt Holliday has only played 10 games since he came back September 17; Randal Grichuk has been ice cold since returning from his injury (.206/.289/.441 in Sept/Oct); and Stephen Piscotty is coming off a concussion.

I am eager to see how Joe Maddon will use his plethora of outfielders. My guess is Austin Jackson gets the nod in right or left field against left-handed pitchers (Game 2 against Jaime Garcia),  and Jorge Soler/Chris Coghlan platoon against righties based on head-to-head success or who’s swinging the hotter bat. Either way, with the way the Cubs are seeing the ball at the plate right now, the edge has to go to them.

Advantage: Cubs

Starting Pitching

We all know by know how great the Cardinals starting pitching has been. They lead the league by far in starter ERA at 2.99. Over the course of the year, their pitching staff stranded baserunners at a rate (79.4 percent) that has rarely been seen in MLB history. As a consequence, the Cardinals have won about six or seven more games than expected, given the skill of their pitching staff.

However, the Cubs starters ain’t too shabby either. Not only are they third in the league in starter ERA (3.36), but they also lead the league in team FIP (3.26), which estimates a pitcher’s run prevention independent of the performance of their defense and is based on outcomes that do not involve defense. Solid. More impressive, though, is what the Cubs starters have done over the past nine games: they’ve given up one run.

Wait, what? Let me repeat. The Cubs starters have given up one run in the past nine games.

That’s outrageous. I could end this section right now. But I won’t. Instead of me continuing to force feed stats down your throat, let’s just quickly go through each pitching matchup throughout the series.

Game 1: Jon Lester (11-12, 3.34) vs. John Lackey (13-10, 2.77)

The 36-year-old Lackey has had a great season. He sported an ERA under 2.00 in three of six months this season (May, July, September – every other month) and has been the Cardinals’ best pitcher down the stretch. He also went 2-0 vs. the Cubs with a 1.25 ERA in 21.2 innings. Shit.

Lester, strangely, was also incredible in May, July and September, and he ended the regular season on a high note, George Costanza-style, with his 8 inning/1 run/9 K gem against Cincinnati. More importantly, however, Lester has been arguably the best pitcher, statistically, against the Cardinals this season, especially in Busch Stadium (1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 2 starts). He has also proven to be one of the best postseason pitchers in our generation with his 2.57 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 84 innings (1.63/0.98 in 27.2 Divisional Series innings).

This should be a great one.

Game 2: Kyle Hendricks (8-7, 3.95) vs Jaime Garcia (10-6, 2.43)

He hasn’t pitched anywhere close to a full season since 2011 but, when healthy, Jaime Garcia is legit. He is much better at home than he is on the road (1.70/0.89 vs. 3.25/1.23), which is surely why Mike Matheny pushed him up to pitch Game 2 over Michael Wacha. He has yet to face the Cubs this year, though, and is coming off a really shitty outing against the worst team in baseball – the Atlanta Braves. Not sure what to expect from the southpaw.

As for Hendricks, don’t let the numbers fool you. He has been much better than it seems, especially as of late, and he has earned his title as the Cubs’  #3 starter. Without getting too detailed (lol), here’s a snippet from a phenomenal article I read last week by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs:

When Hendricks got to the big leagues, he mixed five pitches; he mostly used his two-seam fastball and change-up, and then worked in a cut fastball as his third pitch, with a curveball and four-seam fastball as his less-often used secondary pitches. And because he pitched very well in his rookie season last year, he carried that same repertoire over to 2015, but some early struggles (by ERA, at least) have seemingly convinced Hendricks to adjust his pitch-mix. Most notably, he’s ditched the cutter.

And probably for good reason. On the season, his cut fastball was called a ball more often than any of his other pitches, generated fewer swings and swinging strikes than anything else he threw, and had the highest home run rate of any of his offerings. By pitch-type linear weights, his cutter was 3 runs below average per 100 pitches, the only one of his pitches that got below average results.

To replace the cutter, he’s upped his usage on both his change-up and his four-seam fastball, and the early results are promising. Here are Hendricks’ numbers since August 1st, since he began life without his cut fastball.

Hendricks Since 8/1

IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP-
58 8% 25% 54% 18% 0.301 118 90 78

And here are his numbers since the start of September, when he’s really pushed the changes a bit more aggressively, pushing his change-up usage to the highest rate he’s posted in any month since getting to the big leagues.

Hendricks Since 9/1

IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP-
27 6% 30% 49% 20% 0.258 94 78 63

Well then.

Game 3: Michael Wacha (17-7, 3.38) vs. Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77)

Wacha may have helped me earn a bye in my fantasy baseball league with the way he pitched this season, but he surely didn’t do a goddamn thing to help me win the championship (which I did, by the way). His September was atrocious, as he posted a 7.88 ERA in five starts, two of which came against the Cubs (lasted only four innings and gave up six runs in both). It’s clear that Wacha, who has had shoulder injuries in the past and hadn’t thrown more than 107 innings at the major league level until this season, started wearing down late, which is a very bad sign for the Cardinals. His 6.86 ERA in four starts against the Cubs is frightening….

Especially when you consider who he’s going up against. There are truly no words anymore to describe what Jake Arrieta has done in the second half of the season. He became the first pitcher in postseason history to throw a shutout with at least 10 strikeouts and no walks. He has 21 consecutive quality starts. He has given up four earned runs in his last 97.1 innings pitched (that’s a 0.36 ERA since August 1). Are you shitting me?? The dude is straight up not human. He’s beyond filthy. If there’s any game the Cubs are absolutely winning in this series, it’s Game 3.

(Weird side note that has nothing to do with anything: I read that Jake Arrieta and Matt Carpenter are boys. Like, Arrieta was a groomsman in Carpenter’s wedding. What?)

I’m not going to assess anything after Game 3, as nothing is guaranteed at that point, and pitching matchups will change depending on circumstance. 22-year-old phenom Carlos Martinez is out for the season with a shoulder strain, so the only other starters who will surely see a start in this series if it gets that far are Jason Hammel (10-7, 3.74) and Lance Lynn (12-11, 3.03). Cry Baby Lynn is 0-3 with a 7.64 ERA in four starts against the Cubs. Hammel, whom Joe Maddon seems to have lost complete trust in, is 1-1 with a 5.73 ERA in three starts against the Cardinals and has sucked a fat one the entire second half. Hot garbage.

Advantage: Cubs

Relief Pitching

The Cardinals bullpen has been fantastic all season long. They lead the league in saves and are second only to the Pirates in ERA at 2.82. They have a number of guys that can get the job done (namely their set up man, Kevin Siegrist) thanks to some savvy free agent signings and trades, but the player to watch here is Trevor Rosenthal, their closer. He was second in the league with 48 saves and throws 100 MPH fastballs on the reg. Strikes out nearly 11 guys per nine innings. He has yet to give up a run against the Cubs in eight appearances, striking out 13, walking none and recording seven saves. If he steps foot on the mound, the game is pretty much over.

Another guy to watch is perennial Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright. He just got back from a brutal torn achilles injury that he suffered in April and is pitching out of the bullpen this October. He seems more preoccupied with the fact that Fox airs too many erectile dysfunction ads, though, so I’ll let him be.

The Cubs, again, are pretty underrated at this aspect of the game. Their bullpen seems to be heavily scrutinized on an annual basis, and deservedly so, but this one has been rock solid. Fourth in the NL in ERA (3.38) and first in FIP (3.37). Individually, Hector Rondon has been fantastic. He’s got the lowest ERA (1.67) of any full-time closer not named Aroldis Chapman and has 30 saves in 34 chances. Then there’s ever so passionate Pedro Strop, the Cubs’ set up man (typically) who has had his moments this season. He has been pretty solid as of late but tends to struggle more often than not in high-leverage situations. What scares me to death are his numbers against the Cardinals: an 11.05 ERA, 2.18 WHIP and .333 Opp BA in 7.1 innings pitched. He certainly an edge-of-your-seat type pitcher, so be weary of the numbers I’ve just presented.

A few other guys to watch: Travis Wood, who has embraced his role as long/middle reliever after losing his #5 starting job back in April, has been super reliable and has seen a massive increase in his K%; Justin Grimm, who was easily the Cubs’ best relief pitcher in the first half of the season (missed all of April due to injury, but still) but has reallllyy struggled with his command as of late (10 walks in nine innings pitched in September); and Trevor Cahill, a former second-round pick who was given one last chance to prove his worth as a major league pitcher when the Cubs him picked up from Atlanta in mid-August. The groundball-inducing Cahill may not be flashy (61.8 GB%), but in 17 innings pitched with the Cubs, he has only given up four earned runs and leads the team in leaving men on base (89.3 LOB%).

As mentioned earlier, the Cardinals are the best team in the league at leaving men on base. Their LOB-Wins (an estimate of how many wins a pitcher has added as a result of stranding runners on base) is a crazy 3.0 (tops in the NL), while the Cubs are at -2.1 (second to last in the NL). This is certainly a stat worth keeping in mind throughout the course of the series.

Advantage: Cardinals

Fielding

Is Yadier Molina going to be Yadier Molina? That remains to be seen. If so, he’s the best catcher in the league, both defensively (framing/blocking/throwing out base stealers) and at calling games. The Cardinals’ Jayson Heyward is also unquestionably the best defensive right fielder in the game (22 defensive runs saved – no one else is close; 20.2 UZR, which attempts to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through fielding prowess).

As for the Cubs, it’s no secret that Addison Russell has a Gold Glove in his future. He leads the Cubs in DRS from two different positions (19 combined), UZR (13.4) and he wasn’t moved to shortstop permanently until only a couple of months ago. He also wasn’t called up to the majors until late April. This kid’s the real deal.

Overall, both teams are above average defensively, and the Cubs rank third in the NL in UZR (23.4). With Molina a huge question mark behind the plate right now and the Cubs infield playing so well, I’ve got to give the Cubs the advantage here as well.

Advantage: Cubs

Manager 

I don’t care how well Mike Matheny has done since taking over for Tony La Russa in 2012 (four playoff appearances in four seasons and one NL Pennant). How can I not go with Joe Maddon here? The Cubs won 26 more games this season than last season, and Maddon has been the mad genius and calming influence behind all of it. He has had tremendous success throughout his career as well. I would do anything to spend a day with this guy. He’s so cool – we’d totally be boys if we were the same age and went to school together. The mancrush is real. Do I even really need to explain myself further?

Advantage: Cubs

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I came into this post thinking I might pick the Cardinals to win. After all, they are Cardinals. The fact that the Cubs have an advantage in four of five categories would actually mean something if you replaced the word “Cardinals” on the front of those jerseys with anything else. But it doesn’t. They have played winning baseball for as long as I can remember, and the Cubs surely have not. But I feel a different vibe right now than I’ve ever felt before with the Cubs. They’re scorching hot at the right time, and I think their time has finally come. For the first time in 12 years, the Cubs are going to win a playoff series. It’s gonna happen. Nothing in the world would give me greater joy. I can’t wait.

Prediction: Cubs in 4  

Stanley Cup Preview: Hawks-Lightning

Everyone loves comparisons. Doppelgängers, what-ifs, this guy vs. that guy during this era vs. that era. What kind of world would this be with them? That’s why the overwhelming storyline of this Stanley Cup matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning boils around the similarities between this Lightning team and the Blackhawks team from 2008-09. Both led by very young stars with impeccable speed and skill. Both lacking experience. That Blackhawks team was knocked down hard by the veteran-led Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Final before getting back up and winning the Cup the following season. The Lightning have yet to take that beating, and it remains to be seen whether this Blackhawks team will be the one to come through and deliver it to them.

Make no mistake: Tampa Bay is no joke. They are one of the most exciting teams in the NHL and play the game with such a high aesthetic quality, just like their counterpart. There is star power out the wazzu across both rosters, and all hockey fans are fully aware of the treat that they’re in for this series.

Chicago would probably not be standing here if it weren’t for Coach Quenneville’s decision to unite Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the first line in the last two full games of the Western Conference Final against Anaheim, and it will be interesting to see whether he keeps it that way or not. Regardless, this is a team looking to capture its third Cup in six years and enter dynasty territory, and many pundits feel Anaheim may have had the best chance to stop them. But what does Tampa Bay bring to the table that Anaheim did not? Let’s dive in.

Offense

I’m not gonna lie – the Tampa Bay offense is frightening. They averaged the most goals per game during the regular season at 3.16, and they have one of, if not the, best players in the world in captain Steven Stamkos. After scoring 60 goals in his age-22 season during 2011-12, Stamkos dealt with two injury plagued seasons in a row before coming back strong and ranking second in goals scored behind Alex Ovechkin during his 2014-15 campaign. He struggled mightily in the early going this postseason but got back into his groove against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, putting up four goals and three assists.

However, Stamkos isn’t actually the real story here for Tampa Bay. That honor goes to the Lightning’s super young and talented first line, otherwise known as the ‘The Triplets,’ which consists of 22-year-old Tyler Johnson, 21-year-old Nikita Kucherov and 24-year-old Ondrej Palat. Johnson, who is an incredible story in his own right after going undrafted due to his small stature (5’9″), leads all players in goals (12) and points (21) this postseason, with Kucherov trailing just behind him (nine goals, 19 points). The three of them have been an unstoppable force throughout the playoffs, leading all lines in cumulative scoring (55 points) and +/- (+17). Both Johnson and Kucherov also rank first and second in game-winning goals scored with four and three, respectively (Patrick Kane also has three). The trio has a perfect mix of speed and skill and is known for terrific passing (sound familiar?). These kids may be young, but they are well beyond their years. I’m excited to see which Hawks line Coach Quenneville chooses to match up with them.

Tampa Bay has the speed to keep up with Chicago, but they don’t really have the depth. Their top two lines have combined for 45 out of the team’s 55 postseason goals – 82% of the scoring. On the other hand, Chicago’s high-end talent at forward is friggin’ ridiculous. Between Jonathan Toews (18 points), Patrick Kane (20 points), Marian Hossa (13 points), Patrick Sharp (12 points), Brad Richards (11 points), Brandon Saad (8 points)… the list just doesn’t seem to end. As a team, the Hawks rank first by a mile in SAT For (remember, that’s team shots on goal + team missed shots + opponent blocked shots excluding empty net) at 986, a very strong indication of their puck possession superiority. On top of that, they are an impossible 32-0-0 this season (regular season/playoffs) when leading after the second period. That obviously has to do with more aspects of the game than just offense, but it’s a stat worth sharing.

On a side note, here’s my crazy stat of the day: Toews became the first player in Stanley Cup history with multi-goal games in Games 5 and 7 on the road. If the NHL had a re-draft tomorrow, he would be the first overall pick without question. Sleep on that.

Defense

Two words: Duncan Keith. The man is a freak. He leads the postseason with a +13, ranks second in assists (16) and, as far as I’m concerned, leads all players in ice time at an absurd 31:36 per game rate (Roman Josi of Nashville played 31:37 in six games, but that was one series – who’s counting?). Keith also has two game-winning goals thus far and owns the highest individual SAT (SAT For – SAT Against) at 89, making his case to become the first defenseman to win the Conn Smythe Trophy since Scott Niedermayer did it with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 (Toews and Kane both probably have the edge over him, but with seven potential games yet to be played, you never know).

As you know by now, though, the buck doesn’t stop with Keith. Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya continue to make the most out of their ice time. Seabrook ranks first amongst defensemen in goals with six (!!) and fourth in points (10) and +/- (+6). Meanwhile, Hjalmarsson sports a +5 and is tied for third in blocked shots with Oduya at 43. All three rank in the top 18 in TOI per game, but that’s probably a testament to the Blackhawks’ serious lack of depth at the blue line.

Kimmo Timmonen, Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad have proven to be worthless. Literally, they have a combined zero points in 24 games played, and only Cumiskey averages over ten minutes of ice time per game. It’s no coincidence that Oduya owns a team worst -5 +/- rating, as he’s usually paired with either Cumiskey or Rundblad. This trio of defensemen is busted. Hot garbage. Rubbish. Bollocks. Get them out.

Tampa Bay’s defensive unit is similar to that of Chicago’s – an excellent top four but questionable depth. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman form one of the strongest defensive lines in the NHL and have been sensational together this season. Stralman posted career highs in goals (9), assists (30) and points (39) and was pegged by ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun as Tampa Bay’s MVP thus far. Hedman, who ranks second amongst defensemen behind Duncan Keith with nine assists and a +5 rating this spring, is widely considered a top ten defenseman in the league; at 24 years old, he has his best years ahead of him. In addition, Jason Garrison, who led all defenseman in +/- this season (+27), heads up Tampa’s second defensive line. After that? Weak sauce.

All that said, Chicago’s blue line has way too much experience to not have the edge here. Expect the ice time to increase a bit more for each team’s top four this series in order to limit the exposure to the backends of their defensive units.

Goaltending

So, Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop is big. Like, really big. Like, the biggest goaltender to EVER play in the NHL big. At 6’7″ and 215 pounds, Bishop takes up an insane amount of net – not a bad trait to have when your main job is to form a wall in front of a net and ensure no puck gets past you. He legitimately looks like Hagrid (Harry Potter reference – I’m as cool as you thought) in pads, a uniform and a helmet. Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.49.54 PM

Anyways, being that large isn’t always great when you’re a goaltender. Yes, he fills a lot of space, with his shoulders covering most shots even in the butterfly, but Bishop doesn’t have the easiest time moving east to west and is at his best when his movements are controlled. With today’s NHL game being so fast, that’s a pretty glaring weakness to have.

That said, the highs have been extraordinarily high during this playoff run, as Bishop has made the history books a couple of times with his spectacular play. According to NHL.com, which features a fantastic, in-depth piece on Bishop, he became “the first goalie to backstop his team to the Cup Final with a road shutout in Game 7 of the conference finals, which Bishop did in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers. He also is the first goaltender with road shutouts in Games 5 and 7 of the same playoff series, and the first to win his first two Game 7 starts, a run that started in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Detroit Red Wings.” Not only that, but Bishop enters the Cup Final with a road shutout streak of 143 minutes and 45 seconds. For all your mathematicians out there, that’s two games and one+ period worth of shutouts (he has three shutouts overall this postseason), so… yeah. On the other hand, Bishop has also given up 15 goals (yes, 15 goals) in his past three home games. If that trend continues (don’t count on it), he stands no chance at leading his team to victory in Games 1 and 2.

Across the ice for Chicago stands Corey Crawford who, as you might agree, has been pretty mediocre throughout the playoffs. He gave up 21 goals in seven games against Anaheim (never less than two in any game) and has had some serious ups (Game 3 shutout against Minnesota; heroic 60 save effort in that triple overtime thriller in Game 2 against Anaheim) and some serious downs (first round against Nashville; three goals allowed in a 37 second span in Game 4 against Anaheim). Crawford ranks last out of seven goalies who have played 10 games or more this postseason with a 2.56 GAA. For comparison’s sake, Crawford posted an insane 1.84 GAA during Chicago’s 2013 Cup run, so it’s quite clear he hasn’t been the player he’s fully capable of being. Some would dismiss the 2015 Corey Crawford as the product of a great team, and a few minutes of convincing may sway me down that road as well. But this is a guy who’s been there, done that, and that experience may prove to be everything when it’s all said and done.

(For a great breakdown of Crawford’s strengths, weaknesses and trends, click here.)

Special Teams

Coming into the playoffs, these two teams had eerily similar special teams units. Chicago ranked 20th on the Power Play (PP) at 17.6% and 10th on the Penalty Kill (PK) at 83.4%; Tampa Bay ranked 14th on the PP at 18.8% and 9th on the PK at 83.7%. Since then, Tampa Bay’s PP unit has been on fire, annihilating New York at a 32% clip in their seven-game Eastern Conference Final, as well as Montreal at a 35% clip in their six-game Eastern Conference Semifinal. Chicago is still middle-of-the road on that front but is coming off a huge Game 7 in Anaheim, where Toews and Seabrook each scored one momentum-grabbing PP goal. Although a top PP unit of Stamkos-Johnson-Kucherov-Palat-Stralman is absolutely petrifying, I’ll still take my chances with Toews-Kane-Keith-Shaw-Sharp every time.

As for the PK, recall from my Western Conference Finals Preview that Anaheim had an unsustainable 31% success rate on the PP coming into the series. And right on cue was Chicago, bringing them back down to Earth and allowing only three PP goals in 16 tries. Chicago is now up to a 75% PK rate, which isn’t great but is steadily improving. Tampa Bay, who owned Montreal on the PK in the Round 2 (allowed only one PP goal out of 16, good for 93.8%), had a decent 70.1% PK rate against New York last round. Although it’s not too dramatic of a decrease, both teams seem to be trending opposite ways. Tampa Bay also has been shorthanded nearly 3.5 times per game this postseason, while Chicago has put themselves in better position, allowing themselves to be shorthanded less than three times per game. Slight edge goes to the Hawks.

Coaching

My Uncle Dan, a diehard Blackhawks fan (and avid follower of this blog) suggested I analyze the coaching matchups as well. Great idea. Problem is, I know nothing about Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper and, to be honest, I don’t really care to. Why? Because Joel Quenneville and his mustache have won two Stanley Cups, while Cooper has made two playoff appearances. ‘Nuff said.

Prediction

Experience, experience, experience. Hawks in 6.

The Lukewarm Stove: Cubs Need Pitching Help

The Cubs could use some pitching help if they expect to make noise this season.

For the past three years under the direction of Theo Epstein, the Cubs were purposely consistently one of the worst teams in all of baseball. The summer hot stove was always filled with trade rumors involving the Cubs as sellers, and for good reason. Each winter, they’d sign guys to one year contracts, or trade for guys with expiring contracts who had never lived up to their expectations, turn them into valuable assets in a three or four-month span, then sell them for a buck fifty on the dollar. It’s straight up genius, and it has worked to their advantage nearly every. Single. Time. Take a look:

  • 2012 Deadline
    • Traded Geovany Soto to Rangers to Jake Brigham, whom they flipped back to Rangers for Barrett Loux. Advantage: probably no one.
    • Traded Ryan Dempster to Rangers for Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks. Advantage: Cubs.
  • 2013 Deadline
    • Traded Alfonso Soriano to Yankees for Corey Black. Advantage: Soriano did hit 17 homers in 58 games with the Yankees that season, but they missed the playoffs. Only the Cubs can win this trade, as Soriano has since retired and Black is still in the minors.
    • Traded Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. Advantage: Lol.
    • Traded Carlos Marmol to Dodgers for Matt Guerrier. Both players are currently out of the league. Advantage: wash.
    • Traded Matt Garza to Rangers for CJ Edwards, Mike Olt and Justin Grimm. Advantage: Cubs. Not even close.
  • 2014 Deadline
    • Traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A’s for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and Dan Straily (whom they flipped to Houston with Luis Valbuena for Dexter Fowler).  Advantage: Cubs. Couldn’t have worked out worse for Oakland.
    • Traded Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell to Braves for Victor Caritimi. Russell is now back with the Cubs, and Caritimi is a borderline top 10 prospect in the Cubs system. Advantage: Cubs.
    • Traded Darwin Barney to Dodgers for a bag of peanuts. Actually. Advantage: Cubs.

As outlined above, the Cubs have made nine deadline deals (unless I’m missing any) since the summer of 2012, and that trend will almost certainly continue in 2015. The difference now is that, for the first time since 2008, the Cubs finally look like buyers. However, it’s not quite as easy to outsmart other GMs when you’re a buyer and desperate for help that can improve your chances of winning a World Series ring immediately. The thing is, Theo and Jed aren’t desperate – at least not this year. They are not willing to mortgage their future for the present, especially with the position they’re in now. They’ve got one of the youngest cores in the league and have put together a legitimate offensive juggernaut in the making. If and when the Cubs make a deal this summer, it will be on Theo and Jed’s terms, trading guys who they don’t see fitting into their future plans, as opposed to going all in and praying it works out. Condolences to Billy Beane.

All that said, Theo and Jed are not blind. The Cubs needs pitching help, and they need it badly. Through seven weeks, the back of the rotation has been an inconsistent mess, and the bullpen has been a borderline disaster. Although they rank a solid 3rd in the NL in starter’s ERA, their bullpen ERA ranks 10th, bringing them to a mediocre 7th place ranking overall. If you’re thinking to yourself that it could be worse, you’re right – it can. Kyle Hendricks has been fantastic his past two starts, lowing his ERA nearly a run and a half over that span, from 5.15 to 3.76. Neil Ramirez will also be back soon (hopefully) to help the bullpen, although who knows how he’ll be with that shoulder.

The problem is that the Cardinals and Pirates rank ahead of the Cubs in every aspect of pitching, and they have to play them only, what, 20 more times combined this year? The Cubs are 8-8 against those two teams thus far, and if they plan on making it to October, they’d best be served acquiring some pitching help and getting on their levels.

Next winter’s free agent class will be very strong as far as starting pitching goes, and a number of top-of-the-rotation starters will be on the market over the next two months. Whether the Cubs go after one before the deadline remains to be seen, and a lot may be riding on whether or not Tsuyoshi Wada continues to hold down the fifth spot successfully in place of Travis Wood. If things take a turn for the worse, though, or Theo and Jed get an offer they can’t refuse, they’ve proven they won’t be afraid to pull the trigger.

Below are names of various starters/relievers that will be thrown around nearly every day until the end of July, categorized by probability that they’ll end up a Cub.

Favorites

Scott Kazmir, SPOakland A’s

A three-time All-Star, the 31-year-old Kazmir has dealt with his fair share of injuries and adversity throughout his career. Over a four-year span early in his career, Kazmir was one of the best pitchers in the American League – the bona-fide ace of the 2008 pennant-winning Tampa Bay Rays. Injuries temporarily derailed his career during 2011 and 2012 before he signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians in 2013.

After his resurgent season there, the A’s signed Kazmir to a two-year contract, where he was arguably the American League’s best pitcher for the first four months of 2014 before getting shelled in August and September. Nevertheless, Kazmir was a huge reason for Oakland’s incredible first half last season, and he would bring a lot of value and leadership as a veteran southpaw to the top (or in the Cubs’ case, middle) of any rotation.

Given Kazmir’s inconsistency over the past year+ (2014 splits include 2.38 ERA pre-All Star break and 5.42 ERA post-All Star break; 2015 splits include 0.99 ERA in April, 5.14 ERA in May), as well as Oakland’s complete fall from grace (17-32 record, good for dead last in the AL), all signs point to a very trigger-happy Billy Beane – shocking news to baseball fans, I’m sure. I can’t imagine Beane asking for too much for Kazmir – Duane Underwood and another prospect would probably be the ceiling –  so if the price is right, Theo and Jed will likely pounce.

Tyler Clippard, RPOakland A’s

Clippard is one of the best eighth-inning relievers in baseball, and it has been that way for the past six years (with one season at closer thrown in). The A’s acquired him from the Nationals for next to nothing back in January, and he’ll be a free agent at season’s ended. With Pedro Strop struggling mightily this month (6.57 ERA in 12.1 IP) after a ridiculous April (0.00 ERA  in 9.1 IP), the Cubs may look to scoop up a setup man who has posted 147 holds since 2010 in Clippard.  Given the current state of the A’s, you can bet your ass that Clippard will be gone before he knows it.

50/50 Chance

Cole Hamels, SPPhiladelphia Phillies

To be honest, the chances of the Cubs acquiring Cole Hamels are lower than 50/50 – it just seemed like a good category name. Those chances are completely contingent on whether or not Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has finally removed his head from his ass; it’s been stuck there for years. Last season, rumor had it that Amaro was demanding Kris Bryant or Javy Baez in some kind of an absurd package in exchange for Hamels. He demanded at least two of the Dodgers top three prospects, all of whom are top 30 prospects overall. Now he apparently wants Bryant or Addison Russell – obviously not happening. At some point though, something’s gotta give.

Given his serious struggles at the plate in limited at-bats last season, it is widely believed that the Cubs are now willing to part ways with Baez. As high as Baez’ ceiling is, he likely will never truly patch up the high K rate. He needs to figure out how to adjust to major league pitching, and last summer proved it may take a bit longer than expected. On top of all that, the Cubs are clearly loaded with position players up and down the system, with pitching being their achilles’ heal. I doubt Theo would be willing to package Baez for two months of Hamels, and I don’t think he should. A team like the New York Mets, who are loaded with pitching prospects but lack hitters, would be a perfect fit, but that’s another story for another day. If the Cubs were to saddle up for Cole Hamels, what does he bring to the table?

For one, Hamels has been one of the ten best pitchers in baseball over the past decade. He’s finished in the top eight of the Cy Young voting four times, sporting a career 3.26 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 8.50 K/9. More importantly, he has a career postseason record of 7-4 with a 3.09 ERA in 13 starts. He also won the NLCS and World Series MVPs in 2008. Decent track record, I’d say.

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports feels there is no better time than right now to acquire Hamels:

Hamels’ average fastball velocity in May is 93.59 mph, a monthly figure he did not reach last season until August. His strikeout rate, over a full season, would rank among the best of his career.

His walk rate is dropping, and after allowing seven homers in his first three starts, his home run rate also is returning to normal. Hamels has allowed only one homer in his last seven outings, none in his last four.

And as far as his contract as concerned:

Hamels is owed about $90 million over four years or $105 million over five, depending upon whether he is traded to a club on his no-trade list and requires the club to exercise his option. Thus, he already is a bargain by today’s standards and will become even more of a bargain if Amaro kicks in, say, $10 million, to get better prospects.

Point being: get him while he’s hot.

Jonathan Papelbon, RP, Philadelphia Phillies

Similar story to Hamels, as Ruben Amaro is also Papelbon’s GM. He is signed through 2015 with a vesting option through 2016, and the Phillies will have to pay a chunk of his $13 million salary in order to get a decent return. If they’re down, Papelbon would be a great fit for the Cubs for two reasons: 1) he’d bring a much needed veteran presence with unbelievable playoff success (1.00 career postseason ERA in 27 IP) to a struggling bullpen, and 2) he played for Theo Epstein for seven seasons (six with Jon Lester). The need is there, and the relationship is there. The price, however, may not be.

No shot

Johnny Cueto, SP, Cincinnati Reds

There are plenty of people out there who think the Cubs have a shot at getting Cueto at the deadline. If you’re one of them, I’m here to tell you all that you’re wrong, bro. Would it be nice to acquire the NL’s biggest workhorse since the start of 2014 (he’s pitched more innings than anyone since then)? Sure. Would I love to add another legit ace to the rotation? Absolutely. Thing is, assuming the Reds continue to suck (they’ve lost nine of their last 10), they won’t consider trading Cueto within the division. They also are said to want some good, young pitching in the return, which would disqualify the Cubs from the running. Expect the Red Sox to pony up and make a serious offer that the Reds’ front office won’t refuse.

Darkhorse

Jeff Samardzija, SPChicago White Sox

Two things that haven’t changed: Shark still has mad flow, but he still lacks consistency. Sure, he put up a monster season in 2014, but he just couldn’t prevent that one terrible month last June that he always seems to struggle through (see May 2011; June 2012; July-September 2013). He was very shaky out of the gate with the White Sox (4.78 ERA in April) but has since been fantastic, having thrown 23 IP with a 1.96 ERA and 19 Ks in his past three starts.

The Sox have really struggled thus far, but I fully expect them to improve as the year goes on, meaning it’s pretty unlikely they move Samardzija at the deadline. If I happen to be wrong, which is usually the case, and the Sox continue to suck, then expect the Cubs to put in a call to Rick Hahn to test the waters. It’s doubtful they’d be willing to give up much, but the rumors will certainly circulate. Samardzija, from what I’ve read, does not want to leave Chicago, so if he actually gets traded elsewhere, it’s easy to picture him coming back to either the North Side or the South Side next winter. Keep your eye on him.

Other Guys to Watch

Grant Balfour, RP, Free Agent

Jonathan Broxton, RP, Milwaukee Brewers

Sean Marshall, RP, Cincinnati Reds

Mike Leake, SP, Cincinnati Reds

Rafael Soriano, RP, Free Agent

Brad Ziegler, RP, Arizona Diamondbacks

—————

So there you have it. For the first time since 2008, the Cubs have the look of a trade deadline buyer. As they sit four games over .500 and a game out of the wildcard, it’s clear that their timetable has been moved up. If Theo and Jed expect see their team play in October, they’ll need more pitching, and they’ll need it soon. The stove will continue to get hot as the seasons turn, so be prepared for something big.

Western Conference Finals Preview: Hawks-Ducks

Raise your hand if you honestly thought the Blackhawks would be able to withstand a brutal best-of-seven series against the hottest team in the NHL – a team that we’d beaten two straight postseasons. With the hottest goaltender. After the Corey Crawford – Scott Darling debacle in round one? If you’re raising your hand like myself, consider yourself a full-blown idiot. I thought Minnesota would win that series handily, and we’d be stuck watching LeBron James neuter each and every Bulls player back to boyhood for the next two weeks, which is exactly what he did.

Good news is, I was dead wrong about the Blackhawks last series as we live to see this potential dynasty continue to build on to its legacy. This is the fifth Conference Finals appearance for the Blackhawks in the past seven years, and most pundits expect them to make their third Cup appearance in that span as well. Let’s break down why.

Offense

As well as the Blackhawks are playing coming into this series after making the scorching Devan Dubnyk look pedestrian in net (which he actually is, by the way), there is no hotter team in hockey than the Anaheim Ducks. They enter the conference finals with an 8-1 postseason record and a +20 goal differential in those nine games. It’s no coincidence, as this team tied St. Louis for most points in the Western Conference this season with 109 and are on a mission to prove their doubters wrong after two hugely disappointing playoff exits in as many years (first place regular season finishes in both).

Anaheim has outscored opponents 16-3 in the third period this spring, and they’ve won games they’ve trailed an incredible six times already, indicating that no lead against them is ever safe. Their 3.89 goals per game also leads the postseason. The Ducks boast three of the top seven points-getters in this year’s playoffs, led by five-time all-star and former Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry with 15 points. At 30 years of age, Perry has undoubtedly been one of the best players in the NHL over the past seven years; he enters the series tied with Patrick Kane for second in the playoffs with a +8, just ahead of his partner in crime, Ryan Getzlaf. The two stars are no strangers to success, as they helped the Ducks win their first and only Stanley Cup in franchise history way back in 2007. Perry and Getzlaf, along with the physically imposing presence of Patrick Maroon, form one of the best lines in all of hockey; each rank in the top eight in points this postseason.

With Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews having anchored two of Canada’s four lines en route to a 2014 gold medal (Perry, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith were all also on that team), the matchup between those two at the center of the ice will be as good as it gets. However, with all-do respect to the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames, neither of whom had reached the playoffs since 2007 and 2009, respectively, the Ducks have yet to face a team as battle-tested as the Blackhawks.

Chicago has not missed the playoffs since 2008, with five conference finals appearances and two Stanley Cups to show for it. They’ve also dealt with the adversity of playing without Patrick Kane for 2+ months, giving 20-year-old forward Teuvo Teravainen (whom I wrote about on draft night 2012) the opportunity to grow as a professional, as well as the Patrick Sharp adultery and sex-obsessive rumors and, of course, the puke-fest that was the Crawford-Darling roller coaster against Nashville in round one. Yet after all that, here they stand, back in the Conference Finals and going toe-to-toe with one of the most physical and consistent teams in the league.

It goes without saying that this Hawks team has been completely rejuvenated by the shocking, premature comeback and heroic play by Patrick Kane. He currently ranks second in the postseason in both points (13) and +/- (+8). He’s playing better hockey than anyone right now, having scored a goal (six goals overall) in five straight games heading into this series. He simply cannot be stopped right now, and it’s been a downright beautiful thing to witness.

The Hawks continue to own arguably the league’s deepest roster in terms of skill and speed. Because of that, they are phenomenal at tracking down the puck and maintaining possession of it, having ranked second overall during the regular season in both adjusted shot attempt differential at 54.4% and SAT at 543. For those of you stat nerds like myself, SAT is defined as the following:

  • Shot Attempts For – Shot Attempts Against
    • Shot Attempts For (5-on-5): Team shots on goal + team missed shots + opponent blocked shots (excluding empty net)
    • Shot Attempts Against (5-on-5): opponent shots on goal + opponent missed shots + team blocked shots (excluding empty net).

The Hawks offensive arsenal, as you know, is not much different from years’ past. They consistently beat their opponents with depth, skill and speed. Big, physical teams like Anaheim have rarely given them fits when it comes to scoring goals, but the game of hockey is much more than that. Let’s see what the blue liners have in store.

Defense

Anaheim is an absurd 33-1-7 (yes, 33-1-7) in one-goal games this season, an indication of a team that isn’t necessarily as great as it is lucky. The scary thing, however, is that they seem to be playing their best hockey at the right time, at least from a defensive perspective. After seeing their scoring chance differential drop below 50% in late February (meaning they were getting out-chanced by their opponents), Anaheim has seen that number jump to nearly 55%, which is driven by a dramatic decline in the number of shot attempts against them (Corsi Against is also known as SAT Against), reflected below.

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 10.31.39 AM

Source: SI.com

Not only that, but Anaheim has also posted far and away the best SAT Tied at 48 (followed by Chicago at 35) and SAT Close at 53 (“close” is defined as teams within one goal, or tied, in the 3rd period). The Hawks, on the other hand, seem to have moved in the opposite direction but are weathering the storm as of late. Needless to say, the Ducks are a team that is all but a lock to win close games, so the Hawks will have to get to them early and often if they’re going to win this series and avoid doing so in typical Hawks fashion (which is, as you know, making near miracle comebacks late in games).

From a player perspective, Chicago continues to rely on it’s four-headed defensive monster of reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. All four men are averaging more ice time per game (with Keith leading the way at 30:38) than anyone on Anaheim in the playoffs, which is probably more indicative of Coach Quenneville’s lack of trust in his two worst defensemen – Kimmo Timmonen, who’s averaging a measly 9:25 on ice per game, and Michal Roszival. With Roszival out for the season due to a fractured ankle that he suffered in Game 4 against Minnesota, David Rundblad now takes his spot.

Keith leads the postseason with a +10, followed by Cam Fowler and Simon Despres of Anahem, and Hjalmarsson, at +7, +6, and +6 respectively. Oduya and Hjalmarsson rank in the top of the league this spring in blocked shots, something that continues to remain constant each and every year.

Both teams match up fairly well defensively, and this series may very well come down to who can win close games. The Hawks clearly lack depth at the blue line right now, and it’s not hard to envision a physical Ducks team taking complete advantage of that over a long best-of-seven series. Based on this season’s results, Anaheim would have the edge. However, there is no defensive unit in the league as experienced and consistently good as that of Chicago, and if there’s any team in the world that can buck Anaheim’s trend of winning one-goal games, it’s them.

Goaltending

You all know the story by now. Corey Crawford was atrocious in the first period of Game 1 against Nashville, so Scott Darling replaced him. Darling held his own for a few games and then was atrocious in the first period of Game 5, so Crawford re-replaced him. Whatever happened to Crawford in between, no one knows, but the man channeled his inner Michael Jordan (Spacejam version with the secret weapon drink, chill people) and has since posted a ridiculous .951 save percentage. The Corey Crawford, as we know him, seems to be back with a hot hand and a vengeance – a man who, I hope, will not allow himself to lose his job again. Crawford still ranked 11th in the league this season in GAA at 2.29, and he, ya know, won a Stanley Cup what, like two years ago? If the confidence is there, watch the eff out.

On the other side of the ice will stand Frederik Andersen, a 25-year-old Danish stud playing in his second year. Casual hockey fans likely have no idea who he is, but Andersen has been really solid during his first two years in the NHL, as he sports a career record of 55-17-5 and career GAA of 2.35. He was pretty mediocre during the regular season but has been a completely different man this spring with a filthy 1.96 GAA in nine games, having allowed only 18 goals and managing to post one shut out. Also, Andersen has stopped 44 of 51″high-danger shots” he has faced this postseason (.862 save percentage), which ranks second amongst goalies with at least 500 minutes played. To be honest, I’ve never heard of “danger zones” in hockey until today, and I cannot find an actual definition anywhere. However, the stat sounded cool as hell, and it makes Andersen sound scarier than I thought. Just go with it.

Of the four goalies still remaining, Andersen and Crawford are the two worst right now (both Henrik Lundqvist of New York and Ben Bishop of Tampa Bay are on completely different levels right now), but they’ve both proven to be somewhat capable of taking over a series. Given Crawford’s experience, I’d say he certainly has the edge, but Andersen seems to be the next, young up-and-coming goalie who could be a force to be reckoned with.

Special Teams

Gun to my head, I’d tell you that this series, without question, will come down to special teams – specifically Anaheim’s power play against Chicago’s penalty kill. The Ducks lead the playoffs by a wide margin with a 31% success rate on the power play, which is nearly double their rate during the regular season, where they ranked 28th out of 30 teams in the league. To see a turnaround that dramatic is unprecedented, and one has to assume that a success rate like that, given such poor play beforehand, is unsustainable.

Chicago’s power play has remained pretty consistent, as they’re converting 20% of their one-man advantages into goals. However, it’s the penalty kill that is a cause for concern. During the season, the Hawks ranked in the top 10, killing penalties at an 83.4% rate. However, since the start of the playoffs, that number has dipped all the way to 72.7% (allowed nine goals in 33 chances), second worst amongst any team that survived the first round. Of the 10 games they’ve played thus far, the Hawks have allowed at least one power play goal in eight of them. If they don’t shore up this short-handed vulnerability in a hurry, they will be going home – no question about it.

One other little nugget: Anaheim’s second power play unit is manned by Ryan Kesler at center. Kesler has completely dominated in the face-off circle this postseason, having won 63.7% of his face-offs – easily the best rate for any full-time center. Chicago cannot allow Kesler to continue to win face-offs at a rate that high, especially when nearly every face-off during those two-minute power plays will occur in their own zone.

Prediction

I believe Chicago will shore up its special teams woes and bring Anaheim back down to earth. Experience will be huge, and a potential Stanley Cup matchup between two goliaths (Blackhawks and Rangers) is on the horizon.

Hawks in 6.

2015 Preview – Chicago Cubs

***This article was written by Matt Stevens***

The 2014 MLB season was a pretty bad one for the Chicago Cubs. Even though they were able to get a glimpse of the future with some of the youngsters putting up decent numbers at times, they still finished with just 73 wins. All that being said, optimism is certainly alive and well heading into spring training. The question is, do the Cubs really have a chance at winning the National League Central?

Every single team in the National League Central will go into 2015 feeling like they can win it. The most consistent teams in the last few years have been the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds. All 3 of those teams have made the playoffs at least once in the last 2 years, and they look to be strong on paper heading into the upcoming season. All a person has to do is look around baseball to see that a bad break or two could open things up for challengers.

Chicago will be one of the youngest teams in the game in 2015, and it is their youth that gives plenty of people optimism. Not only does Chicago have the top position prospect in the game in Kris Bryant ready to break out, but guys like Addison Russell and Javier Baez could be major contributors in FanDuel fantasy baseball leagues. Even when you look at their veteran leaders Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, they are only just beginning the prime of their careers.

Pitching is going to be a little bit of a wild card for the Chicago Cubs, but they do feel confident that new free-agent signing Jon Lester will be a very strong ace in the rotation. He has been one of the most consistent left-handed pitchers in the game, and he is also known as a pretty nice guy to have in the clubhouse. He should be able to help bring along some of the younger players on the team as they try to put a contender together.

As of right now, Chicago is loaded with young, promising talent. Some fans might want to see them keep it all together, but chances are at some point Chicago will dangle one or a couple of them as trade bait. If this team is contending by the middle of the year, they could decide to give up one of their younger assets to get a veteran to help down the stretch. Thanks to the way they have built their minor-league system, they can afford to do something like that.

Winning in the National League Central was never going to be easy, and 2015 is no different. Chicago has a new manager in Joe Maddon who has been able to have success with a much smaller payroll in Tampa Bay. He might not be ready to make the Chicago Cubs pennant winners just yet, but it would not be surprised at all to see them right around or even north of .500.

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