Category Archives: Cubs
You all know the narrative by now. The Cubs – the best offensive team in the National League (sorry Rockies – you play in Coors Field) – got stymied over the past couple of weeks by superior left-handed pitching. They had to face the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Matt Moore, Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill and simply could not produce any offense against them. Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist all couldn’t hit, evidenced by a 21 inning scoreless streak, and Cubs fans became increasingly concerned once the Dodgers took a commanding 2-1 lead in the NLCS. In the fourth inning of Game 4, Ben Zobrist laid a bunt down the third base line, reached first base, and the complexion of the series changed for good. The Cubs started to score some runs, rocked the best pitcher on the planet (Clayton Kershaw) and rode their bats to the World Series.
Even with that brutal stretch of hitting, the Cubs have still been arguably the best team in the playoffs with runners in scoring position, slashing .284/.337/.469 and driving in 35 runs in 81 at bats – a big improvement over their regular season performance (albeit in a much smaller sample size). They’ve also been better than the rest of the field when behind in the count, posting a .526 OPS – which would’ve ranked third in the NL this year and is much better than last year’s NL champion New York Mets – and driving in 24 runs in said situations. The biggest key for the Cubs will be to get runs on the board early in games, as the Indians’ starting rotation is depleted by injuries while their bullpen is as good as any we’ve ever seen in a postseason. The Cubs have struggled in a number of games this postseason to score early, but after the way they hit Kershaw early on Saturday, you have to like their chances of building on that trend. And oh, by the way, they’re getting Kyle Schwarber back to DH in Cleveland and pinch hit in Chicago after a miraculous six-month recovery from a torn ACL and LCL. Kirk Gibson, anyone?
On the other side, the Indians are a fantastic offensive team led by two of the best young players in the game (Francisco Lindor – great video on his friendship with Javy Baez – and Jose Ramirez) and three very powerful veterans (Carlos Santana, Mike Napoli and Jason Kipnis – a Northbrook native and former Cubs fan himself). Shutting them down will be no easy feat. The Indians have been great this month at putting up early runs, but they also have not had to face a pitching staff as good or as deep as that of the Cubs. What transforms this Indians’ offense them from simply good to a well-oiled machine is their baserunning.
The Indians were, by far, the best in the AL at baserunning efficiency, and that ability was pivotal in big moments of the first two rounds of the postseason. They are the best in the business at taking the extra base, and they have tremendous speed. Rajai Davis, their leadoff hitter and top platoon player against lefties, led the AL with 43 stolen bases – just two less than the Dodgers had as a team this season. As a whole, the Indians stole 134 bases – good for best in the league – and will try to exploit the slow deliveries of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, as well as Jon Lester’s base-throwing yips. Their habit of taking the extra base on should-be singles and risky tag ups has helped get them to where they are now.
All that said, the Indians now face a team that is historically great on defense, and how the Cubs handle keeping base runners honest and limiting damage in high leverage situations will go a long way in determining who comes out on top.
Advantage: Cubs by the slightest of margins
Before September, the Indians had the best and most formidable starting rotation in the AL. Within three weeks, they lost two top-of-the-rotation starters – Danny Salazar to a forearm strain and Carlos Carrasco to a broken hand. Neither has pitched for the club since hitting the DL, but Salazar has been added to the World Series roster and has a good shot to start in Game 4 on a pitch limit (65-70 pitches). That could either be a good thing or a bad thing for the Indians, and we’ll likely find that out on Saturday night at Wrigley Field.
Here’s how the probable match-ups shape up:
Game 1: Jon Lester (19-4, 2.44) vs. Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.14)
This is the most intriguing pitching matchup the series has to offer, and it’s not particularly close.
Is there any pitcher on the planet right now that you’d rather have starting Game 1 of the World Series over Jon Lester? The Co-MVP of the NLCS is 2-0 this postseason with a 0.86 ERA and 0.76 WHIP in three starts spanning 21 innings. He is cementing his name in franchise and league history with his playoff dominance and now owns a 2.50 ERA in 19 career postseason games (17 starts). Of those 17 starts, he has gone seven innings or more 10 times, has lasted less than six innings only three times and has given up two runs or fewer 11 times. With incredible fastball command and a knack for getting out of stressful situations, Lester has become one of the best postseason pitchers ever; it’s hard not to feel super confident when he’s on the mound.
Opposite Lester, the Indians will be starting the 2014 American League Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, who has been dominant in his own right this postseason with a 0.98 ERA and 20 strikeouts over 18.1 innings. After Clayton Kershaw, he has been the best pitcher in the majors over the past three years by fWAR. He has a nasty breaking ball that some define as a curveball while others define it as a slider. Nevertheless, his “breaking ball” has the most horizontal movement of any slider in baseball, and he got whiffs on 27.7% of them (highest in the league). He also had the third-best cutter in the league this season – a huge weapon for him against lefties – and has great command, owning a top-15 walk rate over the past three years. His fastball, however, is the weakest part of his arsenal, so one can only hope that he somehow gets behind in counts early on and is forced to resort to his fastball for strikes.
Game 2: Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10) vs. Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26)
The Cubs have lost Arrieta’s last three postseason starts, all of which came on the road. He has given up exactly four earned runs in three of his last four such starts and a combined four home runs. Coincidentally, Arrieta’s ERA was nearly a full run better at home (2.62) than on the road (3.59) this season, but he will be taking his talents outside of the Friendly Confines once again (and again in Game 6 if necessary). No, it does not sound promising, but here’s a couple of silver linings: 1) Arrieta has proven he can take over a game at will too many times to count, and 2) Trevor Bauer just isn’t very good.
Oh, Trevor. If you hadn’t heard, Mr. Bauer sliced his right pinky when trying to fix his drone a day before his start against Toronto in the ALCS, got pushed back to Game 3 and bled all over the mound in the first inning before having to come out. Why in god’s name you’d be screwing around with drone blades before the biggest moment of your life that requires throwing a baseball is beyond me, but I digress.
If you dive into the numbers, you will find a very flawed pitcher who has struggled with consistency throughout his four plus-year career. After a killer first half of the season, Bauer got rocked over his last 15 starts, posting a 5.36 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and .270 batting average against. More importantly, he was much worse at home (4.73 ERA) than on the road (3.67 ERA), and that trend continued in Game 1 of the ALDS against Boston when he gave up six hits and two home runs. It’s highly possible Bauer would not be in the playoff rotation had the Indians not suffered any injuries, but there he’ll be, starting Game 2 of the World Series.
Game 3: Josh Tomlin (13-9, 4.40) vs. Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13)
Before Saturday night’s start, Professor Hendricks was coming off his fourth straight meh postseason performance in four tries (four walks and six hits in 5.1 innings, although he gave up only one run), and people began to quietly wonder if he was just going to end up as one of those pitchers who owned the regular season but couldn’t consistently get it done in October. After Saturday night, that BS narrative completely changed, as Hendricks put on one of the most spectacular performances I’ve ever seen in person and led the Cubs to the NL pennant. Even Clayton Kershaw compared him to Greg Maddux. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cubs faced the minimum number of batters in that game, the second time that has happened in a nine-inning game in postseason history. The other instance is Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Hendricks also became the seventh pitcher to toss at least seven scoreless innings to clinch the NLCS. He now owns a 1.65 ERA over 16.1 innings this postseason and will take that with him to Wrigley Field on Friday night.
On the hill for the Indians will be Josh Tomlin who, like Bauer, has had a roller coaster career and never really settled in as a trusted starter until the first half of this season when he went 9-2. But also like Bauer, Tomlin got shelled in the second half of the season, putting up an abysmal 5.59 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and .285 batting average against. He has been borderline fantastic since the start of September, however, having never given up more than two earned runs in any of his six starts in that span. Manager Terry Francona’s hope is to have Tomlin get through just five innings and, given his recent success, that seems to be realistic. The Cubs will have to take advantage of Tomlin’s brutal lefty/righty splits (.229/.247/.424 against lefties; .299/.323/.496 against righties) and his vulnerabilities with runners on base (opponents hit .309/.344/.539 in such situations) if they’re going to get him out of the game any earlier.
Game 4: Danny Salazar (11-6, 3.87) vs. John Lackey (11-8, 3.35)
I’m going to keep this short and sweet. John Lackey – it’s time for you to get your shit together, cowboy. You’re one of the best modern day postseason pitchers. You can yell and pout all you want at your teammates and the umpires for missing a ball or botching a call, but at the end of the day, you’re getting paid $32 million for these very moments, so it’s on you. Command the strike zone, be a leader of men and get your ass through the fifth inning (or god forbid you get through the sixth inning – it’s been over a month) for god’s sake. This will be your final shining moment of the 2016 season, so make it count.
As for Salazar, I touched on him a bit earlier. It’s impossible to know what we’re going to see from him, but I will say that when he’s on, he’s a strikeout machine with some of the best stuff in the league. As a baseball fan, you unfortunately won’t get to see much of it due to his likely shortened start. As a Cubs fan, you can (hopefully) breathe a sigh of relief.
This is the facet of the game that I’ve been losing sleep over. The Indians have hands down the best bullpen in MLB, led by ALCS MVP Andrew Miller – possibly the best relief pitcher in the league over the past few years – whom they acquired at the trade deadline. Miller, like Chapman, came over from the Yankees in a blockbuster trade, and he has been nothing short of sensational. Since September 7, he has yet to give up a run, and in 11.2 postseason innings thus far, he has given up only five hits, two walks and struck out 21 of the 41 batters he has faced. He has one of the game’s very best sliders (just wait until you see this thing), which he throws 60.6% of the time and throws a deadly four-seem fastball the rest of the time. Terry Francona will not shy away from going to Miller early and often as evidenced by his four outings of two or more innings this postseason. On top of that, Francona also has at his disposal the game’s hottest closer in Cody Allen, who has given up just one measly run and has saved 14 games since August 21, as well as the heavily-utilized Bryan Shaw and groundball specialist Dan Otero.
As for the Cubs, I expect that you’re quite familiar with their bullpen by now. It has not necessarily been smooth sailing, as a number of guys struggled while working in unusual roles, namely Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman. The biggest concerns are Rondon, who has a 9.45 ERA over the past three months and seems to have lost Joe Maddon’s trust, and Chapman who, for whatever reason, can’t seem to pitch well in more than one inning and certainly can’t pitch well when inheriting runners. One thing to watch closely is how often he is getting ahead in counts. Check out this chart below from ESPN’s Sam Miller:
Pretty eye-opening, don’t you think? It goes without saying that if and when Chapman gets behind in any counts going forward, I’ll surely have the feeling of wet feces seeping down my leg.
Lastly, C.J. Edwards left Game 4 of the NLCS after experiencing tightness in his hamstring, but it sounded minor and he should be ready to go in Cleveland. He has yet to give up a run in 3.2 scoreless innings, so we’ll need him.
In my NLDS preview against the Giants, I provided an in-depth analysis of just how good this Cubs defense is – probably the best of all time – and I’m sure you noticed if you just started watching more intently this month. With the Indians likely to be very active on the base paths, the Cubs defense will be plenty busy, and it’ll all start up the middle with the magical combination of Javy Baez and Addison Russell.
The Indians are no joke either when they take the field. They ranked second in the AL in defensive efficiency and they were second to the Cubs overall in converting groundballs into outs. Shortstop Francisco Lindor is unquestionably the best player at his position in the AL and could very well be the best defensive player in all of baseball. The Lindor-Kipnis double play combination is top notch. But whereas the Cubs have virtually no weaknesses across the diamond (unless Jorge Soler starts in the outfield), the Indians are fairly weak in the outfield, and their arms will certainly be tested. A big plus for them is catcher Roberto Perez, who does a great job with the pitching staff and rated as the second best pitch framer in the AL this season.
There’s no doubt that my man crush for Joe Maddon is real. Outside of a couple of decisions I questioned (like taking out Jon Lester early in Game 1 of the NLCS), I would trust this man with my life. The life, the attitude and the positive vibes he brings to the clubhouse are intangibles that cannot be measured but have proven invaluable. He earned the nickname “The Mad Genius” for good reason, and it’s not just for his appearance. In my mind, he is the best manager in baseball – except, of course, for the man he’ll be managing against this week.
Terry Francona was Joe Maddon before Joe Maddon. Maybe not as eccentric, but the demeanor and the likeability factor was always second to none. He is a fantastic baseball mind who competed with Maddon for the Red Sox managerial gig in 2003 (interviewed by Theo Epstein, of course), only to seize it and go on to win two World Series championships. He earned himself a heroic reputation in a city that had also been starved of a World Series for the prior 86 years. Francona is 8-0 in the last two fall classics he has managed in, and this season he has guided an Indians team that lost it’s star outfielder, starting catcher and (arguably) top two starting pitchers to the World Series. He has locked himself into the Hall of Fame and deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one.
After having my heart broken too many times to count, I’ve gone through 27 years of my life with a pessimistic outlook on the Cubs, almost always seeing the glass half-empty. But today, I sit before you with more confidence than I’ve ever had. The Cubs are going to win the World Series. I truly believe that. There’s something magical going on right now. This is our year. This is our time.
Prediction: Cubs in 5
How fast time flies. Seems like yesterday when I experienced one of the greatest moments of my life as I watched the Cubs clinch their first NLCS berth in 12 years at Wrigley Field. We all know what she wrote next, but even after a sweep at the hands of the Mets, the season went as well as anyone could’ve expected. The Cubs were back – a lurking juggernaut ready to take over the baseball landscape for years to come.
Here we are, one year later, and the Cubs finished the 2016 season with 103 wins and wrapped up the NL Central division two weeks early. Five years ago, I never thought I’d see that day. The thing about baseball, though, is that come Friday night, those 103 wins and that division title mean nothing whatsoever. Baseball is more random than any sport, where shitty players can become unsung heroes and great players can become scapegoats in the blink of an eye. The best team seldom wins. It’s a clean slate, and everyone is back to a level playing field.
Over the past 36 hours, the supernatural nightmare that every Cubs fan deals with has worsened significantly. The Billy Goat Curse is one thing, but the “Even Year” Theory is a whole other, what with the Giants getting hot at the right time and looking poised to win another World Series in an even year. No one wants to play this Giants team, but no one wants to play this Cubs team, either. The Cubs were the best team in the league all season – maybe the best Cubs team ever assembled (anyone born before 1900 want to prove me wrong?) – while the Giants nearly became the first team ever to have the best record in the first half of a season and miss the playoffs entirely. The time is now for the Cubs to write the wrongs of the previous 108 years and solidify themselves as one of the best teams of all time. Will they rise to the occasion, or fall victim to the supernatural and wilt under pressure? I’m very excited yet very nervous to find out.
Let’s get to the matchup.
By all accounts, the Cubs had the best offense in the National League this season. Led by MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, they finished second to the Rockies in runs scored (808) and OPS (.772), first in walk rate (10.4%) and 10th in strikeout rate (21.1%). For some perspective, the Cubs scored 119 runs more runs than last year and struck out 221 fewer times, emphasizing how much better this team is offensively compared to the 2015 version. They also were, by far, better than any time at avoiding double plays, posting the highest double play efficiency in the league.
The Giants, though, are no slouches either. What they lack in power (only 130 home runs total without anyone hitting over 17), they make up for in patience and grit. They posted a 9.1% walk rate and struck out in only 17.7% of their plate appearances – far less than any team in the league. Just like the Cubs, they grind away during every at bat, placing near the top of the league in pitches per plate appearance and regularly pushing opposing pitchers out of games early. Mainstay catcher Buster Posey is the Giants’ most dangerous hitter in this context, as he very rarely strikes out and regularly puts the ball in play. You saw the Giants do this exact thing against the Mets by forcing Noah Syndergaard out of the game before the eighth inning and feasting on their bullpen to win.
If you think back to last year, you might remember that the Cubs were one of the worst teams in the majors at hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP). This year, however, they improved a lot, jumping from the bottom tier to the middle by slashing .252/.351/.420 compared to the Giants’ .250/.328/.378 line. The two guys to watch here are the aforementioned Rizzo and Giants right fielder Hunter Pence, as they are each team’s most clutch hitter and biggest run producer. Rizzo led the league in plate appearances with RISP and hit .344 in such situations, while Pence hit .321 in far less appearances due to injury. The Cubs are still weak at producing with RISP with two outs, but they have been better than the Giants there as well.
It will be very interesting to see how Joe Maddon continues to juggle the never-ending lineup combinations at his disposal. Assuming he’s healthy, and given his incredible success last October (7-for-19 with three homers and five RBI), I’d anticipate we’ll see Jorge Soler in the lineup and playing left field when a lefty is on the mound (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Moore). Against righties, expect to see Kris Bryant starting in left field and Javier Baez at third base. Whatever the case may be, the Cubs were a far superior team at the plate this season, and their lineup is absolutely loaded from top to bottom. When Jason Heyward finally breaks out, just remember that you heard it here first (and forget you heard that here when he continues to suck).
As I’ll explain later, the Cubs defense is a major reason why the starting rotation holds the lowest ERA (2.96), lowest BABIP (.252), highest strand rate (78.6%) and highest win probability added in the league, all by very wide margins. They also have a top-three K-BB%. Statistically speaking, the Giants rotation has been a step or two behind, but that’s all about to change. Let’s get to the matchups.
Game 1: Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79) vs. Jon Lester (19-4, 2.44)
For the majority of his career, Johnny Cueto has been a bona fide ace, and that has not changed since he signed with the Giants last winter. The problem for everyone else in the league is that he’s locked in as the number two starter in their rotation. He had a really strange 2015 season, as he got traded from Cincinnati to Kansas City in July, had the worst couple of months of his career, got shellacked throughout the playoffs and then threw a complete game shutout in the World Series. Because the Cubs are so familiar with Cueto (he has 24 starts against them in his career), it would not surprise me to see the Cubs get to him, as he’s proven capable of imploding. But given his recent success (1.78 ERA in September) and Cy Young-caliber season, it’s safe to assume that he’ll pitch very well.
Lester, of course, was perhaps the best pitcher in the NL this season and had what same say was the best season of his 11-year career. He’s coming off an epic second half (10-1, 1.76 ERA, 0.93 WHIP) and an even better September (5-0, 0.48 ERA, 0.69 WHIP) that led to an NL Pitcher of the Month award. Lester was also phenomenal at home this season, and I don’t see that changing Friday night. There is no one in the Cubs rotation that I trust more than Lester, and his career 2.85 ERA in the postseason has allowed me to sleep like a baby this week.
Game 2: Jeff Samardzija (12-11, 3.81) vs. Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13)
Welcome back, Jeff Samardzija. After a brutal June/July (shocking, I know), Shark settled down and ended up finishing the season very strong. However, in his lone start against the Cubs on September 1, they attacked him in the early going and forced him out of the game by the fifth inning. Like with Cueto, the Cubs are very familiar with Samardzija’s stuff since he, ya know, played for them for seven years. When he’s off, he’s off. When he’s on, he’s decent. He instills no fear in me and should instill no fear in you.
I’m sure you all are aware of Kyle Hendricks’ fairytale season up until this point, so I won’t harp it on much. Precision is Hendricks’ trademark, and after posting a league-leading 2.13 ERA and 24.9% soft-hit rate, Hendricks’ (silent) confidence is through the roof. He owns the best changeup in baseball, and his 1.32 ERA at Wrigley Field was likely one of the driving forces behind Joe Maddon’s decision to start him in Game 2. All of the above gives me reason to believe that this game is going to be all Cubs.
Game 3: Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10) vs. Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74)
This is the matchup that will keep Cubs fans up at night. If you are unaware with Bumgarner’s work up until now, then I don’t even know how you stumbled across a baseball-related article, let alone this one. But at just 27 years of age, Bumgarner is already being considered by many to be the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, and his start against the Mets on Wednesday night only added to his legend. In 54.2 postseason innings on the road, Bumgarner has a 0.50 ERA; in 23 win-or-go-home postseason innings, he has yet to give up a single run (yes, this game will be in San Francisco, but that stat is too ridiculous to not mention). He has been an integral part (and in one case, nearly the only part) of three World Series-winning teams, and he never, ever seems to let the moment get to him. It is appalling what he has been able to accomplish, and you have to expect that any game he pitches will result in a loss for the opponent – he’s just that absurdly good in October.
Arrieta concerns me more than any player on the roster, and for good reason. No one expected him to live up to his 2015 season since what he did had never been done before, but he has been pedestrian at best since mid-June and has not looked the same. His walk rate was way up this season (9.6% vs. 5.5% last season), as his command and control haven’t consistently been there for him. He has made it a habit of getting behind in the count, which has not allowed him to throw his nasty slider/cutter effectively. There’s also the belief that Arrieta has been slightly over-rotating during his delivery, which might be nothing but could be something. Nevertheless, if the Cubs lose one of the first two games in the series, they could be in some serious trouble as they head to San Francisco with Madison Bumgarner waiting. That scares the shit out of me.
Game 4: John Lackey (11-8, 3.35) vs. Matt Moore (6-5, 4.08)
Matt Moore was once a highly touted pitcher coming up through the Tampa Bay Rays system, but he has never been the same since his Tommy John surgery in 2014. The Rays gave up on him this season and sent him to the Giants at the trade deadline, where he’s had yet another up and down season. A 3.16 ERA in August rose to 6.56 in September, and it’s hard to say which Moore will show up on a given night. It’s worth noting, though, that although Moore has never pitched against the Cubs, they are the best team in the NL against lefties, and Moore has a tendency to give up homers as well.
John Lackey is an October warrior, and he was brought to Chicago on a two-year deal for this very moment. He has a career 3.11 ERA in the postseason and has pitched in and won multiple World Series games. The man didn’t come here for a haircut – he came here for jewelry. He came here to get it on. Gotta feel great about Game 4.
The Cubs and Giants have the two deepest rotations in the postseason, but having Madison Bumgarner, even if it ends up being for just one game, pushes the needle too far for me. Because of him, the slight edge (and it’s slight)
goes to the Giants.
The Giants’ bullpen is an absolute mess. They led the league in blown saves (30), including nine in September, which nearly cost them a postseason appearance. Per ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, the Giants lost more games (nine) that they entered the ninth inning with a lead than any team in baseball – five of which came in September. They lost 10 games that they led by three or more runs, most in the major leagues. They have flip-flopped closers multiple times, going from Sergio Romo to Santiago Casilla back to Romo. As mentioned earlier, the Cubs are amongst the best in the league at grinding at-bats and forcing starting pitchers out of games early. If they can continue to emphasize patience at the plate, the Cubs will force Bruce Bochy to go to his bullpen early and often, which could very well end up being the key to the entire series.
The Cubs’ bullpen, on the other hand, has been consistently good all season. As expected, The addition of Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline has been a massive one. In 26.2innings, Chapman saved 16 games and owns a miniscule 1.01 ERA with 46 K’s and only 12 hits allowed. His 101+ MPH fastball combined with his 91-92 MPH slider makes him nearly unhittable; once he gets the ball, it’s game-set-match.
That said, not everything has been sunshine and rainbows with this unit. Setup man Hector Rondon came out hot after a DL stint for a strained triceps back in August, but he has given up seven earned runs in his last 2.2 innings and finished the month of September with an 8.53 ERA; Pedro Strop missed six weeks in August/September recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and has only 3.2 innings under his belt since coming back; Travis Wood got rocked by righties this year and turned himself into a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy) for the first time in his career; C.J. Edwards, who looked otherworldly in the first half of the season, had a rough final two months of the season (6.00 ERA in August, 5.79 ERA in September). And yet, I’m not too worried about any of this, and after the second halves Justin Grimm and Mike Montgomery had, the seven of these guys still form arguably the most formidable bullpen in the playoffs.
With respect to Yadier Molina, catcher Buster Posey (catcher) and defending Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford are the two best defensive players in the NL at their respective positions and are the odds-on favorites to win Gold Gloves this season. Crawford, who was second in the NL in defensive runs saved, forms a dynamic double-play combination with second baseman Joe Panik. The outfield trio of Hunter Pence, Denard Span and Angel Pagan was expected to be above average, but each of them regressed this season. Given the experience they all have in the postseason, expect each of them to step it up again.
As for the Cubs, well, they may have the greatest defense of all time. 22-year old Addison Russell has continued to make his case for best shortstop in the NL but trails Crawford for now; Javier Baez is the league’s most valuable swiss army knife, playing plus-defense at three different positions (second base, third base, shortstop); right fielder Jason Heyward a lock to win his fourth Gold Glove in five years; Dexter Fowler has turned himself into an above average center fielder, by FanGraphs standards, by playing a bit deeper this season; and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who combines fearlessness with grace as well as anyone in baseball, is the most valuable first basemen (from a defensive standpoint) with his league-leading 11 defensive runs saved.
Per Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs, as a whole, led the Major Leagues in Defensive Efficiency by a ridiculous margin. Their score of .745 is the highest by any team since 1982 (San Diego). The gap between the Cubs and the second-ranked Blue Jays is higher than the gap between the Blue Jays and the 27th-ranked Mets. Is that even real? Seems impossible, but I can assure you that it’s not.
Joe Maddon is the f***ing man. He is absolutely incredible at managing a bullpen, developing talent, building a great culture and putting players in the best position to succeed. But as great as he is at all of these things, there is no way he can get the edge here over Bruce Bochy. Bochy has won three World Series championships in the past six years, and he always seems to push the right buttons. Until proven otherwise, Bochy is the best manager in baseball. Period.
Of the three potential Wild Card teams, the Giants were the one team that no one wanted to face. Naturally, it turned out the exact way no Cubs fan wanted it to, but at least the “be careful what you wish for” saying can get tossed out the window. I truly believe the winner of this series will end up getting to the World Series. The Cubs will to find a way to win this one, but it won’t be without some gray hairs and a series of heart attacks.
Prediction: Cubs in 5
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
- 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.
Scott Kazmir, SP, Oakland 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, RP, Oakland 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.
Cole Hamels, SP, Philadelphia 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.
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.
Jeff Samardzija, SP, Chicago 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.
***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.
“It’s not often you get to win the lottery. We won the baseball lottery. It’s up to us now to put it in effect.” – Cubs Manager Joe Maddon.
Jon Lester was the Golden Ticket of the 2014 off-season. The prized lefty seemingly entertained more suitors than Penelope after the Trojan War. The Cubs came out victorious, beating the Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers, among others, to secure Lester’s services.
What’s so strange about the outcome is what the other three franchises have in common that the Cubs do not: success. Boston, San Francisco and L.A. have reached the postseason a combined eight times from 2009-2014, including four World Series titles. The Cubs on the other hand have missed the playoffs the past six seasons and finished with a losing record the past five.
The Cubs were clearly the odd-man out in that group when it came to on-field success. Yet Lester, who could have gone anywhere he wanted, chose Chicago. Why? We can’t discount the money, a reported $155 million over six years, including a $30 million signing bonus. The total could go up to $170 million with a vesting option for the 2021 season. The Giants offer for Lester added a guaranteed seventh year around $168 million. Boston’s offer was considerably less at six years and $135 million.
But let’s be honest. This is Monopoly money territory. A few million dollars when you are already up private-plane range is negligible. If money was the only thing that spoke to Lester, he would’ve taken the highest guaranteed cash in the San Francisco deal, knowing that at almost 31 years old, this would be his last major contract. If comfort and familiarity was the deciding factor, Boston would have made the most sense as he played almost his entire career there, and he has said how much he loves the city and fans. But Lester chose Chicago. The North Side became a destination for a high profile free agent for the first time since Alfonso Soriano signed with the club in 2006 (hopefully this deal works out A LOT better than that one did).
Lester’s signing represents a fundamental shift in not only where the Cubs rebuilding plan is headed, but how players perceive the plan. Cubs President Theo Epstein is always the smartest guy in the room and his relationship with Lester dating back to their Boston days undoubtedly played a role in signing the ace. But the ultimate pitch to Lester would have been simple: come to Chicago to make history. Because we are ready.
Theo Epstein has preached patience since taking over the Cubs reigns in 2011.
His plan continues to head in the right direction.
Patience has been the hardest part. Not only for the fans (after all, 106 years of losing means patience is basically a sixth sense), but I’m sure for the front office, too. Theo Epstein arrived in Boston in 2003. The Red Sox broke the curse of the Bambino a season later. He helped them win the World Series again in 2007. There was no “rebuild”, just a hefty remodel based on Sabermetric principles that Epstein and Co. were some of the first to adopt.
When Epstein took over on the North Side in 2011, bringing trusted confidant Jed Hoyer over from San Diego to be his GM, the Cubs had just finished back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in six years, and things were only going to get worse before they got better. That’s not easy to say to a franchise as mired in futility as the Cubs. We are more than worn out by losing, and you are going to promise us even more? “Wait Till Next Year” became “Wait Till Five Years From Now, Then We’ll See.” It is a hard sell anywhere, but especially on the North Side.
Epstein, however, created hope out of the bleak immediate picture. He had the Wunderkind charm and winning pedigree, but even more so than his personal accolades, he had this: a plan.
“There are no shortcuts in baseball,” Epstein said in his introductory press conference. He wasn’t going to lie to fans or hide the truth; the next several years were going to be more about building for the future than winning in the present. There would be a light at the end of the tunnel, but it would involve an Andy Dufresne-esque trudge through 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness to get there.
Cubs fans often feel like Andy Dufresne trying to escape their fate through a dark tunnel of crap.
That meant three-straight seasons of 89+ losses and attendance that dipped to 2,642,682 in 2013, the lowest in 15 years. It meant passing on high-profile free agents and selling off some of your best players mid-season. But through all the meaningless late-summer afternoons on Clark and Addison, hope persisted. Hope with names like Rizzo, Castro and Bryant. Soler, Baez, Russell. Almora, Alcantara, Schwarber. Hope suddenly looked less like a Christmas wish list, and more like a lineup card smattered with home runs, gold gloves and high on-base percentages. And to quote “Shawshank” once more, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
But if the batting order looked like a future all-star team, the rest of the foundation had holes to cover up. The first fix came last month when Joe Maddon fled Tampa Bay for the Windy City, offering to buy everyone drinks upon arrival. Many in baseball view the quirky, cerebral Maddon and his trademark thick-rimmed glasses as the best manager in baseball. It was a huge, unexpected coup for the Cubs, and they knew it. The rebuilding timeline suddenly shifted. The manager was in place, the young hitters would be ready to steadily make waves in the majors; all that was missing was a top-of-the-line ace to lead a pitching staff with emerging players like Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. Enter Jon Lester.
Joe Maddon is fit to lead the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945.
In the aftermath of the Steroid Era, baseball is flush with dominant pitching. Top-of-the-line hitters are suddenly at a premium. So Epstein and the rest of the Cubs brass rightfully stockpiled their minor league system with bats, using first round picks on Kyle Schwarber (2014), Kris Bryant (2013), Albert Almora (2012) and Javier Baez (2011), signing international studs Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara, and trading last year’s ace Jeff Samardzija for top prospect Addison Russell.
The method to the Cubs madness was simple: build the farm system back up with as many quality hitters as possible, knowing that impactful bats are more difficult to come by through free agency and trades because teams are locking up their young hitters with long-term deals (see Stanton, Giancarlo). But since the game is overflowing with solid arms, the surplus meant you could always go buy a pitcher when the time was right. It would surely cost you, but the Cubs play in Chicago, not Milwaukee. They are in the third largest market in the country, and money should not be an obstacle. So after carefully and frugally knocking down the team’s walls (both figuratively and literally) and managing their money like a small-market club, the time to break out the pocket books arrived.
That’s what the acquisition of Jon Lester signifies. It means the Cubs can immediately field a competitive ball club for the first time since 2009 and the long road toward relevancy has arrived. Look, the Kansas City Royals went from missing the playoffs for 29 straight seasons to making the World Series. With the added Wild Card team, one-third of the league now makes the playoffs. There is no reason to believe the Cubs can’t compete for a postseason spot THIS season. 2015 used to be a pipe dream. 2016 and beyond was always the realistic target. But with Lester, Maddon, the young core of hitters ready to burst onto the scene and maybe another major move or two this Winter, the Cubs’ “plan” has accelerated up a year, if not more. Nothing needed to be compromised to get here. Chicago just became a landing spot for some of the best at their respective positions in the game.
“Every opportunity to win is sacred,” Epstein said when he addressed the Chicago media for the first time 38 months ago. Will the Cubs suddenly make a Royals-like jump to the World Series? In just one year, that’s highly doubtful. Not every move will pay off. Not every young stud will pan out. But the opportunity to win is finally here.
After waiting as long as Cubs fans have, the Promised Land may be closer than we think.
The City of Broad Shoulders’ Adam Levy and Josh Frydman team up for another COBS Podcast, dissecting the Cubs deadline deals, including the Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano trades, and what other moves might be coming.
Listen Here: COBS PODCAST CUBS DEADLINE DEALS
Another year, another starting pitcher fire sale on the north side. For the second consecutive July, the Cubs have managed to trade away two of their best starting pitchers to a contender looking to beef up its rotation in the midst of a pennant race: Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm last season, Scott Feldman and Matt Garza this season.
As evidenced over the past two years, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have a clearcut plan for how they want to rebuild this franchise, and it’s simple: take low-risk, mediocre-reward fliers on decent free agent starters by signing them to one year deals with the hope that Chris Bosio can help turn around their careers before trading them for prospects at the deadline (Maholm and Feldman); trade top of the rotation pitchers with expiring contracts for as much as they can possibly get (Dempster, Garza); trade shitty contracts, compliments of Jim Hendry, for a bag of cracker jacks (Carlos Zambrano, Geovany Soto, Carlos Marmol and hopefully Alfonso Soriano); draft hard-working players with superior leadership qualities and great character (Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who counts here because Jed Hoyer has brought him to all three organizations he has worked for); and stay active in the international market by adding to their loads of bonus money via trades and acquiring top-notch talent (Jorge Soler, Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez).
Of course, sticking to such a rebuild plan isn’t as easy as it sounds; it takes an extraordinary amount of time, patience and baseball intelligence before the dividends begin to pay off. Fortunately, Epstein and Hoyer possess all three (time by ownership’s standards), and they have yet to be fooled by anyone (except maybe Edwin Jackson). The Garza trade is yet another example of their major rebuild plan coming to fruition, and Cubs fans are finally starting to gain some excitement as they’ve begun to spot that small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Who have the Cubs acquired from Texas in exchange for Garza’s services, you ask? Let’s find out.
Mike Olt, 3B
Once upon a time (like last winter), Mike Olt was one of the top prospects in all of baseball (#16 in MLB’s prospect rankings before the 2012 season, #22 in Baseball America’s prospect rankings before this season). The soon-to-be 25-year-old third baseman out of the University of Connecticut has unbelievable raw power (“probably grade-70 on the 20-80 scouting scale,” according to ESPN’s Keith Law) from the right side of the plate. He finished his 2012 Double-A campaign with 28 homers, 17 doubles and 82 RBIs in 354 at-bats (that’s one homer every 12.6 at-bats) before getting called up to the big leagues and struggling mightily. He is also an exceptional, MLB-ready infielder who could provide steady defense at the hot corner – he just never really got a real chance with Adrian Beltre holding the fort down in Texas. Although there’s a whole lot to like about Olt, there’s also a whole lot to be skeptical about.
For starters, Olt has had recurring vision issues since sustaining a concussion during the Dominican Winter League in November. It’s easy to say that any rest and treatment he received should help bring him back to full health soon enough, but with concussions, you just never know. Justin Morneau won AL MVP in 2006 and was consistently one of the top hitters in baseball for years – until he got hit in the head and missed the entire second half of the 2010 season. Since then, Morneau has been on and off the DL a number of times with post-concussion symptoms and vision issues, and he’s nowhere near a shell of his old self. One can only pray that the same doesn’t happen to Olt.
In addition, Olt strikes out a lot. He struck out 101 times in 354 at-bats and led the Rangers Double-A squad in K% last season (24.0%), and he led their Triple-A squad with 89 strikeouts before being traded Monday. The latter may have more to do with the visionary issues he was experiencing early on in the season than anything else, but with Rizzo, Castro and Soriano (plus Javier Baez down on the farm) all continuing to strike out at high rates, there are only so many strikeouts a man of my patience can withstand.
It’s difficult to say right now whether or not Olt will turn out to be the guy that everyone expected him to be at the Major League level, which is a 25-30 homer guy. Since coming off the DL in Triple-A, he’s hitting .247/.353/.506, with 57 strikeouts in 186 plate appearances, a decent preview of what most scouts expect to see in the majors, only with a bit more contact as his vision (hopefully) nears 100%. If he can get healthy (and stay healthy) and begin to show off the power that scouts had grown accustomed to seeing, there’s no reason to think Olt won’t be wearing Cubbie blue in September; if not, then my previously negative feelings towards him will revert back, and the future of this significantly older prospect will begin to look murky.
C.J. Edwards, RHP
The wild card. A former 48th round pick, the 21-year-old Edwards has been absolutely killing it at Class-A Hickory this season. “The String Bean Slinger” was, quite incredibly, first discovered by a then-future Rangers scout who happened to see him pitch several years ago for a predominantly African-American league comprising adults from communities in the part of the state in which he lived (Prosperity, S.C.).
All Edwards has done since receiving a $50,000 signing bonus from the Rangers is completely dominate. In the 2012 Arizona Fall League, he threw 20 scoreless innings while striking out 25, walking six and giving up just six hits. In the 2012 Northwest League (Spokane), during short-season A-ball, he posted a 2.11 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 47 innings. In low-class Hickory this year, he has put up a 1.83 ERA while fanning an outrageous 122 batters in 93.1 innings (11.8 K/9). He also has yet to allow a single home run during his professional career. The track record may be limited, but Edwards has very high upside as a potential top- or middle-of-the rotation starter. Here is a breakdown of his arsenal, via Keith Law:
He has easy plus velocity, 90-96, with an above-average to plus curveball with good depth and 12-to-6 break, and a developing changeup that projects as average to slightly above… He’s aggressive and throws strikes, with a little life on the fastball, and probably could go to high-A at this point given how well he’s dominated low-A.
Law goes on to point out that, amongst all these positive traits, lies the issue that, at 6-foot-2, 155 pounds, Edwards’ slight build could very easily lead to durability problems. He’ll need to put on some weight as he progresses up the minor league ladder. For now, though, Edwards is the guy Cubs fans should be most intrigued by.
Justin Grimm, RHP
Since being called up to the Majors last season, Grimm has been nothing but horrendous (outside of this past April, when he posted a 1.59 ERA in 17 IP). He has a career 6.73 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 19 starts (and 22 appearances) across 103 innings. Grimm had some very good minor league stints, but due to his very weak change-up, his two-pitch repertoire (fastball and curveball) has been a serious problem for him. Grimm’s ceiling is as a mid-rotation guy, but some project him as a swingman or middle reliever, unless he can improve upon that repertoire (a more in-depth scouting report can be found here). He should be in line to get some starts for the Cubs this season, so we’ll see how he fares during the next two and a half months against National League lineups.
Two Players to be Named
Would it kill the front offices to let us know who these players are already? Throw me a friggin’ bone here.
Some may be disappointed in this package; others may be ecstatic. It really all depends on one’s feelings about Olt. After years and years of heartbreak and fallen hope, the pessimistic Cub fan in me was a bit disappointed in this trade solely because of my fear for Olt’s inability to get healthy and eventually become the player he once was. He has incredible potential; if he pans out, this trade will one day be looked at as a turning point in the Cubs’ rebuild, as a future roster of Rizzo (1B), Javier Baez (INF), Starlin Castro (INF), Olt (3B), Bryant (LF), Almora (CF), Soler (RF) and Junior Lake (somewhere) is a realistic possibility. If he doesn’t, then mostly everything will ride on the very young, very raw C.J. Edwards to maximize the value of this trade package. Regardless, whatever our feelings are now will have no impact on whatever happens in the future; this was undoubtedly the best return the Cubs were going to get for Garza. All we should do is look towards that future optimistically and hope the annual July fire sale on the north side will finally come to a halt sooner rather than later.