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
- 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.