Welcome to The Comeback’s Major League Baseball playoff preview series, in which we tell you why each of the teams headed for the postseason has a chance to win it all. We’ve covered Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, the Astros with Justin Verlander, the returning Bryce Harper and the Nationals, Dustin Pedroia and the Red Sox, and the surging Indians led by Corey Kluber. Finishing up our look at the division winners are the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs.
Following a season that featured an MLB-best 103 wins and ended with a world championship, the Chicago Cubs entered 2017 as heavy favorites to win the NL Central. But the Cubs looked flat-out bad in the first half, putting together a 43-45 record and finding themselves 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers at the All-Star break.
The team seemed to be playing to their absolute floor. The starting rotation had a 4.66 ERA. The offense was performing like a below-average unit across the board. Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Maybe it was a World Series “hangover” or maybe it was just the fluky nature of baseball. Whatever the case, a team expected to win 90+ games truly looked like a bad baseball team.
However, the Cubs have since played to their roster talent to end up with 92 wins and their second consecutive NL Central crown.
Could they also get their second consecutive World Series championship? The road to that achievement is much more difficult this time around, but the Cubs have a lot of things going for them to make a repeat possible.
Let’s take a look at some reasons why the Cubs can win another World Series (putting aside just the general randomness of October, of course).
They’re red-hot, and have been for the entire second half
After the very weird, crappy first half, the Cubs quickly kicked things up a notch after the All-Star break. Chicago won their first six games after the All-Star break (with all of those games being on the road), and had an NL-best 49-25 record in the second half (and +127 run differential).
The starting pitching was terrific to the tune of an NL-best 3.36 ERA, with Kyle Hendricks (NL-best 2.19 second-half ERA) and Jake Arrieta (2.28 second-half ERA) leading the charge. The Cubs also acquired Jose Quintana at the trade deadline which certainly helped the rotation depth and production.
.@jose_quintana24's 2nd career shutout and 11th career double-digit strikeout game.
? https://t.co/h1vf1cYDIJ ? pic.twitter.com/muVyN2JoOe
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 24, 2017
But it’s been the offense that has really taken the team to the next level. In the second half, the Cubs led MLB in many offensive categories such as runs scored, on-base percentage, wOBA, and wRC+. Their position players were worth a full 2-WAR more than any other team’s position players in the second half, according to FanGraphs. And part of that was due to their defense, which is again performing like a top-five unit in baseball after being historically special last season.
Since the All-Star break, the Cubs have looked like the juggernaut they were expected to be, and have especially looked great over the last two weeks with two crucial road series against the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals (Cubs won 3 of 4 in both series). The Cubs are playing their best baseball right when you want to be playing your best baseball.
Ben Zobrist: "We’re in postseason mode right now. And we intend to continue that for the next month.”
— Patrick Mooney (@CSNMooney) September 24, 2017
Their position player depth — and star power — is tremendous
One of the Cubs’ main “problems” entering the postseason is figuring out who the hell to play. And it’s pretty much impossible for them to go wrong on that front, with all of the position player options being good ones.
Fans may complain about Jason Heyward playing, but he’s still an elite defensive outfielder with a tolerable .335 on-base percentage vs righties, and he’s looked like a better hitter over the last month (13.6 K%, 12.5 BB%, .793 OPS). Veteran outfielder Jon Jay is a boring choice to play given their assortment of young talent, but he still has a .375 OBP and puts together quality plate appearances vs both righties (.366 OBP) and lefties (.410 OBP). Kyle Schwarber may be a below-average corner outfielder who’s batting .173 vs lefties this season, but he’s also cranked 30 dingers and has an .814 OPS vs righties. Ian Happ may be a rookie with a 31.1 K%, but he also has 24 homers and an .844 OPS as a switch-hitter.
The depth is outstanding, allowing the Cubs to play matchups at every position (Albert Almora and Javy Baez crush lefties, for example), and allowing them to bring in defensive replacements late in games (Heyward, Baez, Almora, etc).
And it’s not just that they have depth, but they of course have stars too. Reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant — somehow quietly — put together another MVP-worthy season.
Bryant hammers a go-ahead homer in the 10th against the Brewers to make it 5-3 pic.twitter.com/uizL8TVcWI
— Heart of MLB (@HeartofMLB) September 22, 2017
Anthony Rizzo finished with an .899 OPS, marking his fourth consecutive season with an .899-.928 OPS. Second-year catcher Willson Contreras had a .993 OPS in the second half and finished the season with 21 home runs (it would’ve been a bit higher if not for a leg injury that sidelined him for several weeks).
Scoring runs off Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez will be extremely difficult, but the Cubs are set up about as well as you can be on paper to potentially have some success.
They have four ace-caliber pitchers
When talking playoff matchups on paper, the main issue for the Cubs is they lack a clear, lockdown ace like a Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, or Max Scherzer.
Then again, Kyle Hendricks has a 2.19 ERA ins the second half, and has a 2.47 ERA over the last past two calendar years which ranks behind only Kershaw for qualified starters.
He’s the same guy that outdueled Kershaw — 7 1/3 shutout innings — to send the Cubs to the World Series last season and started Game 7 of the World Series. And, after sitting 84-86 mph with his fastball for most of the season, Hendricks has seen his velocity climb back up into the high 80s in September. Hendricks currently looks very much like the guy that had a 2.13 ERA in 2016.
Then there’s the annually underrated Jose Quintana. The left-hander a 3.74 ERA and 3.25 FIP in his 14 starts with the Cubs, and has his sixth straight season of at least 3.5-WAR according to FanGraphs (his 3.9 fWAR this season ranks 15th in MLB).
The main question marks are actually with Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, which feels like a very weird thing to say.
In Arrieta’s case, it’s purely health-related. The 2015 NL Cy Young winner suffered a strained hamstring on Sept. 4 and his stuff didn’t look quite as sharp after returning for two starts. Arrieta admitted that the injury altered his mechanics, and the Cubs had him skip his final regular-season start. Given the uncertainty of how his stuff will look and the possibility that some extra rest will help him, the Cubs may wait until Game 3 or 4 of the NLDS to start Arrieta.
And in Lester’s case, it could be health-related as well. The lefty recently missed some time due to shoulder fatigue and lat tightness, and — while he finished with a rock-solid outing on Saturday — his command has still not been quite where it usually is. His velocity has also been down a tick all season. Maybe this is due to him not being 100%, maybe it’s due to him being 33 and having 2,300 innings under his belt, maybe it’s mechanical, and maybe it’s a couple of these things.
So we don’t really know what to expect from Arrieta and Lester, but if they can turn things up a notch with the adrenaline of the playoffs, we know they’re capable of shutting down anybody.
Bullpen issues can be masked in short series
The one disappointment for the Cubs in the second half is something that figured to not be much of an issue after the trade deadline, when they acquired left-hander Justin Wilson from the Tigers. Wilson has been one of the better setup men in baseball over the last few years and was even closing for the Tigers at the time of the trade. But his command has been *awful* with the Cubs, to the point where you’re left wondering if he’s dealing with a case of the yips. Wilson has walked 19 (!) batters in 17 2/3 innings with the Cubs. He’s at least struck out 25 as well, but that command and current unreliability may even keep him off the playoff roster.
The unit as a whole had a big problem with walks in the second half (4.89 BB/9 IP was the worst mark in MLB), and the 4.48 ERA wasn’t pretty either.
But there are two big reasons for optimism on this front when looking to the playoffs.
For one, lefty swingman Mike Montgomery will be in the bullpen, where he’s been terrific since joining the Cubs last July (he even got the final out to win the World Series). Montgomery has a 2.49 ERA in 61 1/3 innings as a reliever this season and is capable of going a few innings multiple times a series if need be.
And, you don’t need many relievers in a short series. If your starters aren’t going deep into games, it’s quite unlikely you’re winning the series anyway. You rely on the starters and your top 3-4 relievers. For the Cubs, that’s Wade Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, and Pedro Strop, who are all good-to-great options.
I can't decide, is this the greatest 97mph Cut Fastball we've ever seen or just the camera angle playing tricks? (h/t @TheBlogfines) pic.twitter.com/d1zmSKvOQy
— Pitcher List (@ThePitcherList) June 18, 2017
It also helps that, like Montgomery, Davis and Edwards (seen above) are capable of going over three outs as Joe Maddon has had them each do over the last two weeks.
The Nats and Dodgers seem (at least a tad) more beatable
The Cubs will be slight underdogs vs the Nats because of Washington’s terrific top-three starters, and they would be slight underdogs vs the Dodgers as well due to Clayton Kershaw and company. However, while still outstanding baseball teams, the Nats and Dodgers seem more vulnerable now than they did for much of the season.
Bryce Harper just returned after missing over a month due to a knee injury, and it’s possible the Nats’ superstar outfielder is a bit rusty. (I’d guess he’ll be just fine, but you never know.) And the big question mark for the Nats is the status of Max Scherzer. The likely 2017 NL Cy Young winner left his start on Saturday with a hamstring injury which Nats manager Dusty Baker says will “probably” affect their playoff rotation.
Dusty on Scherzer affecting NLDS rotation: "Probably. But he's going to be fine. It's just a matter of we got to determine when that is."
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) October 2, 2017
Now, Stephen Strasburg is ridiculous himself and would still give the Nats a Game 1 advantage on paper, but if Scherzer has to be pushed back a few games or isn’t 100%, that could obviously be a big deal.
The Dodgers recently went through a stretch that featured an 11-game losing streak and 16 losses in 17 games. They’re still a great baseball team, but they’re probably not the baseball team that was threatening to win 110+ games for much of the season either. And while Kershaw may still be the best pitcher alive, the LHP-mashing Cubs hit him hard this season (4 1/3 IP, 11 H, 4 ER), and of course hit him hard in Game 6 of the NLCS.
Lastly, they’re the goddamn defending champions
Hey, this has to count for something, right? This team — or at least most of the players involved, along with Joe Maddon and his staff — reached the NLCS in 2015, and then of course won the World Series last season.
Theo: "Our guys love adrenaline. They love big games. They love competition at the highest level. It’s an opportunity to make some history.”
— Patrick Mooney (@CSNMooney) September 28, 2017
We’ll never know how much the playoff — and championship — experience matters, but it certainly can’t hurt, especially when facing a team in the first round that has never won a playoff series.