I would like to take a moment of silence for my hopes and dreams. Before the season began, we here at Three Up Three Down made a bunch of bold predictions. Mine?
In a quietly brilliant season, the Milwaukee Brewers win the World Series after getting written off all year, shat on by every pundit, and only winning their division by half a game.
Guys. How close did we get to that? I mean this was the team dreams are made of. They had a losing record last season, then added a bunch of people in the off-season that are the baseball equivalent of a shared yawn, and the Brewers looked like they were flying towards remarkable mediocrity, and very fast. Instead? 50-41 entering the All Star Break, and 5.5 games up on the Cubs?! Castoffs from other teams all produced the kinds of seasons those teams could never coax out of them?! I mean look at Travis Shaw. Sure he isn’t gonna win awards for his season, but in the back half? He held down the kind of record the Red Sox would have loved to get out of him. So before we move on to the clearcut winners of the NL Central, I’d like a moment of silence for a team that was as unlikely as the A’s of Moneyball fame, and truly had the potential to make a postseason run, despite everyone’s preseason predictions.
Alright, enough of that. Bring on the Cubbies!
They did it folks. They shrugged off the “World Series Hangover” and clinched the division to head back to the playoffs. And good for them, who doesn’t love the Cubbies? You? You’re wrong. As they head into the postseason, though, I have some points of emphasis.
1. Is their rotation actually….good?
The Cubs have announced their NLDS rotation: Game 1 – Kyle Hendricks, Game 2 – Jon Lester, Game 3 – Jose Quintana, Game 4 – Jake Arrieta.
Let’s break that down for a second.
Kyle Hendricks was always a lock, that dude’s a stud. He’s pitching on par with the best pitchers in the league right now. He’s peaking at the right time and will carry this team far. Game 1, hostile territory, the Cubs need to make a statement, and Hendricks is the best pitcher in this rotation. The Cubs need him to come out guns blazing if they’re going to hold even with this Nationals team. Hendricks can make a statement in Game 1 and solidify himself as one of the premier players in the league. Will he deliver? I honestly don’t know.
Jon Lester is a big ol’ question mark for me. Yes his final two games have been fantastic, 11 innings, 9 hits, 2 walks, 11 strikeouts. That’s a great stat line for any pitcher. But over the course of the season? He’s looked like he has less of that drive and grit that you need to grind out a playoff win. Great since the All-Star break, much less great before (which we could say for the Cubs as a whole, to be fair), I worry that he’s not going to get it done when the Cubs need him the most.
Jose Quintana was always a lock, his blanking of the Brewers in September showed what he’s capable of when it’s all on the line. He’s a fantastic Game 3 pitcher, because he’ll be needed to fill one of two roles. Either the Cubs go to Washington and are outmatched, and they need Quintana to right the ship, or they go to Washington and throw down on the Nats and they need Jose to end it here and now. Which will it be? My bets on the former, have you seen this Nationals Team?
Jake Arrieta’s hamstring injury is concerning, so while I expected them to keep him in the lineup, I definitely expected him to come up in Game 4. He needs as much time as possible to continue to heal if he’s going to have a deep playoff run and be effective for the Cubs. His return from injury was a big exhale of relief for the city of Chicago, who need him to have a big postseason. Everyone’s speaking happily about his progress for returning, but they removed his simulated game the other day and had him throw in the bullpen. That should raise red flags, even if the Cubs are trying to temper the reasonings.
Which leaves someone out in the cold, John Lackey. Gruff ol’ John Lackey at 38 is baseball’s definition of a Miser. He’s grumbly, he’s ornery, and he gives exactly no shits about your feelings. When he was having a bad start to the season he was asked if he thought it likely that he’d get benched. His answer? “That ship has sailed. That ain’t gonna happen. There are two places for me to be: starting or at home, except for the playoffs. In big games we can compromise.” Now we’re in the playoffs, but will they even put him on the roster? The Cubs should be announcing soon, so we’ll see. My money is on yes, he has the experience, he has 3 world series rings, and he’s come out of the Bullpen in a big way before. Hello 2013 Red Sox v. Cardinals.
So is this rotation good? In short, yes. In long? I’m not so sure. I would not call this the strongest rotation to head into the playoffs, and I’d be pretty confident calling it the weakest. There are question marks all over the place, and in the position that holds everything together, the last thing you want is uncertainty.
2. Is their hangover truly over?
Repeats are hard in any sport. It’s hard to be the best consistently in a league where injuries can destroy teams, flukes come out of nowhere, and winning teams have less offseason to recover and prepare. The Cubs didn’t look like winners until the All-Star Break, and then they had to claw to retake the top spot. Some would say that’s called peaking at the right time, I would call that being scrappy, and not liking to be embarrassed. This Cubs team just doesn’t feel like the 2016 Cubs team that had the fire and the grit and the determination. This Cubs team feels like they’re missing something…literally all of the aforementioned adjectives. I’m skeptical that they don’t walk into Washington with a swagger they haven’t earned and walk out getting swept on the road.
3. How do they stack up?
Regular season Nats vs regular season Cubs. Where do they stand?
Chicago – .255 | Washington – .266
Chicago – .775 | Washington – .782
Chicago – .437 | Washington – .449
Chicago – 92-70 | Washington – 97-65
These margins are slim, but in the playoffs, every little bit counts. The Cubs will have to come out guns blazing to hold off a better Washington Nationals team. The key to doing so? Javier Baez. We know what Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo bring to the team, but Baez, to me, was the deciding factor in the 2016 playoffs. His defensive play is fantastic, his bat has been hot. If he can match Bryant and Rizzo’s offensive production, and can play the lights out baseball he’s played all season on defense, then the Cubs will be in a great position to take down Washington.
A caveat here. Because someone will definitely bring it up. The Nationals play in a weak division. I mean tragically weak. The Cubs are in a very very competitive division. After the Nats, the rest of the National League East had a combined record of 285 – 363. Excluding the Cubs, the NL Central combined for 312 – 336. The Brewers and the Cardinals (2nd and 3rd NL Central) records each would have won the East with the 4th place Pirates only missing that same honor by two games. The Cubs had to fight harder to get the stats they did and many would say that means that their parity with the Nationals means they’re actually much, much better. I understand these arguments, I just disagree. Why?
4. Murphy’s Law
History lesson. Who remembers the NLCS series in 2015? Cubs vs. Mets? Cubs just thrashed the Cardinals and were walking in looking like the clear and away World Series favorites? Cubs fans, I hear you putting your heads in your hands, and probably moaning to yourself, “it was that damn Daniel Murphy. It was Murphy who did it.” And you’d be right.
Daniel Murphy came out for the Mets and smoked the Cubs, he had everyone’s number. His batting stats were absurd at .529/.556/1.294 in that series. It doesn’t get much better when you increase the sample size. Against Cubs pitching, in 103 plate appearances, Murphy is .309/.350/.577. Against the starting rotation for this playoff series? Jake Arrieta – .316, Jon Lester – .286, Kyle Hendricks – .267. For good measure, he’s also .350 against John Lackey, should he get busted out.
Oh and Daniel Murphy is also now on the Washington Nationals.
That sounds you just heard was thousands of Cubs fans crying out in horror.
5. The makings of a dynasty
So I know I’ve been sounding the alarm bells a little here. But I really don’t hate the Cubs, in fact I like them a whole lot, and if they’re able to repeat? They’ve created something that Chicago can be super proud of. A dynasty. Sure last year was magical, it was surreal, it was beautiful, it was the kind of sports story we love to love. Dynasties? They’re reviled. Everyone in the country gets jealous and wants what they can’t have. Everyone rooted for the Cubs last year because they were the centurial underdog. Now? If they repeat they become something everyone starts to hate. Chicago should want that. Who doesn’t love feeling like the representation of their city is the best in the business?