NLDS 2016: Giants vs. Cubs Position by Position Breakdown, Predictions

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistOctober 7, 2016

NLDS 2016: Giants vs. Cubs Position by Position Breakdown, Predictions

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The National League Division Series field is set after the San Francisco Giants knocked off the New York Mets in the Wild Card Game, setting up the Giants for an NLDS meeting with the Chicago Cubs.

    Madison Bumgarner put the Giants on his shoulders once again in the elimination game, twilring a four-hit shutout to improve his already legendary postseason resume.

    Now the Giants will have to take on baseball's best team, as the Cubs wrapped up the regular season at 103-58 with a staggerling plus-252 run differential.

    The Cubs took the season series 4-3, taking three of four at home in September after dropping two of three at AT&T Park in May.

    This NLDS matchup will begin Friday at Wrigley Field in Chicago, with first pitch of Game 1 scheduled for 9:00 p.m. ET.

    Before the series gets underway, let's take a position-by-position look at how the two teams match up and make a quick prediction for who will come out on top.


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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    David Ross67.229.78438610322401.7
    Miguel Montero 86.216.684528833331-0.3
    Buster Posey146.288.7961553314808264.7

    Position Overview

    Cubs manager Joe Maddon has done a nice job shuffling three different catchers in and out of the lineup this season.

    David Ross and Miguel Montero have more or less been the personal catchers to Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, respectively, with things spread around with the rest of the rotation. Willson Contreras has claimed his piece of the pie with a strong showing at the plate as a rookie.

    Contreras will likely be relegated to pinch-hit and double-switch duties during the postseason, as Ross and Montero continue to split starting duties in an effort to keep them both fresh.

    On the other side, the Giants have the best all-around catcher in the game in Buster Posey.

    It was a down year by his standards, as his OPS dipped below .800 for the first time since 2011, and he failed to reach 15 home runs for the first time ever over a full season of at-bats.

    However, he still hit a solid .287 with runners in scoring position and was a stud on defense, throwing out 37 percent of would-be base stealers and ranking as the best pitch-framer in baseball, per StatCorner.

    Rookie Trevor Brown will be his backup, but he likely won't see the field unless he's pinch-hitting.

    Edge: Giants

    Ross has been incalculably important as a leader, and Montero is capable of turning one around and going deep at any time, but this is a pretty easy choice.

First Baseman

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    Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Anthony Rizzo155.292.92817043321099435.7
    Brandon Belt156.275.8681494117827704.3

    Position Overview

    Anthony Rizzo will likely finish behind teammate Kris Bryant in NL MVP voting, but a strong case can be made that he deserves to be in the top five in balloting as well.

    The 27-year-old finished fourth in voting a year ago and put together a markedly better season in 2016 with new career highs in average (.292), OPS (.928), hits (170), doubles (43), home runs (32) and RBI (109).

    Rizzo is the Cubs' leader on the field, and he's already established himself as one of the game's premier run producers as he enters his prime.

    Brandon Belt signed a shiny new five-year, $72.8 million extension back in April, then went out and put together his best season to date, earning his first All-Star nod in the process.

    The 28-year-old led the team in doubles (41) and home runs (17) while finishing second to shortstop Brandon Crawford in RBI (82).

    Belt moved into the No. 2 spot in the lineup during the final weeks of the season after hitting third for much of the year, and that has really sparked the Giants' offense.

    Edge: Cubs

    Belt is one of the more underrated all-around players in baseball, but Rizzo is a bona fide superstar.

Second Baseman

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    Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Ben Zobrist 147.272.8311423118769463.8
    Joe Panik 127.239.6951112110626751.1

    Position Overview

    What a signing Ben Zobrist has turned out to be for the Cubs.

    Looking to add a veteran presence and more on-base ability to the lineup, Zobrist agreed to a four-year, $56 million deal in free agency.

    The 35-year-old wound up posting a .386 on-base percentage, his best mark since 2009, while spending most of the season hitting in the cleanup spot where he drove in 76 runs, the third-most of his career.

    Zobrist generally moves to left field when Kyle Hendricks is on the mound, with manager Joe Maddon preferring to have Javier Baez at second base behind the ground-ball machine. He'll be in the starting lineup somewhere for every game, though.

    Joe Panik was an All-Star in 2015 when he hit .312/.378/.455 over 432 plate appearances, but his numbers are down across the board.

    His triple-slash line has dipped to .239/.315/.379, and he missed roughly a month in the middle of the season after suffering a concussion.

    The 25-year-old hit just .215 with a .648 OPS after returning from that concussion on July 28, and a start for Kelby Tomlinson at second or Wild Card Game hero Conor Gillaspie at third base with Eduardo Nunez sliding over to second is not out of the question.

    Edge: Cubs

    Another fairly easy choice, as Zobrist has the edge in experience, regular-season production and importance to his team.

Third Baseman

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    Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Javier Baez142.273.73711519145950123.4
    Eduardo Nunez141.288.75815924166773402.3

    Position Overview

    It will come as a surprise to some to not see Kris Bryant highlighted here at third base, as he played 107 games there during the regular season.

    While Bryant will certainly man the hot corner at some point, there's no question the Cubs' best lineup features Javier Baez in some capacity. With that in mind, expect to see Baez at third and Bryant in left field as the go-to lineup in October.

    Baez bounced all over the infield during the regular season and racked up 17 defensive runs saved in the process.

    "I just like to put him where the most action may be," manager Joe Maddon told reporters. "He really provides a lot of coverage on slow rollers. He’s got the arm. He’s got the flair."

    Baez managed to tally 450 plate appearances in his super-utility role, flashing a good mix of power and speed with 34 extra-base hits and 12 steals.

    For the Giants, deadline pickup Eduardo Nunez will look to return to action after being sidelined since Sept. 25 with a strained hamstring.

    He's already been ruled out for Game 1, according to Alex Pavlovic of CSN Bay Area.

    Nunez posted a .744 OPS with 16 extra-base hits and 13 stolen bases in his 50 games with the Giants, replacing the departed Matt Duffy as the everyday third baseman.

    Unlikely hero Conor Gillaspie will be the leading candidate to start as long as he continues to watch from the sidelines, with utility infielder Kelby Tomlinson also capable of manning the hot corner.

    Edge: Cubs

    If Nunez were 100 percent, this would be close, but the dynamic Baez gets the edge over a third base situation that is up in the air for the Giants.


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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Addison Russell151.238.7381252521956754.3
    Brandon Crawford155.275.7721522812846774.5

    Position Overview

    More than a few people were upset when Addison Russell found his way into the NL's starting lineup for the All-Star Game, but the 22-year-old has had a terrific season.

    While the .238 avearge doesn't look great, he's made up for it with a solid approach that includes a 9.2 percent walk rate and a knack for coming up with the big hit out of the No. 5 spot in the batting order.

    Meanwhile, his 19 DRS were tied for the most among shortstops, and he has a strong case for NL Gold Glove honors at one of the most demanding defensive positions on the field.

    However, it just so happens that the other shortstop with 19 DRS will be his counterpart in this series, Brandon Crawford.

    Crawford didn't match the 21 home runs he slugged a year ago, but he did set personal bests in batting average (.275), on-base percentage (.342) and hits (152) while leading the Giants in RBI (84) and leading the NL in triples (11).

    The two players wound up posting nearly idential WAR totals, and their value came in remarkably similar fashion with strong run-production skills and an elite glove.

    Edge: Push

    I'm generally of the opinion that calling any of these matchups a push is a cop-out, but this one is legitimately too close to call.

Left Fielder

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Kris Bryant155.292.939176353910212187.7
    Angel Pagan129.277.75013724125571151.0

    Position Overview

    Whether we call him a third baseman or a left fielder, Kris Bryant would have held the advantage, as he will be the best all-around player on the field in this series, at least relative to his regular-season performance.

    After posting an .858 OPS with 26 home runs and 99 RBI as a rookie, Bryant took the next step toward superstardom as he maintained his terrific walk rate (10.7 percent) while significantly lowering his strikeout rate (30.6 to 22.0 percent).

    The result was a 17-point increase in batting average and an 81-point increase in OPS, good enough to make him the front-runner for NL MVP honors and arguably the best under-25 player in the game now that Mike Trout has reached the big 2-5.

    The versatility that Bryant provided by playing rock-solid defense at third base as well as at both corner outfield spots only adds to his value.

    Angel Pagan was a league-average performer at the plate this year with a 100 OPS+, though he did provide some surprising pop with 12 home runs. He had homered just 11 times in 1,269 plate appearances over the previous three seasons.

    The addition of Denard Span forced Pagan to shift to left field, where he's less of a liability defensively. He's still far from an asset with the glove, though, tallied a minus-20 DRS last season and a minus-six mark this year.

    Jorge Soler and Chris Coghlan will both be options to start in left should Bryant play third base, while Gregor Blanco is the top outfield choice off the Giants' bench.

    Edge: Cubs

    Not even close.

Center Fielder

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Dexter Fowler125.276.84012625134884134.2
    Denard Span143.266.71215223115370121.0

    Position Overview

    The decision to bring back Dexter Fowler on a one-year, $8 million deal that includes a $9 million mutual option for next season has been huge for the Cubs.

    The team went 85-40 with Fowler in the lineup, compared to 18-18 without him, as he missed roughly a month with a hamstring injury heading into the All-Star break. That speaks volumes to what a valuable catalyst he has been out of the leadoff spot.

    His .393 on-base percentage was a career high and good for sixth in the NL, and he graded out slightly above average defensively with one DRS and a 1.9 UZR/150. That represented a vast improvement over the minus-12 DRS from a year ago.

    Denard Span was also a free agent last winter, settling for a three-year, $31 million deal after injuries limited him to just 61 games in 2015.

    He managed to stay healthy in 2016 but saw his batting average dip to .266 after hitting .290 over the past four seasons with the Twins and Nationals.

    His 11 home runs were a career high and his 53 RBI were the most he's had since 2010. However, all told, he graded out as a below-average offensive performer with a 91 OPS+.

    The 32-year-old did prove to be a slight upgrade over Angel Pagan defensively in center field, though he was still by no means an asset with minus-seven DRS.

    Edge: Cubs

    The importance of Fowler setting the table in the leadoff spot can't be overstated, and the Cubs' only rough patch this season occurred when he was sidelined.

Right Fielder

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    Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Jason Heyward 142.230.6311222774961111.5
    Hunter Pence106.289.8081142313575811.9

    Position Overview

    The Cubs threw down $184 million over eight years to sign Jason Heyward away from the rival St. Louis Cardinals in the offseason.

    It's fair to say his first year was a disappointment.

    The 27-year-old was once again one of the game's elite defensive outfielders with 18 DRS and a 19.8 UZR/150, but his offensive game never showed up.

    His .631 OPS ranked 144th among 146 qualified players leaguewide and represted a 166-point decline over a year ago. His on-base percentage also plummeted to a career-worst .306, and he failed to top 20 steals for the first time in three years.

    But hey, super good defense.

    On the other side, Hunter Pence was limited to 106 games while missing nearly two months with a torn right hamstring.

    He returned to action on July 30 and hit a solid .280/.342/.421 with 12 doubles, six home runs, 21 RBI and 31 runs over his final 56 games.

    Pence is the type of player who provides a spark simply by showing up to the ballpark, and the Giants will be counting on him to shoulder some of the run-production load hitting out of the cleanup spot.

    Edge: Giants

    Pence went 12-for-27 in the World Series in 2014 and may be the biggest X-factor for the Giants offense.

Game 1 Starting Pitcher

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    Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Jon Lester3219-52.443.411.0252197202.25.3
    Johnny Cueto 3218-52.792.961.0945198219.25.6

    Position Comparison

    With a 2.85 ERA over 98.0 career postseason innings, Jon Lester is a deserving choice to take the ball in Game 1 for the Cubs.

    The 32-year-old got knocked around in his final start of the regular season, but before that, he had gone 9-0 with a 0.96 ERA and 0.81 WHIP while tallying 11 straight quality starts.

    Lester was 10-2 with a 1.74 ERA in 15 starts at Wrigley Field.

    He had one fantastic start at home against the Giants on Sept. 2 (9.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER) and one rocky start against them in San Francisco on May 21 (2.2 IP, 6 H, 5 ER).

    Opposing him will be right-hander Johnny Cueto, who has been worth every penny of his six-year, $130 million deal so far.

    Cueto closed out the season on a roll as well, going 5-2 with a 2.41 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in his final 11 starts, including a season-high 11 strikeouts over seven innings against the Rockies in his last start.

    The 30-year-old is 5-5 with a 3.07 ERA in 15 career starts at Wrigley Field. 

    His lone start against the Cubs this year came on Sept. 4 in Chicago, when he earned a no-decision while allowing five hits and one earned runs over seven innings. 

    Edge: Cubs

    Lester is the right choice for the Game 1 start, and he gives the Cubs the slimmest of edges over another ace-caliber arm in Cueto.

Game 2 Starting Pitcher

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Kyle Hendricks3016-
    Jeff Samardzija 3212-113.813.851.2054167203.12.7

    Position Comparison

    The Cubs will turn to MLB ERA leader Kyle Hendricks to make the Game 2 start after the 26-year-old turned in a breakout performance in 2016.

    Teammate Jon Lesterperhaps his biggest competition for NL Cy Young honorsoffered up his full endorsement for the award.

    "If I had a vote, (Hendricks) would be my vote," Lester told reporters. "I get to see him every day. I see what he does, how he goes about it, how he prepares, how he goes out and executes. He’s my guy. He’s who I’d vote for right now, tomorrow, the next day, whenever."

    Hendricks was lights out at home all season, going 9-2 with a 1.32 ERA in 14 starts and one relief appearance. He faced the Giants only once on May 22, allowing three hits and one earned run over 5.1 innings for the loss.

    Former Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija will likely be the Game 2 starter for the Giants.

    A fifth-round pick by the Cubs in 2006, Samardzija spent seven seasons on the North Side before being traded to Oakland at the deadline in 2014 as part of the deal that netted Addison Russell.

    The big right-hander faced the Cubs last season as a member of the White Sox, allowing nine hits and six earned runs in six innings at U.S. Cellular Field.

    He then made his Wrigley Field return this year on Sept. 1, lasting just four innings and allowing five hits and three earned runs.

    Edge: Cubs

    Giving Hendricks the Game 2 start at home was the obvious move given his dominance at Wrigley Field. There's still a chance the Giants go with Matt Moore in Game 2, but regardless, the Cubs hold the edge with their surprise ace on the hill.

Game 3 Starting Pitcher

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    Jake Arrieta 3118-83.103.521.0876190197.13.4
    Madison Bumgarner 3415-92.743.241.0254251226.25.0

    Position Comparison

    While Jake Arrieta failed to duplicate the historically good form we saw during the second half last year, he was far from a disappointment.

    His stuff is still nothing short of electric, and he's capable of turning in a dominant start at any time. However, had a bit more trouble corralling that stuff this season, as his walk rate climbed from 1.9 to 3.5 BB/9.

    Arrieta faced the Giants twice this season, recording a quality start in both outings. He improved to 8-0 on the season with a win on May 20 at AT&T Park (7.0 IP, 4 H, 1 ER) and took a loss on Sept. 3 at Wrigley Field (6.0 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 2 ER).

    Despite an up-and-down second half, Arrieta seems confident going into his showdown with Madison Bumgarner, calling the Giants' ace "really good, but beatable" while talking with reporters.

    That confidence is great, but really good doesn't quite do it justice.

    Bumgarner is the best postseason pitcher of his era, authoring another gem on Wednesday when he eliminated the Mets with a complete-game shutout.

    The 27-year-old is now 8-3 with a 1.94 ERA in 97.1 career playoff innings, including a trio of complete-game shutouts.

    Bumgarner earned the win against the Cubs on May 22 at home (7.2 IP, 3 H, 0 ER), then outdueled Arrieta at Wrigley Field on Sept. 3 (6.0 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 10 K).

    Edge: Giants

    Betting against Bumgarner would be crazy at this point, especially if the Giants are behind 0-2 in the series and facing elimination. He's pretty good at elimination games.

Game 4 Starting Pitcher

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    David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison

    John Lackey2911-83.353.811.0653180188.12.5
    Matt Moore3313-

    Position Comparison

    Along with swiping right fielder Jason Heyward from the rival Cardinals, the Cubs also added veteran starter John Lackey on a two-year, $32 million deal.

    A sore shoulder cost Lackey a few weeks in August, but he returned to go 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in five starts down the stretch. Overall, he put together another terrific season.

    More than anything, Lackey earns a vote of confidence for his impressive postseason track record, as he's gone 8-5 with a 3.11 ERA in 127.1 career playoff innings. The 37-year-old is plenty comfortable under the bright lights of October.

    Lackey has made just two career starts at AT&T Park, going 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA.

    He faced the Giants once at Wrigley Field this season, allowing just one hit and two runs (one earned) over five innings for a no-decision.

    There's an outside chance the Giants turn to rookie Ty Blach for the Game 4 start after he threw eight shutout innings against the Dodgers in a must-win game, or they could go back to Johnny Cueto on short rest if they're facing elimination.

    For now, we'll call left-hander Matt Moore the team's No. 4 starter.

    Acquired at the trade deadline from the Tampa Bay Rays, Moore went 6-5 with a 4.08 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 12 starts with the Giants.

    He has some postseason experience that he acquired during his time in Tampa Bay, turning in a fantastic start during the 2011 ALDS before getting shelled in the 2013 ALDS.

    The 27-year-old southpaw did not face the Cubs this season. In fact, Dexter Fowler is the only current Cubs player to have ever faced him, going 1-for-1 with a walk and a sacrifice in a game back in 2013.

    Edge: Cubs

    The fact that most of the Cubs players have never seen Moore is an advantage for the Giants, but it's not enough to trump the impressive postseason resume of Lackey.


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    David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

    Side-by-Side Stat Comparison/Leaders

    San FranciscoRoleChicago
    478.0 IP, 3.65 ERA, 43/72 SVTEAM470.2 IP, 3.56 ERA, 38/53 SV
    Ty Blach (4 G, 1.06 ERA)MRMike Montgomery (49 G, 2.52 ERA)
    George Kontos (57 G, 2.53 ERA)MRJustin Grimm (67 G, 3.18 ERA)
    Javier Lopez (68 G, 4.05 ERA)MRCarl Edwards (36 G, 3.75 ERA)
    Derek Law (61 G, 2.13 ERA)MRTravis Wood (77 G, 2.95 ERA)
    Santiago Casilla (62 G, 3.57 ERA)MR 
    Will Smith (53 G, 3.35 ERA)SUPedro Strop (54 G, 2.85 ERA)
    Hunter Strickland (72 G, 3.10 ERA)SUHector Rondon (54 G, 3.53 ERA)
    Sergio Romo (40 G, 2.64 ERA)CL Aroldis Chapman (59 G, 1.55 ERA)
    Casilla (31-of-40)SVChapman (36-of-39)
    Sanchez (10)HLDStrop (21)
    Smith (10.7)K/9Chapman (14.0)
    Law (1.5)WARChapman (2.5)

    Bullpen Overview

    On the surface, this may look like a relatively equal matchup, as the Cubs' bullpen ERA (3.56) is only slightly better than that of the Giants' (3.65).

    However, this might actually be the Cubs' biggest advantage in the series.

    The Giants bullpen was an absolute mess in the second half, converting just 17 of 30 save chances and battling with a revolving door in the ninth inning after Santiago Casilla was finally removed from the closer's role.

    Sergio Romo has brought some stability back to the ninth inning with four successful save chances over the final two weeks of the season, but the bullpen as a whole remains a major concern.

    As for the Cubs, the addition of Aroldis Chapman has completely transformed their relief corps.

    Incumbent closer Hector Rondon struggled a bit in the second half after missing time to injury, and Pedro Strop only recently returned from the disabled list himself, but their absence provided Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Grimm with some valuable experience in high-leverage situations.

    Mike Montgomery has given the team a second lefty middle-relief option alongside the oft-used Travis Wood, and he'll also serve as the long man after seeing some time in the rotation.

    Edge: Cubs

    This could wind up being the difference in the series. The Cubs went out and solved their bullpen issues at the deadline, and the Giants settled for a patchwork fix without adding a proven closer. Will that be their undoing?

Series Prediction

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    Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

    It's put up or shut up time for baseball's best team.

    The Cubs haven't played a game that's actually meant anything since clinching home-field advantage back on Sept. 23.

    That afforded them the chance to rest some guys down the stretch, but now they face the challenge of ramping things back up, while the Giants already have plenty of momentum following a late-season push for the wild card and a thrilling Wild Card Game victory.

    Regaining their intensity shouldn't be too hard for the North Siders, though, with the series kicking off at Wrigley Field in front of a ravenous home crowd.

    With Madison Bumgarner looming in Game 3 at AT&T Park, a sweep seems unlikely, but the Cubs are clearly the better team on paper.

    We'll say they jump out to an early 2-0 lead in the series behind some early offensive fireworks and strong starts from both Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks before the offense is stymied by MadBum in Game 3.

    The Giants opt against going to Johnny Cueto on short rest for Game 4 in favor of the unfamiliar Matt Moore, and he throws six strong innings.

    That leaky bullpen can't hold the lead, though, as the Cubs come from behind for the win and advance to the NLCS.

    Series Prediction: Cubs 3, Giants 1

    All stats courtesy of and FanGraphs.