NLCS 2016: Cubs vs. Dodgers Position-by-Position Breakdown, Predictions
Here's one thing we know for sure: The 2016 National League Championship Series is going to feature a lot of blue.
The Chicago Cubs knocked the orange-and-black San Francisco Giants off in four games, and on Thursday the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the red-clad Washington Nationals in Game 5 of their division series matchup.
It's the Cubs' second consecutive trip to the NLCS and the Dodgers' second in four years.
Chicago has the infamous World Series drought, which dates back to 1908, as if you needed to be reminded. L.A., though, is working on a decent dry spell of its own. The last time the Dodgers hoisted a Commissioner's Trophy was in 1988.
The North Side faithful will surely look at that 80-year gap and scoff. The point, though, is that both fanbases are hungry.
With the series set to kick off at Wrigley Field on Saturday (8 p.m. ET on FS1), let's break down the position-by-position matchups to see who's got the edge, contrast the skippers who will be calling the shots, and finally, make a prediction for what figures to be an entertaining clash of blue.
Willson Contreras (CHC): 76 G, .282 AVG., .845 OPS, 12 HR, 35 RBI
David Ross (CHC): 67 G, .229 AVG., .784 OPS, 10 HR, 32 RBI
Yasmani Grandal (LAD): 126 G, .228 AVG., .816 OPS, 27 HR, 72 RBI
His farewell season (rightly) isn't getting the same level of attention as the Boston Red Sox's David Ortiz or longtime Dodgers' play-by-play man Vin Scully, but David Ross is quietly putting together a memorable swan song.
The 39-year-old backstop hit just .229 in 67 games during the regular season. But he's come up with some key October knocks, including a home run and a sacrifice fly in the Cubs' clinching, come-from-behind win in Game 4 of the NLDS. And he's shown panache behind the plate, cutting down two of two would-be postseason base stealers.
He's joined by 24-year-old rookie Willson Contreras, who posted an .845 OPS in 76 regular-season games with Chicago and went 4-for-6 with a couple of RBI in the division series.
The Dodgers' primary catcher, Yasmani Grandal, cracked 27 homers in the regular season but hit just .228, and he went 2-for-16 without an extra-base hit in the five-game NLDS against Washington. Veteran backup Carlos Ruiz, whom the Dodgers acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in late August, chipped in a couple of hits in four NLDS at-bats, including a home run.
Anthony Rizzo (CHC): 155 G, .292 AVG., .928 OPS, 32 HR, 109 RBI
Adrian Gonzalez (LAD): 156 G, .285 AVG., .784 OPS, 18 HR, 90 RBI
This is the first of several great position battles.
Adrian Gonzalez turned in another stout offensive season with the Dodgers, even if his power numbers were down from his lofty career averages.
The 34-year-old also went just 4-for-20 in the NLDS. But he's a dangerous, seasoned hitter who can never be taken lightly.
That said, this one goes to Anthony Rizzo all the way.
A three-time All-Star, Rizzo raised his game to the next plateau in 2016 and should get MVP votes. He went 1-for-15 in the division series, but don't expect his bat to remain quiet.
Javier Baez (CHC): 142 G, .273 AVG., .737 OPS, 14 HR, 59 RBI
Chase Utley (LAD): 138 G, .252 AVG., .716 OPS, 14 HR, 52 RBI
No offense to Chase Utley—who's put together a borderline Hall of Fame career and can still contribute at age 37—but this is like comparing a Formula One race car to a reliable station wagon.
I said Javier Baez would be one of the breakout stars of this postseason, and so far he's proving me right.
The brash 23-year-old went 6-for-16 with a home run, two RBI and four runs scored in the NLDS. And he flashed the brand of physics-defying defense that makes you reach for the DVR skip-back button.
"I think players know how good they are, and what they can do," Baez said, per USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "And I know what I can do."
Thanks to the bright lights of October, everyone else does, too.
Kris Bryant (CHC): 155 G, .292 AVG., .939 OPS, 39 HR, 102 RBI
Justin Turner (LAD): 151 G, .275 AVG., .832 OPS, 27 HR, 90 RBI
Justin Turner was quietly one of the better third basemen in the game this season, and he's an indispensable cog in the Dodgers offense.
Unfortunately for him, he's matched up against one of the best players in the game, period, and the likely NL MVP.
Kris Bryant's numbers sagged slightly down the stretch, but he hit .375 in the NLDS, with three of his six knocks going for extra bases.
He's the best hitter in arguably MLB's best lineup. It's as simple as that.
Corey Seager (LAD): 157 G, .308 AVG., .877 OPS, 26 HR, 72 RBI
Addison Russell (CHC): 151 G, .238 AVG., .738 OPS, 21 HR, 95 RBI
Here's another great matchup, featuring two of the most exciting young shortstops in baseball.
Addison Russell truly broke out in 2016, flashing pop and a pile of RBI to go along with exemplary defense. He and Baez could end up as one of the great keystone combos of all time.
Corey Seager, however, gets the nod.
The 22-year-old is a lock to win NL Rookie of the Year honors and is a dark-horse MVP candidate. The power and plate discipline leap out, but Seager was also among the top-10 defensive shortstops in either league this season, according to the metrics. (He checks in at No. 7, Russell at No. 4.)
If you like WAR, Seager has a clear edge there, with a mark of 7.5 compared to Russell's 3.9.
Ben Zobrist (CHC): 147 G, .272 AVG., .831 OPS, 18 HR, 76 RBI
Howie Kendrick (LAD): 146 G, .255 AVG., .691 OPS, 8 HR, 40 RBI
There are parallels between Ben Zobrist and Howie Kendrick, a pair of veteran hitters with the ability to play the outfield and infield.
The Dodgers can supplement with speedy Andrew Toles, while the Cubs have an intriguing option with powerful 24-year-old Jorge Soler.
Dexter Fowler (CHC): 125 G, .276 AVG., .840 OPS, 13 HR, 48 RBI
Joc Pederson (LAD): 137 G, .246 AVG., .847 OPS, 25 HR, 68 RBI
Dexter Fowler turned out to be one of the winter's biggest bargains after signing a one-year, $13 million contract with the Cubs and putting together an All-Star season.
The 30-year-old's production tailed off in the second half, however, and he went 2-for-15 in the division series.
Joc Pederson, meanwhile, raised his OPS nearly 100 points after the All-Star break and hit .333 with a home run in the NLDS against Washington.
Mostly, we're handing this one to Pederson because of his game-changing pop, which can turn a playoff series more quickly than anything outside an elite pitching performance.
Jason Heyward (CHC): .230 AVG., .631 OPS, 7 HR, 49 RBI
Josh Reddick (LAD): 115 G, .281 AVG., .749 OPS, 10 HR, 37 RBI
To say Jason's Heyward's first season in Chicago was a disappointment is like saying Cubs fans are slightly sick of hearing about billy goats.
After inking an eight-year, $184 million deal, Heyward put together the worst offensive season of his career. He hasn't turned it on in the postseason yet either, as he went 1-for-12 with three strikeouts against San Francisco.
The one part of Heyward's game that hasn't wavered is his defense. His 14 defensive runs saved and 16.4 ultimate zone rating led all NL right fielders.
The Dodgers counter with trade-deadline acquisition Josh Reddick, who posted a ho-hum .643 OPS in 47 games with L.A. and didn't get an extra-base hit in the division series.
Yasiel Puig is the wild card. Reddick, like many Dodgers hitters, is anemic against left-handed pitching. The right-handed Puig, meanwhile, skews better against southpaws, and the Cubs will be throwing one of the best out in Game 1 starter Jon Lester.
After the distractions and demotions that defined Puig's 2016 season, what a story it would be if he could push the Dodgers into the Fall Classic.
In a loaded lineup, Heyward's offensive shortcomings aren't as glaring. It's unusual to see a defensive specialist at a corner outfield position, but we'll give a very slight edge to Chicago here, because Reddick and Puig are question marks and Heyward's glove really is that good.
Cubs' Projected Rotation
LHP Jon Lester: 19-5, 2.44 ERA, 202.2 IP, 52 BB, 197 SO
RHP Kyle Hendricks: 16-8, 2.13 ERA, 190 IP, 44 BB, 170 SO
RHP Jake Arrieta: 18-8, 3.10 ERA, 197.1 IP, 76 BB, 190 SO
RHP John Lackey: 11-8, 3.35 ERA, 188.1 IP, 53 BB, 180 SO
Dodgers' Projected Rotation
RHP Kenta Maeda: 16-11, 3.48 ERA, 175.2 IP, 50 BB, 179 SO
LHP Clayton Kershaw: 12-4, 1.69 ERA, 149 IP, 11 BB, 172 SO
LHP Rich Hill: 12-5, 2.12 ERA, 110.1 IP, 33 BB, 129 SO
After using Clayton Kershaw to get the final two outs of NLDS Game 5 on Thursday, the Dodgers won't be able to throw their ace until Game 2 on Sunday at the soonest.
That leaves Kenta Maeda as the Game 1 starter. Maeda is more than capable after a strong rookie season and years spent dominating in Japan, but he lasted just three innings in his lone division-series outing.
The biggest story for the Dodgers is if they can keep riding this three-man rotation or if they'll need to give a start to someone else, possibly 20-year-old left-hander Julio Urias.
The Cubs, by contrast, have enviable depth. Lester was masterful in Game 1 of the NLDS, outdueling the Giants' Johnny Cueto in a thrilling 1-0 win.
Hendricks, MLB's regular-season ERA leader, was struck in the arm by a line drive in the division series and isn't a lock for Game 2 of the NLCS, per Larry Hawley of WGNTV.com.
Arrieta and Lackey round out a strong top four. The Cubs, it should be noted, held left-handed hitters to a .212 batting average and .384 slugging percentage this season—bad news for the Dodgers' lefty-heavy lineup.
We're tempted to give this to the Cubs because they're better-rested and have one more reliable arm than L.A.
After watching Kershaw do what he did Thursday, however, we're allowing for the possibility that he's about to shed his postseason demons, go full Madison Bumgarner and take the Dodgers on his back.
Cubs' Projected Bullpen
LHP Aroldis Chapman (CL): 1.01 ERA, 26.2 IP, 10 BB, 46 SO, 16 SV
RHP Carl Edwards Jr.: 3.75 ERA, 36 IP, 14 BB, 52 SO, 2 SV
RHP Justin Grimm: 4.10 ERA, 52.2 IP, 23 BB, 65 SO
LHP Mike Montgomery: 2.82 ERA, 38.1 IP, 20 BB, 38 SO
RHP Hector Rondon: 3.53 ERA, 51 IP, 8 BB, 58 SO, 18 SV
RHP Pedro Strop: 2.85 ERA, 47.1 IP, 15 BB, 60 SO
LHP Travis Wood: 2.95 ERA, 61 IP, 24 BB, 47 SO
Dodgers' Projected Bullpen
RHP Kenley Jansen (CL): 1.83 ERA, 68.2 IP, 11 BB, 104 SO, 47 SV
LHP Luis Avilan: 3.20 ERA, 19.2 IP, 10 BB, 28 SO
RHP Pedro Baez: 3.04 ERA, 74 IP, 22 BB, 83 SO
RHP Joe Blanton: 2.48 ERA, 80 IP, 26 BB, 80 SO
RHP Josh Fields: 2.79 ERA, 19.1 IP, 8 BB, 22 SO
RHP: Ross Stripling: 3.96 ERA, 100 IP, 30 BB, 74 SO
LHP Julio Urias: 3.39 ERA, 77 IP, 31 BB, 84 SO
LHP Grant Dayton: 2.05 ERA, 26.1 IP, 6 BB, 39 SO
The Dodgers' bullpen led the majors with a 3.35 ERA in the regular season and is augmented by a pair of young starters, Urias and Stripling, who can eat innings should the need arise.
Kenley Jansen is one of the best closers in baseball, but it's worth wondering if he'll have much left for Game 1 after throwing 51 pitches and 2.1 innings on Thursday.
The Cubs' pen, meanwhile, paced baseball in the regular season with a .210 opponents' batting average, and that was with flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman not arriving until a late-July trade from the New York Yankees.
Speaking of Chapman, he hasn't pitched since Tuesday and will presumably be ready to log multi-inning saves if needed, exploiting L.A.'s weakness against left-handed pitching.
This one's close, but the scales tip slightly toward Chicago.
This is Joe Maddon's sixth trip to the postseason and second straight with the Cubs. He took the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series in 2008, but he's never won it.
So you can bet the noted chess master will pull every trick out of his bag, playing matchups and utilizing his versatile roster to full effect.
In the other dugout, rookie skipper Dave Roberts did an admirable job weathering injuries to key players, including Kershaw, and steering Los Angeles to a fourth straight division crown.
He didn't look overmatched in the NLDS against veteran Nationals skipper Dusty Baker and should be commended for extending Jansen and then calling on Kershaw to finish the job in Game 5. Those moves could cost the Dodgers in the NLCS if Jansen and Kershaw suffer from overuse, but it was the correct call in a do-or-die situation.
Maddon is the pick because of his pedigree and experience, but Roberts should be able to hold his own in the clubhouse-steadying and wits-matching departments.
The Dodgers won't roll over. Not with Kershaw at the top of the rotation, a strong bullpen and a solid offensive core of Seager, Gonzalez and Turner.
The Cubs, however, have all the hallmarks of an unstoppable force.
They've got a deep starting corps, headlined by a playoff-tested lefty ace and radar-gun-punishing southpaw closer who can expose the Dodgers' most glaring flaw.
They've got young, powerful hitters up and down the lineup. And their defense is historically air-tight, as Fox Sports' Dieter Kurtenbach outlined:
According to Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs' boasted the single-greatest defensive season in the history of baseball — their 6.38 park-adjusted defensive efficiency rating this year was nearly a full point higher than the previous record-holder, the 2001 Seattle Mariners (the team that tied the major-league record for wins).
The Cubs are going to steal runs from the Dodgers in this series — that's not even close to debatable...
They'll steal runs. They'll score runs. And while L.A. will keep it competitive, the Cubbies will prevail.
Prediction: Cubs in six