Chicago Cubs: 5 Keys to a Deep 2017 Postseason Run
The Chicago Cubs waited over a century to capture the World Series crown for a third time. Now they have tasted success, they crave more.
MLB fans will no longer treat them as the lovable underdogs, but their chances of going the distance have diminished. Last year, they strutted into the playoffs with 103 wins and a plus-252 scoring margin, both baseball's best clips with room to spare.
This fall, however, they are the weakest division champion in terms of wins (90). Their plus-118 run differential places seventh among the nine teams that have clinched playoff berths.
Even if they are the National League's fourth-best playoff participants, the Cubs are credible candidates to become the first team since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees to win consecutive titles. Following a sub-.500 first half, they have gone 46-24 since acquiring Jose Quintana during the All-Star break.
They lost Dexter Fowler and Aroldis Chapman but replaced them effectively with Jon Jay and Wade Davis. Along with their same lineup and rotation nucleus, they have Quintana, rookie Ian Happ and a healthy Kyle Schwarber.
Regardless of their record, the Cubs have the personnel to survive a locked-in National League Division Series matchup with the Washington Nationals. Here are the NL Central champion's keys to turning a drought into a dynasty this fall.
Get Back the Old Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester
Starting pitching gave the Cubs an upper hand last postseason. Now it's their greatest concern.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Nationals rotations respectively rank No. 1, 3 and 4 in ERA. Chicago's 4.07 ERA trails behind at No. 8, and the group will carry the worst ERA-minus, adjusted for league and ballparks, of all NL playoff clubs.
Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta are the surprising culprits. After following a 2.44 regular-season ERA with a 2.02 ERA in six postseason starts, Lester's ERA has catapulted to 4.46. Since the start of August, the 33-year-old southpaw has relinquished 34 runs and 21 walks in 45.1 innings.
This stretch does not include the Pittsburgh Pirates ransacking him for 10 runs in the first inning on July 9.
Arrieta's struggles are not as refined, but a leg injury drastically upended an encouraging second half. He had submitted a 1.21 August ERA before leaving Sept. 4's start. After skipping a few turns, he has coughed up six runs (four earned) and three home runs in eight innings.
"You want some good results moving into October," Arrieta told MLB.com's Carrie Muskat after lasting three innings in Tuesday's start against the St. Louis Cardinals. "[I just want] to go out there and feel close to 100 percent and feel good about the outing moving into my first postseason start. Tonight was up and down physically. I didn't feel great, and that's just how it goes."
The usually durable 31-year-old has thrown no more than 71 pitches in an outing in September, so the Cubs would be lucky to get a five-inning postseason start. If he's not 100 percent, they may not want to push him that long anyway.
Lester, meanwhile, has ceded five or more runs in seven starts this season. While he likely would not remain in the game long enough to inflict such severe damage, they can no longer confidently rely on last year's National League Championship Series MVP.
Set to face Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez in a best-of-five series, the Cubs will need quality innings from their veterans. Even if they are no longer the team's aces.
Keep Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks in Strong Form
As strange as it may sound, Cubs manager Joe Maddon may make Lester and Arrieta his Game 3 and 4 starters. While those two have struggled, Quintana and Kyle Hendricks pitched the Cubbies to the NL Central crown.
Since getting traded from the Chicago White Sox in July, Quintana has registered a 3.50 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 93 strikeouts in 79.2 innings. He has allowed five runs in his past four starts following Sunday's complete-game shutout against the Milwaukee Brewers.
"Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs," Maddon said of Quintana after his dominant start, per CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney. "He's showing you that right now. Games like that, to me, could be kind of career-altering for a pitcher."
He will receive at least one opportunity for another start with career-altering potential. It could come as soon as Game 1 against Scherzer.
Like Lester and Arrieta, Hendricks' production has waned in 2017. The difference, however, is no reasonable observer expected him to match last year's 2.13 ERA. A 3.03 ERA will do just fine, especially since that mark is bolstered by a 2.19 second-half mark.
The 27-year-old continues to prevent runs better than his peripherals predict by inducing weak contact for his nimble defense to handle. His 50.1 ground-ball percentage and 22.5 soft-hit rate explain the gap between his ERA and 3.88 fielding independent pitching (FIP).
While Quintana will be making his playoff debut, Hendricks started Game 2 in both the NLDS and NLCS last year. Perhaps that experience bumps him to Game 1, but both cruising starters need to stay hot regardless of when their names are called.
Steady Relief Pitching
Perceived as last year's Achilles' heel, the Cubs bullpen neither significantly helped nor hurt their cause with a 3.94 postseason ERA. In light of recent struggles, they may settle for a similar result.
Their 4.64 second-half ERA represents baseball's ninth-worst clip. Not throwing strikes is a major problem, as they have learned the hard way with an MLB-worst 4.80 walks per nine innings since the All-Star break.
Some September call-ups have exaggerated their troubles, but Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis have all battled control woes late in 2017. Yet they remain Maddon's most trustworthy options given Justin Wilson's disastrous arrival.
Prior to the July 31 trade, Wilson had allowed 12 earned runs and 16 walks in 40.1 innings with the Detroit Tigers. He has since surrendered 10 earned runs and 19 bases on balls over 16.2 frames.
His downward spiral is especially concerning with Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy looming. The left-handed specialist responsibility may belong to Mike Montgomery, who has issued nine walks in 18.1 innings this month.
Wilson may not even receive an opportunity for October redemption, but the rest of Chicago's bullpen needs to throw strikes and avoid late-inning catastrophe. It instead must expose Washington's relief shortcomings.
Make the Most of Lineup Depth
Maddon has plenty of options when assembling his lineup card.
At least a couple of starting-caliber players will take a seat every game. Maybe Happ and Javier Baez ride the pine one day, with Schwarber and Ben Zobrist coming off the bench the next time. That's a good problem to have unless Maddon doesn't find the right answers.
When facing Scherzer or Strasburg, does he stick Schwarber in left field to optimize his power or sit the slow-footed slugger to avoid any defensive miscues in a low-scoring tilt? Maddon must contemplate the inverse regarding Jason Heyward and Addison Russell, tremendous defenders but below-average hitters.
Zobrist has played a vital role for each of the past two champions. Yet the 2016 World Series MVP has the worst OPS and WAR of all 11 Cubs position players with at least 300 plate appearances. Despite his storied postseason past, the 36-year-old is no longer their strongest option. Especially not when facing lefties, against whom he's hitting .183 (19-of-104).
Given the plethora of options, Happ could lose a featured role on account of recording one home run and 17 strikeouts over his past 13 games. Look for the Cubs to ride the hot hand, which could shift often throughout the postseason.
Maddon has pressed the right buttons during their second-half surge, as his team wields MLB's best OPS and weighted on-base average (wOBA). A large share of the credit belongs to the two superstar corner infielders written into the lineup with permanent marker.
Another Strong Postseason from Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo
In a 2016 postseason rich with pitching, the Cubs scored five runs per game. While the long ball—including one from Arrieta, one from Travis Wood and two from retired backup catcher David Ross—propelled them to a title, they collectively batted .233 with a .293 on-base percentage.
Not including the late-arriving Schwarber, only Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo finished the playoffs with an OPS above .750. The stars each recorded three home runs, five doubles and 11 runs scored.
While they will hope to receive more help from the supporting cast, the offense still revolves around the corner infielders.
It's a testament to Bryant's greatness that hitting .295/.410/.539 with 29 homers and a 6.7 WAR is normal production, if not a letdown from last year's MVP campaign. Only Mike Trout has accrued more value than the Cubs third baseman since arriving in 2015.
His excellence may unfairly saddle Rizzo into the sidekick role, but the consistent first baseman has hit 31 or 32 home runs with a slugging percentage above .510 in each of the past four seasons. Yet he has not gone deep since Sept. 14, his only home run of the month after knocking out seven in August.
The Cubs will need every run they can piece together, with their hitters facing Scherzer and Strasburg as the pitchers combat Harper, Murphy, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon. If they want to buck the odds and repeat, Bryant and Rizzo must again lead the way.
Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.