Is Anthony Rizzo's Injury Too Big of a Blow for Cubs to Overcome?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 16, 2019

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 15: Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs is helped off the field by Jason Heyward (L) and trainer PJ Mainville after being injured against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the third inning at Wrigley Field on September 15, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

With an injury sidelining National League MVP Christian Yelich, the Chicago Cubs seemed to catch a break in the playoff race. But they’re now dealing with a significant injury of their own.

Slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo was forced to exit the Cubs' 16-6 romp over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday after rolling it in the third inning. Per MLB.com's Jordan Bastian, an MRI on Monday confirmed Rizzo's return is not imminent:

At least relative to how troubling Rizzo's rolled ankle looked in the moment, this is not the worst news the Cubs could have received. And the man himself is nothing if not determined in its wake.

"I want to play as soon as possible, whether it's now or Game 1 of the World Series," Rizzo said, according to Bastian. "I want to play as soon as possible."

However, it's possible that Rizzo won't be able to return before the Cubs wrap up their regular season on September 29.

When taken together with Javier Baez's broken thumb, the Cubs now have to secure a postseason berth without two of their best players.

The Cubs lost an .848 OPS, 29 home runs and spectacular shortstop defense when Baez went down. With Rizzo out, they now stand to feel the loss of a .920 OPS, 26 long balls and steady defense at first base.

The Cubs' postseason standing, meanwhile, is the definition of "tenuous." They began Monday two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central race and one game up on the Milwaukee Brewers in the chase for the NL's second wild card.

Paul Beaty/Associated Press

As of this writing, the odds still favor the Cubs.

According to FanGraphs, they have a 37.6 percent chance of winning a wild-card spot and a 73.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. By contrast, those same odds for Milwaukee are 29.2 percent and 35.6 percent, respectively.

As bad as the injuries to Baez and Rizzo are, the Cubs can be thankful that they didn't lose a player as outrageously important as Yelich, whose season ended on Sept. 10 by way of a broken kneecap. Since the 2018 All-Star break, Yelich has slammed 69 homers with a 1.141 OPS.

The Cubs also might have enough firepower to keep their offense going even amid Baez's and Rizzo's absence. Their offense has a higher OPS in September than it's had in any other month. To one degree or another, Kris Bryant, Willson Conteras, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and upstart rookie Nico Hoerner are all hot right now.

Baez's and Rizzo's absences may only strengthen the resolve of the Cubs hitters who are still standing. Manager Joe Maddon hinted that such an effect was behind the club's devastation of the Pirates on Sunday.

"There's also galvanizing moments, too," Maddon said, according to Bastian. "When your better guys go down a little bit like that, the other folks realize, 'Hey, let's go.' So that's part of the mindset, too. You can't permit that to drag you down. We didn't."

To boot, Chicago's bullpen has found its stride this month with a 2.56 ERA. And according to Bastian, veteran closer Craig Kimbrel is officially on the comeback trail from right elbow inflammation. He's slated for a simulated game Tuesday.

These good vibes can easily turn bad, however.

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

The Cubs are only 8-6 in September despite the fine work of their offense and bullpen. Seven of those wins were against the lowly Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres and Pirates. They're otherwise 1-4 against the Brewers.

These same Brewers have shrugged off Yelich's injury by winning 11 out of 14 in September. The catch is that they've played a soft schedule, but that won't change in the season's last days. Their final 13 games are against the Padres, Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies. All four clubs are safely below .500.

The Cubs have a less soft landing that includes seven games opposite the division-leading Cardinals. They also have to play their last six games on the road, where they've struggled with a 31-44 record.

The Cubs must hope against hope that Rizzo is at least able to return for those road games. Though he hasn't been great, he's been one of their better hitters away from Wrigley Field with an .830 OPS and 14 homers.

But given the circumstances, the Cubs should save whatever hope they have for October. If they can at least get into the postseason, they might be able to mount a charge with the help of fully healthy and operational versions of Baez, Rizzo and Kimbrel.

In the meantime, the truest calculation of the Cubs' current postseason chances are that they're a toss-up. This wouldn't be the case if it was just Baez or Rizzo on the shelf. But with both of them gone, the Cubs are undeniably short-handed at a time when they can least afford it.

Should they fall short of the playoffs, at least the Cubs will have the excuse that they choked only because the injury bug bit them at the worst possible time.

                

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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