By: Omar Gobby
The 2015 Cubs came out of the gates with a new fire in their eyes. This was not a team sitting back and waiting for Theo Epstein to set them up for “The Future”. This was a team looking for blood from the get go. They have refused to back down from any fight. Just ask Sean Rodriguez.
And they are plain good.
Now, they are headed to new heights as they prepare to face off against their mortal enemy, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the National League Divisional Series. If it were ever possible for a 100 win team to be an underdog, this may be the time, as many pundits see the Cubs as simply being the stronger and better team right now. This is a Cardinals team that limped through September/October with a 15-16 mark, including not even bothering to show up against the Braves in the closing weekend. The Cardinals are vulnerable, and the Cubs are primed to be the ones to administer the killing blow.
St. Louis won the season series against the Cubs, 11-8, but the Cubs won 4 of the last 6 in September, taking 2 games each in Wrigley and St. Louis. The Cubs proved they could beat the Cardinals. More importantly, Ace Jake Arrieta pitched exactly 0 innings in those last 6 games. There is no way Arrieta skips the Cardinals in this best of 5 NLDS. With Jon Lester likely to throw both games 1 and 4, and Arrieta likely to go Monday in Game 3, the Cubs are in good shape to keep things rolling.
Without further adieu, let us look at the match ups.
While the Cubs’ rotation is really good at the top (Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta), there has been a lack of consistency after that. Jason Hammel had a very good first half and has been pedestrian in the second. Kyle Hendricks has ranged between adequate and good, and never overwhelming. Trade deadline acquisition Dan Haren was rather unremarkable until shining in 3 of his late season starts (against St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee). For the Cardinals, electric right hander Carlos Martinez’ season ended with a shoulder strain. Add to that the Achilles injury suffered by ace Adam Wainwright (who has since returned in a relief role), and the Cardinals rotation looked to be a mess. Yet, Manager Mike Matheny has seemed to keep this staff together despite all the adversity. While the star power at the top of Chicago’s rotation is missing in St. Louis, there is an admirable top to bottom consistency. There may not be a clear #1 right now, but there also is not a bad one in the bunch. For overall consistency, the edge goes to the Cardinals. Slight Edge: St. Louis
This is flashy vs functional. The reliability of that 2001 Toyota vs the pizzazz of a brand new Lamborghini. The Cardinals, led by closer Trevor Rosenthal, converted 62 of 77 saves (80.5%) and was generally quite effective. Kevin Siegrist (7-1, 2.17, 6/10 with 90 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings) confounds hitters regularly. Behind that, there is a stable of steady performers such as Jonathan Broxton, Carlos Villanueva, Seth Maness, and Steve Cishek. Add to that Wainwright, and this is a relief corps which would have no problem providing quality innings when needed.
The Cubs’ pen was prone to some spectacular blow ups and equally spectacular domination, converting 48 of 67 (71.6%) save chances. Closer Hector Rondon (6-4, 1.67ERA, 30/34 saves) made fans quickly forget the frustrating days of Carlos Marmol while energetic set-up man Pedro Strop (2-6, 2.91, 3/5) often made many wonder if Marmol was back as he would counter a 1-2-3, 3 strikeout inning with a meltdown of 2 walks, a couple hits, and a run. To that end, it appears that Jason Motte (8-1, 3.91, 6/7) assured himself a spot on the NLDS roster because of the post-season success (career 1-1, 8 saves, 2.08 ERA) and experience (19 appearances). After that, there are some intriguing names. Seattle castoff Fernando Rodney (2-0, 0.75, 0/1 as a Cub) was quite effective in his 14 appearances in a Cubs uniform. He is a Joe Maddon favorite and could be key. Justin Grimm and former starters Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Clayton Richard round out the staff. The Cubs’ advantage here is only in the better ability to throw strikes than the Cardinals. Otherwise, I like what the Cardinals have here.
Slight edge: St. Louis
The Cardinals have a solid starting unit here. Matt Carpenter is one of the better all-around third baseman in the National League, and Jhonny Peralta has a strong bat for a shortstop. On the right side, Kolten Wong probably had a better overall season than any Cubs second baseman, but more on that later. First base is, frankly, a mess. Mark Reynolds and Brandon Moss will not remind anyone of Albert Pujols or Mark McGwire.
For the Cubs, this is their bread and butter. For one, there is tremendous versatility and interchangeability. Kris Bryant showed to be pretty much everything that was advertised at third base and Addison Russell, once he was moved back to his natural shortstop position, basically sucked up every ball hit anywhere in the same ZIP Code. On the other side of the diamond, Starlin Castro suffered miserably from Opening Day through August. And then something clicked. Once the calendar flipped to September, Castro turned into Babe Ruth. All he did was hit .426 with a .750 SLG and 1.202 OPS. While he was erratic defensively (6 errors in only 138 chances at second base), he occasionally came up with a spectacular play. And what can be said that hasn’t been already said about the Cubs’ first baseman? Anthony Rizzo hit .278 with 31 HR and 101 RBI. He added 17 stolen bases and got plunked 30 times, becoming the first player since Don Baylor to accumulate 30+ HR and 30+ HBP in one season. Add to that Javier Baez, and this Cubs infield is really good.
Huge Edge: Chicago
The Cardinals, due mostly to injury, did a lot of mix and match out here. Veteran Matt Holliday battled injuries all year and played in fewer than half the Redbirds’ games. Jason Heyward overcame a brutally slow start to put up good numbers in his walk year (.293, 16 HR, 60 RBI, .797 OPS). Steven Piscotty was called up and had solid numbers in 63 games (.305, 7, 39) and Tommy Pham seemed to come up with every clutch hit for the Cardinals for a stretch of time in July and August. John Jay and a (maybe?) healthy Randal Grichuk round out the group.
For the Cubs, Dexter Fowler (.250, but .346 OBP) gave the Cubs everything they needed in a leadoff man. He scored 102 runs and walked 84 times, both tops on the team. After that, Maddon seemed to stick with whoever had the hot hand from a group including Jorge Soler, Chris Coghlan, Chris Denorfia, and rookie Kyle Schwarber. For the most part, Maddon’s hunch tended to work just fine.
Any other year, this would be no contest. However, this is 2015. Yadier Molina is now 33 years old (catchers age a bit faster, remember) and is battling a finger issue. He tore a ligament in his thumb in late September and has been cleared to play. That injury will hinder his ability to grasp the bat at the plate and defensively (it is on his glove hand) as well. If he plays, assume the Cubs will try to exploit this by running early and often and by bunting. Backing him up is non-factor Tony Cruz who may be forced to be a factor.
For the Cubs, Miguel Montero had a decent enough offensive year (.248, 15, 53) and was tremendous defensively. For those who still are not sold on the whole idea of “pitch framing”, watch the video of Jake Arrieta’s masterpiece against Pittsburgh in Wednesday’s Wild Card game. Zero walks is the key number. As in, no other pitcher in MLB history has had a post-season complete game of 10+ strikeouts and zero walks. None. While the pitcher throws the ball, the catcher has as much to do with that as anyone else.
Backing him up is crusty veteran David Ross. A perfect example of how a player’s value needs to be measured by something far beyond measurable statistics. Ross was phenomenal defensively, famously ending one game with a walk-off pickoff against the Washington Nationals. Further, he was a true team leader. It was his playing bodyguard for Arrieta in the Wild Card Game scrum against Sean Rodriguez which led to Rodriguez’ TKO of the Gatorade cooler. Ross just would not let the Pirates’ utility man anywhere near his pitcher.
Mike Matheny has been a good skipper for the Cardinals. He keeps them atop the best division in MLB and doesn’t skip a beat through injuries. But Maddon’s influence on the Cubs’ success in 2015 is other-worldly. He plays quirky hunches. He is masterful at negotiating his pitching staff. He seems to pick the right guy at the right time. He may be the best field manager of his time.
Huge Edge: Chicago
It all adds up to a Cubs victory in four games.