By Richard Kagan
Across town, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, two of hockey’s wunderkids are playing well and have the Chicago Blackhawks poised to make another run at the Stanley Cup.
Both Toews and Kane are only 28 and yet they’ve won three Stanley Cup championships and have carved their names in NHL history. Can Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant be the “Toews and Kane” of the Cubbies?
Patrick Kane won his MVP for the Chicago Blackhawks last year as the leading scorer of the league. His stick possession of the puck and his shot-making skills are legendary and he’s still under 30.
Bryant won the MVP award of the National League last season while hitting .292 BA, 39 HR’s, and 102 rbi’s in the regular season. That’s not to mention his key hits in the post-season, especially his home run against the Dodgers in game five of the NLCS.
Bryant, 25, had such a great year, it seemed like he was either on base or hitting a home run to put the Cubs ahead. It’s hard to expect him to do better. Cubs fans would like to see him reprise the kind of year he had last year.
Jonathan Toews is one of the great captains of the NHL. Known as “Captain Serious”, Toews seems older than his years on the ice. He doesn’t get ruffled easily. He provides on-ice leadership in making the crucial play, digging the puck out of a scrum, centering it to an open man, or tying up the game in the final seconds with a wrist shot. His name is on the Stanley Cup three times. The Hawks look like they could be playing later this coming spring.
Anthony Rizzo, 27, is the emotional leader of the Cubs. Last season he batted .292, hit 32 HR’s, and drove in 109 runs. One of the clutch hitters in the league, Rizzo got that key base hit when brows were furrowed on the bench. He and Bryant are the “answer” men for the Cubs. In the post-season, Rizzo was in a slump but he came out of it in a big way, helping the Cubs get to and win the World Series.
I see some similar traits in both Rizzo and Toews. They both lead by example. They don’t talk a lot, but let their play do the talking. It certainly speaks loud. Toews could be headed for hockey’s HOF. It is early to say that for Rizzo. He is off to a great start in his career.
Bryant and Rizzo have become household names in and around Chicago. It could be that way for a long time.
By Paul DiSclafani:
What is going on out there in Flushing?
The Mets (43-37) got to Chicago ace Jake Arrieta early and held on for their third straight win against the NL Central leaders, 4-3. Unbelievably, the Mets go for the sweep on Sunday afternoon.
When the Mets limped home from Washington DC after being swept by the Nationals on Wednesday, they were facing an 11 game home stand starting with four games against the best team in baseball, the Chicago Cubs. In third place and now six games behind the Nationals, fans on Social Media were jumping off the bandwagon and already looking forward to the opening of NFL training camps.
Instead of throwing in the towel against the formidable Cubs, who not only had beaten the Mets nine straight since 2014 but had a chip on their shoulder and something to prove after being swept by the Mets in the NLCS, they regrouped and circled the wagons.
“You can believe you can compete, but then when you go out and do it, it means a lot,” manager Terry Collins said about the importance of playing well in this series against the Cubs. Thursday they managed a comeback 4-3 win, Friday they hit five home runs in a 10-2 drubbing and tonight they beat Chicago’s Ace, who was 12-2.
“The confidence that it sends throughout the clubhouse, there is no other way to do it except to go out there and beat one of the real good teams and we’ve done that and we want to finish it off tomorrow.”
Just as they did in Game 2 of the NLCS, the Mets got a first inning, 2-run home run from their second baseman just inside the right field foul pole, only this time it was Neil Walker giving the Mets an early 2-0 lead with his 15th home run of the year. Arrieta then gave up a double to Yoenis Cespedes, then settled down to get the next 10 in a row.
Starter Bartolo Colon cruised through the first three innings without allowing a hit, but Kris Bryant led off the fourth with a single right before Anthony Rizzo launched a 423 foot shot to center field to tie the game at 2-2.
In the Mets half of the fourth with one out, Asdrubal Cabrera broke through the shift with a base hit and after Wilmer Flores popped out, Arrieta walked Alejandro Del Aza, moving Cabrera to second with two outs. That brought up Travis d’Arnaud who took a strike, then blooped the next pitch into nowhere man’s land over second base and just out of the reach of second baseman Javier Baez. De Aza scored all the way from first behind Cabrera to give the Mets a 4-2 lead.
Colon (W, 7-4) was magnificent the rest of the way, allowing just two more hits and departing in the sixth with the 4-2 lead. “Sometimes he escapes words,” said Collins after the game about Colon. “He just never ceases to amaze you.” Of course, the Cubs were not going to go quietly.
Eric Goeddel got the first two outs in the seventh, but Ben Zobrist made it 4-3 on the first pitch he saw with a home run to right. That brought in Jerry Blevins who got ahead of Jason Heyward 0-2, then walked him, prompting Collins to go to Addison Reed a little early to face Kris Bryant.
“I have all the confidence in the world in Addison,” Collins said about bringing Reed in before the eighth inning. “You just gotta trust him. You trust guys that can throw strikes, because hitting is hard. If you can locate and you can make your pitch and a guy gets a hit, you tip your hat. And that’s what Addison has done ever since he’s been here. He just makes pitches. There is a certain stage in the game where you think, ‘Hey, this is where we are going to win the game or lose the game’, and I thought we needed to get Bryant out and I thought Addy was the guy to do it.”
Reed got ahead of Bryant 1-2, but a wild pitch moved Heyward into scoring position. Reed then bore down and got Bryant swinging to end the inning. Back in his more familiar position in the eighth, Reed allowed a leadoff single to Rizzo, then struck out the next three – Wilson Contreras, Miguel Montero and Addison Russell, all flailing at strike three.
That set up Jeurys Familia to try and nail down the save. Unlike Friday night when the Cubs loaded the bases, Familia needed just nine pitches to secure his 28th save of the season and his 44th consecutive regular season save.
Arrieta (L, 12-3) had won his first 12 decisions this year and has now lost three of his last six starts. He allowed four earned runs and eight hits in just 5 1/3 innings and struggled with a 35-pitch first inning. Arrieta, the reigning CY Young Award winner in the NL, had not lost a game on the road since May of last year (19-0 in 24 starts).
Noah Syndergaard (8-3) goes for the sweep on Sunday against Jon Lester (9-3). Matt Harvey beat Lester in the NLCS Opener last year and Syndergaard beat Arrieta in Game 2.
POSITIVES: Loney made a nice 3-3-6 DP in the third … Walker with 15 home runs, is just one shy of his total for all of 2015 … Colon has not given up more than 2 earned runs in a game since May 18 … Juan Lagares got into the game, but hit into a double play in the sixth … Curtis Granderson could return to the lineup on Sunday … Brandon Nimmo led off again with a walk and another hit … d’Arnaud was 2-3 with 2 RBI.
NEGATIVES: Mets had eight hits against Arrieta, but failed to get a base runner after he left them game with one out in the sixth … Loney and Flores were both 0-4
Paul DiSclafani is a featured author at “A View From the Bench”, an official affiliate of MLB.com. “A View from the Bench” is recognized in the Top 100 of MLB.com/blogs.
By Omar Gobby
Here we sit on the eve of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, and the Chicago Cubs sit in the unfamiliar seat belonging to the overwhelming favorites.
This is not a team, despite the protestations of many haters, that has not experienced success. The Cubs have been in the playoffs 7 times since 1984. This is more than 11 teams (not including expansion teams Arizona,Colorado, Miami, and Tampa). The problem is that when they have met with success, they inevitably came crashing back down to earth shortly thereafter due to mismanagement and injuries and just some rotten luck. The only Cubs’ team to actually live up to the hype was the 2008 edition. They surprisingly won the division with 85 wins in 2007, behind a steady offense and a second in the National League (4.04 ERA) pitching staff. That 2008 group added only a few new faces (Kosuke Fukudome, mid-season additions Jim Edmonds and Rich Harden) to an otherwise fairly intact roster and rolled to the National League’s best record (97-64) before getting whitewashed in a 3 game NLDS by the Dodgers, losing by a combined score of 20-6. And just like that, the magic wore off. No major on-field changes for 2009, and the team just plodded along, finishing barely over .500 (83-78). But one significant change took place in July of that year which set the table for what Cubs fans are seeing today. The 2010 team limped home (75-87) and changed managers (Mike Quade took over for the final 37 games) and started to clean house. Fan favorite Derrek Lee was moved to the Braves and workhorse pitcher Ted Lilly (along with scrappy Ryan Theriot) found new homes with the Dodgers. Along the way, some of the kids from the minor leagues started to get a taste of the Major Leagues. Foremost among these was a kid shortstop named Starlin Castro. And then there was 2011…
The disaster that was the 2011 season for the Cubs also was the first seed planted in their rebirth. General Manager Jim Hendry was on the hot seat. While he was responsible for developing some promising youngsters (Castro, Welington Castillo, Jeff Samardzjia, among others), he made questionable moves at the major league level (Carlos Pena, Marlon Byrd, Matt Garza). The day he was fired (July 22, 2011) may end up as being the greatest day in Cubs modern history.
Shortly after the conclusion of that 2011 season, Ricketts made two hires. He brought on former San Diego Padres General Manager Jed Hoyer to the same position with the Cubs and also brought on former Red Sox wunderkind Theo Epstein to run the show as team president. And the effects were instantaneous. Ineffective veterans were replaced either by cheaper youngsters (Luis Valbuena, Tony Campana, Travis Wood, some kid named Rizzo) or short term stopgap veterans (David DeJesus, Paul Maholm) and the team struggled (61-101 record) as younger guys got the chance to develop. The June amateur draft, long an afterthought at Clark and Addison, became a centerpiece event. Gone were the days of drafting whoever was there and here were the days of carefully scouting and drafting the right fits for the puzzle. The first 3 years of Theo were painful to watch for outsiders, but exciting times for serious fans. Cubs fans got to watch as prized youngsters such as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Kyle Hendricks bided their time on the farm and other youngsters such as Anthony Rizzo, Arismendy Alcantara, and Starlin Castro had their chance to show what they could do every day at the MLB level. It did not pay off in wins and losses, but it surely helped in giving these kids confidence in their own abilities. It also didn’t hurt that Epstein/Hoyer were able to pull off shrewd deals (Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, and Jeff Samardzjia netted Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Jr, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Billy McKinney, Addison Russell, and some guy named Jake). Add to that one of the most successful coups in modern MLB history, and the foundation was firmly in place.
Why all this backstory? Because, if the 2016 Chicago Cubs really do pull this off, the “Making of…” story will be just as important as the actual events as they unfold.
So, without further ado, I present the 2016 Chicago Cubs.
Is there a better all-around infield in MLB? There are three previous All-Stars (Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, and Anthony Rizzo) and one probable (Addison Russell) one in the starting spots. Add to that a guy who would be starting for most MLB teams (Javier Baez) and a guy who is a great left handed contact bat (Tommy LaStella).
Defensively, this group is better than people think. Bryant was far from a butcher at the Hot Corner, and Rizzo and Zobrist are both well respected defenders. While Zobrist was disappointing defensively at second base in 2015, this seems to be a blip rather than a trend, as his metrics up to that point were stellar. Russell is already being mentioned, in his second season, with the elite shortstop defenders. Baez is slick and smooth in the middle. LaStella is steady.
Offensively, this group is good and only stands to get better. Bryant did everything expected of him, and more, in his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2015. Critics point out that he had a quite high strikeout rate (199 in 650 plate appearances), but fail to notice that he also was patient enough to coax 77 bases on balls (.369 OBP). With a stringer lineup surrounding him, and one more year under his belt, his production should be just fine.
Rizzo simply had the best season of his career to date, in 2015. He set career highs in hits, RBI, SB, walks, and runs scored while finishing 4th in NL MVP voting. This team is squarely on his shoulders.
Addison Russell came up from Iowa shortly after Bryant and struggled at the plate while adjusting to a new position (2B). He settled into the lower part of the lineup, and took over at his natural shortstop position after the benching of Starlin Castro and put up better numbers all across the board. With the lowered expectations that come with batting 7th or 8th, Russell is in a prime spot to have a breakout season with the bat.
Zobrist has been the model of consistency at the plate ever since becoming a regular with the Rays in 2009. He has a bit more pop as a right handed hitter, but gets on base at a pretty much equal rate from each side. This is one of the smartest acquisitions this team has made.
As for the reserves, LaStella is a good contact guy with low strikeout rates who provides a valuable left handed bench bat. Baez has tremendous right handed power and flashes good speed.
This team has a problem many other teams wish they had. What problem is that? How to find playing time for 4 top tier outfielders.
In center field, the Cubs resigned second half hero Dexter Fowler. While he was not by any means an excellent defensive player, he was much better than he had been in previous years with Colorado and Houston. His impact on this team was in many ways other than with the glove. He got on base from the leadoff spot regularly (.346 OBP) and scored a lot (102 runs) while taking time to also pop a career high 17 HR. His impact on the 2015 Cubs was much like what Gary Matthews meant to the 1984 Cubs.
In left field, the team actually faces a dilemma of sorts. Former right fielder Jorge Soler and the hard hitting Kyle Schwarber will at least start off the year in a time share. Neither player is likely to win the spot outright due to his glove, so Maddon is likely to just play the hot hand. The games that Schwarber is playing at catcher or, as in the case of the opening series, the team needs a DH in an American League ballpark, both SOler and Schwarber will be able to be in the lineup.
Then there is right field. One season after Jon Lester signed the richest deal in Cubs history, Jason Heyward moved Lester to second place. Heyward is not going to hit 30 HR. He will not hit .340. He will not drive in 120 runs. What he WILL do is get on base at an excellent clip and provide other-worldly defensive support. There have been plenty of offseason debates as to whether this deal is favorable for the Cubs or not. Time will tell. It stands to reason that if Heyward exercises his out clause and once again hits the free agency market after the 2018 season, that would indicate a “win-win” scenario for both player and team.
The incumbent is Miguel Montero, and there is no reason not to expect more of the same from him. He can be penciled in for .250-.270 with 12-18 HR and solid defense. And there is not a thing wrong with that. The catcher position is not one which is expected to be a major offensive producer anymore. Teams rely on their backstops to stabilize a pitching staff and play 5 times a week. That is exactly what Montero gives you.
Behind him is the stalwart David Ross, who has already announced that 2016 will be his last MLB season as a player. He is the epitome of “Leader”. He doesn’t put up the flashy stats, and never really has (2006 excepted). What he does provide is leadership and insight. His influence on the 2015 was far greater than his statistics would seem to indicate.
Waiting in the wings in the case of injuries or ineffectiveness, the Cubs have Matt Szczur (who will open with the team while Baez is on the 15 Day DL), Arismendy Alcantara, Jeimer Candelario, Tim Fedorowicz, Kristopher Negron, Willson Contreras, Matt Murton, Shane Victorino, and Munenori Kawasaki. Madden loves to use his roster, and any combination of these guys are likely to spend significant time with the 2016 Cubs.
And then there is the pitching…
Let’s first look at the bullpen.
Closing things will be Hector Rondon. In Chicago sports, there are always two guys who the fans love to hate. One is whoever is the starting QB for the Bears, the other is whoever is the 9th inning guy for the Cubs. No matter what the incumbent is doing, the fans always seem to think the guy in waiting would do better. The case is no different this year.
For a stretch last year, Rondon was removed from the closer role. During the offseason, a lot of people were clamoring for Rondon to be replaced by such names as Papelbon, Chapman, etc. I could understand that when your incumbent has been ineffective. So, how ineffective has Rondon been? How about 30/34 in saves, a 1.67 ERA, a crisp 1.00 WHIP? Or how about during the summer months (June, July, August) when he had a 0.50 combined ERA with 15/16 saves? This guy has been good, people. He is also 28 years old, so just reaching his peak performance. No need for a replacement.
Leading up to him will be where the Cubs can make or break their season. The rest of the relief squad is filled with guys who have about as much upside as they do question marks. When these guys are “on”, they’re on. But when they’re “off”…
The top right hander in the pen is Pedro Strop.When he was good in 2015, he was REALLY good. But when he was bad…just ask Bob Costas. When looking at his performance breakdown, it is particularly alarming to see how he did when a runner reached third base. A .625 opponent’s batting average with the bases loaded has got to have sabremetric guru Maddon cringing. To Maddon’s credit, he continues to let Strop try to work his way through these blips.
The top lefty is an interesting study. Travis Wood was brought to the Cubs as a 25 year old starting pitcher with a great upside. He was solid in his first two Cubs seasons with good peripheral numbers and an All Star appearance. His third season was a disaster in every way, and he entered 2015 as the Cubs fifth starter. As a starter, he seemed to hit a wall around the middle of the game, as he dropped precipitously in the 5th and 6th. Madden saw this quickly and moved him to the bullpen after only 9 starts. What a good move that turned out to be. Wood became a reliable and durable member of that bullpen. He was pretty effective against both right and left handed batters, so he was not relegated to your typical LOOGY status, and could be stretched out.
Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm seem to be the best options after that. Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill had their moments, especially late in the season, but neither looks to be a major factor for 2016. And interesting pitcher will be former Yankee Adam Warren who just may end up being the right handed equivalent of Travis Wood. He was arguably more effective as a starting pitcher than out of the bullpen for the Yankees, and he will likely be shuffled between both roles for the Cubs in 2016.
Waiting in the wings, as relief pitchers tend to be shuttled in and out for every MLB team, are guys such as Zac Rosscup (on the 60 day DL), Manny Parra, Ryan Williams (who looked REALLY good in Arizona this Spring), Aaron Crow, and Jean Machi.
As for those starters, this is an intriguing group.
Lester was brought in to headline this staff coming into 2015. He did everything ask of him except win a lot of games. This was not his fault. He so often pitched with horrible run support, as his peripheral statistics were all on par with his best years with Boston. With a bit more luck and support, he easily would have been a 15+ game winner.
Postseason stud John Lackey was brought in to fill the #3 slot in the rotation. He is coming off a very effective season (2.77 ERA, 5.7 WAR) with the hated Cardinals and should fit in nicely.
At 4 and 5, for the time being, are Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel. Hendricks quietly had a pretty good season in 2015. He has a decent repertoire and great makeup. While I will not be so bold as to predict a Hall of Fame career for him, his composition is quite reminiscent of a young Greg Maddux. Being slotted lower in the rotation will only help him as he learns from watching the veterans ahead of him.
Hammel is an interesting study. He has yet, at age 33, to put together a solid full MLB season, but has always tempted with flashes of excellence. 2015 was no exception. He was practically unhittable until he suffered a hamstring injury just before the All Star break. While he didn’t miss significant time, he was not the same after the break. While he can be a decent contributor to an average staff, I don’t see him being a major factor for a competitor. I look for him to lose his rotation spot to Warren before long, and probably look for him to be moved to another team sometime in the summer.
Which brings us to the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Jake Arrieta. What he did after the calendar changed to June was simply sparkling. He truly was unhittable. What many fail to realize is that Arrieta was no one-hit wonder. Ever since joining the Cubs in 2013, he has been dominant (36-13, 2.26 ERA, 0.940 WHIP, 14.7 WAR). He had a 5.3 WAR (compared to 8.7 in 2015) in 2014 in only 25 starts. This guy is good, people. While no intelligent person expects him to put up the same supernatural numbers as he did in 2015, there is no reason to expect a dramatic downturn.
This staff, while not exactly the 1971 Orioles, is not one to take lightly. When the dust settles, and that #5 slot is stabilized, this is a starting staff that can easily win 65-70 games.
When all is said and done, I see the 2016 Chicago Cubs triumphing in the NL Central Division, in the National League, and, dare I say it, in all of Major League Baseball. They will defeat the Kansas City Royals 4 games to 2 on Tuesday November 3, 2016. Not only will the free world elect a new President that day, the history books will be rewritten as 108 years of futility will finally come to an end.
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.
By Robert O’Brien
It’s the most wonderful time of the year yet again. We are in the month of October and it’s time for postseason baseball and all the excitement that it brings. From dazzling game saving plays, to pitcher’s duels that are decided by one run, to big time sluggers coming up in the clutch moments to give their team the lead in the late innings of a cold October ballgame, this is the time of year that all thirty major league teams hope to find themselves still playing baseball in.
Among the many teams hoping to snag a spot in the postseason this year, three of the most powerful came out of the National League Central division. This division consisted of the three best teams in the entire game according to their records. These teams would be the St. Louis Cardinals, who seem to find themselves in the postseason every year, the Cubs of Chicago, who haven’t even sniffed an opportunity to win themselves a World Series Championship since 1945, and the Pittsburg Pirates, an organization who is still relatively new to this whole concept of the postseason.
By this I am referring to the fact that the Pirates have earned a ticket to October in each of the last three seasons, but before 2013, had not even earned themselves a winning record since 1992.
However, many believe that this year could be substantially different than the last two playoff runs for the Bucs. Manager Clint Hurdle and the Pirates undoubtedly have a championship caliber team in every aspect, but will first have to get through their division rival Chicago Cubs, and Jake Arrieta in the Unpredictable Wild Card Game. One advantage that the Pirates are elated to say that they hold before the game even begins, is the fact that they have possession of home field advantage, with one of the most enthusiastic, passionate fan bases in baseball at Pittsburgh’s own PNC Park.
Now before this season many casual baseball fans might ask you “Who is Jake Arrieta?”, or tell you that newly acquired Jon Lester will inevitably be the ace of the Chicago staff. However since the All-Star break, not only has he been CY Young caliber good, not only has he been Ace of the staff good, he has been historically good. Since the All-Star break, Arrieta has undoubtedly been the most dominant pitcher in the game. Arrieta has posted a 0.75 ERA, and has struck out more batters than he has innings pitched. Arrieta was even able to notched one of the most celebrated achievements in the game today, tossing a no-hitter. As if the no-hitter itself wasn’t impressive enough, he threw it against one of the best teams in baseball with an offense well above quality, in the home turf of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
His final stats for the year only consist of a 1.77 ERA, (the lowest for a Cubs pitcher since 1919), a 0.86 WHIP, and nearly 230 IP, being the most successful pitcher not only on the cubs’ staff, but in all of baseball.
In my personal opinion, the Cubs will be putting out for the National League Wild Card Game, the man who should be crowned the 2015 CY Young award winner.
Of course Joe Maddon and the Cubs will be given a great chance to win the ballgame due to Arrieta being on the bump, the Pirates will also be putting out an ace of their own for their biggest game of the year.
Gerrit Cole will be called upon to be the starting pitcher for the Pittsburg Pirates as one of the games top pitchers this season himself, displaying an impressive resume throughout the entire course of the season. Cole notched a 2.56 ERA, along with more than 200 strikeouts and 200 innings pitched. Not quite as impressive as Arrieta, but still extremely respectable, and will be no easy task for the Chicago hitters.
As far as previous trips to the postseason, the Pirates roster and Gerrit Cole posses far more postseason experience than the Cubs roster, which is loaded with rookies and other young players. Even Arrieta, who is now 29 years old, and has been pitching in the big leagues’ for a number of years, has never thrown a pitch during a postseason game.
This creates an advantage for Gerrit Cole as he will be more immune to the pressure that comes with being given an opportunity to perform on such a large, magnified stage, due to his previous 10 innings of success in the postseason.
One question about this game that we will never be able to answer is one that not even the hitters who are facing these two aces will be able to determine for a definite. Does facing a specific pitcher provide an advantage for the hitter, if he has previously faced the same pitcher? For example, if Pedro Alvarez were to have faced Jake Arrieta six times in the past, will he either have a greater chance of success in the Wild Card game against Arrieta, or will his chances of getting on base stay the same? This question applies more so to the lefties than righties due to Arrieta’s particular success against left handed batters.
Some believe that the Pirates are given a greater chance of defeating Arietta, just due to the fact that the lineup has seen him in the past. They believe that despite Arrieta’s success against the Pirates lineup in the past, that the big league hitters of the Pirate’s lineup will be able to make an adjustment against pitches that they have previously witnessed. However, if the Pirates are able to make an adjustment against Arietta and change their approach at the plate, who’s to say that Arrieta is unable to create a different approach to the Pittsburg lineup that he could use to continue his success against this particular lineup.
To give you an idea of how Arrieta has performed against the pirates, consider this; other than Andrew McCutchen, not a single player in their lineup is batting higher than 187. against Arrieta this year, while he has only given up three extra base hits in multiple starts against the same club.
Gerrit Cole has also seen the Chicago lineup previously this season, and has not been as successful as Arrieta in dominating his opposition. Particularly, Kris Bryant, Miguel Montero, and Anthony Rizzo have had success off of Pittsburgh’s 6-4 Right Hander.
The same question applies for Gerrit Cole in his battle against the young, energetic lineup of the Chicago Cubs; will previous at bats against Cole have a positive effect, negative effect, or no effect at all on the Cub’s hitters, particularly lefties, whom Cole has a greater success against?
Although I am a strong believer in the ideology that it is a necessity for an organization to have quality starting pitching in order to be successful and/or make a run deep into the postseason, a championship caliber team in addition needs a solid offense to support any quality pitching that may be a part of the team. In addition, a strong bullpen is needed and can appear to be the deciding factor in many games late in October. Just look at the Royals of 2014. Where could that team have gone without the dominant bullpen men such as Greg Holland, and Wade Davis.
In the case of the Pirates, they are the holders of the best pitching baseball, holding the league’s lowest ERA at 2.67. This impressive statistic is largely impart due to their incredibly consistent bullpen. You tend to feel that even if Gerrit Cole were to be pulled after four or five innings, that their bullpen would be able to hold a lead for the rest of the game, or at least keep the Pirates in the game. I couldn’t see the Cubs fairing very well against this bullpen if Pittsburgh were to have a lead after six innings. Whether it is Joakim Soria, Tony Watson, or #1 closer in baseball Mark Melancon, to even scratch out one run against these arms would be a huge positive for the Cubbies.
In the case of the Cubs, if this team had an Achilles heel, it would be their bullpen. It has been shaky and inconsistent for large parts of the season, and could not be totally trusted with a lead even if Arrieta were to go seven innings.
Of course in order to win a game at any point of the season, you need at least a small portion of offense. Both offenses that will go head to head this Wednesday ranked towards the middle of the pack in most offensive categories. The Pirates seemed to have a slight edge in almost all categories, putting them at 11th in the bigs, as the Cubs finished 16th overall.
When analyzing the two team’s offenses we can generally conclude that Pittsburgh’s lineup posses a more well rounded offense with a more stable balance within their lineup, containing table setters at the front, the team’s top hitter batting third, the power hitters in the middle of the order, and the remaining quality hitters to round out the line up before the pitchers spot.
While when we look at the Cubs line up, we see a more frequent appearance of a “big hit or big miss” style of play. The cubs’ lineup posses lower averages, more strikeouts, but also provides more offense via the home run ball.
From these observations we can conclude that Pittsburgh has an advantage in the offensive aspect of the one game playoff over Chicago.
Two areas that both teams share a plethora of talent in are the defensive and speed categories. Pittsburgh most likely has the best fielding outfield in all of baseball, including possibly the best outfield arm in baseball in Placido Polanco. The majority of the Pirates roster also possesses the speed to steal a base in a big situation or make a game saving defensive play at any position on the field.
The cubs’ posses the same advantage in their speed and on the defensive side of the ball, with most likely the best fielding first baseman in baseball and numerous infielders who have the potential to win a gold glove in the very near future. The cubs were also blessed with a long list of players who can swipe a bag at any moment, and were tops in the league in stolen bases for most of the 2015 season.
And in the postseason, one base runner who swipes a bag or who beats out an infield hit could very well determine the game’s outcome, especially in a one game playoff.
Both clubs field very good teams in plenty of aspects of the professional game of baseball. But it is very possible that many of these aspects or player attributes may not come into affect at all during this game. Perhaps in a seven game series or over the course of an entire season, all player attributes will have the opportunity to be shown or will be forced to be put on display. But for one game, for one day, throw the probabilities and stats out the window, because for one day anything could happen. For one at-bat the stats form the past won’t matter and one at bat during one game could very well decide the fate of a team that has been playing incredible baseball for 162 games. But what they’ve done over the last 162 games no longer matters. You could almost consider the Wild Card game a coin flip as to who will be the loser and who will emerge victorious.
As for my personal prediction, although I do believe that the Pirates do have the better team overall, Jake Arrieta has just been too incredibly dominant in the recent weeks and months, and I Believe that he will lead the Cubs to victory for ,at least, just one more day.