How Cubs rotation could be aligning for World Series run against weakened National League contenders

How Cubs rotation could be aligning for World Series run against weakened National League contenders

Johnny Cueto telling reporters this week that his strained left groin felt like a crab grabbing and biting him became another surreal moment for the San Francisco Giants during their second-half spiral. It could also be interpreted as yet another sign that everything could be aligning for the Cubs this season.

Cueto getting an MRI and potentially missing his next start could be extremely damaging for the even-year Giants. Because lining up a $130 million pitcher who earned a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year would give San Francisco a sense of momentum heading into Oct. 7 at Wrigley Field. But that’s only if the Giants can keep pace in the National League wild-card race and ride Madison Bumgarner into the next playoff round. 

The Giants, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals all woke up on Thursday morning with 80-72 records in this battle of attrition. The Mets look nothing like the team that dominated the Cubs during last year’s NL Championship Series, with Matt Harvey recovering from season-ending surgery (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom undergoing another procedure to fix nerve damage in his right elbow and Steven Matz getting scratched from Friday night’s comeback start after a setback with the left shoulder tightness that has sidelined him since mid-August.

By Friday afternoon, the magic number to clinch the NL’s No. 1 seed will be two when the Cardinals invade Wrigleyville for a three-game series that could be an October sneak preview for the Cubs, a team with five pitchers who have made at least 28 starts this season. That group includes two Cy Young frontrunners (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks), last year’s award winner (Jake Arrieta) and a Texas cowboy who’s won two clinching games in the World Series (John Lackey).

“We feel good about where we’re at going into the second season,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “The home-field advantage after winning the division is huge for us. We want teams to have to come through our home. We want to be a very difficult team for other teams to come in here and play. Our record has proven that. And our health is imperative going forward.

“We have to have all of our horses lined up for the playoffs, including the bullpen with (Pedro) Strop and (Hector) Rondon. Knowing that we have those guys going into the playoffs – it’s special. I think it’s an advantage. And we have to take advantage of it.”

[MORE: How rotation strength/health tells the story of Cubs season so far]

Beyond the maximum efforts those wild-card contenders will have to expend, the Washington Nationals don’t know when – or if – Stephen Strasburg’s right elbow will allow him to return this season or how he will live up to the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed in May.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping the herniated disc in Clayton Kershaw’s back doesn’t flare up again. And Dave Roberts had enough concerns about Rich Hill’s fragile nature that the manager pulled the ex-Cub after seven perfect innings against the Miami Marlins on Sept. 10, fearing blisters on his left hand.

“I’ve been aware,” David Ross said. “I saw Strasburg go down and then the Mets’ (situation). But Bartolo Colon can deal, you know what I mean?”

Ross had just watched Joey Votto drill a ball off Lester’s right wrist during Tuesday’s 6-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds. Near the end of his farewell tour, Lester’s personal catcher stood at his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse and joked about his initial reaction: “Please don’t be hurt…there goes my job.”

“Anybody can be really good on a certain night,” said Ross, who won a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox team that featured Lester and Lackey. “Especially in that kind of atmosphere, guys tend to take their game to another level.

“We’re going to have a team that’s going to roll in here and try to beat us. (They’ll) try to do the same thing we’re trying to do – get to the World Series and (reach) the ultimate goal.

“I just told ‘Rizz’ (Anthony Rizzo) in the shower, it’s the whole Ric Flair (attitude): To be the best, you got to beat the best. And I dropped a big ‘Woo!’ on him in the shower.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

The means Arrieta recapturing the feel and swagger that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year. This season’s glittering overall numbers (17-7, 2.96 ERA) haven’t completely covered up some of the command issues and inconsistent performances, which create another layer of meaning to Friday’s start against the Cardinals.

“Our pitchers will match up with anyone,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “At the end of the day, they got to make pitches, regardless. If you don’t make pitches, you won’t match up with anybody.

“Hopefully, we get Jake back on track, too, because I think it’s in there. It’s just maybe a little tweak here and there. But I believe he needs just one good outing to get the confidence back.”

The Cubs also don’t have any definitive answers for why their starters haven’t broken down, knowing there is an element of luck involved and that one pitch could change their entire playoff forecast.

“Most of these guys have had a good history,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think that’s the primary reason why (they’ve stayed healthy). You talk about some of these Dodger guys – they have had a history of not being well – so I think that’s just a history lesson more than anything. I’m certain they don’t do anything different than we do. I just think it’s up to the individual, the player.”

Especially in October, when the Nationals will have their own $210 million ace with Cy Young Award credentials (Max Scherzer) on the mound and Kershaw will be trying to rewrite his postseason legacy (2-6, 4.59 ERA) and the wild-card survivor won’t be feeling any suffocating pressure.

“That’s how it goes,” Ross said. “You’re going to have to play good baseball. You don’t get to the endgame without going through some really tough competition.”

As Opening Day approaches, Cubs roster comes into focus


As Opening Day approaches, Cubs roster comes into focus

With less than a week until Opening Day, the Cubs' roster is all but set.

Joe Maddon told reporters in Arizona Friday the Cubs will roll with eight relievers to open the season, which doesn't come as any surprise. 

Left-handed pitcher Randy Rosario was optioned to Triple-A Iowa, leaving Eddie Butler and Shae Simmons as the two most likely guys to take the final bullpen spot.

Butler, 27, is out of minor-league options, which means if the Cubs do not keep him on their big-league roster, they risk losing him on waivers. Simmons still has two options remaining.

Butler also represents more starting pitching depth for the team beyond their five-man rotation and Mike Montgomery. Theo Epstein's front office likes to enter a season with 8-10 starting pitching options in case of injury, so it'd be hard to see the team getting rid of their No. 7 guy on that depth chart.

This spring, Butler has pitched 10 innings over five games with a 4.50 ERA and five strikeouts. He made 11 starts and two bullpen appearances with the 2017 Cubs, posting a 3.95 ERA and 1.43 WHIP.

Simmons, 27, signed with the Cubs as a free agent Feb. 16 and pitched nine games with the Seattle Mariners last year. He's appeared in four games for the Cubs this spring, pitching to a 2.45 ERA with five strikeouts in 3.2 innings.

In carrying eight relievers, that only leaves one position player spot available (backup catcher). Outfielder Peter Bourjos is expected to start the season in the minor leagues.

Veteran backstop Chris Gimenez will probably get the nod on the big-league roster over youngster Victor Caratini.

Gimenez comes with experience and a knowledge and relationship with Yu Darvish and we do have confirmation Darvish is making the Opening Day roster:

The Cubs really like Caratini and he's arguably their top position player prospect, but at age 24, he needs to play every day and see regular at-bats, which he wouldn't get backing up Willson Contreras in Chicago.

With that, here's the projected Cubs' Opening Day roster:


Willson Contreras
Chris Gimenez


Anthony Rizzo
Kris Bryant
Addison Russell
Javy Baez
Tommy La Stella
Ben Zobrist


Ian Happ
Kyle Schwarber
Albert Almora Jr.
Jason Heyward

Starting pitchers

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Yu Darvish
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood


Brandon Morrow (closer)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Brian Duensing
Mike Montgomery
Eddie Butler

Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Braves are coming (but not yet)


Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Braves are coming (but not yet)

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Atlanta Braves

2017 record: 72-90, 3rd place in NL East

Offseason additions: Preston Tucker, Charlie Culberson, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Peter Moylan, Chase Whitley, Grant Dayton, Chris Stewart, Anibal Sanchez

Offseason departures: Matt Kemp, R.A. Dickey, Jason Motte, Matt Adams

X-factor: Ozzie Albies

One of the youngest players in the league, Albies just turned 21 in January. He carries with him the pedigree of the game's No. 11 overall prospect entering last season and got his first taste of big-league life toward the end of 2017.

He hit well, posting a .286 average and .810 OPS while showing an advanced knowledge of the strike zone and providing some pop and speed.

Assuming he can avoid any sophomore slump and take another step forward, the Braves could actually surprise some people this year. But without Albies providing Ender Inciarte and Freddie Freeman some lineup support until a certain phenom gets to town, it's hard to see Atlanta contending.

Projected lineup

1. Ender Inciarte - CF
2. Ozzie Albies - 2B
3. Freddie Freeman - 1B
4. Tyler Flowers - C
5. Nick Markakis - RF
6. Preston Tucker - LF
7. Dansby Swanson - SS
8. Rio Ruiz - 3B

Projected rotation

1. Julio Teheran
2. Mike Foltynewicz
3. Brandon McCarthy
4. Sean Newcomb
5. Scott Kazmir


The Braves are coming, you guys. 

Maybe not now, but they'll be here soon enough.

2018 will feature growing pains for a young group of up-and-comers including the aforementioned Albies, plus Tucker (a powerful outfielder acquired from the Astros), Swanson (the 2015 No. 1 overall pick who's since fallen on tough times) and Newcomb.

Oh and there's some guy named Ronald Acuna coming up next. You may have heard of him.

The 20-year-old phenom has absolutely torn the cover off the ball everywhere he's gone the last 14 or so months and we'll see the game's No. 1 overall prospect in the big leagues in mid-April, God willing.

Once Acuna does come, it adds another level to a lineup that frankly comes up a bit short right now, even with Freeman (one of the best hitters in baseball) and Inciarte (one of the game's most underrated players). 

The Braves have a solid bullpen, plenty of rotation depth and a decent bench. It wouldn't be shocking to see them challenge for the second wild card spot, but true contention will probably come in 2019 for this bunch.

Prediction: 3rd in NL West, no playoffs

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves