Cubs

Projecting the 2017 Cubs' 25-man playoff roster

Projecting the 2017 Cubs' 25-man playoff roster

Now that the Cubs have locked up the National League Central, the attention has turned to the postseason.

The Cubs will head to Washington D.C. for a date with Bryce Harper and the Nationals in the National League Division Series beginning Oct. 6.

There are still a couple question marks regarding health and effectiveness on several players, but here's how the Cubs' 25-man roster could look for that NLDS showdown.

Note: This isn't a projection of a lineup for Game 1 of the NLDS. I don't envy Maddon deciding which three outfielders to sit each night (assuming Javy Baez and Addison Russell are set at middle infield).

CATCHER

Willson Contreras
Alex Avila

This is an easy call. Contreras figures to start every postseason game he's healthy for with his unique blend of arm strength to control the running game, energy and offensive prowess. Avila is a steady veteran who would be the starting catcher on the roster of almost every other playoff team, but instead will contribute off the bench as a left-handed bat and clubhouse presence.

INFIELD

Anthony Rizzo
Javy Baez
Addison Russell
Kris Bryant
Tommy La Stella

Not including Ben Zobrist or Ian Happ here because the assumption is Baez takes over at second base with Russell at short for every postseason game (and possibly every inning in October). That's how things ended up last fall as Baez emerged as a national star while starting all 17 playoff games at second base and displacing Zobrist from the infield to the outfield.

Of course, Rizzo and Bryant will start every single playoff game at the corners (with good health).

OUTFIELD

Ben Zobrist
Kyle Schwarber
Albert Almora Jr.
Jason Heyward
Jon Jay
Ian Happ

This is where Maddon will make his money. There's a legitimate shot for all six guys to start each game, yet clearly that won't happen. Does Zobrist deserve to start every game? Maddon has turned him into a part-time player at age 36 and Zobrist is hitting just .238 with a .705 OPS.

Against left-handed starting pitchers (like Washington's Gio Gonzalez), Schwarber will not start and Almora (if he's fully over his recent shoulder issue) almost assuredly will man center. Will Jason Heyward also sit vs. LHPs, leaving an OF of Happ-Almora-Zobrist left-to-right? Heyward has been only slightly better offensively this season (.707 OPS) compared to 2016 (.631 OPS), but is the best defensive outfielder in the game.

How much will Schwarber play? We know he'll sit against all LHPs, but he's also only been starting sparingly against RHPs in important games down the stretch despite 5 HR and a .970 OPS in 46 September at-bats.

STARTING ROTATION

Jake Arrieta
Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana

I tell you what, I would not want to be the person who has to tell John Lackey he's not going to make the playoff rotation. But if all of these guys are healthy, I don't see how Lackey makes the cut, even if he does have a 2.51 ERA in 28.2 September innings and 26 career playoff outings under his belt.

Lester took a step forward Monday after a startling stretch of ineffectiveness (5.91 ERA, .948 OPS against in four starts between Sept. 2-20). He has one more start to continue to right the ship but regardless of the outcome in that game, Cubs have to feel pretty good about a guy with a 2.63 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 133.2 career postseason innings.

The only true question with the rotation comes in how they line up. While Lester has been struggling, Arrieta has picked up where he left off pre-hamstring injury, Kyle Hendricks has been a stud and Jose Quintana just pitched the game of his life over the weekend to neutralize the Brewers.

My bet is Arrieta and Hendricks Games 1 and 2 in D.C. and then Lester in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Quintana would go Game 4 assuming there is no sweep.

BULLPEN

Wade Davis
Carl Edwards Jr.
Mike Montgomery
Pedro Strop
Brian Duensing
Hector Rondon
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm

Here's where things get a bit hazy, as well. With Koji Uehara still unable to get past a knee and back injury, he's essentially out of the mix. Rondon is also nursing a sore elbow, but has thrown 2.1 dominant innings over the last week and hasn't allowed a run since Aug. 23. 

Wilson has been an enigma since coming over from the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline, going from one of the elite late-inning options in baseball to a guy who has allowed 35 baserunners in 15.2 innings in a Cubs uniform. But he's done it before and he did have an outing over the weekend that was encouraging, retiring all four Brewers he faced, including three strikeouts. Then there was Tuesday, when Wilson walked the only two batters he faced against the Cardinals and was removed in the middle of an at-bat.

There's also the Justin Grimm factor. He's got a 5.57 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 48 appearances, but the Cubs don't really have any other trustworthy options in the 'pen and the worst thing a team could do in October is somehow wind up without enough pitching if a game extends to extra innings or a pitcher is only used for one hitter. Over the last three years, Grimm has held lefties to a .597 OPS against and did make six appearances last October.


If not Grimm for the 25th man on the roster, the Cubs do have the option of keeping an extra position player, but nobody really stands out right now. 

Leonys Martin could be a pinch-runner, but the roster has plenty of left-handed bats and outfielders as it stands, so Martin doesn't hold a ton of value. Victor Caratini can catch or play first/third base, but he's a rookie in his first MLB season and has hit just .240 with a .681 OPS in 56 plate appearances. Rene Rivera is a wily veteran who can do some damage against left-handed pitchers, but do the Cubs really need a third catcher in the postseason?

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

Who are the 2018 Cubs?

It's mid-August, there's only seven weeks of regular season action left before the playoffs and yet the Cubs still don't have an identity they can hang their hats on.

Maybe they are just a team with an underachieving rotation, an inconsistent offense, a bullpen that is fantastic when rested and an elite defense.
 
Yet they maintain there's more in the tank and with a roster this talented and track records this extensive, it's easy to believe them. 

But when will that show up on a regular basis?

Mind you, the Cubs aren't complaining where they're at.

They woke up Monday morning with the best record in the National League by three games and the peace that no matter what happens in a two-game series with the Brewers this week at Wrigley Field, they'll head to Pittsburgh Thursday at least a game up in the division.

Of course, where would the Cubs be right now without David Bote's ninth-inning heroics Sunday night or against the Diamondbacks two weeks ago? Fortunately for the Cubs, that's an alternate universe they don't have to think about.

They'll take this current position, of course. Especially with the two biggest free agent additions of the offseason — Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish — combining to throw just 70.2 innings to date plus a balky shoulder that has put Kris Bryant on the shelf for nearly two months (assuming he returns late August or early September) and has sapped the power of the 2016 NL MVP even when he has been healthy enough to suit up. And don't forget Carl Edwards Jr. — the team's second-most important reliever — also missed time (nearly five weeks) and has appeared in just 39 games.

"I don't take anything for granted," Joe Maddon said. "The Cardinals are playing a whole lot better, the Pirates have done a nice job, Milwaukee's not going away. I get all that. But at the end of the day — and this has been my mantra forever — worry about the Cubs. Worry about you guys.

"We just gotta play our game and if we do that, that stuff becomes secondary at every stop, whether it's Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Cubs do what they're supposed to do, that other stuff becomes moot. 

"That's about getting the rotation back where we think they can be. That's about getting our offense percolating on all cylinders again while we continue to play this defense. If we could somehow get KB, Darvish and Morrow back for that stretch run, my god, you can't get better acquisitions at the end of the year.

"That's all a possibility, but I don't count on it. I'm not waiting for that day to happen. In the meantime, you work with what you got and try to make that as best you can."

What Maddon has is a team that is 13-11 with a -21 run differential since the All-Star Break — obviously not the stuff of a championship team across nearly a month's worth of a sample size.

Digging deeper, however, and you see that the Cubs have been on the wrong end of several blowouts including the 18-5 loss to the Cardinals July 20 and the 9-0 defeat at the hands of the Royals last week. Of the Cubs' 13 second-half wins, 9 have come by three runs or less, including 6 one-run victories.

But the concerns are there, particularly with making sure the rotation helps pick up the slack down the stretch and reduce the stress on an already-taxed bullpen.

Cubs pitchers have combined to throw just 44 pitches and get 7 outs after the seventh inning all season — all of which can be credited to Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery and now Cole Hamels have yet to throw a pitch in the eighth inning this year (though, obviously, Hamels has been fantastic in a small sample size and Montgomery saved the rotation when Darvish went down months ago).

Once the Cubs signed Darvish in February, there were many pundits across the game that believed this could be the top starting staff in baseball behind only the Houston Astros.

"Remember I thought in spring training, this had a chance to be THE best rotation we've had here," Maddon said. "We've had some pretty good ones. And it just hasn't gotten to that point yet, but I still believe that it can, in spite of the fact that we haven't gotten the normal innings out of them."

The rotation is underperforming, but this has been by far the deepest stable of relief pitchers Maddon has had to work with in Chicago.

"You gotta give these bullpen guys a ton of credit and the depth that is organization has built," Maddon said. "The guys that have come up for cameos have contributed greatly to this moment.

"I've often talked about the bullpen — you gotta have that to win a championship and these guys are demonstrating that right now. And part of that is to not beat 'em up."

The Cubs still rank atop the National League in many offensive categories — including runs scored, OPS and on-base percentage — but anybody who's watched this team all year knows they are prone to rather extreme highs and lows.

Since the All-Star Break, it's mostly been at a low, contributing to that suboptimal run differential.

"Offensively, I don't see some of our guys at their normal levels," Maddon said. "I know we got this wonderful run differential [on the season] and we lead the league in runs scored, but how do you maintain that? That's my biggest concern."

Beyond Javy Baez's MVP campaign and the resurgence of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, the only thing that has been working offensively of late is Anthony Rizzo in the leadoff spot.

Maddon tossed the face of the franchise atop the order a month ago and hasn't moved him out — for good reason. In 27 starts at leadoff, Rizzo is slashing .347/.446/.604, good for a 1.050 OPS. 

The rest of the lineup behind him has gone through its ups and downs lately, but that's also the nature of the game, especially in this day and age with strikeouts up and basehits down.

For perspective, a Phillies team that has been challenging for the NL East all season has experienced similar head-scratching offensive games on a regular basis:

A lot can change in Major League Baseball in the span of a few weeks.

Just a few weeks ago, who considered Bote to be big part of this team in 2018 or beyond? When the Cubs traded for Hamels, they were hoping he could give them solid innings. Did anybody predict this level of success from the 34-year-old southpaw so soon?

With seven weeks left until postseason baseball, rest assured — there are still plenty of ups and downs coming for the Cubs.

Outsiders — fans and media — often seesaw with those ebbs and flows for many reasons, but the best one is this: It's simply no fun if you don't allow yourself to get completely caught up with moments like Bote's ultimate grand slam or Hamels' Rejuvenation Tour that has only lasted three starts.

But even if those outsiders are willing to ride that roller coaster even a little bit, the Cubs certainly won't inside the clubhouse.

"Never a good time to ride the roller coaster," Rizzo said. "I get motion sickness anyways."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Bote-mania has not only taken over Chicago but he’s helped save the Cubs’ season

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Bote-mania has not only taken over Chicago but he’s helped save the Cubs’ season

Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Matt Buckman and Jon Graff break down a wild weekend set against the Nationals.

They discuss David Bote becoming a household name, Cole Hamels continuing the stellar start to his Cubs career, and Kris Bryant finally feeling pain free. Plus, once the 2016 MVP returns to the lineup, what does that mean for Bote’s playing time?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.