Daniel Murphy

Where does the Cubs lineup rank in MLB?

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AP

Where does the Cubs lineup rank in MLB?

It's that time of the year — a week out from Opening Day where all the predictions and rankings come through.

The latest coming through the baseball world is MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince creating a list of the Top 10 lineups in baseball in 2018.

The Cubs come up lower than I expected — sitting sixth.

Here are Castrovince's rankings:

1. Houston Astros
2. New York Yankees
3. Washington Nationals
4. Boston Red Sox
5. Cleveland Indians
6. Chicago Cubs
7. Los Angeles Dodgers
8. Minnesota Twins
9. St. Louis Cardinals
10. Oakland A's

We broke down our own rankings of the Top 10 lineups in Major League Baseball:

Here's how I would rank the top lineups:

1. Houston Astros
2. Washington Nationals
3. Chicago Cubs
4. New York Yankees
5. Cleveland Indians
6. Boston Red Sox
7. Arizona Diamondbacks
8. Milwaukee Brewers
9. St. Louis Cardinals
10. Minnesota Twins

The Astros should be atop everybody's list.

The Nationals may actually be an underrated powerhouse offense, even with Daniel Murphy currently injured. Once he returns, you're looking at probably the best 1-6 of any lineup in baseball with Adam Eaton and Trea Turner (two premier leadoff-type hitters) setting the table for Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Murphy (three MVP candidates) and Ryan Zimmerman cleaning things up.

The Cubs may not have the sheer strength and power of the Yankees, but the Chicago lineup is deeper and more well-rounded. Regardless of who leads off and who plays on a given day, this Cubs team will batter opposing pitchers on a nightly basis and feature what very well could be three MVP candidates — Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras.

The Yankees would see a boost here if Brett Gardner shows no signs of aging at 34 and Greg Bird finally stays healthy.

The Indians are stacked, but don't quite boast as much depth 1-9 as the other lineups ahead of them with Tyler Naquin, Roberto Perez and Bradley Zimmer projected to make up the bottom-third of the order.

The Red Sox feature a dynamic young core despite a lineup that is coming off something of a down 2017 campaing. Adding J.D. Martinez to the mix is an incredible boost, as is a full season of phenom Rafael Devers.

The Diamondbacks have Paul Goldschmidt and a few question marks — including how the new humidor will affect the way the ball jumps in the dry Arizona heat. 

With new additions like Lorenzo Cain and former Marlins outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, the Cubs' main division rivals (Brewers, Cardinals) see a jump in lineup rankings.

The Dodgers are noticably absent given the injury to Justin Turner. Without him anchoring the order for the first month or so, this lineup absolutely needs Chris Taylor to turn in a repeat performance after a breakout 2017.

Are the Nationals crazy for not starting Stephen Strasburg in Game 4?

Are the Nationals crazy for not starting Stephen Strasburg in Game 4?

The Nationals were given a gift by God (OK, maybe not God, but Mother Nature, at least) and are not planning to change a damn thing.

Tuesday's awkward NLDS Game 4 rainout shifts the series back a day, seemingly opening the door for Dusty Baker and Co. to roll with co-ace Stephen Strasburg on regular rest to help stave off elimination.

But the Nationals don't want to take the easy — and commonsensical — way out. 

In a decision that shocked the baseball world — simultaneously making Cubs fans giggle with glee and Nats fans roll their eyes — Baker announced immediately after the game was called that Tanner Roark would still pitch as planned for Wednesday's make-up.

It's a curious decision, to be sure. And it's one that will reflect poorly on Baker (who already may be on the hot seat) if the results do not go his way.

But we also don't know what's truly going on in his own clubhouse and he does. For that and his probable Hall of Fame 22-year career as a manager, Baker deserves the benefit of the doubt that he's making the decision that is best for his team to win their first-ever postseason series (since moving from Montreal, at least). 

But it's easy to see the outrage and hubbub. Strasburg is a legitimate Cy Young candidate and was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2017. He got 17 outs before giving up a hit in Game 1 against the Cubs last week and still wound up with 10 strikeouts, even though "Bryzzo" finally got to him to lift the Cubs to victory.

During the 2017 season, Strasburg was 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA, 1.015 WHIP and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. 

Roark, meanwhile, was 13-11 with a 4.67 ERA, 1.335 WHIP and 8.2 K/9.

Baker reiterated several times in his post-rainout press conference Tuesday evening that he and the Nationals have plenty of confidence in Roark. The skipper claimed the Washington powers that be did not have a discussion about rolling with Strasburg Wednesday and Gio Gonzalez — another Cy Young candidate — in Game 5 should the series get that far.

There's also apparently no talk of Strasburg being available out of the bullpen.

"I don't know, man," Baker said. "I ain't even thinking about that, to tell you the truth. I'm thinking Tanner's going to do his thing."

The situation is even more convoluted because Strasburg first threw a bullpen Tuesday afternoon, before the game was rained out. Big-league pitchers are creatures of habit — as Baker acknowledged — and even if they aren't, it's not the best course of action, physically, for a pitcher to throw a bullpen one day and come back out and start a must-win game the next day. Pitchers typically throw a bullpen two or three days before their next start.

Another factor complicating things is Strasburg's health, which is not great. He's feeling under the weather, like most of the Nationals clubhouse, Baker said. 

"A lot of my team is under the weather with the change of weather and the air conditioning in the hotel and the air conditioning here," Baker said. "It's just this time of the year for mold around Chicago — I think it's mold. I mean, I have it, too."

(OK we need to stop the post here a bit. That's absolutely hilarious that mold was a topic of conversation ahead of what could be the final game of the NLDS. Totally did not see that coming.)

Regardless of Baker's reasoning, it's clear Strasburg isn't 100 percent health-wise and maybe that was a reason he wasn't able to throw a bullpen until Wednesday.

The Nationals can line their pitching up whatever way they want, but this series ultimately boils down to the Washington hitters, who are on the verge of having the lowest batting average ever by a team in a postseason series.

Strasburg and Scherzer combined for 12 no-hit innings in Games 1 and 3, yet the Cubs came back to win both games, in huge part because the Nationals did not have an earned run in either game.

In fact, the Nationals have scored in just three innings out of 27 in the NLDS, with five of their seven runs coming on that blowout eighth inning in Game 2 Saturday.

"We've got to score more runs," said Daniel Murphy, who tipped his hat to a Cubs pitching staff that has held him to a 1-for-11 batting line in the NLDS with a walk. "The pitching has been unbelievable for us — staring and relieving. 

"Offensively, we've got to score. That's where it starts and that doesn't fall on the manager. He's got us completely prepared for every ballgame. We have to go out there and see if we can put up some crooked numbers."

The rainout may have helped give the Nationals hitters one more day to refresh and reset, even if the pitching rotation doesn't change.

But it's also worth noting that Roark is no slouch. The University of Illinois product finished 10th in NL Cy Young voting in 2016 when he went 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA in 210 innings. He's also 3-1 at Wrigley Field with a 3.24 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, often pitching in front of a large contingent of friends and family in the stands.

So it wouldn't be all that shocking to see Roark go out and pitch well enough to give his team a chance to keep the series alive for Strasburg in Game 5, especially if the Bryce Harper-led offense awakens from its slumber.

This is postseason baseball. Roark's numbers across six months hardly matter if he's locked in and on his game in the incredibly-small sample size of one afternoon at Wrigley Field. This isn't some Triple-A pitcher getting the ball for Washington.

Yes, you'd rather have a guy like Strasburg throwing than Roark in what is essentially a one-game playoff if you're the Nationals, but if Strasburg isn't fully healthy anyways, it may be something of a moot point.

Or this could be some misdirection on the part of Baker and the Nationals and maybe Roark is on a really short leash and Strasburg or Gonzalez appear out of the bullpen.

Either way, if the Cubs emerge the victors from this NLDS, it won't be because of Baker's starting pitching decision in Game 4. It'll be because the Nationals didn't hit enough to beat the Cubs pitching.

Cubs release NLDS roster and yes, John Lackey is on it along with another surprise

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USA TODAY

Cubs release NLDS roster and yes, John Lackey is on it along with another surprise

John Lackey may still have another game in "The Show" before he rides off into the sunset.

The enigmatic veteran pitcher is active for the National League Division Series as the Cubs released the roster Friday morning.

Lackey is not a part of the Cubs' four-man rotation, but will be in the bullpen to face the Washington Nationals. The 38-year-old last appeared out of a postseason bullpen in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox, facing the St. Louis Cardinals twice as a starter in the World Series and once as a reliever.

The Cubs brought Lackey in as a reliever in the final game of the regular season Sunday against the Reds. He gave up a run and was saddled with a loss, but at least he got some experience heading into the postseason. Prior to that, his last regular-season relief appearance came in 2004.

Lackey was the choice over Hector Rondon in the bullpen, a surprising move given Rondon's impact as a high-leverage reliever in the Cubs bullpen over the last few years: He has a 2.87 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 251 games since the start of the 2014 season, saving 77 games in the process. He was on the mound when the Cubs clinched the 2015 NLDS over the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Rondon fell out of favor in Maddon's bullpen last fall when he was injured with a triceps issue and was hardly used in the postseason and ineffective when he did get into the game (3 ER in 6 IP). 

The 29-year-old right-hander also missed two weeks in September with an elbow issue, though when he returned, Rondon was still throwing in the upper 90s and only allowed one baserunner in 3.1 innings from Sept. 22-29.

[MORE: Rahm Emanuel hoping to hang on to his sausage after Cubs-Nats NLDS

As for the rest of the roster, the Cubs opted for only seven relievers and 14 position players, adding Leonys Martin to a crowded outfield.

Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the Cubs coaching staff met during the week to finalize the roster.

Here's the breakdown:

CATCHERS

Willson Contreras
Alex Avila

No surprises here. Contreras figures to play every single postseason game if healthy, filling the cleanup spot in the Cubs order behind Anthony Rizzo and also attempt to shut down the opposition's running game with his elite arm.

Avila still provides fantastic depth at a crucial position, even if he may not draw a start this October. He also supplies Joe Maddon with another valuable left-handed bat off the bench.

INFIELDERS

Anthony Rizzo
Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Addison Russell
Tommy La Stella

Rizzo and Bryant will start at the corners while Russell and Baez figure to man the middle infield for a second straight October. La Stella will likely be the first bat off the bench against right-handed pitching.

OUTFIELDERS

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

Maddon will have plenty of decisions to make in the outfield, trying to find playing time for all six guys, assuming Zobrist and Happ don't see any time at second base.

Martin is on the roster as the 25th guy — an elite defender who will be available to play any of the three outfield positions late in close games as well as provide a speedy pinch-runner if Maddon chooses to employ him in that capacity. Martin was credited with 8 Defensive Runs Saved in 2017, despite playing just 299.2 innings. By comparison, Heyward - one of the best defensive outfielders in the game - was credited with 18 DRS in 1008.1 innings.

Case in point:

STARTING PITCHERS

Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana
Jake Arrieta

The Cubs rotation has been known for a couple days. The Professor gets Game 1 with Lester going Game 2 Saturday, Quintana Game 3 and if the series makes it that far - Arrieta in Game 4.

RELIEVERS

Wade Davis
Carl Edwards Jr.
Brian Duensing
Pedro Strop
Mike Montgomery
Justin Wilson
John Lackey

The Cubs bullpen has struggled in the second half, posting a 4.48 ERA since the All-Star Break, good for 18th in the big leagues. Only the Houston Astros (4.49 ERA) have a worse mark among MLB playoff teams. 

The decision to keep Lackey made too much sense as soon as he wrapped his head around a possible relief role after stating earlier in the season he would never go to the bullpen. He provides another long option for Maddon if anything happens to a starter early in a game due to injury or ineffectiveness. Lackey and Montgomery could each eat multiple innings at any point for the Cubs.

Beyond that, Wilson also makes sense as another southpaw to possibly come in and face one batter in a crucial spot like Bryce Harper or Daniel Murphy. Wilson has struggled since the Cubs traded for him just before the deadline, but he's been in the postseason before and was a dominant reliever for years before August. He may not be in Maddon's circle of trust, but he still could be a weapon this October.

Lackey's presence on the roster ensured Justin Grimm and Rondon would not have a spot for at least one postseason series. Grimm struggled all season (5.53 ERA) and it became obvious Lackey would be active for the NLDS as the regular season wound down. But the decision to keep Rondon off the roster and put Martin on as the 25th man is curious and may mean the Cubs have some question marks still surrounding Rondon's health.

It's still hard to see Lackey called upon to enter the game in a "dirty" inning with runners on base, something he's not used to at all. Though Lester has no issues with the three-time World Series champ in October:

"I've seen Lack come out of the bullpen and get a hold in a World Series game before.," Lester said. "That's one person I'm not worried about."