Andrew Miller

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.

Mr. Underrated: Pedro Strop just keeps doin' his thing

Mr. Underrated: Pedro Strop just keeps doin' his thing

The Cubs have had four different closers over the last three seasons.

Beyond Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis, Brandon Morrow and Hector Rondon, they've had a handful of other pitchers who could be "the guy" if an injury befell the back end of the team's bullpen — guys like Carl Edwards Jr. or Koji Uehara or Steve Cishek or even Justin Wilson.

Somehow, Pedro Strop always seems to get overlooked. 

The 32-year-old veteran has been one of the more underrated relievers in the game since he came over as "the other guy" in the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. 

After two shutout innings Saturday in St. Louis — a ballpark and a team that has haunted him in the past (7.04 ERA, 1.76 WHIP at Busch Stadium, even after Saturday's outing) — Strop now has a 1.93 ERA and 1.07 WHIP on the 2018 campaign.

Overall, he's 16-18 with a 2.68 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 332 strikeouts in 285.2 innings in a Cubs uniform. He has never finished a year in Chicago with an ERA above 2.91.

Since the start of the 2014 season (his first full year with the Cubs), Strop ranks 21st in baseball in ERA among relievers, just behind guys like Cody Allen and Kelvin Herrera and coming in ahead of pitchers like Roberto Osuna, David Robertson and Greg Holland. In that same span, he ranks 13th in baseball in appearances (278), more than stud relievers Kenley Jansen and Andrew Miller.

This year, Maddon is using Strop more than ever, as he's on pace for 71 innings, which would represent a career high.

Even despite the consistency and regular season numbers, Strop still found himself outside Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust during the 2016 playoff run. However, that was more due to a knee injury that sidelined him to end that regular season, leading to a bit of rust entering October.

Pitching in a Cubs uniform on the postseason over the last three years, Strop has only allowed 7 hits in 16.1 innings, sporting a 2.20 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 19 appearances.

What's led to that consistency?

"I think it's routine," Strop said. "Be professional in what you're doing, even when the day doesn't go well for you. OK, it's in the past, keep looking ahead and just try to do better whenever you get back in there. Stuff like that.

"Little things can change the whole thing. I'm really mentally tough to walk away when things are bad. I think that's been a huge part of me being consistent — just let everything go and keep going."

Strop has admitted he hasn't always been very good at letting the bad stuff go.

The only reason he was even available in the deal five summers ago was because he had posted a 7.25 ERA in 29 games in Baltimore after looking like one of the game's bright young relief stars the previous two seasons (2.34 ERA).

Strop has spent a lot of time learning from other veterans in his career and has now gotten to the point where he's now one of the seasoned, wise vets in the Cubs bullpen, lending counsel to younger guys like Edwards.

"I've been learning a lot and I think [the mental aspect] is a really important part, especially for relievers," Strop said. "You don't have as much time to be thinking about bad outings. You just gotta put it away and get back in there the next day.

"I don't want to say starting is easier, but when you have a bad outing as a starter, you have another five days to put everything together in bullpens and stuff. But as a reliever, you gotta be ready the next day."

CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role

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CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull break down where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in the Cubs' pitching plans while Kyle Schwarber craziness reaches new heights.

Peter Gammons and Bob Nightengale weigh Schwarber’s trade value and how likely it may be that the Cubs could secure a Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole or Michael Fulmer this winter. Nightengale also explains how Brandon Morrow could fill an Andrew Miller-esque role for the Cubs.

Plus, Cubs manager Joe Maddon stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly about his offseason gameplan and why he’s still such a staunch believer in rest even when away from baseball.

Listen to the entire podcast here: