Corey Kluber

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.

Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

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USA TODAY

Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer got all the hype leading into this National League Division Series – and took no-hitters into the sixth and seventh innings in Games 1 and 3 – and yet the Washington Nationals are still in crisis mode.    

The rain that poured onto Wrigley Field on Tuesday night could have changed everything, with Strasburg theoretically available to start a postponed elimination game on Wednesday afternoon on normal rest.

The Strasburg shutdown rules now apparently have an “under the weather” section, with manager Dusty Baker revealing the $175 million ace/former No. 1 overall pick will be saved for an if-necessary Game 5 on Thursday night at Nationals Park.

Washington will stick with Tanner Roark (13-11, 4.67 ERA) as planned. Whatever is going on behind the scenes with the Nationals, the Cubs get some of the blame, because their playoff rotation has been that good, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta still waiting to throw the first pitch in Game 4 at 3:08 p.m.

“Listen, they have spectacular pitching, the Nationals do, but our guys have matched them inning for inning,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s why we won. Their pitching’s been great, so has ours. You have to pitch better than really good pitching – great pitching – to win. And we have. It comes down to that. Our starters have permitted us to be in this position.”

That’s one win away from a third straight trip to the NL Championship Series where the talk will be about Clayton Kershaw and if the Cubs can match up with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Every starter from the Opening Day rotation got injured at some point this season – remember Brett Anderson? – and the Cubs still headed into October with questions even after a 15-4 burst to close the regular season.

Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have the velocity or ego of a standard Game 1 starter. Jon Lester got shut down with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue in late August/early September. Jose Quintana didn’t have any playoff experience. Arrieta was recovering from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain.

[MORE: Respect this: How Anthony Rizzo owns October]     

Yet in a postseason environment where Chris Sale went 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA (one start) for the already-eliminated Boston Red Sox and Zack Greinke (7.27 ERA) didn’t win either of his two starts with the gone-fishin’ Arizona Diamondbacks, the Cubs have come up aces.

Combined, Hendricks, Lester and Quintana have allowed two runs (one earned) in 18.2 innings, limiting the Nationals to a .094 batting average and a .324 OPS. To put that in perspective, the Cubs have contained a Washington lineup that scored 800-plus runs to the point where its OPS is basically what Lester has done as an NL hitter (.318).         

“You win with pitching – pitching and defense,” Hendricks said. “If your starter can get you six, seven innings into a game, it takes a lot off your bullpen.

“In this day and age, we’re lucky to have the rotation we have and rely on that.”

Washington’s 1.96 rotation ERA ranks a distant second behind the Cubs (0.48) in a 10-team playoff field, another validation of the pitching infrastructure/game-planning system overseen by coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode and run prevention coordinator Tommy Hottovy.

“It’s really been interesting to watch all the runs being scored against some really good pitching,” Maddon said. “I don’t know the reason. There’s no good reason. But I do know how good the National pitching staff is versus our hitters. And then Washington has a very good offensive team, and our pitchers have done a nice job.

“It’s been the classic 60s-70s kind of series, as opposed to everybody’s looking for the offense these days.”

This is the seventh playoff round of the Maddon Era in Wrigleyville and the Cubs are coming off a championship run where they heard all about the legend of Madison Bumgarner and the even-year San Francisco Giants, Kershaw wanting to rewrite his legacy in October and The Klubot, Corey Kluber, waiting to start three World Series games for the Cleveland Indians.  

This rotation isn’t unbeatable – and the picture looks different if Arrieta suddenly hops off the mound in pain – but the Cubs are unflappable and that could make them unstoppable.   

“Each individual handles it differently, and you’ve got to figure out what works for you,” Lester said. “I just know from our clubhouse and being around these guys the last three years, you could see the nervousness and the anxiety in 2015. Last year was more kind of like: ‘We’re not going to let that happen again’ and more of a calmness in the clubhouse.

“The more you play in these situations, the more you can kind of separate all the other stuff that goes along with it, and just go and worry about what your job is that day.”

In the Wednesday schedule released to the media on Tuesday night, Strasburg was listed as TBD in the Wrigley Field interview room.

Cubs look forward to facing off against Dexter Fowler in rivalry with Cardinals

Cubs look forward to facing off against Dexter Fowler in rivalry with Cardinals

Dexter Fowler could troll the Cubs by bunting a ball right back to Jon Lester, or backpedaling toward second base after hitting a home run, the way he began last year's World Series Game 7. The St. Louis Cardinals wanted a presence to help change their team dynamics, handing him a five-year, $82.5 million contract for his athleticism, switch-hitting leadoff skills and knack for getting on base.  

But it's hard to picture Fowler being the villain on Sunday night at Busch Stadium, where the Cubs and Cardinals will renew a rivalry that began in 1892 and now has a completely different feel. Anthony Rizzo already delivered the message to Fowler in January during Kris Bryant's wedding in Las Vegas.

"I said: ‘It's 2017, so I can't talk to you anymore,'" Rizzo said. "But it's just a friendly rivalry. I want to see him do well all the time. He's a good friend. He's a world champion for the Chicago Cubs forever, no matter where he's playing or what jersey he's wearing."

It will still be weird at first, seeing Fowler in Cardinal red while the Cubs start the season as defending World Series champs for the first time since 1909.

"Yeah, how ‘bout that?" said Lester, the Opening Night starter. "Get that out of the way. That will be good for him. That will be good for us. You get the hellos and the goodbyes out of the way.

"And then he'll have his first Wrigley reception, which I hope is always positive. And then once we do that we're – I don't like to use the word ‘enemies' – but you're an opponent now and I'm trying to get you out and he's trying to get hits off us. 

"Have to put the friendship aside and play baseball. But afterwards we'll shake hands and grab a drink or something."          
 
The idea of Fowler as an energizing clubhouse transformer – with revolutionary ideas like playing music while stretching and taking batting practice in spring training – has been overstated around the Cardinals. If anything, Fowler blended in with his old teammates and brought a calm detachment to the game.

Even more than that leadoff homer off Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber, the at-bat that summed up Fowler's true value to the Cubs might have been a nine-pitch battle against Jeff Samardzija in the first round of the playoffs, coming back from an 0-2 count, fouling off three pitches and lining a double into right field. 

Fowler would score moments later at Wrigley Field, putting the pressure on the San Francisco Giants and setting the tone as the Cubs took a commanding 2-0 lead over the San Francisco Giants in that best-of-five matchup against a franchise that had won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

"It will be really cool to see him again," Kyle Schwarber said. "He's still part of the family. We miss him. We're happy for him. Obviously, we got to play against him, so we like him until it's time to come out onto the field and compete."

Joe Maddon's Geek Department projections have the Cubs generating more offense with Schwarber hitting leadoff than the 808 runs they scored last year, which led every National League team except for the Colorado Rockies. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should also be a defensive upgrade over Fowler. 

Schwarber just laughed when asked what sort of response the Cubs should expect in St. Louis: "I think we're going to get a standing ovation." 

Fowler certainly made an imprint after getting traded from the Houston Astros – for infielder Luis Valbuena and pitcher Dan Straily – in an under-the-radar January 2015 deal that helped accelerate the Wrigleyville rebuild. Fowler heating up in the second half of that season helped the Cubs catch fire and win 97 games and two playoff rounds. 

After the qualifying offer had a chilling effect – and the Baltimore Orioles slow-played negotiations over a three-year contract reported to be a done deal in the range of $35 million – the Cubs swooped in to give Fowler a soft landing spot and guaranteed $13 million in a spring-training surprise.      

"It's amazing for Dexter," Rizzo said. "Obviously, last year, with him going through the free-agent process, it didn't work out in his favor. And this year, he goes through it again and gets what he deserves.

"But I told him: I hope he gets five hits against us every time and we beat him every time. That's the best outcome."