Josh Hader

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Even without a shutdown closer, the Cubs bullpen could actually be a strength in October

Even without a shutdown closer, the Cubs bullpen could actually be a strength in October

The Cubs bullpen has been dealt a pair of serious punches to the gut over the last week.

But instead of getting the wind knocked out of them, this group of relievers has actually stepped up to the challenge in a big way.

Pedro Strop has missed the last week with a hamstring injury and his status moving forward is in doubt, though he has said he hopes to return for the final weekend of the regular season. 

Brandon Morrow was shut down for the season Tuesday evening, unable to recover and return from a bone bruise in his forearm.

Meanwhile, the Cubs bullpen has strung together 12.2 shutout innings since Strop's injury, allowing only 4 hits and 2 walks in that span with 11 strikeouts. 

And that's not just the team's "A" relievers throwing as much as they can. 

In fact, since Strop was hurt last Thursday, here are the PITCH totals (not inning totals) of some of the Cubs' best bullpen arms:

Steve Cishek — 1
Jesse Chavez — 4
Carl Edwards Jr. — 8
Justin Wilson — 13

That's right, Cishek — the reliever who appeared in nearly half the team's games through Thursday — has thrown just one friggin' pitch over the last five games.

For a bullpen that was worn out and seemingly running into a wall, that is essentially an All-Star Break that could pay huge dividends down the stretch to help rest and recharge.

Oh, and the team finally has its first off-day in over a month Thursday.

It's not like the Cubs have struggled in that stretch while utilizing their "B" relievers, winning 4 of those 5 games (and 5 of 6 if you include the game Strop was injured in). 

If the Cubs can keep winning and hold on to the division title, they'll also have another three days off between the final regular season game and the first postseason game, so this bullpen that was once running on fumes should be gasssed up and ready to go at the most important time of the year. 

The Cubs would obviously be in a much better spot in October if Strop were to return, but even if he doesn't, this team could be OK without a clear ninth-inning option.

A huge reason for that is the success of the rotation, that has been the best in baseball over the last month-plus:

If the Cubs' projected playoff rotation of Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana can keep rolling and go deeper into games, that takes the pressure off the bullpen.

On top of that, Edwards is starting to show signs of climbing out of his recent funk, Chavez and Wilson have been very reliable lately and a little bit of rest should do wonders for Cishek, who had been the Cubs' most valuable reliever up until September. 

That's a solid group of four bullpen arms, plus Mike Montgomery figures to fold back into relief in the playoffs.

That puts the Cubs in a better position than a lot of their NL counterparts.

The only team in the league with a clear lockdown closer is the Dodgers, though even that has been unstable with Kenley Jansen's heart issues.

The Brewers have a shutdown reliever in Josh Hader but he's not typically used as a closer and they also had to make a change at the back end of their bullpen recently, moving Corey Knebel out of the ninth-inning role.

The Braves bullpen has been an absolute mess this month:

The Diamondbacks and Phillies are fading in large part because their bullpens have blown a lot of leads over the last couple weeks.

The Rockies have a stable closer in former Cub Wade Davis (40 saves), but he also has a 4.48 ERA and 6 blown saves.

The Cardinals bullpen has a 4.88 ERA over the last 30 days — the fourth-worst mark in the NL — and just recently moved their Opening Day starter (Carlos Martinez) to the closer's role.

Speaking of the Brewers, it is definitely time to start thinking about October with only 12 days left in the regular season. The Cubs now boast a 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 94.7 percent chance of winning the National League Central thanks to their 3.5-game lead over the Brewers.

That means that if the Cubs only go 5-6 over their final 11 games, the Brewers have to finish 8-2 just to tie for the division.

Crazier things have happened in baseball, but it's looking more and more likely the Cubs will be hosting Game 1 of the NLDS Thursday, Oct. 4. 

What will their bullpen look like on that day?

Here's the list of guys we know for sure (assuming they stay healthy over the final week-and-a-half):

Jesse Chavez
Steve Cishek
Carl Edwards Jr.
Justin Wilson
Mike Montgomery

The Cubs have historically carried 14 position players and 11 pitchers on their postseason roster, especially in a five-game NLDS series in which there are two off-days.

With only 12 days left in the regular season, will Strop really be able to return for the final weekend like he hopes? And if he can't return for a regular season appearance at all, how sharp would he be in the playoffs having gone three weeks without game action?

If Strop can't make it back, the final two postseason bullpen spots will be filled from this group:

Dillon Maples
Jorge De La Rosa
Brandon Kintzler
Jaime Garcia
Alec Mills
Randy Rosario
Brian Duensing

At this point, it's safe to assume Tyler Chatwood and James Norwood are not in the discussion for the postseason and Duensing is probably out, too, given he's pitched just twice in the last two weeks.

With no Morrow, it's looking more and more likely De La Rosa will be on the postseason roster, especially if the Cubs wind up playing a team like the Brewers, who have a bunch of left-handed hitters.

The 37-year-old De La Rosa has a 1.59 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 3 holds and a save in 13 appearances (17 innings) since the Cubs picked him up off the scrap heap when the Diamondbacks released him last month.

While Garcia and Rosario have had decent success in relief this year, it's hard to see the Cubs carrying four lefties in a seven-man bullpen and they're firmly behind De La Rosa at the moment.

Maples is an intriguing option for that final spot with his triple-digit fastball and wipeout slider. He just has to nail down his command over the final week or two if Joe Maddon continues to use him in high-leverage situations.

Mills is another interesting option after tossing two perfect innings in relief during Tuesday's victory. The 26-year-old now has a 3.07 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 14.2 innings this year for the Cubs, but Tuesday was the first time he had pitched in nearly three weeks due to a roster crunch. 

Kintzler also threw a perfect inning in relief Tuesday night and has a long track record of success as a veteran reliever, but his numbers with the Cubs are still ugly (7.80 ERA, 2.07 WHIP in 15 innings).

Obviously getting Strop back and healthy would be the best possible outcome for this Cubs bullpen, but there is still the potential this could be a solid group in October despite lacking that shutdown closer.

We're about to see what these Cubs are made of

We're about to see what these Cubs are made of

At this point, the Cubs holding onto their fragile one-game lead in the division might feel more like trying to mount a comeback against Josh Hader. 

The arrows for the Cubs and Brewers are pointing in completely different directions with two-and-a-half weeks still remaining in the regular season.

But things aren't necessarily that dire for the Cubs. Yes, they still have another week to go in an absolutely ridiculous, brutal stretch. But if they can somehow get through that with their head above water, they'll be OK. 

After all, they do control their own destiny — two games up on the Brewers in the loss column and a heavy slate of games at Wrigley Field (where the Cubs are 45-26) to close out the season.

This next week will be crucial. We're about to see just how mentally — and physically — tough this Cubs team.

This Cubs offense right now is struggling enough even when they don't have to face Hader twice in a three-game span. Maddon keeps pointing to a lack of rest as the reason behind the struggles and even Kyle Hendricks — who is relentlessly positive — admitted to feeling the fatigue. 

And it doesn't get any better, as most of the Cubs had to get on a flight after Wednesday night's loss, get in about 4 a.m. ET, get a few hours sleep, go play a game, get back on a flight and get back to Chicago for a three-game series against a Reds team that now has Joey Votto back in the middle of that lineup.

As you've heard plenty by now, the Cubs' next off-day isn't for another week as they still have seven days left in a stretch of 30 in a row where they've had to show up to the ballpark for a full day's worth of work (or waiting).

"It's just a tough stretch, man," Maddon said. "Fatigue is nasty. When you get a tired mind, it's not easy to play at your top level. It's just not. We all know what it's like when you feel like your brain's swimming a little bit."

On a daily basis over the last week, Maddon has praised his players for how they've handled this tough stretch.

Yet, they certainly appear as if they've run into a wall.

The Cubs have lost four of their last five games at a time when the Brewers are on fire. If the Cubs hadn't started this stretch of games with a 7-1 record against a bunch of non-contenders (Tigers, Reds, Mets), they would be in a world of hurt right now. 

Offensively, this lineup badly misses Jason Heyward, which would've seemed like a crazy statement a year ago.

The struggles at the plate go far beyond the bottom of the order, though Albert Almora Jr., Willson Contreras, Addison Russell and Ian Happ have been in their respective ruts pretty much since the All-Star Break.

Daniel Murphy — who was heralded as a savior of this lineup when he first arrived — hasn't gotten a hit since Saturday and is in the midst of an 0-for-12 slump.

Anthony Rizzo hasn't had a hit in a week, going 0-for-16 in that span.

Javy Baez — the MVP candidate — hasn't driven in a run in 11 days.

Kyle Schwarber looked like he was about to get hot but has been unavailable with a back injury lately and did not make the trip to Washington D.C.

At least Kris Bryant is starting to look more like himself and Ben Zobrist is furthering his case as the NL Comeback Player of the Year.

The Cubs did have a bunch of solid at-bats Wednesday night and hit into some crummy luck, but those at-bats cratered when Brewers manager Craig Counsell boldly went to his bullpen in the fifth inning.

The Cubs bullpen, meanwhile, gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks in 4 innings Wednesday night and looks to be running out of gas at the absolute wrong time.

The rotation has been the only saving grace of late with this team and figures to continue to be a strength assuming Jon Lester's balky back will allow him to make his scheduled start against Cincinnati over the weekend.

Hendricks turned in another solid outing Wednesday but had to be pulled early again in an effort to drum up some offense (Tommy La Stella, who pinch-hit for Hendricks, scored the Cubs' only run).

Maddon always says momentum in baseball depends on your next day's starting pitcher and that may be exactly what carries the Cubs the next week. While Mike Montgomery will head to D.C., Lester, Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels will all stay behind in Chicago to get a much-needed day of rest, so they should be fresh and raring to go this weekend at Wrigley and next week in Arizona.

If any team can withstand this kind of tough stretch, it's the Cubs, whose incredible depth will need to show out over the next week in a big way.

When they return from Arizona, they won't leave Chicago for the rest of the season, able to sleep soundly in their own beds for at least 11 consecutive nights. That's also when Heyward and Brandon Morrow could be returning to provide some late-season reinforcements.

And Rizzo is doing his part to keep things loose on the flight to D.C., dressing up in full uniform:

"It's a pretty bad scenario, for sure," Hendricks said. "But we've been through so much adversity. We've had some tough trips in the past. Even in playoffs, we've had a couple brutal travel days.

"So it's just more of the same for us. We've been through a lot. I think it just kinda makes you tougher in the end. So that's the approach we take.

"Don't count us out. [We're] kind of a little bit of an underdog. We'll make it through this stretch alright."