Some important changes from last season and not sucking may finally bring the Cubs to the promised land
There are reasons to temper postseason expectations for the 2016 Chicago Cubs -- foremost, 108 seasons of falling short. Of course, the Cubs entered this season as the betting favorite to win the World Series and remain so now that they have officially clinched MLB’s first postseason berth and the NL Central title thanks to the Giants’ victory over the Cardinals on Thursday night.
And the Cubs should be the World Series favorites because they’ve got all the ingredients of a championship-winning team, beginning with a potent batting order anchored by Anthony Rizzo and MVP candidate Kris Bryant. The Cubs don’t quite have the offensive firepower of the Boston Red Sox, who lead the league in runs (5.56 runs per game) and slugging percentage (.468), but the Cubs aren’t far behind with the third-most runs in MLB (4.97) and the second-highest on-base percentage (.341). This team is at its best when Dexter Fowler is setting the table (nice work bringing him back), and he should enter the postseason healthy after suffering a hamstring injury in July and some soreness more recently.
Here are five more specific reasons for optimism as Cubs fans brace for perhaps their most nerve-racking and exhilarating postseason experience yet.
They won’t have to play in a Wild Card Game again
Recall last season the Cardinals won the NL Central, forcing a one-game wild-card playoff between the Pirates and Cubs in which Jake Arrieta went full Arrieta with a complete-game shutout featuring 11 strikeouts and no walks.
That was splendid but tolled nine more innings on Arrieta, and avoiding the game this year will allow the Cubs to set up Arrieta and Jon Lester (or perhaps Kyle Hendricks) for the first and second games of their NLDS.
If history is any guide, it’s better to be a division winner than a wild-card team. In the (single) wild card era that began in 1995, only six have gone on to win the World Series, and the path is harder now with two wild cards in the do-or-die play-in game.
Getty ImagesJared Wickerham
The defense/fielding is better than last year
Kyle Schwarber’s outfield play last October was a major liability, and it cost the Cubs in Game 3 and Game 4 in the NLCS against the Mets last season.
As currently constituted, the Cubs are a better team defensively with Kris Bryant primarily at third base (and Javy Baez when he's not), sabermetric defensive darling Jason Heyward in right field (instead of Jorge Soler, who will see some time in left) and Addison Russell at shortstop instead of Starlin Castro.
The Kansas City Royals proved the value and importance of good fielding pretty loudly last season.
TNS via Getty ImagesChicago Tribune
The starting rotation is deeper and very, very good
Madison Bumgarner has demonstrated that sometimes you can win a postseason series with just one front-end starter and a freakish ability to perform on minimal rest, but it helps to have more than one horse.
The Cubs will have not one but three starters likely to receive some NL Cy Young votes this year with Jon Lester having one of best seasons yet. He’s allowed just 12 earned runs and struck out 71 in 73.1 innings since the All-Star break (1.47 ERA). There’s no way Jake Arrieta could have matched his 2015 Cy Young campaign but he’s had a solid encore with 2.91 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. And now command artist Kyle Hendricks is enjoying a breakout campaign with an ERA/WHIP at 2.03/0.96.
And then there’s John Lackey having another solid John Lackey season, plus Jason Hammel who can move to the bullpen. In a seven-game series, Cubs will bring forth a better starter in a Game 3 and Game 4 than anyone they might face.
The Cuban Missile takes flight
He certainly didn’t have a shortage of resources, but general manager Jed Hoyer successfully brought home one of the top trade-deadline prizes in flamethrowing closer Aroldis Chapman.
All Chapman’s done since coming back to the NL is mow down 34 batters in 20.2 innings, racking up 14 saves. His arrival has allowed Hector Rondon to move to the eighth inning.
Another trade-deadline bullpen acquisition, Joe Smith from the Angels, plus lefty Travis Wood and Justin Grimm give the Cubs an excellent, game-shortening bullpen.
Joe Maddon and “Try Not to Suck”
That’s Joe Maddon’s motto for the the Cubs this season. Now that the Cubs have clinched early, the kooky, petting zoo-loving, anti-sucking Maddon will have about three weeks to get the players’ bodies and minds right before the weight of October baseball and a century-old drought begins to press down on them. For another team, this waiting might backfire but Maddon is probably the best equipped there is to keep the clubhouse mood right.
Last season’s NLCS loss to the Mets in a sweep left a bad taste in Chicago’s mouth, but the oft-stated notion that having “playoffs experience” leads to greater future success simply lacks empirical evidence. That said, baseball is an emotional game that takes place on a diamond, not in a vacuum, and the Cubs will need to stay calm in high-pressure situations. That’s where Maddon comes in, aside from being a solid in-game manager.
There's a special air about this team. Dexter Fowler turned down a more lucrative deal from Baltimore to stay in Chicago. They enjoy playing together and desperately want to send off the retiring Grandpa Rossy (catcher David Ross) in style. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have documented Ross’ final season on a separate Instagram account. If these guys continue to rally around each other and Ross and Maddon, the city that's been waiting longer than all of its fans have been alive may finally get what it deserves.