World Series expert picks: Will the Cubs or Indians hoist the trophy?
After three weeks, eight series and 29 games, the MLB postseason has been whittled down to two teams, and they just happen to be the ones with the longest World Series championship droughts in the game. Either the Cubs (108 years since their last title, in 1908) or the Indians (68 years since their most recent title, in '48) will be celebrating a long-awaited championship, and the baseball experts at SI.com (Tom Verducci, Ben Reiter, Jay Jaffe and Albert Chen) and FOX Sports (Ken Rosenthal and C.J. Nitkowski) are here to offer their predictions on what to expect: which team will win, how long the Series will last, who will be the MVP and which player will be the breakout star.
Genius that I am, I picked the Indians to lose both the Division Series and ALCS. At this point, I probably should cut my losses, especially with righthanders Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar possibly returning for the World Series. But I'm worried that Cleveland will struggle to get leads against the Cubs' rotation, neutralizing the impact of reliever Andrew Miller and the rest of the Indians' powerhouse bullpen. Cleveland's elite base running could disrupt the Cubs' starters, but first let's see its hitters get on base — the Indians scored 12 runs in five games during the ALCS, compared to the Cubs' 23 in the final three games of the NLCS. And while Corey Kluber is an elite righthander, Cleveland's only lefthanded starter is Ryan Merritt, who despite his ALCS heroics is not to be confused with Clayton Kershaw or Rich Hill. Chicago, as it showed against the Giants and Dodgers, can beat opponents in too many different ways.
Pick: in 6
MVP: Anthony Rizzo. He'll see a lot of Miller late in the game, but he'll see even more of the Indians' righthanded starters, and his postseason slump is history; among his seven hits in the final three games of the NLCS, four went for extra-bases.
Breakout star: Francisco Lindor. A safe choice perhaps, but don't be surprised if Lindor is the best player on the field — yes, even better than his potential teammate for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, Cubs second baseman Javier Baez.
Everything points to the Cubs as World Series winners: the deeper rotation, the better offense, less time off and one of the best defenses our game has ever seen. So why the Indians? I love the way this team plays the game, and in Terry Francona they might have one of the few managers in baseball who is respected in clubhouses as much (if not more) as the Cubs' Joe Maddon. Here's what it really comes down to for me: If Cleveland can get on base, its runners will wreak havoc against Jon Lester in Games 1 and 5. The Indians can also counter the Cubs' righthanded starters with seven lefthanded hitters in their lineup. And while Francona used his bullpen exactly as much as he used his rotation in the ALCS — getting 22 innings pitched from each group — he never burned out any one reliever. It won't be easy, and it may cost Trevor Bauer a pinky, but Cleveland can pull this off despite a very slim margin for error against the team that was the best in baseball all year.
Pick: in 6
MVP: Corey Kluber. Two wins, 14 to 15 innings pitched and 20 strikeouts will earn him the award. He's the ace of Cleveland's staff and he'll show it in this World Series.
Breakout Star: Jose Ramirez. The Indians' 24-year old third baseman, who lost his spot at shortstop last year in favor of Francisco Lindor, has thrived at his new home. He batted .312 this year with an .825 OPS, and though he's been quiet so far in the postseason — a .222 average, one extra-base hit and one RBI — he's too good not to deliver some key hits. When he does, it will force the rest of the baseball world to recognize what Indians fans already know: Ramirez is a star.
Chicago's starting pitchers will have a hard time defending the running game of Cleveland, the best base-running team in baseball. But the Cubs get a significant edge overall in starting pitching over the Indians, and these games will be decided early rather than late. Chicago also has the deeper lineup and better defense.
Pick: in 7
MVP: Anthony Rizzo. Not only did Rizzo break out over the last three games of the NLCS by going 7-for-14 with two home runs and five RBIs, but he also posted a .970 OPS against righthanded pitching this year, the seventh-best mark in baseball. He'll see plenty of righties in this series, as Ryan Merritt and Andrew Miller are the only two southpaws on Cleveland's staff.
Breakout star: Francisco Lindor. Sometimes he gets lost among fellow 20-something star shortstops like the Astros' Carlos Correa, the Dodgers' Corey Seager and even the Cubs' Addison Russell, but Lindor hit .301 this year with 15 home runs and 19 steals and is the best defender of the bunch. He plays with a joy even the casual fan will notice.
Alleged superteams never pan out, but that will have as much bearing on this series as its participants' long championship droughts. History doesn't matter — not night to night, not inning to inning and not pitch to pitch. The present reality is what counts, and despite the depleted Indians' magical postseason run, the Cubs are better in almost every way: healthier, more powerful, deeper in both the rotation and the lineup. Cleveland's stellar pitching trio of Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, combined with a superior running game that could exploit a Cubs' staff that has trouble stopping base stealers, could add up to one late win, but it's very difficult to imagine four of them. The Indians will also have to play the three games in Wrigley Field without at least one of their two top home run hitters, as either Mike Napoli or Carlos Santana will have to sit when the designated hitter vanishes at the NL park. I expect the Cubs to take the title on their home field, and for Oct. 30, 2016, to become a night that is remembered forever in Chicago.
Pick: in 5
MVP: Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs' first-baseman crushes righties, and the Indians have only two pitchers who throw from the sinister side: Andrew Miller, who nobody hits no matter their handedness, and rookie soft tosser Ryan Merritt. Expect a monster series from Chicago's 32-homer, 109-RBI man.
Breakout star: Willson Contreras. The 24-year-old rookie, a catcher by trade, didn't debut until late June, and he still doesn't have a settled position for the Cubs. But he's batting .400 this month, and expect Joe Maddon to find a nightly spot for him — behind the plate, at designated hitter or even in left field, where he played 24 errorless games during the regular season.
The Indians have been underestimated by many (including this scribe) at every turn this postseason, and yet they're still here. While the Cubs have no glaring weaknesses, Cleveland has advantages in two key areas: bullpen and base running. Its 'pen, in fact, has not only performed better than any other this postseason (1.67 ERA, 32% strikeout rate) thanks to the dominance of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, but it's also been deployed better by manager Terry Francona, who has demonstrated a great feel for when to give his starters (who have pitched to a 1.86 ERA themselves) the hook and go to the fresh arms. Meanwhile, the Indians not only led the AL in steals (134) and stolen base percentage (82%) but were also an MLB-best 18 runs above average on the bases, including hit- and out-advancement as well as steals; that makes them better set up to exploit Chicago ace Jon Lester's woes at pickoff throws than the Dodgers were.
Still, the Cubs have gotten great work from their big three starters (Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks) and have a historically great defense and the more powerful lineup — and that matters more than ever, as teams that have outhomered their opponents in postseason games are 25-2 this year. That already-imposing lineup could get deeper with the surprise return of Kyle Schwarber, who has been out since April 7 with a knee injury, at DH; on the other end, the Indians will have to sit one of their two 34-homer sluggers, Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli, when the series moves to Chicago. This should be an exciting and competitive series.
Pick: in 6
MVP: Kris Bryant. The breakout of Javier Baez and the slumps and subsequent turnarounds of Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo have gotten more attention, but Bryant has been stinging the ball all month, hitting a very quiet .333/.409/.538 in the postseason. He's already the likely NL MVP, and it says here that he joins the select company of Sandy Koufax (1963), Frank Robinson ('66), Reggie Jackson ('73), Willie Stargell ('79) and Mike Schmidt ('80) in claiming both league and World Series MVP honors in the same year.
Breakout Star: Francisco Lindor. It's not that Lindor isn't already known as one of the game's top shortstops; he did make his first All-Star team this year. But while the Cubs have been slotted in prime time just about every night this October, the Indians have largely been consigned to playing in the afternoons, sometimes opposite another game. That will change this week, and the 22-year-old All-Star shortstop is definitely ready for the bright lights. He's already swinging the bat well (.323/.344/581 with two homers) and playing great defense, but now all of those extra millions of casual fans tuning into catch the Cubs' attempt to make history will get an introduction to Lindor as well.
The Cubs are the best team in baseball, but the best teams in baseball aren't typically the ones that end up with the parade. Believe in Cleveland? Believe in the little things. Because of their manager and their brilliantly constructed roster, the Indians have shown the ability to leverage the little things — platoon advantages and, most critically in this series, base running — to win close games. Cleveland led the league in steals, possesses players with game-changing speed, and has had plenty of time to plan against a rotation that has real issues holding runners. Add their bullpen advantage, and the Indians have a slight edge late in close games and, ultimately, a slight edge in a series for the ages.
Pick: in 7
MVP: Andrew Miller. Who else? Bet on Miller breaking the record for most innings by a reliever in one postseason (18 2/3, shared by Francisco Rodriguez and Tug McGraw) and one or two other records along the way.
Breakout star: Danny Salazar. To believe in the Indians, you have to believe that a starter not named Kluber will rise against the Cubs machine. Going out on a limb, the pick here is a hurler who hasn't pitched since Sept. 9 but now says he feels like he's 100 percent. If he is, Salazar has a chance to have a star-making moment in this series.