SI is previewing every playoff team before the commencement of the 2018 postseason. We begin with the Chicago Cubs.
How much went wrong for the Cubs this year? Well, Yu Darvish made eight starts before going on the DL for the season. Brandon Morrow didn’t throw a pitch in the second half, and replacement closer Pedro Strop missed the last month of the regular season after injuring his hamstring while running the bases. Star third baseman Kris Bryant suffered through multiple DL stints that limited him to 101 games and robbed him of much of his power when he was in the lineup. Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward both spent more than a month on the DL. Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist had short stints on the DL, as well. Catcher Willson Contreras had an OPS south of .750.
And yet, the Cubs had the best record in the NL through 162 games, and are only in the Wild Card Game because the Brewers were just as good through 162, and one win better through 163. The Cubs feature the NL’s best, most postseason-tested rotation, with Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Kyle Hendricks at the top. If the Cubs are back in the World Series in a couple of weeks, chances are those three will have led them there.
It was pretty much all on display in the NL Central tiebreaker loss to the Brewers. For a team that won 95 games, the Cubs were painfully inconsistent offensively, and vulnerable at the backend of the bullpen. Rare was the time that multiple hitters were going at once for this team. Yes, the numbers on paper made sense. They were second in the NL in OBP, fourth in runs and fifth in OPS. Everything adds up when you look at the season-long offensive stats for the Cubs.. Break it down into smaller chunks, though, and you find a streaky offense. The Cubs hit .273/.356/.457 in May, their best month of the season. They had a team-wide OPS of better than .745 in three other months. September, however, was a slog, with the team hitting .239/.303/.367.
With Morrow out and Strop dealing with a hamstring injury, who can Joe Maddon trust at the backend of the bullpen? Jesse Chavez has been active and reliable since coming over from the Rangers, but everyone else in the bullpen has seen better days this season. The Cubs are going to need big innings out of Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery (who will likely move to the bullpen from the rotation for the postseason), and there’s no guarantee those pitchers will be up to the challenge, based on the way they pitched at the end of the regular season. This team desperately needs a healthy Strop back in the mix.
It seems crazy that a guy who won the MVP Award two years ago could be a team’s X-factor, but that’s exactly what Kris Bryant is for the Cubs. Javier Baez is the team’s MVP candidate this season, and Anthony Rizzo is the team’s leader and best player right now, but Bryant can still lay claim to being the team’s best player on paper, when all things are equal. Bryant originally hurt his shoulder on a head-first slide at the end of May, but played through it for a month before going on the DL. The day he hurt his shoulder, he was hitting .301/.419/.564. Over the next month, before going on the DL, he hit .248/.319/.347. He started nine games before going back on the DL, this time for more than a month. He has shown signs of life since returning on September 1, hitting .265/.354/.422 with two homers and seven doubles in 96 plate appearances.
If Bryant can get back to being even just 80% or 85% of what he was before the injury, the Cubs will have another huge, reliable bat in the middle of their lineup, and that can take some of the pressure off Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Daniel Murphy, and Ben Zobrist. It would also turn the NL’s streakiest offense into arguably its most dangerous.
Why You Should Root For the Cubs
Sure, the sympathetic Cubs may be gone with the team winning the World Series two years ago, but this is still a team worth rooting for if you’re an impartial fan this postseason. Javier Baez is the most fun player in the majors. Jon Lester and Cole Hamels may never get another shot to play key roles on a World Series contender. And in a flawed NL field, which team do you think will be best equipped to put up a fight against whatever juggernaut comes out of the AL? No one wants to watch a walkover in the World Series, right? The Cubs winning the NL is our surest path to a compelling World Series.
Most Famous Fan
Everyone knows that Bill Murray, John Cusack and Eddie Vedder are Cubs fans and born-and-raised Chicagoans, especially after the team made deep postseason runs the last three years. How about another denizen of Hollywood who doesn’t get quite as much attention for his Cub fandom. Gary Sinise was born on the South Side of the city, but graduated from Highland Park High School, which is in the city’s Northern suburbs. He got his acting start in Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and while he hasn’t made the city his home for decades, he remains a tried and true Cubs fan.
Since 2015, Rizzo, Bryant, Baez, Zobrist, Schwarber, Contreras and Heyward have appeared in a combined 193 postseason games with the Cubs, while Lester and Hendricks have made 19 starts (Lester also has two relief appearances, including Game 7 of the 2016 World Series). For once, the Cubs are the experienced postseason team.