As things stand here today, the NL Central remains almost completely up for grabs. The Cubs may have a magic number of just five, but with six games to go and only a 1.5 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers, I’m not swimming in a pool of confidence. With that said, the Cubs could clinch a postseason berth as soon as tonight. Indeed, if the Rockies lose and the Cubs win, the team will be heading to the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. And that’s great … but it’s also where my smile fades.
Once I became comfortable accepting the fact that the Cubs are almost certainly going to participate in the tournament this year, I started more closely considering who their opponents may be and how well they may match up against them. And I’m sorry to tell you, I discovered something pretty darn troubling. But before we get to there, let’s introduce all the players.
In the NL East, the Atlanta Braves have already locked things up, so they will be on the NL’s side of the bracket no matter what happens elsewhere. The Cubs won’t likely face them in the NLDS, but a potential NLCS matchup is certainly plausible. In the Central, we all know the drill: The Cubs are hanging on by a thread, as the Milwaukee Brewers look to take the division for the first time since 2011. But even if they can’t overcome the Cubs’ lead, they’ll end up with one of the Wild Card slots. Relatedly, the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t much of a threat in the Central, but they currently hold a one-game lead over the Colorado Rockies for the second Wild Card slot. And, in the West, the Los Angels Dodgers are holding onto a lead of just 1.5 games.
So it’s the Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Rockies, and Dodgers. Got it? One of those teams won’t be there, but one way or another, these are the teams the Cubs would/could have to go through to win another NL pennant.
Now, why does that concern me?
Well, consider for a moment, the Cubs postseason pitching staff. In the rotation, we are almost certainly going to see (in whatever order) Kyle Hendricks, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, and Jose Quintana. And while that is a very strong rotation in general – especially given the way they’ve thrown since about mid-August – it is also very left-handed. Three out of the Cubs four starters will be left-handed, and, depending on when Kyle Hendricks throws, that means four out of the potential five NLDS games will be started by a left-handed pitcher. In the NLCS, five of the seven games would likely be started by a left-hander.
And that’s not all. Now consider the bullpen. With Brandon Morrow officially out and Pedro Strop questionable – at best – to return, a majority of the high-leverage innings may well be given to Justin Wilson and even Mike Montgomery. Not unlike the rotation, that’s not a problem in and of itself – both pitchers have been extremely valuable to the Cubs this year – but it means more left-handers. Then consider some of the other postseason bullpen candidates (Jorge De La Rosa, Randy Rosario, Jaime Garcia, Brian Duensing). Not all of those guys will make the roster or contribute a significant number of postseason innings, but De La Rosa, at a minimum, seems like a great bet to make the squad.
Indeed, the only right-handed pitchers expected to receive a large portion of the available postseason innings are Kyle Hendricks, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Jr., and Jesse Chavez. Just about everyone else is left-handed.
Now look at this …
In the second half of the season, all five of the teams standing between the Cubs and another NL Pennant have been among the BEST TEN IN BASEBALL at handling left-handed pitchers. That, uh, is an absolutely terrible deal for this Cubs roster.
To put it another way, no matter who makes it into the Wild Card game, who wins it, or who advances on the other side of the NLDS, the Cubs are going to face one of the top nine offenses against left-handers in the second-half of the season (I used second-half, by the way, not for momentum-related reasoning, but because many of these teams upgraded their offenses at the deadline, and I wanted to make sure we’re talking about the most up-to-date rosters). And given the way the offense has (not) been rolling, I don’t think anybody wants to rely on them to overcome whatever issues the pitching staff runs into.
What’s more frustrating is it shouldn’t really be this way. The Cubs top two arms in the bullpen should be righties Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. And Yu Darvish should be in the rotation. With those three arms, alone, in the picture, this entire balance problem would evaporate. But that’s not how it’s shaped up.
The Cubs have to play with the hand they’ve been dealt. You just wish it wasn’t so left-handed.