The Chicago Cubs are winding down one of the best seasons in franchise history. As of September 27th, they have their first 100-win season since 1935, and they’re by far the best team in baseball. The ultimate question is, will they win their first World Series since 1908? A major part of determining that will be a major reason why they have achieved as much success this season as they have — their pitching.
The 2016 Cubs playoff rotation will likely consist of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey. They all have had successful seasons, but how do they compare to their playoff counterparts, the Nationals, Dodgers, Mets, Giants, and Cardinals? (We’ll include all three potential N.L. WC teams since that race remains wide open.) Here is how I would line the rotations up 1-4.
Cubs — Lester/Hendricks/Arrieta/Lackey
Nationals — Max Scherzer/Tanner Roark/Gio Gonzalez/Joe Ross
Dodgers — Clayton Kershaw/Kenta Maeda/Rich Hill/Brandon McCarthy
Mets — Noah Syndergaard/Bartolo Colon/Seth Lugo/Barry Gsellman
Giants — Madison Bumgarner/johnny Cueto/Jeff Samardzija/Matt Moore
Cardinals — Adam Wainwright/Carlos Martinez/Mike Leake/Alex Reyes
Now let’s compare the staffs for each team through the lens of innings pitched, ERA -, FIP -, and RA9-WAR.
The Cubs clearly have the best rotation in the National League — by a lot. The Nationals have the second-best rotation, but without a healthy Stephen Strasburg, they compare less favorably with the Cubs. The Dodgers somehow will piece together a rotation for the playoffs after all their injuries, as well as the Mets, who have lost Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz (and never had Zack Wheeler) this season. If the Giants or Cardinals can get past the Wild Card game, I think they can be dangerous. If Matt Moore can turn it around, he can give the Giants a wild card (no pun intended) in the playoffs. However, only one of the Mets, Giants, and Cardinals will make it into the playoffs and through the Wild Card game, so for two of them, setting up the rotation is irrelevant.
The breaking point of any teams’ postseason dream can be their bullpen. A great bullpen, as the Royals showed us in 2015, can carry you to a championship. Let’s take a look at the top three relievers on each contender:
Cubs — Aroldis Chapman/Hector Rondon/Pedro Strop
Nationals — Mark Melancon/Shawn Kelley/Matt Belisle
Dodgers — Kenley Jansen/Joe Blanton/Adam Liberatore
Mets — Jeurys Familia/Addison Reed/Fernando Salas
Giants — Sergio Romo/Santiago Casilla/Derek Law
Cardinals — Seung Hwan Oh/Zach Duke/Matt Bowman
Now let’s compare the bullpens for each team through the lens of innings pitched, ERA-, FIP-, and RA9-WAR.
The Cubs bullpen has not been great; in fact, in terms of RA9-WAR, of all realistic National League playoff teams — the Nationals, Dodgers, Giants, Mets, and Cardinals — they are ahead of only the Giants. That isn’t saying much, either, as the Giants bullpen has been a huge contributor to their second-half collapse. There is no clear favorite when it comes to the bullpens, but the Nationals, Dodgers, and Mets have an edge. However, if I had to choose which bullpen I would want down the stretch, I would choose the Nationals. RA9-WAR may favor the Dodgers, but as ERA- and FIP- show us, it is a lot closer than the wide gap in RA9-WAR entails.
As is the case with most playoff teams, the success of the Cubs bullpen may determine their fate in 2016. If Rondon and Strop can get the ball to Chapman, then the Cubs will have a recipe for success. More importantly, if Lester, Hendricks, Arrieta, and Lackey can go deep into games and shorten the game by bridging the gap to Chapman, than there may be little any team can do to stop the Chicago Cubs from winning their first World Series in 108 years.
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Carl Triano is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Minor League Ball.