By winning their final eight games, the Cubs put some pressure on the Pirates in the final week of the season. But Pittsburgh did what they needed to do, defeating the Reds 4-0 on the final day of the season and ensuring that they’d have home-field advantage on Wednesday against Chicago.
CF-S Dexter Fowler (.250/.346/.411/.281)
RF-L Kyle Schwarber (.246/.355/.487/.307)
LF-R Kris Bryant (.275/.369/.488/.317)
1B-L Anthony Rizzo (.278/.387/.512/.328)
2B-R Starlin Castro (.265/.296.375/.243)
C-L Miguel Montero (.248/.345/.409/.279)
SS-R Addison Russell (.242/.307/.389/.252)
P-R Jake Arrieta (.152/.163/.266/.153)
3B-L Tommy La Stella (.269/.324/.403/.269)
Joe Maddon isn’t tipping his hand with regards to his lineup on Wednesday, and for those who have been following this team all season the possibilities are endless. Here’s what we know: Anthony Rizzo is at first, Addison Russell at short, Dexter Fowler in center, Miguel Montero behind the plate, and Jake Arrieta on the mound. While Starlin Castro’s .243 TAv may look rough, he finished the season on a .353/.374/.594 run in his final 44 games. That’s the player many expected to see all season—well, maybe not that good—and after a semi-benching and some mechanical adjustments, he finally emerged. Look for Castro to start at second.
That leaves holes in right and left field as well as third base, and this is where things get tricky in trying to predict what Maddon has planned for the Pirates. We know Kris Bryant will be in the lineup; the question is where. Let’s assume that by playing Kyle Schwarber in right field twice over the weekend, Maddon was assessing his ability and comfort level there in preparation for a possible start in that spot at PNC. Pittsburgh’s right field is considerably less spacious than left, so Maddon’s prepping of Schwarber for right isn’t without merit. That makes me rather confident that Schwarber gets the nod in right and leaves us with just one name remaining to fill out the lineup as we determine Bryant’s spot in the field.
Here are the options: Go with the best possible defensive infield and have Javier Baez at third and Bryant in left, go with the what’s worked most of the season and stick Chris Coghlan in left and Bryant at his natural third, or go with the athletic Bryant in left and the line-drive hitting Tommy La Stella at third. I’ve struggled with this for a while, but let’s eliminate the possibility of Baez at third and Bryant in left. That’s a great defensive infield with a pitcher who puts the ball on the ground 56.2 percent of the time, but by reading into what Maddon has hinted at (which hasn’t been much), I think he’ll lean with a little more offense.
That leaves us with the option of choosing between La Stella or Coghlan. Coghlan has reinvented himself into a more patient hitter who waits for a pitch to drive rather than just looking to put the ball in play. This has resulted in career-highs in walk rate (11.5 percent), home runs (16), and ISO (.193). In his two seasons with the Cubs, Coghlan has hit four-seamers, sinkers, and sliders well, or at least better than La Stella has for his career, so that certainly needs to be taken into consideration. There are also benefits to going with La Stella; he’s one of the few contact-oriented hitters (90.4 percent contact rate this season is easily tops on the team) in a lineup that led all of baseball with a 24.5 percent strikeout rate, so his presence is certainly helpful. And while I wouldn’t weigh this part very heavily, perhaps it should be looked at: In his last 33 plate appearances, La Stella has slashed .379/406/.483, while Coghlan has a .604 OPS in his last 44 plate appearances. That’s an extremely small sample, Coghlan has had a great season up until these final few weeks, and his overall numbers in September/October were strong, so it’s really unfair to put him on the bench based on that. Probably this should be dismissed entirely.
However, I’m sure the decision goes much deeper than that, and in particular, I’m guessing La Stella’s contact approach will give him the slight edge when Maddon fills out his lineup card. The Cubs ended the season far and away in last place in scoring a man from third with fewer than two outs. Certainly an ugly statistic (this despite the Cubs offense being one of highest scoring in baseball since the All-Star break) and one that La Stella’s contact approach helps combat. It’s a risk putting so many players away from their natural positions (each of La Stella, Schwarber, Bryant, and Castro would all be playing positions they have limited experience at), but Maddon has used the versatility and athleticism of his roster to his advantage all season. There’s no reason to expect him to stop in October.
Of course, with all the back and forth on those final spots, the fact is that this is a very balanced and deep lineup with offensive threats from top to bottom. Bryant and Rizzo get much of the love, and Schwarber has made a name for himself after just a few months in the bigs. But this lineup can do damage from a variety of spots, and whether it’s Wednesday against Gerrit Cole or deeper into October, there’s a very good chance anyone listed here or on the bench could end up ending another team’s season.
2B-R Josh Harrison (.287/.327/.390/.264)
RF-L Gregory Polanco (.256/.320/.381/.264)
CF-R Andrew McCutchen (.292/.401/.488/.326)
3B-R Aramis Ramirez (.245/.299/.413/.248)
LF-R Starling Marte (.287/.337/.444/.281)
1B-L Pedro Alvarez (.243/.318/.469/.285)
C-R Francisco Cervelli (.295/.370/.401/.281)
SS-R Jordy Mercer (.244/.293/.320/.228)
P-R Gerrit Cole (.150/.177/.150/.169)
After all my talk about trying not to pay attention to small samples, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has hinted that Josh Harrison, the team’s hottest hitter, could find himself in the starting lineup on Wednesday. Harrison has a .952 OPS with nine doubles and a triple in his last 80 plate appearances, and there’s a good chance he’ll get the nod over either Neil Walker at second or Aramis Ramirez at third. Both Walker and Ramirez have more than 20 plate appearances against Arrieta, and neither has done much with those opportunities (this is a trend with the league in general). If a lefty was on the mound this would be an easy decision, as the switch-hitting Walker has a huge split for his career, while Ramirez has fared well against both righties and lefties in his career. I lean toward Ramirez because of the low strikeout rate (13.5 percent vs righties for his career against Walker’s 18 percent), a power advantage (.198 ISO against righties compared to Walker’s .183), and Ramirez’s better overall contact rate. All of those advantages hold true during the 2015 season and lead me to expect Walker to sit over Ramirez in favor of Harrison.
All this hand-wringing over these minute lineup decisions may be all for naught. No Pirates batter has an OPS above .600 against Arrieta, save for McCutchen (.879). For the Pirates to have any offensive success, it’ll come down to their perennial MVP candidate, a few balls finding holes, or perhaps Pedro Alvarez getting a mistake that he happens to be sitting on. But again, it’s Arrieta, so I wouldn’t expect many fireworks for the Pirates (or the Cubs against Cole, for that matter) in this one.
· INF-R Javier Baez (.289/.325/.408/.268)
· OF-L Chris Coghlan (.250/.341/.443/.279)
· OF-R Chris Denorfia (.269/.324/.403/.249)
· OF-R Jorge Soler (.262/.324/.399/.263)
· OF-R Austin Jackson (.236/.304/.375/.247)
· OF-L Quintin Berry (0-for-1 in one plate appearance)
· C-R David Ross (.176/.267/.252/.203)
After struggling in this department for much of the season, the Cubs have become a very deep team with some small trades, key call-ups, and improved healthy. Jorge Soler has returned from an oblique injury that sidelined him for about a month toward the end of the season. While he never really took back hold of his starting duties in right, he’s been capable off the bench and in limited starts. Baez brings a power bat off the bench, along with a lot of swing-and-miss, but also a plus-plus glove at multiple infield positions. Look for him and Austin Jackson to be used as defensive replacements if the Cubs find themselves with a lead in the later innings.
Chris Denorfia and Coghlan will be used in pinch-hitting roles depending on matchups (while Denorfia could also find himself in the outfield late in a game with a lead) and Quintin Berry will be on the roster strictly to aid the team in any pinch-running situations that may pop up. It’s unlikely Ross will be used on Wednesday, but he needs to be on the roster in case they’ve removed Schwarber from the game (or even if they haven’t) and the need for a backup catcher comes around.
· 2B-S Neil Walker (.269/.328/.427/.274)
· INF-R Sean Rodriguez (.246/.281/.362/.230)
· INF-S Pedro Florimon (.087/.160/.174/.134)
· 1B-R Mike Morse (.275/.390/.391/.289)
· OF-L Travis Snider (.192/.276/.423/.242)
· OF-R Keon Broxton (0-for-2 in two plate appearances)
· C-R Elias Diaz (0-for-2 in two plate appearances)
· C-R Chris Stewart (.289/.320/.340/.243)
Hurdle is going with a third catcher on the roster (the Cubs have Schwarber as their third catcher, another way they’re able to take advantage of their versatility). Tha means two of Broxton (a base-stealing threat—for pitchers with at least 150 innings this season, Arrieta was 14th-worst with a 5.16 percent takeoff rate above average, fractions behind Cole (5.14 percent)), Jaff Decker, and Travis Ishikawa will be left off the roster. Let’s assume Hurdle goes with the speed angle, as runners in scoring position will likely be in short supply for both teams, and getting a man to second and hoping to find a hole or a bloop hit may be either team's best bet for scratching across a run.
Cubs: Jake Arrieta (229, 1.77, 2.31)
All the superlatives you’ve heard uttered with regards to Arrieta are accurate and well earned. The man has surpassed 200 innings for the first time in his career, and while that could be of concern for others, Arrieta is a different type of animal. Yes, anything can happen in one game, but the Pirates and their fans shouldn’t lean on the belief that Arrieta might have an off night. There aren’t many who are as physically and mentally prepared for this type of game as the man who will toe the rubber for the Cubs Wednesday night. The Pirates may well win this game, but it won’t be because Arrieta has a bad start.
Pirates: Gerrit Cole (208, 2.60, 3.31)
Sure, Arrieta may win the Cy Young, but Cole is no slouch. The Cubs have done little against the Pirates ace this season, but they did have some success against him early in the season. In his first two starts against the Cubs, they managed to get the young UCLA product out after six innings by working his pitch count to 95 and 107, respectively. He lasted 6 1/3 and seven innings in his final two starts against the Cubs, once again passing the century mark in both outings. The Pirates won three of those four games, and while the Cubs did manage to scratch across a few runs, they weren’t lighting up the scoreboard.
So do the North Siders continue to try and work Cole patiently and up his pitch count? It would certainly be a valid strategy. However, their best bet may be to jump on him early in at-bats when he’s throwing his fastball and not allow him to get ahead and put them away with his slider. It may be a risky maneuver, but it also may be the Cubs best chance to score some early runs and give Arrieta a cushion that would look daunting for any team to come back on.
Bullpen (IP, ERA, DRA)
- RHP Hector Rondon (70, 1.67, 3.18)
- RHP Pedro Strop (68, 2.91, 2.67)
- LHP Travis Wood (100.2, 3.84, 3.91)
- RHP Justin Grimm (49.2, 1.99, 3.53)
- RHP Fernando Rodney (62.2, 4.74, 5.61)
- LHP Jon Lester (205, 3.34, 3.89)
- LHP Clayton Richard (42.1, 3.83, 4.86)
- RHP Trevor Cahill (43.1, 5.40, 4.76)
- RHP Kyle Hendricks (180, 3.95, 3.87)
The Cubs bullpen roles have been all over the place. Jason Motte took over as closer when Hector Rondon faltered early, but eventually the opposition caught up to Motte’s all-fastball, all-flyball, no-strikeout approach and Rondon’s dominance led to the former Rule 5 pick re-taking the closer’s spot. Travis Wood has proven to be rather strong out of the ‘pen, able to eat multiple innings or just get a few tough lefties when the moment arises. Jon Lester will be there only in the case of an emergency, but the team also has numerous bullpen arms who can be used for multiple innings in addition to Wood, as Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill (who has been dominant since joining the Cubs and pitching strictly out of the bullpen) can also fill that role.
If Justin Grimm can move past a nine-inning stretch that saw him post a 6.00 ERA, walk 10 batters, and allow two home runs, and regain the form that saw him become what Maddon called his mid-innings closer, it would be a huge boost. Add that to Fernando Rodney, who has posted a 0.75 ERA (a lone run that came on pop fly that a strong wind pushed into the basket at Wrigley) with 15 strikeouts and just four walks in 12 innings with the Cubs after a disastrous 54 appearances with Seattle, then suddenly the bullpen could be a strength for the Cubs. But that’s a lot of ifs. Look for Maddon to ride Arrieta for as long as possible; he’s the team’s horse. If their season ends on Wednesday, Maddon will likely make the Pirates beat Arrieta, not his ‘pen.
- RHP Mark Melancon (76.2, 2.23, 2.90)
- LHP Tony Watson (75.1, 1.91, 2.60)
- RHP Arquimedes Caminero (74.2, 3.62, 3.83)
- RHP Jared Hughes (67, 2.28, 4.71)
- LHP Antonio Bastardo (55.2, 2.98, 2.81)
- RHP Joe Blanton (76, 2.84, 3.56)
- RHP Joakim Soria (67.2, 2.53, 3.17)
- LHP Francisco Liriano (187, 3.38, 3.69)
A perennial strength for the Pirates, once again the bullpen has impressed in Pittsburgh. Mark Melancon has proven to be one of the best relievers in the game, eliciting weak contact with a deceptive cutter. Tony Watson will likely be a factor as the Cubs have a variety of weapons from the left side (which is why Hurdle might decide to carry three lefties); and despite Rizzo being strong against southpaws, Watson did make him look foolish—something rarely done—when the two teams last faced off.
Jared Hughes could be used to get a groundball if needed, and Antonio Bastardo (and perhaps Arquimedes Caminero) might be called upon for an inning when the Cubs' swing-and-miss guys are up (there are quite a few of those for Chicago), but this game has ‘ride your starters’ written all over it.
The Cubs are seventh in defensive efficiency and the Pirates rank 23rd, though DRS has the teams more closely ranked. The key to the Cubs defense is its depth (they can put Baez at third or second and Jackson can replace Schwarber or Coghlan with Denorfia also available, and immediately they become a plus defensive team), the emergence of Addison Russell as a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, and the additions of Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero in the offseason.
The Pirates outfield defense is always gushed over, and while they aren’t 2014 Kansas City Royals level, they’ve earned the praise, especially with Marte in left and McCutchen in center. They’re certain to frustrate the Cubs with liners that appear headed for a gap, only to be hauled in by a hustling outfielder. Mercer offers a plus glove at short, and depending on where Harrison ends up starting, his glove is also strong wherever he may roam.
It’s one game, and as I’ve stated numerous times, I believe both managers will ride their starting pitchers, so perhaps the handling of the bullpen won’t be of much importance. Hurdle and his staff are known to be masters at shifting, and that could hurt the Cubs' ability to find holes with some grounders. Maddon has done a brilliant job pushing all the right buttons on the field this season, but how he’s handled a young group that never panicked—despite some rough stretches—and always was well prepared has been remarkable. Don’t doubt the Cubs due to a lack of experience: Maddon hasn’t allowed it to be a factor all season, and he won’t let it bring them down on Wednesday night. The bottom line is both these managers deserve effusive praise (and Manager of the Year consideration) for the work they’ve done this year and in the past. Hurdle, in particular, has transformed the way he views the game since his days in Colorado; that type of willingness to change is rare in any walk of like. This game might come down to a managerial decision, but it’s hard for me to say that either has a clear advantage.
PECOTA gives the Pirates a 51.5 percent chance of winning this game. We know the bottom line is that in one game, the prediction should always be a shrug, but I’m doing what I’ve done all season: placing my bet on Jake Arrieta. Look for the Cubs to do just enough against Cole (and don’t expect it to be very much) and for Arrieta to deliver a performance that few will forget any time soon. The Cubs will be heading to St. Louis come Thursday.