As you may have heard, the Nationals have never won a Division Series despite having three opportunities since the current core emerged in 2012. The last time this franchise did win a postseason series, it was called the Expos and the year was 1981.
Yet the Nationals should not despair. And they needn’t look further than the opposing dugout to understand why. You may have also heard that between 1908 and 2016, the Cubs failed to capture a single World Series title despite dutifully playing baseball throughout. States of being that seem interminable can change in the blink of an eye or the wave of an unlikely bat, and often do.
The hour in Washington, though, is getting late. While Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg aren’t going anywhere, it’s hard to think about this team’s postseason fate without thinking of Bryce Harper’s dwindling contractual commitment. Their steamrolling of a pretty pitiful division has been a given since May, and now the real task begins with a Cubs team that won an unexpectedly difficult fight to return to the postseason for its World Series defense.
In terms of path, backstory, tactics, and roster construction, these clubs couldn’t be much more different if they tried. We could search through the annals of October successes and failures for a sign or pattern that might tip the scales toward one characteristic or another. But, well, we know the problem with consulting history.
CF-L Jon Jay (.296/.374/.375/.267)
3B-R Kris Bryant (.295/.409/.537/.326)
1B-L Anthony Rizzo (.273/.392/.507/.304)
C-R Willson Contreras (.276/.356/.499/.302)
LF-S Ben Zobrist (.232/.318/.375/.249)
SS-R Addison Russell (.239/.304/.418/.254)
RF-L Jason Heyward (.259/.326/.389/.254)
2B-R Javier Baez (.273/.317/.480/.274)
If Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein had devoted their energies to becoming puzzle magnates instead of Baseball Men, they might have revolutionized the medium with choose your own adventure-style sets that included one board but enough pieces to cover it one-and-a-half times over. The Cubs deploy an extremely variable lineup, making use of several “part-time” hitters to form imposing offensive attacks with a few consistent elements but different shapes.
The most important constant, the centerpiece, is Bryant. He is one of the three best players in the National League, no matter what the RBI aficionados tell you. Once a slugger using immense power to overcome a strikeout issue, he has eviscerated the greatest (only?) concern about his offensive profile, posting the 15th-best K/BB ratio among qualified hitters this year. He will be followed or flanked in the lineup by the steady Rizzo and often by Contreras, whose step forward at the plate has been accompanied by positive work with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.
Baez, the mercurial but scintillating highlight machine, is also nearly impossible to remove from the lineup at this point. Epstein recently praised him for improving the consistency of his often-otherworldly work in the field during Russell’s disabled list stint, and it seems unlikely the Cubs will want to face many frames without the World’s Greatest Tagger in their middle infield. Nearly every other hitter is in some sort of timeshare with a compadre technically listed on the bench. You can look at them any way you’d like. Just know that the parts form more than one whole.
SS-R Trea Turner (.284/.338/.451/.283)
RF-L Bryce Harper (.319/.413/.595/.336)
3B-R Anthony Rendon (.301/.403/.533/.325)
2B-L Daniel Murphy (.322/.384/.543/.314)
1B-R Ryan Zimmerman (.303/.358/.573/.315)
LF-R Jayson Werth (.226/.322/.393/.252)
C-S Matt Wieters (.225/.288/.344/.223)
CF-R Michael Taylor (.271/.320/.486/.281)
Assembled logically, the Nationals possess a terrifying string of hitters. Any lineup they want to run out there has, at minimum, five bats capable of ruining your night on any given pitch–and as many as seven, depending on how you feel about Taylor and the mojo of whichever elder statesman is playing left field. How healthy and locked in Harper feels after his recent return is worth wondering about, but even a rusty Harper is a force to be reckoned with and feared. There are no such qualifiers to lessen the dread the Cubs should feel when Rendon or Murphy (their 2015 tormenter) step in.
The Nationals’ challenge will be optimally deploying the quartet of Zimmerman, Werth, Adam Lind, and Howie Kendrick. They all have the potential to be legitimately excellent, but lack the consistency–at this stage in their careers–to inspire confidence that they will be that in the moment they are needed. Expect Werth to find his way to the field often despite his lackluster season stats, because of basically everything that can’t be quantified.
OF-R Albert Almora (.298/.338/.445/.267)
C-L Alex Avila (.264/.387/.447/.280)
OF/2B-S Ian Happ (.253/.328/.514/.284)
INF-L Tommy La Stella (.288/.389/.472/.310)
OF-L Kyle Schwarber (.211/.315/.467/.266)
Also known as part-time starters, the Cubs’ bench players will be deployed liberally in the situations where they have proven most useful. Happ has been a more potent power threat against righties. Schwarber has been far better since returning from the minors, but figures to have one of the less predictable usage patterns.
IF-S Wilmer Difo (.271/.319/.370/.242)
OF-R Howie Kendrick (.293/.343/.494/.290)
1B/OF-L Adam Lind (.303/.362/.514/.303)
C-S Jose Lobaton (.170/.248/.277/.197)
OF-R Victor Robles (.250/.308/.458/.243)
C-R Pedro Severino (.172/.226/.207/.135)
Kendrick and Lind are likely to play, and perhaps take some big turns at the plate, as pinch-hitters or when spelling Zimmerman and Werth. Top prospect and surprise call-up Victor Robles will grace the basepaths in big moments, and might see some time as a blazing defensive replacement in the outfield. Difo will probably bat with at least one game on the line and it will be hilarious. The catcher situation is the most fluid. Seeing as they have zero catchers who can hit a lick, this doesn’t seem complicated, yet it is. Severino, being the only one who can run, may be useful as a pinch-runner should the situation arise, but the uncertainty surrounding Scherzer could lead the Nationals to employ the services of a long reliever or extra starter instead.
Some anxiety hangs over the Cubs' rotation, with curious slip-ups needling the usually steady Lester and injury worries hanging over Arrieta. So, the pitcher who started the last Cubs postseason game will also start the next one. And, at least by this year’s performance, Hendricks is the best starter on the Cubs, his 3.31 DRA quietly ranking 18th among pitchers who threw at least 120 innings.
However, if there is an “X factor” or some other such nonsense to put our finger on concerning the fate of these two teams, we must turn our gaze back to Lester and Arrieta. Everyone knows what they are capable of, and both have shown it this season. It’s just a matter of whether they are tuned up and healthy enough to show it in this series.
The concerns swirling around Scherzer’s hamstring give Nats fans a reason to be nervous. As far as Game 1 replacements go, though, it might not be possible to do better than Strasburg. Five of his past seven starts have been scoreless, and another of those featured only one unearned run. If there’s ever a time to indulge in a little bit of recency bias, these short series situations might be it. Strasburg has arguably been the best pitcher on earth for the past two months or so who isn’t named Corey Kluber.
Gonzalez is a further mental test of how you weigh recent performance (his season) against long-term expectations. If he pitches to the 3.35 DRA he’s posted in 2017, the Nats will likely have an edge with or without Scherzer. If he doesn’t, then the unsettled status of the Cy Young favorite becomes an even more pressing question.
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
RHP Wade Davis (59, 2.30, 2.99)
RHP Pedro Strop (60, 2.83, 3.42)
RHP Carl Edwards (66, 2.98, 2.70)
LHP Mike Montgomery (131, 3.38, 4.29)
RHP Hector Rondon (57, 4.24, 3.57)
LHP Brian Duensing (62, 2.74, 4.08)
LHP Justin Wilson (58, 3.41, 4.70)
RHP John Lackey (171, 4.59, 5.20)
Davis has been as advertised, albeit in some sort of 2017-ified fashion. His strikeout rate is up to its highest level since the 2014 breakout, and he’s given up six home runs. Still, there are a precious few relievers more reliable than the Cubs’ closer. Strop and Edwards are again likely to function as setup types. Wilson struggled mightily following the trade from Detroit, and word is the Cubs could lean on Duensing for those showdowns with Harper or Murphy.
One advantage Maddon will have in his pen is length, in the form of Montgomery. While it remains to be seen how he adjusts to relief work, the same might eventually be said of Lackey–who will snarl his way into October looking for his fourth ring, 15 years after lighting his star in the 2002 World Series.
LHP Sean Doolittle (51, 2.81, 2.81)
RHP Ryan Madson (59, 1.83, 3.05)
RHP Brandon Kintzler (71, 3.03, 5.14)
RHP Matt Albers (61, 1.62, 3.37)
LHP Oliver Perez (33, 4.64, 4.31)
LHP Enny Romero (56, 3.56, 4.89)
LHP Sammy Solis (26, 5.88, 5.72)
RHP Edwin Jackson (76, 5.21, 7.00)
In April, this was the superhero protagonist’s ailing joint that every random villain and attacker somehow knows about. Come July, frustration had mounted in such a way that the front office moved to completely revamp the operation. In came Doolittle and Madson from the A’s, slinging late-inning zeros from each hand. In came Kintzler from the selling-buying-selling again Twins. These three newest additions are the important names to know. Barring shenanigans, they will be the ones on the mound in the biggest moments. The rest of the crew is highlighted by Albers, who was a beacon of semi-reliability when everyone else was crumbling, and Perez, who still uses his left hand to throw baseballs professionally.
Dusty Baker and Joe Maddon are such well-known figures that they have become overly simplistic caricatures of themselves in the public imagination. But they have both evolved, or at least diversified. Baker probably isn’t going to leave his starter out there for 120 pitches. Maddon isn’t going to run a Waxahachie Swap to gain an extra platoon advantage in the fifth inning.
These leaders are often contrasted, but their most notable strength is shared. They are mood setters. They will rate highly in Looseness Above Replacement Clubhouse. They will have the buy-in from the players to do something tactically strange if the moment calls for it. There’s also a chance they do something strange when the moment doesn’t call for it. The Nationals’ no. 2 hitters, for instance, had the 23rd-best OPS in baseball this year. Baker often slotted a utility infielder into the second spot when Harper was out of the lineup rather than choosing from a bevy of elite hitting options, like shifting Rendon out of his customary spot lower in the order.
To his credit, the lineups have been beautiful down the stretch, giving some credence to the possibility that he may have used the spot as some sort of tool to try and help the production or psyches of younger or struggling bats. Either way, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a fledgling or aging hitter occupying a surprisingly important spot in the Nationals order. And it’s going to be an unpleasant evening on Twitter if the perhaps unfit hitter in that spot is called to fend off elimination.
Here we have an unfettered advantage for the Cubs. For all his warts, Heyward is still an elite defender. Baez is capable of magic. Bryant is more than adequate and Rizzo erases his fellow infielders’ mistakes or hiccups regularly. Contreras is a weapon behind the dish. The Nationals have the excellent Rendon, then just the speed of Taylor and Turner, and the eternal, flickering hope of a forcefield enveloping Murphy.
At first glance, choosing the Cubs would seem to require a feeling–in your heart or your gut or wherever your sentimental, intangible-laced reasoning is stored. In the second half, though, they had the best OBP in baseball. It’s still almost impossible to put their season next to the Nationals’ and conclude that they have the upper hand, but it’s quite easy to recall the projections that foresaw Chicago as the more powerful of these juggernauts.
The same mental inertia that makes it feel as though the Nationals will never emerge victorious from a postseason series might also lead us to undersell the Cubs. Their offensive stars are arguably equals, and the pitching is unlikely to be as far apart going forward as it was in the recent past. Meanwhile, Maddon is working with versatility and depth the Nationals just can’t match. With the utmost respect for the unpredictability of it all, give me the Cubs in five.