In case you haven’t heard, the Washington Nationals are playing some postseason baseball today. No really, it’s happening. The Chicago Cubs are in town for the divisional round, looking to get one step closer to defending their World Series crown.
We’ll just get the obvious out of the way right now. The Nats haven’t been able to get past the NLDS once since moving to D.C. in 2005, despite making the playoffs three times in the past five years. Bryce Harper is going to be a free agent after next season, so the team’s window to compete will supposedly close forever after that.
Phew, glad that’s over. The pressure is certainly on the Nationals in this series, but we’ll keep the focus purely on the matchups for this preview. I’ve brought in the always insightful Al Yellon over from Bleed Cubbie Blue to help me out with this one. We dive into the lineups, rotations, bullpens, defenses and managers of these two NL heavyweights.
Al gave me his pitch for the Cubs in each category, and I’ve put mine for the Nats below. Who holds the edge? Well…
Chicago: 822 R, 223 HRs, 62 SBs, 1,401 Ks, .255 BA, .775 OPS
AY: Joe Maddon likes to mix and match his starting position players, so you're not likely to see the same lineup twice in this series. Sometimes it's based on who's hot, sometimes it's matchups, and sometimes Joe just plays hunches. Obviously the centerpieces of the lineup are Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. They're likely going to bat third and fourth... or second and third, depending on what Joe has in mind. If the guys in front of them can get on base, that's a good sign for "Bryzzo." At leadoff you could see Jon Jay or Ben Zobrist, depending again on matchups.
Washington: 819 R, 215 HRs, 108 SBs, 1,327 Ks, .266 BA, .782 OPS
MW: In all five of the games he started after coming off the disabled list, Harper was slotted in the No. 2 spot of the batting order. With Trea Turner leading off and Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman likely hitting behind the 2015 NL MVP, the Nats boast one of the best groups of No. 1 through 5 hitters in all of baseball.
My money is on Jayson Werth getting the start over Howie Kendrick in left field for Game 1, but his leash should be pretty short after struggling mightily down the stretch. Not to be forgotten is center fielder Michael Taylor, who hit .283 with six home runs in the month of September.
Who holds the edge?
The Cubs. Nobody scored more runs in the second half than the Cubbies, while the Nats trailed at a distant 17th. Bryant and Rizzo have been as good as advertised, while Willson Contreras and Ian Happ just wrapped up breakout seasons. The Nats have no idea what to expect out of Harper and his leg, while Werth and Matt Wieters are major question marks at the bottom of the order. The Nats’ lineup is the more fearsome unit when clicking on all cylinders, but it’s been a few months since it’s been at its best.
Chicago: 64-47 record, 4.05 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 77 QS, 2 CGs, 819 Ks
AY: The rotation was much, much, MUCH better in the second half than in the first, and it's one reason the Cubs went 49-25 after the All-Star Break. Particularly effective was Kyle Hendricks, who after the break had a 2.19 ERA, 1.179 WHIP and only six home runs allowed to players other than Daniel Murphy in 13 starts (78 innings) after he returned from the DL (Murphy homered twice off Hendricks at Wrigley on August 4). Every Cubs starter has spent some time on the DL this year, but all seem healthy now. The big question is whether Jake Arrieta is 100 percent -- he's been pushed back to a possible Game 4 due to a hamstring injury suffered September 4.
Washington: 72-47 record, 3.63 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 99 QS, 3 CGs, 1,012 Ks
MW: It hasn’t been made official that Max Scherzer will be starting Game 3, but all signs are pointing toward the two-time Cy Young winner taking the mound for the first game in Chicago. The team has announced, however, that Stephen Strasburg will be handling starting duties in Game 1 and Gio Gonzalez is expected to start in Game 2.
Strasburg was one of the best pitchers in the majors down the stretch, posting a 0.86 ERA over his final 10 starts of the season. The trio of Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez claimed all three of the top spots on Baseball Reference’s WAR leaderboard among pitchers. Rounding out the group will be Tanner Roark, who had a strong second half in his own right (3.90 ERA, 9.6 K/9 after All-Star Break).
Who holds the edge?
The Nats. Chicago’s rotation is filled with several question marks, while the Nats have one of the most dominant groups of starters in the sport. Hendricks will match up well with Strasburg, but Jon Lester hasn’t been the same pitcher he was a year ago (4.33 ERA on the year) and Arrieta’s injury remains a major concern. If the Nats are going to win this series, their rotation is going to be a big reason why.
Chicago: 38 saves (19 blown), 90 holds, 3.80 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 620 Ks
AY: This is the big question mark. Wade Davis has been excellent (32 saves in 32 opportunities) and has World Series experience. He seemed to wear down a bit in the second half so the few days off before this series begins should be helpful to him. After Davis, the Cubs' key relievers are Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop, Brian Duensing and Mike Montgomery. All have been really good at times this year. All have also been really bad at times this year, and that's the question: Which group do we get this series? Hector Rondon, who closed for the Cubs in 2015 and part of 2016, has been solid lately. He could be a key factor.
Washington: 46 saves (18 blown), 89 holds, 4.41 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 445 Ks
MW: The difference between the Nats’ bullpen prior to the trade deadline and after has been night and day. Sean Doolittle has converted 21 of 22 save opportunities since taking over the closer role, while Ryan Madson (11 holds) and Brandon Kintzler (10) have been able to stabilize the seventh and eighth innings. Add in pleasant surprise Matt Albers, who finished with a 1.62 ERA and the lowest WHIP of his career (0.852), and Washington finds itself with a dominant back end of its relief corps. While there isn’t a lot of clarity beyond those four, the group has been good enough to keep the team from losing many leads late in games down the stretch.
Who holds the edge?
The Nats. Who would’ve thought this be the case at the All-Star Break? Washington finished the first half with the worst bullpen ERA in the majors, then rebounded to finish with the third best mark in the NL during the second. Doolittle enters the postseason fresh off being named the NL Reliever of the Month for September — he’s allowed four earned runs over his last 26 appearances. The Cubs don’t know what they’re going to get out of basically anyone not named Davis, leaving a lot up to chance in the later innings.
Chicago: .984 fielding percentage, 95 errors, 24 OF assists, .22 CS%, 30 DRS
AY: This is what helped this team to a 103-win season last year. Unfortunately, defense wasn't all that good in the first half, one of the reasons the Cubs struggled to a 43-45 start. Defense has been much, much better in the second half, led by Javier Baez, who played almost every inning of every game at shortstop for six weeks while Addison Russell was out with a foot injury. Baez has been otherworldly defensively, including this catch made in the first game between the two teams on June 26.
But that's not all. Jason Heyward is the best defensive right fielder in the game. His range and arm have given the Cubs positive value even when his bat hasn't been great. And Albert Almora Jr. is an outstanding defensive center fielder who makes catches like these:
Lastly, Willson Contreras is a very strong defensive catcher and threw out 27 percent of potential base stealers this year. And if he's not behind the plate, Alex Avila is a capable backup (31 percent CS rate).
Washington: .985 fielding percentage, 86 errors, 31 OF assists, .24 CS%, -37 DRS
MW: As good as Rendon (7 defensive runs saved) has been over at the hot corner, he hasn’t been able to cover up the play of his fellow infielders. Turner (-2), Zimmerman (-8) and Murphy (-15) all rate poorly on the defensive side of the ball according to Fangraphs. Harper and Taylor have combined for 16 outfield assists on the season, striking fear in any runner attempting to tag up from third base. Overall, defense isn’t the team’s strongest aspect, but Wilmer Difo has shown flashes of a future Gold Glover off the bench and could see some playing time after impressing coaches with his play this season.
Who holds the edge?
The Cubs. You have to give Chicago credit; the team doesn’t play sloppy defense. Whereas its offense and rotation haven’t lived up to preseason expectations, the team’s maintained a strong defensive presence in the field. It’s going to be tough to get any groundballs past Baez and Russell up the middle, and Heyward is the best defensive corner outfielder in the majors. The Nats are prone to making mistakes, particularly in the infield, and that could play a factor in this series.
Chicago: 92-70, six-game lead in NL Central, +127 run differential
AY: I am going to resist the urge to simply bash Dusty Baker here. No, really. You certainly know of Dusty's history with the Cubs and that Cubs fans do not have fond memories of him. Nevertheless, he has managed the Nationals to two consecutive postseason appearances and should get credit for that.
Having said that, I believe Joe Maddon's unorthodox strategies and lineup selections will outflank Dusty in this series. Maddon's two pennants and one World Series title go one step further than Baker's one World Series appearance, which was 15 years ago -- against a team whose bench coach was Joe Maddon, oddly enough.
Simply put, I think Maddon is, with the possible exception of Bruce Bochy, the best manager in the game today, and he did what no Cubs manager could accomplish in 108 years, manage them to a World Series championship. That matters, in my view.
Washington: 97-65, 20-game lead in NL East, +147 run differential
MW: Ah, Dusty. Baker is still searching for that first World Series ring as a skipper, despite claiming 1,863 victories in his 22-year managerial career. He’s about as old school as it gets, sticking with players in their lineup spots regardless of whether they’ve been hot or cold. Baker also likes to send relievers out for full innings at a time, establishing roles for certain players as seventh-, eighth- or ninth-inning guys. He boasts an incredible amount of experience and has a strong supporting staff around him, but is probably managing this postseason for his job with his future in D.C. still undecided.
Who holds the edge?
The Cubs. Aside from Terry Francona, Maddon is the most innovative manager in the game. His willingness to shuffle the order around depending on the starting pitcher gives the team a significant platoon advantage, while his management of Aroldis Chapman in last year’s playoffs bodes well for this season. Baker is going to need to get out of his comfort zone a little bit if he wants to compete with Maddon in this series.
Well, there you have it. The Cubs edge the Nats 3-2, which hopefully won’t be the series win totals when things are all said and done. Both teams boast some incredible star talent, which includes all four NL MVP and Cy Young winners from the past two years. Harper and Arrieta’s health are going to play pivotal roles in this series and are worth keeping an eye on as the NLDS progresses.
This is the playoffs, meaning anything is possible. One hit, diving catch, lucky bounce or baserunning miscue could determine the difference between making the NLCS and watching it at home from the couch. Buckle up, because with the Nats and Cubs filling opposing dugouts, we should be in for a wild ride.