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Rounding Third Podcast – Episode 12: Cubs vs. Dodgers NLCS Thoughts and Musings

In this episode of the Rounding Third Podcast, Greg and Bobby cover the ins and outs of the NLCS between the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers, a series in which the Dodgers have gotten out to a quick 2-0 start.

 

NLDS Preview: Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals

Cubs and Nationals 2017 Regular Season

Chicago Cubs – 92-70 (1st NL Central)

The reigning World Champions are back in the Postseason and they sure didn’t make it look easy. After a slow start to the year, the Cubs put up a very impressive 2nd half of the season to hold off the over-performing Milwaukee Brewers and the Voodoo Magic Cardinals in the central division.

2017 brought more bright spots with young Cubs bats, much like the past two seasons. The offense was the second best in the National League with a 101 wRC+ and .332 wOBA. A total of seven players were above the league average 100 wRC+ mark individually with a minimum of 250 plate appearnaces, with the major contributors being Kris Bryant (146), Anthony Rizzo (133), and Willson Contreras (121).

Speaking of Contreras, the young backstop really busted out in his sophomore season with an impressive slash line of .276/.356/.499 and has really locked down the cleanup spot in the Cubs order, making up for a lackluster season from the once consistent Ben Zobrist.

The Cubbies will trot out a rotation of Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Jake Arrieta in games one through four of the series. The historic rotation from 2016 has come back down to earth this year, even falling on some hard times in the first half of the season. Now heading into the playoffs, each aforementioned starter is throwing the best they have all season with the exception of Lester who has limped to the finish with his 4.33/4.10 ERA/FIP. He will bring his experience and pedigree into his game two match-up and look to put the sub-par regular season behind him.

Even with the loss of Aroldis Chapman going into this season, the Chicago bullpen hasn’t skipped a beat. They added one of the best closers in baseball in Wade Davis (2.30 ERA) as well as Brian Duensing (2.74). The trio of Pedro Strop (2.83), Carl Edwards Jr (2.98), and Mike Montgomery (2.49) have improved off their numbers from last year to round out a bullpen which is expected to be one of the better pens in the Postseason.

 

Washington Nationals – 97-65 (1st NL East)

Regular seasons have yet to be a major problem for the Washington Nationals, as it has proven to be the Postseason that has given them troubles in the past. Going into 2017, the front office and fans both figured they had assembled a team that was built to compete throughout the regular season and contend for a World Series crown in the Postseason.

Injuries were an issue in the nation’s capitol throughout this season with Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Joe Ross all missing significant time. Even still, the team was still able to completely run away with the division crown.

The bats in 2017 were right in line with the numbers the Cubs put up, finishing just behind them in both team wRC+ at 100 and wOBA with .331. The Nats had quite a bit of firepower at the top of their order, with the big boppers carrying a heavy load during the regular season. Those big bats included the likes of Harper (156 wRC+), Anthony Rendon (142), Ryan Zimmerman (138), and Daniel Murphy (136).

While their bats are impressive in themselves, you can’t help but also be in awe of the rotation the Nationals will send out there for games one through three of the series with Stephen Strasburg (2.52 ERA/2.72 FIP), Gio Gonzalez (2.96/3.93), and Max Scherzer (2.51/2.90). All three pitchers will get Cy Young votes this year, with Scherzer being the favorite to win the NL Cy Young award.

Those starters will pass the ball off to a bullpen that is much improved from where they were at during the first few months of the season. The 7th, 8th, and 9th innings are entirely different now with the midseason acquisitions of Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, and Sean Doolittle. Those three pitchers will be a lock to pitch every single game they have a lead or are within striking distance of the Cubs and have excelled in their roles as a member of the Nationals.

 

Players to Watch In The NLDS

MVP candidates, Cy Young hopefuls, entertaining managers, and terrific fan bases. This series features many reasons to keep up with each game and you probably don’t need another reason to catch what should be an incredible series. But if you do need a reason to tune in, here are some players and storylines to look out for in this NLDS.

Kris Bryant

In case you weren’t aware, Bryant has had one of the quietest MVP-hopeful seasons in the National League, putting up statistics that are better than the 2016 MVP version of himself almost all across the board. The guy can do it all. With the bat, on the bases, or in the field wherever Joe Maddon decides to put him on any given day. He had a very impressive Postseason last year and he will need to lead the Cubs alongside Anthony Rizzo to compete with the starpower in the middle of the Nationals lineup.

Ryan Zimmerman

Zimmerman started off the year at a torrid pace OPSing 1.345 through May before coming back down to earth during the middle part of the season. But during September and October, the Nats first baseman has turned it back on again, with an OPS of 1.021. He will need to continue to stay hot during this series to protect the big bat of Bryce Harper. To do that, he will need to turn around what have been awful numbers against the Cubs over the course of this season. In 7 games against the Northsiders, Zimmerman is slashing just .167/.259/.250/.509.

Daniel Murphy

While Zimmerman has struggled against the Cubs, Daniel Murphy has been a known Cubs killer over the course of his career, with his peak coming the last time that he faced the Cubs in the Postseason. In that NLCS which saw Murphy’s Mets sweep Chicago to get to the World Series in 2015, Murphy became Babe Ruth. He hit .529 with 4 bombs in the 4 game series and quickly dashed the Cubs title hopes that season. This series will certainly bring up many opportunities for him to continue his mashing of Chicago pitching.

Greg’s NLDS Series Prediction

On paper this series might be the most even match-up the divisional round has to offer. With the Nationals being favored with a 52% chance of advancing, the projection systems have the series as basically deadlocked. I think that one of these years Mike Rizzo and company will put together a baseball team that has as much success in the Postseason as they do in seemingly every single regular season they play, but I just don’t think that 2017 is that year. This series will come down to timely hits, and I just think that Chicago will come up with more of them. Often times, adjustments are the name of the game in the Postseason and the combination of Joe Maddon and his deep bench will provide the ability to make adjustments that the Nationals and Dusty Baker just won’t be able to make.

Chicago Cubs Win NLDS In 5 Games

Baseball is Better When Big Market Teams Are Successful

Sports fans claim that they love a great underdog story. The Miracle USA Hockey Team, George Mason basketball and their Final Four run of 2006, and the 1969 Miracle Mets were all stories that will be told for lifetimes. But there is one thing that fans love more than underdogs: Powerhouse programs and organizations matching up to win a championship.

People love to watch two “big dogs” go at it on the national stage with all of the chips on the line and baseball is no exception.

New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are the three largest cities in the United States and naturally are also the three largest markets for professional sports. According to Forbes, the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs are the first, second, and fifth most valuable teams based around the team’s net worth. More fans tune in to watch these big market teams take the field every day than any other organization around the league and when they are successful, so too is all of Major League Baseball.

In what would only be the second time in Major League Baseball history, the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chicago Cubs are all in line to make the Postseason. The only other time that ever happened was recently in 2015, a season in which the Yankees bowed out early, losing in the Wild Card game.

Now 2017, the Yankees are yet again lined up to make the Postseason as a Wild Card team. They have been somewhat of a surprise after expectations were that they would not contend for the playoffs until 2018 or later. The Dodgers have put together one of the best seasons in MLB history thus far as they are challenging the 2001 Mariners and 1906 Cubs for most wins in a season. The Cubs find themselves on top of a division that no one wants to take control of. Coming off a historic season, the team has seen somewhat of a World Series hangover. With that being said, they still boast a roster that has more than enough talent to make a deep Postseason run.

With the success of these powerhouse organizations, national broadcasts have seen a serious uptick in people tuning in to watch. Both FS1 and ESPN have seen an increase in viewers this season compared to 2016, with FS1 seeing a 17% increase and ESPN getting an uptick of 15%.

The popularity of these teams also hinges on the types of players they have on their roster. All three teams have been assembled in a way that has proven that a changing of the guard has occurred regarding roster construction. As recent as five years ago, these three teams that swim in their riches would be spending their offseason tossing around their cash as if their lives depended on it. Signing massive free agent deals was the way large market teams used to win, but it is 2017 and we know that is not how it works now.

All three teams have become experts in creating lineups out of young, cost-controlled players. This is proven by the players that each organization is building around on offense. While the days of young talent that is vaulting teams to the Postseason is upon us, young players are also growing the popularity of each team.

The Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs each have two very clear-cut young superstars that man the middle of the order for their respective teams. They are putting up stellar stats and they are also the faces of their franchise.

The Yankees have two guys by the name of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.

The Dodgers employ the likes of Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger.

The Cubs have 2016 MVP Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

These two-headed monsters are not only powering their teams into the Postseason this year, but they are putting their organizations back on the map in terms of the powerhouse super teams that baseball fans expect from the three largest markets in the country.

Commissioner Rob Manfred and the rest of Major League Baseball front offices won’t need to worry about Postseason match-ups that include the likes of Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, and other small markets and the low television ratings that come with those teams. It is looking like 2017 will be a year that the commissioner as well as the fans across the country will be able to enjoy as the big dogs are making their push to occupy their respective slots in the playoffs and potentially the World Series.

 

Greg Huss, Baseline Times MLB Contributor

Feature photo provided by Ron Cogswell

 

The Cubs are bad, but they’re also not the Cubs

It’s July, and the defending World Series champions have been hovering around .500 the entire season. Many things are contributing to the utterly disappointing championship hangover we’re witnessing this year. So, what gives?

Their rotation is a disaster, and their much-vaunted lineup of young studs has been middling, at best. They’ve been hurt and, although they’ve avoided catastrophic injuries, it’s added an extra layer of strain to an already struggling roster. With that in mind, it’s important to point out that, yes, the Cubs have been bad – but, in many ways, this is not the Cubs.

Kyle Schwarber is in AAA, Kyle Hendricks is hurt, Jason Heyward is hurt, Ben Zobrist is hurt, Addison Russell is nursing a season-long shoulder injury, and Kris Bryant just rolled his ankle catching a pop-up. Miguel Montero was DFA’d because of a clubhouse rift (which he created). John Lackey hasn’t been the innings-eating, upper-threes ERA guy he’s built a career on. Jake Arrieta has been a far cry from his 2016 season (which was already much worse than his 2015 Cy Young campaign). Brett Anderson Brett Andersoned, and, to top it all off, they’re trying to win ballgames with a slightly above-average spring training roster.

Let’s take a look at some of the current crop of youngsters who are being tasked with reviving the Cubs’ comatose season.

Eddie Butler, SP

When the Cubs traded James Farris for Eddie Butler, the intent was to acquire a talented starting pitcher who could try to work out a few of the issues that were keeping him from being a successful major leaguer. He was never supposed to be a staple of the rotation this season, yet here we are. To his credit, with a 3.71 ERA, Butler has been more than formidable. However, his 4.28 FIP and 5.27 xFIP suggest that he’s been more lucky than good.

Victor Caratini, C

As a consensus Top 15-ish Cubs prospect coming into the season, it’s not like Caratini came out of nowhere. He had a .923 OPS in Iowa before getting the call to replace Montero. Caratini is currently tasked with being the backup catcher, behind Willson Contreras. His bat is probably already above-average for a second catcher, but there are plenty of questions about his defensive ability. Drafted as a 3B in 2013, he’s only had a few seasons to become acclimated behind the dish. It’s likely that the Cubs will make a trade for a veteran backup before the deadline, but the job is his for now.

Jeimer Candelario, 3B

Blocked at third and first by Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, respectively, Jeimer Candelario has always been destined to be a trade chip for Chicago. Thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, Candelario will now have an extended audition in the majors to showcase his bat for potential trade suitors. He’s been largely unimpressive as a fill-in, albeit in an incredibly small sample size. Before his call-up, he was batting .274/.366/.520 with 9 HR, 31 BB, and 59 Ks. His bat is legitimate but hasn’t been good enough to help cure the Cubs offensive woes.

Mark Zagunis, OF

Mark Zagunis, the Cubs #5 prospect according to MLB.com, was most likely to be called up in September so he could get a taste of major league pitching. Like the others in this article, Zagunis’ promotion was forced by some pretty unfortunate circumstances. In AAA, he was hitting .249/.399/.474 with 11 HR, 48 BB, and 60 Ks. Similarly to Candelario, his bat is probably close to ready, but he’s still very raw. Expect him to be the first to be sent back down when Heyward or Zobrist returns.

[UPDATE: Mark Zagunis has been optioned back down to AAA, as Ben Zobrist has been activated from the 10-Day DL]

In addition to the four players mentioned here, the Cubs current active roster features Felix Pena, who has been shuffled back and forth from Iowa with fellow reliever Dylan Floro – neither of whom are truly major league talents. Top prospect Ian Happ forced his way into a promotion, and has provided stellar value as a rookie. So, it’s not all bad news.

What does all of this mean? The Cubs are currently without their second best starting pitcher, as well their opening day second baseman, left fielder, right fielder, backup catcher, and fifth starter. They’re trying to compete with a roster that is completely different than what they intended at the start of the season.

That, in combination with unspectacular play from players who were expected to flourish, has doomed Chicago to a disappointing first half. Luckily, the rest of the NL Central is equally anemic, which has kept the Cubs’ playoff hopes alive. The All-Star break can’t come soon enough, as it should give the team the mental break it needs, as well as provide ample time for Heyward, Zobrist, and Hendricks to return.

The Cubs’ 2017 has been a perfect storm of mediocrity, injury, and inconsistency, but every storm eventually runs out of rain.

 

Kory Schulte, Baseline Times 

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