1. CHICAGO CUBS
The Cubbies have clearly been the best team in Major League Baseball all season long. They were at the top of my MLB Power Rankings as May, June, and July all arrived, and they remain there in this latest release.
This may indeed be the ‘Year of the Cubs’, the year that the ‘Curse of the Billy Goat‘ is finally snapped, the year that the misery of generations of Cubs fans, who have not seen a World Series championship since the back-to-back crowns of 1907-08, get to celebrate with a parade.
It may be that year.
But the 2015 Saint Louis Cardinals and the 2014 Los Angeles Angels have a warning for the 2016 Chicago Cubs: finishing with the best regular season record in Major League Baseball not only doesn’t guarantee a World Series victory, it doesn’t even guarantee that you will reach the Fall Classic.
These Cubs appear to be well-positioned to go deep into October, and perhaps put an end to the generations of waiting at historic Wrigley Field on the North Side of the Windy City.
Chicago holds an insurmountable 16.5 game lead on the Cardinals. Their ‘Magic Number’ is already down to just 10 with four weeks to play. They are likely to clinch the franchise’ first division title since 2008 sometime next week.
That will give manager Joe Maddon a chance to rest some of his young regulars and line up his starting pitching any way he likes over the final two weeks or so of the regular season.
That starting rotation is a primary reason the Cubs are in this position. Led by the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and a 2016 NL All-Star, righty Jake Arrieta, they run out the best set of starters in the game at opponents.
Arrieta has followed up his Cy season with a 16-6 mark, a 2.84 ERA, and has allowed just 115 hits over 174 innings with a 168/67 K:BB mark. He should receive Cy votes once again, and could even win a 2nd straight.
He is joined in the rotation by lefty Jon Lester who may have been even better. Lester is 15-4 with a 2.61 ERA, having yielded just 129 hits over 169 innings with a 164/47 K:BB ratio.
26-year old right-hander Kyle Hendricks has been a true breakout performer. Hendricks has a 14-7 mark with a miniscule 2.07 ERA and 0.988 WHIP. He has allowed just 122 hits over 165 innings with a 145/41 K:BB mark.
Veteran righties John Lackey and Jason Hammel round out the rotation, and each has at least 25 starts on the year. In fact, Maddon has only had to go to his true depth on rare instances, giving just six starts to anyone other than his five horses thus far.
If there was a weakness, it might have been in the bullpen. A pair of stalwarts in closer Hector Rondon and setup man Pedro Strop were lost to injury. Both are expected back before the year is out, Rondon perhaps as soon as this week.
However, the Cubbies went out and got one of the best in the business in flamethrowing lefty Aroldis Chapman in a trade deadline deal with the Yanks. They also brought in young fireballer Carl Edwards to a more prominent role. Crisis averted.
Pitching is a strong part of the Cubs game, but it’s only half the game. Chicago has a strong lineup as well, with big hitters and solid defenders up and down.
The young leader is the player who was the game’s top prospect two years ago, the NL Rookie of the Year last season, and perhaps the leading contender for the NL Most Valuable Player this year, 3rd baseman Kris Bryant.
Bryant has 36 homers, 91 RBI, a league-leading 112 runs scored, and a .302/.398/.575 slash line. He is joined by 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo to make up an elite 1-2 run producing punch in the middle of the order.
Rizzo has fashioned a .292/.389/.540 slash line with 26 homers, 93 RBI, and 82 runs scored. Veterans Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler, and youngsters Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and catcher Willson Contreras are all dynamic players in their own rights.
The club’s big off-season free agent signing, right fielder Jason Heyward, has been described as somewhat of a bust by some folks. To me, those people simply don’t know the game.
Heyward remains one of the truly elite defensive players in baseball, a part of the game that is of vital importance at this time of year and on through October. Even at just age 26, he also brings 13 games of invaluable postseason experience from his years with both Atlanta and Saint Louis.
This is the favorite to win the World Series, baseball fans. But then again, that has been the case since the first month of the season. As we saw the last two years, the favorite doesn’t always win. It will now be up to Maddon and his Cubs to finish the job that they have spent five months starting.