Cubs Ink Lackey; Not Done Yet

130107_gq_trout_aFriday evening it was announced that the Cubs and John Lackey had agreed to a two-year contract worth $32 million. This was a move that had been rumored to be gaining steam in the twelve hours leading up to the official announcement, and it’s one that instantly makes the Cubs a better team.

The Cubs’ starting rotation is now Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hendricks, and Hammel. Signing Lackey gives them that third starter that the team so badly missed during this year’s playoff run, and it gives them more postseason experience. Lackey is 8-5 in 20 career postseason starts with a 3.11 era. He started three games for the Red Sox during the 2013 postseason, and posted a 2.57 era while helping Boston win the World Series. Three players from that 2013 Red Sox team are now on the Cubs.

David Ross, Jon Lester, and John Lackey are all fairly good friends going back to their days in Boston, which apparently played a significant role in Lackey deciding to join the Cubs. He’s one of the more intense, hard-nosed pitchers in the league and will inevitably bring even more of an “edge” to this Cubs team.

While we shouldn’t expect Lackey to put up equivalent numbers this year to the ones he posted this past regular season, it’s not out of the question to expect an earned run average under 3.40 with at least 10 victories. If he can deliver with numbers somewhere along those lines, that would be very ideal given his age.

Despite the Lackey signing, I would be surprised if the Cubs are totally satisfied with their rotation. That is why I am still anticipating some serious discussions to take place between the Cubs and Braves revolving around Shelby Miller. As I stated in a previous article, Miller would be a great fit for the Cubs given his age and potential, however acquiring him would mean Jorge Soler likely going the other way.

If that deal were to take place, it would not be out of the question for the Cubs to sign Jason Heyward and Denard Span. Trading Soler would open up right field for the Cubs, which is Heyward’s natural position, and Span could then play center with Dexter Fowler all but for sure gone.

While all of that is possible, the odds of it happening just like that are not great.

In other news around Major League Baseball, the Arizona Diamondbacks came out of nowhere Friday night and snagged Zack Greinke away from the grips of both the Dodgers and Giants. Greinke’s deal with the D-Backs is for six years worth $206 million, or a little over $34 million per year, which is a new record. Arizona definitely needed to upgrade their starting rotation, and while adding Greinke surely helps them accomplish that, they are still another starter or two away from becoming real contenders in the NL West.

Speaking of the West, the Giants came to an agreement with Jeff Samardzija today on a five-year, $90 million deal. Rumor had it that Samardzija was looking to sign a contract worth over $100 million, but I don’t think there was any team in baseball who was going to give him that.

So there you have it with the latest big news regarding the Cubs and the rest of the league. Continue to keep an eye on the Cubs in the coming days as the Winter Meetings are set to kick off on December 6th.

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With Price and Zimmermann Gone, Cubs can Zero in on Other Targets

130107_gq_trout_aThe Cubs entered this offseason with the main goals of adding depth to their starting rotation and bullpen, as well as signing a center fielder. Many believed that David Price was the Cubs’ number one target, but he signed a record-breaking deal with Boston yesterday that the Cubs simply could not (nor should they have) matched. Another supposed target of the Cubs, Jordan Zimmermann, signed with the Tigers over the weekend. So now two starting pitchers that the Cubs were believed to have had serious interest in are gone. Where do they go from here with regards to adding pitching, and what free agent outfielders may they heavily pursue?

Let’s start with the pitching.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are not going to hand out a $150 million contract to a starting pitcher. Not with Lester already making more than that and Jake Arrieta set to earn a major pay raise in the next year. What the Cubs are likely looking for is a pitcher who will accept a two to three year deal worth anywhere from twenty to fifty or sixty million. John Lackey’s name has come up quite frequently in Cubs rumors, and honestly it makes some sense.

Lackey is 37 years old, but he is coming off of a great season in St. Louis where he went 13-10 with a 2.77 earned run average. While age is a bit of a concern with him, he doesn’t seem to be showing many signs of slowing down. At least not yet, which is why signing him to a two-year contract worth somewhere around twenty million makes sense for both sides.

In addition to John Lackey, Jeff Samardzija’s name has begun popping up as a potential target of the Cubs. When the Cubs dealt him to Oakland two years ago at the trade deadline, Epstein and Hoyer did not rule out the possibility of re-signing the big righty when he became a free agent. Well, that time has come, and it appears the Cubs’ brass may be sticking true to their word. Samardzija had a pretty rough season in 2015 with the White Sox, going 11-13 with a career worst 4.96 ERA. Despite having some of the best “stuff” in the game, he lacks control of his fastball with regularity. When this happens, he becomes extremely hittable.

One other possible starting pitcher that could potentially end up on the north side is Shelby Miller. This could only happen via a trade. Rumors have been swirling of a possible Jorge Soler/Javier Baez for Shelby Miller trade. I would assume there would be more pieces to that puzzle if it actually happened. And if it did happen, it would be a great pickup by the Cubs.

The Cubs have an overload of middle infielders with elite talent, and if they could trade one of Baez or Castro and get Shelby Miller in return, it would be a huge move. Miller, who is just 25 years of age, was brought up by the Cardinals and pitched with them from 2012-2014 before ending up in Atlanta. His career numbers are pretty good, and also a bit misleading. Have a look:

2013: 15-9, 3.06 ERA

2014: 10-9, 3.74 ERA

2015: 6-17, 3.02 ERA

Notice that he had a career best earned run average this year, but also had the fewest wins and most losses of his short career. Despite pitching extremely well in 2015, he had no run support in Atlanta. Miller averages about 94mph on his fastball, with a good two seamer. He also throws a curve, changeup, and cutter. He threw more cutters in 2015 than in any other year of his career, and it worked out pretty well for him.

Alright, so that’s the breakdown of the Cubs’ top pitching targets that I think they could realistically end up with. And if they do land any of those three, it will be two of them at most.

Now to the outfielders.

Let’s not mess around here, and get straight to the point. With Zimmermann and Price off the market, the two guys that the Cubs were most likely to spend big on, they now have some extra cash to throw at a center fielder. Enter Jason Heyward, the most sought-after outfielder on the market.

130107_gq_trout_aAfter playing his first five seasons in Atlanta, Heyward was traded to St. Louis in a deal that included none other than Shelby Miller going the other way. In his six seasons in the league, Heyward has averaged about a .270 batting average, 19 home runs, and roughly 70 runs batted in. Not eye-popping stats, but still good ones. This past season was one of his best, as he hit .293 with 13 dingers, 60 RBI, and a career best 6.54 WAR (wins above replacement), which was good for fifteenth in all of baseball. He also won his third career Gold Glove in just his sixth season.

Heyward will get a lot of money from whichever team signs him. The specific amount remains to be seen. The biggest question that the Cubs have regarding signing Heyward is his ability to be a full-time center fielder. Odds are that Dexter Fowler will not return to Chicago, meaning Heyward, who played a handful of games in center while in St. Louis, would take over that position. If the Cubs believe Heyward can handle that permanent role, they will aggressively pursue him, and rightfully so.

Another option that the Cubs have is Denard Span, who has New York Mets v Washington Nationalspatrolled center field for the Nationals over the last three seasons. Span, who is 31 years old, has a career batting average of .287 and a .352 on-base percentage. Both of those numbers are very ideal for a leadoff hitter, which is where he’d bat if in the Cubs’ lineup. He is also an above average defensive player, with a career .991 fielding percentage.

So after all of that, here’s how I would like to see things unfold over the next month:

  • First, I think a Castro/Baez for Shelby Miller trade would be huge for the Cubs. What the Braves will likely want, however, is Jorge Soler, which I would still be in favor of. Miller is young and has a very good arm. Put him to work with Chris Bosio (a pitcher guru), and he could become a star.
  • Second, the Cubs would be smart to sign John Lackey to a two-year deal worth roughly twenty million, as I previously discussed. Given Lackey’s age, this is a good deal for both the club and the player. Imagine a starting rotation of Arrieta, Lester, Miller, Lackey, and Hendricks… Not bad.
  • Jason Heyward. The Cubs need to sign him ASAP, meaning whenever they can. He would be a great addition to the lineup without question.
  • If the Cubs fail in getting Miller or Lackey, then I’d be okay with them turning their focus to Samardzija.
  • Like with Samardzija, Denard Span should be the Cubs top outfield target if they miss on Heyward.

This is likely going to be a fun December for Cubs fans as the front office has made it clear that they’ll be looking to upgrade their starting rotation and add a replacement for Dexter Fowler. In terms of the bullpen, there are a lot of candidates out there and speculating as to who the Cubs may pursue is a crapshoot at this point.

Stay tuned.

Cubs’ Top Five Free Agent Targets

10-171460575-smallThe Cubs just finished up what will go down as one of the more memorable seasons in recent franchise history. Yes, it ended at the hands of the hated New York Mets (again), but don’t let that take anything away from what this team did this year. Did anyone honestly expect the Cubs to make the playoffs? Maybe, maybe not. Did anyone think they’d win 97 games? Absolutely not. Yet they did, and they went on to win the NL Wild Card game and then the NLDS. There’s no way that this season can be viewed as anything less than encouraging and a sign of what may lay ahead of us down the road.

Looking down that road, it’s pretty clear that the Cubs need to add to their current roster if they truly want to contend for a World Series championship. And lucky for them, this offseason’s free agent class is pretty jam packed with star players.

Without being completely unreasonable, here’s a look at the top five players the Cubs may target this winter in order of importance.

  1. David Price: Price is one of the game’s best left-handed starting pitchers, and if it wasn’t for Clayton Kershaw, he’d likely be the best. While his career postseason numbers are less than ideal, his talent and ability to dominate any and every game make him possibly the number one free agent pitcher this offseason. The Cubs, without any doubt, must add another quality starter to their rotation. Their lack of starting depth is one reason why they were swept by the Mets. Having a 1-2-3 punch of Arrieta, Price, and Lester would be huge and scary. Add in that Price has made some comments in the past about possibly wanting to join the Cubs and reunite with Joe Maddon, and this scenario is far from unlikely.
  2. Zack Greinke: No one was expecting Greinke to be a free agent this winter, but he is after opting out of the remainder of his contract with the Dodgers. You may be asking why he isn’t ahead of Price on this list, and the reason for that is his age (Price is two years younger) and money. Greinke is likely to sign for a higher dollar amount than Price given what he just did this season, and the Cubs aren’t going to want to pay that amount if Price is still a possibility. Otherwise, they’d likely go for Greinke first. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the Cubs will not sign both Price and Greinke. If they lose out on one, they’ll pursue the other. If they sign one, they’ll give up on the other. The Cubs will go after a starting pitcher, likely one of these two, before anyone else.
  3. Dexter Fowler: Fowler is set to become a UFA, and many believe he played himself into a big contract this season. Depending on what the market becomes for Fowler and the numbers of years and dollar amounts being thrown around are, the Cubs may or may not try to re-sign him. They’ll need to sign a center fielder one way or another, whether it’s Fowler or not. They would like to bring him back, but won’t overpay him to do so.
  4. Jason Heyward: This is a tricky situation. Odds are that Heyward will get more money than Fowler, but Heyward brings a bit more to the table too. He’s not a natural center fielder, but can play the position. Whether the Cubs choose to go this route before the Fowler route remains unknown. Like Fowler though, the Cubs will not overpay for Heyward. If he’s asking for a ridiculous contract, you can count the Cubs out. It all depends on whether or not Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer believe Heyward can be a full time center fielder, and an effective one. Another thing to think about with Heyward is if the Cubs go after him over Fowler, they are now without a lead off hitter. There’s positives and negatives to Heyward.
  5. Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (27)Jordan Zimmerman: It isn’t out of the question that the Cubs could potentially sign Price or Greinke, as well as Zimmerman. He likely pitched himself out of a huge deal this year (3.66 ERA and a career high WHIP), so his price may be more affordable now than say a year ago. Signing him along with one of the two previously mentioned pitchers would give the Cubs a formidable rotation and one that could be deadly in the playoffs. If the Cubs can sign Price or Greinke, a potential Zimmerman signing could be the key offseason acquisition.

Starting pitching is one hundred percent the first area the Cubs will address this offseason. Once they sign a quality starter, they’ll likely shift their focus to a center fielder, and then back to another starting pitcher. If the Cubs are able to sign any of the three guys I listed above, that will be big. If they can sign two or even three of them, that’ll be massive. I wouldn’t rule out signing three of them either as long as the money involved isn’t an astronomical amount. Epstein, Hoyer, and Ricketts are determined to bring a World Series championship to the franchise, and they’ll go to extreme, but reasonable, measures to do so.

This should be another fun offseason for the Cubs, and it’s only the beginning.

Cubs-Mets Preview

MLB: Chicago Cubs at New York MetsIf someone told you on Opening Day that either the Cubs or Mets would represent the National League in the 2015 World Series, you probably would have looked at them like they were crazy. Here we are though, just hours before the first pitch to Game 1 of the NLCS between the Cubs and Mets. Last year, neither team even won 80 games. This season, both won at least 90, with the Cubs winning 97. Needless to say, this was quite a turnaround season for both franchises.

Back in the ’60s and ’80s (both were bad in the ’70s), the Cubs and Mets were pretty big rivals with one another as they both played in the National League East division. When the Cubs moved to the NL Central, the rivalry dissipated as the number of games played between the two teams each season was significantly cut back.

Now, the rivalry will likely be making a comeback.

The Cubs got to this point by drafting and trading for the top hitting prospects available to them. They stockpiled top youngsters such as Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber to go along with players they already had like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. The hope was that these guys would all reach the majors by the end of 2016 and then theoretically become everyday players in the Cubs lineup. No one anticipated the whole group of them to arrive this early to be this good so fast. The Cubs now have themselves one of the best offensive lineups in the game and are loaded with power from top to bottom. Signing Jon Lester and having Jake Arrieta pitch a Cy Young-worthy season solidified this ball club as one of the best by early August.

As for the Mets, they followed the same formula as the Cubs, only they went after the best arms available. Guys like Matt Harvey, Jacob deGromm, and Noah Syndergaard were once just “big name prospects,” but now they’re three of the game’s best pitchers. To go along with that three-headed pitching monster, the Mets traded for Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline to bolster their offense. Since that point, the Mets have had the best offense in baseball.

What this series will ultimately come down to is the Cubs’ hitting versus the Mets’ pitching. Here are my keys to a Cubs’ series victory:

  1. Do not let the pressure affect performance. That the Cubs have reached this point of the season is a huge deal for this city and is making national headlines. There is bound to be enormous pressure from the fans and media for the Cubs to win this thing, but they have to ignore all of that and focus on playing baseball.
  2. Be patient at the plate. The Mets know that the Cubs’ hitters led the league in strikeouts this year, and they will no doubt try and get the Cubs to chase pitches out of the zone. It is imperative that the Cubs be patient in the box, see as many pitches as possible, and ultimately drive up the Mets’ pitch counts. The Cubs did a great job at this during the second half of the season, and they need to keep it up.
  3. Javier Baez. Addison Russell quickly became one of baseball’s best defensive shortstops since moving over there from second base. Now, he’s sidelined for at least the whole NLCS with a hamstring injury. Enter Javy Baez. When Baez replaced Russell at shortstop midway through Game 3 against the Cardinals, he made a couple of bad errors that nearly cost the Cubs. He has always been an elite defender, but it looked like the nerves got to him in Game 3 of the NLDS. He needs to put that behind him and get back to his old ways at short. We know what he can do offensively, but he has to be good defensively as well.
  4. Lester and Arrieta. Kind of an obvious one here, but it can’t be overlooked. If these two do not pitch well this series, the Cubs will likely lose. Lester will get Game 1, Arrieta Game 2. Having them both pitch well right off the bat and giving the Cubs a chance to steal one or both of the first two games would be big. Arrieta did not have his best game in Game 2 against St. Louis, yet the Cubs still won. He needs to get back to dominating the opposition like he did the entire second half of the season. Getting first pitch strikes will be huge for each pitcher.
  5. Hendricks and Hammel. After Lester and Arrieta, the Cubs’ starting rotating takes a hit. Both Hendricks and Hammel were able to pitch just well enough in the NLDS to get the Cubs two wins against a tough Cardinals offense. They’ll need to provide more quality innings against the Mets and get at least one win between them.
  6. Lastly, the bullpen. Again, pretty obvious here, but it needs to be discussed. The Cubs’ pen was very good against St. Louis and a huge reason why they are now in the NLCS. To win the World Series, you need a stellar bullpen. Guys like Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon will inevitably be called upon to pitch in tough spots this series. Their ability to pitch out of those jams could determine the series winner.

These are two opposite teams in terms of how they win games, making it tough to predict who will win. That being said, the Cubs are my favorite to advance. Their one-two punch of Lester and Arrieta, along with their powerhouse offense should overcome the Mets’ pitching. Add in that the Cubs have arguably the best bench in the league, and they’re hard to pick against.

This should be a fantastic series.

-Cubs in six, maybe even five.

Regardless of Tonight’s Outcome, Cubs’ Future is Promising

10-171460575-smallIn 24 hours from now, the game will have been played, a team will have won, and a memorable moment or two will be etched in our minds for the foreseeable future. Either we’ll (hopefully) be talking about a Cubs-Cardinals showdown in the NLDS, or once again next year. But in all honesty, regardless of what happens in tonight’s Wild Card game between the Cubs and Pirates, there’s reason to be optimistic about this Cubs team for years to come.

This was supposed to be a “stepping stone” season for the Cubs, meaning they would hopefully win around 84 games and begin their push towards sustained success with their mostly homegrown talent. Instead, the train arrived a bit early on the north side, and we witnessed this team reel off 97 wins; good for third best in Major League Baseball.

This massive turnaround from last season to this season started last October when the Cubs announced that they had hired Joe Maddon to be their next manager. Then a couple months later, Jon Lester signed on to become what we thought would be the Cubs’ newest ace. The pieces were all coming together.

In spring training we saw Kris Bryant display his full offensive potential while lighting up the Cactus League and becoming the talk of baseball. Lost in his publicity was the performance of other top Cubs prospects such as Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and even Javier Baez who knew he had to turn his game around after a disappointing late summer last season.

None of those guys made the Opening Day roster other than Soler.

After just a couple weeks of the regular season had passed, we finally got the much anticipated arrival of Kris Bryant in the big leagues. Not long after, Addison Russell followed him. Then in mid-summer, Kyle Schwarber arrived way ahead of schedule and turned heads instantly. These guys surrounded Anthony Rizzo in the lineup to create what has to be one of the most feared rosters in baseball.

Following the All Star break, Jake Arrieta started to take over all of baseball en route to what was a Cy Young-worthy season, and one for the record books.

The rest is history.

That this Cubs team won 97 games with such little MLB experience from most of their key offensive contributors is mind blowing. The confidence that these guys have displayed all season long and even heading into tonight’s Wild Card game has been incredible. This new wave of Cubs players may only be in their early 20’s with limited big league experience, but you would never know it. And a lot of that has to do with the leadership of Anthony Rizzo taking these rookies under his wing and instilling in them the right kind of attitude.

After watching this team do what they did this year while taking into account their youth and the fact that they are all under club control for a number of years to come, one can’t help but wonder just how good the Cubs could be in a few years down the road when these “kids” hit their prime. It’s almost scary…

So regardless of what happens tonight, just remember this is only the beginning of what should be many years of success for the Cubs. For what may be the first time ever, we finally have a team that seems destined for a title before too long.

The Problem With MLB’s Current Playoff Format

635651689308727878-GTY-470483912-72482586Now that the 2015 Major League Baseball regular season has come and gone, we can shift our focus to the playoffs, which begin Tuesday night in New York when the Yankees host the Astros for the AL Wild Card game. While this is always one of the best times of the year in sports, there is a glaring problem with the current MLB playoff format; one that hasn’t been quite as noticeable as it is now.

This year the Cardinals finished with the best record in baseball at 100-62. The Pirates came in at second with a record of 98-64, and the Cubs third at 97-65. All three teams come from the National League Central Division. Because the Pirates and Cubs finished with the second and third best records in the National League, they are this year’s two NL Wild Card teams, and they’ll square off in their one-game playoff on Wednesday night. The winner of that game will face the Cardinals in the NLDS.

Here’s the problem.

Of the three best teams in baseball this year (St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago), only one will make it to the NLCS, and one won’t even make it past the Wild Card game. If either Pittsburgh or Chicago happen to eliminate St. Louis in the NLDS, they won’t have home field advantage against the winner of the Los Angeles Dodgers-New York Mets series. Why? Because they will be the Wild Card team.

Essentially, finishing as the second and third best teams in all of baseball this year will yield the Pirates and Cubs zero advantages in the postseason. Despite both of their records being better than those of the Dodgers and Mets, both Pittsburgh and/or Chicago will have to begin the NLCS on the road, if either team makes it that far. And if either team happens to win the NLCS, guess what? They won’t have home field advantage in the World Series either thanks to the ridiculous All Star Game rule (winning team/league gets home field for the World Series).

So here’s my proposal to Major League Baseball:

Do it like the NBA is now doing it. The team with the best regular season record gets home field advantage in each series. Period. Plain and simple. This would mean eliminating the All Star Game shenanigans that no one seems to like anyways. As it is right now, a team like Pittsburgh or Chicago gets no reward for their incredible season other than a berth into an instant elimination game.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees this as a problem, and hopefully the MLB will catch on soon as well.

Keys for the Cubs down the stretch

Colorado Rockies v Chicago CubsThe Cubs are coming into this week fresh off of a 9-game winning streak that was snapped by their crosstown rivals this past Sunday. It was their longest winning streak since 2008, which was also the last time the Cubs made the postseason. For the season, the Cubs are currently the proud owners of a 67-49 record; good for fourth best in Major League Baseball. The only problem is that two of the three teams with a better record than the Cubs are the Cardinals and Pirates, both of whom are also in the Central Division.

For the most part, the Cubs have been winning this year thanks to their starting pitching. Jake Arrieta is 14-6 on the year (those 14 wins are tied for the most in baseball) with a 2.39 earned run average and 0.99 WHIP. If he isn’t considered a Cy Young candidate, then something is wrong. Jon Lester is 8-8 on the season, but don’t let that record fool you. His 3.21 ERA and 1.18 WHIP are very respectable numbers. He has pitched much better the second half of the season after getting off to a slow start in April and May, and is now looking like the ace that the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him.

Jason Hammel has been one of the team’s more consistent pitchers all year despite a couple of rough outings as of late following his stint on the DL, and Kyle Hendricks has been up and down on the season but still owns an ERA under 4.00. Add in the acquisition of Dan Haren at the trade deadline, and you’ve got yourself a very respectable starting rotation with arguably the best one-two punch in the league.

If the Cubs want to continue their winning ways as the calendar turns over to September, that starting pitching will need to keep doing what they have been doing. However, not everything falls on their shoulders.

For the better half of this season, the Cubs’ offense has been underwhelming. Sure they have Anthony Rizzo whose stat line (.296 AVG, 23 HR, 68 RBI, .407 OBP) is among the best in baseball, but guys like Castro, Bryant, Soler, Fowler, and Russell have gone through some prolonged slumps that really hurt the Cubs at times. Some of that was to be expected, especially with the rookies who are still getting used to big league pitching and need to learn to adjust to it just like the pitchers have adjusted to them. But if the Cubs really want to be serious about making a run in October, the offense needs to stay clicking like it has of late.

Since the All Star break, the Cubs have seen their team on-base percentage, batting average, and OPS (on-base plus slugging) all rise by a fair amount. Guys like Dexter Fowler are getting on base much more often, and the addition of rookie Kyle Schwarber has been huge. One noticeable difference lately with the Cubs’ offense has been their tendency to see as many pitches at the plate as possible. They are not a free-swinging team like we’ve seen in recent years. They’ll have the opposing starter’s pitch count up into the 30’s or 40’s by the end of the second inning on a regular basis, which is extremely important.

Right now, the Cubs currently own a 4-game lead over the Giants for the second Wild Card spot in the NL, and sit just 2 games behind the Pirates for the top Wild Card spot. If the Cubs want to end the season as at least a Wild Card team, their offense needs to keep on rolling. The pitching has been there for them all season, but now that the offense has started to figure things out at the plate, we are seeing a big increase in win percentage. If they continue to play the way they have as of late, this will be a tough team to beat down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Here are my five keys to a strong finish to the regular season:

  1. Starting pitching. It seems obvious, but it’s undeniable. Without above average starting pitching, you have no shot. Arrieta and Lester need to continue leading the staff while the other three deliver quality outings more often than not. Getting six strong innings from Haren every fifth game would be huge.
  2. Keep getting on base. Everyone wants to look at batting average, home runs, RBI’s, etc. On-base percentage, however, is arguably the most important offensive statistic there is. If you’re not getting on base, you’re not scoring. Over the past month and a half, the Cubs have improved greatly in this category, and they need to keep that rolling.
  3. Bullpen. There are still some big questions regarding the Cubs’ pen. They have been using a “closer by committee” approach recently with guys such as Rondon, Motte, and Grimm all getting save opportunities. Rondon figures to be the best bet to be the closer, but even he still needs to find more control with his pitches right now. The bullpen has been better the second half for the most part, and it’ll need to be strong from here on out.
  4. Run prevention. The average fan does not think of defense when looking at what makes a team so good, but run prevention has become a prominent factor in deciding who the really good teams are in recent years. As a team, the Cubs have seen better defense this season than in previous seasons, and it is a big reason why their record is what it is. There is still room for improvement, though, and it will need to get even better starting now.
  5. Get some hot streaks. Rizzo has had some incredible streaks at the plate this year, and the Cubs will need other guys to follow suit over the last month and a half. If Soler can finally find his power and start putting baseballs into the outfield stands, and if Kris Bryant can somewhat close up that huge hole in his swing and string together a few solid weeks at the plate, this team will be in good shape.

Some of those keys may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less important. This is a good Cubs team and the best one we’ve seen in seven years. Getting home field advantage for the Wild Card one-game playoff would be huge, and it is within their grasp.