With World Series anticipation about as high as it’s ever been, we’re left wondering what to do with ourselves on this final off-day before Game 1. With so much to look forward to, we’ve decided to first take a quick look back at lessons learned and questions raised during the postseason up to this point.
We asked a select panel of our staff to discuss the postseason, and broke it into both sides of the bracket: the American League and the National League.
Here’s what they had to say about the NL; the American League version can be read here.
Which of the 2016 NL postseason teams do you think is LEAST likely to make a repeat appearance in 2017?
Larry Scott: The New York Mets. Even if their rotation comes back completely healthy, the offense could struggle to keep up. Re-signing Yoenis Cespedes (assuming he opts out, which he will), should be priority number one for the Mets because he helps make them more dynamic. He will have a high asking price, and the notoriously cheap Mets will most likely move on.
If that happens and they can’t lock him down to a long-term deal, trading an arm for a bat might be their best option. They will need an upgrade on offense this offseason and until they make any moves, I see them just missing the playoffs next season.
Ryan Davis: The National League team that I think is least likely to make a repeat appearance in the postseason is the San Francisco Giants. It’s not specifically that they’re aging, but they have a lot of key players that are free agents and may not return next season. The Los Angeles Dodgers have the core of a very strong team and look likely to run the show in the NL West, meaning the Giants could be relegated to battling for a wild card spot yet again. When looking at the rest of the National League, there just aren’t any other teams that you can make a strong case for not having a clear path back to the postseason.
Paul Lebowitz: Everyone seems to be in love with the Dodgers for a variety of reasons. Their wealth of youngsters, a stat-savvy front office, a manager who is portrayed as epitomizing what constitutes doing the job in today’s environment, money to spend, etc.
Even with that, of all the playoff teams, they’re the one undergoing the biggest changes and in jeopardy of having that “bridge year” whose phraseology is specifically designed as an excuse for failure. Clayton Kershaw was pushed hard in 2016 and his back is a worrisome issue. The rotation behind him is stocked with mediocre veterans and mostly-untested youngsters. They might have Kenley Jansen back or need to find another closer. The Yasiel Puig issue must be addressed. Justin Turner will either sign long term or they’ll need a third baseman. Second base is an issue.
They have this many questions as they’re tacitly slashing payroll and restructuring the entire organization.The foundational template they’ve used in the past is running its course and is just about exhausted. With that comes the chance for a lost year. Of all the playoff teams, they’re the ones hovering on the precipice of falling over as they transition to the future.
Alex Smolokoff: It’s an odd-year next year, so the Giants have to be the answer, right? In all seriousness, I think the Mets have the most question marks, so they would be the odd team out for me now, though in general I think all five of this year’s NL playoff teams have a good shot next season.
What worries me about the Mets is simply the unknown. Will Lucas Duda be healthy? Will David Wright? What about deGrom, Harvey, Matz and Wheeler? Will Bartolo Colon be back? Most importantly, will Yoenis Cespedes?
If Cespedes returns and the pitching staff stays somewhat healthy, the Mets are a good team in 2017. But that’s a lot of questions, and if enough of the answers are “no,” the Mets are going to be in a really tough spot.
Matt Swartz: This is a tough call, and a case could be made for either wild card team, but I’ll go with the Giants. The fact that they’ve alternated good years and bad years throughout this decade is a small part of it; the bigger part is that I think the West will overall be a tougher division next year, with the Diamondbacks bouncing back into contention and the Rockies also taking a step forward.
Of course, the Giants have some weak spots, too. The bullpen obviously needs to be addressed, especially the closer’s spot, and it would help to inject some power back into the lineup after a season in which no player on the team hit more than 15 homers (although it doesn’t sound like that’s a priority). Resolving those issues would be a good start. But even if they are resolved to some degree, the Giants’ road to the postseason likely will be more challenging in 2017.
Do the Cubs give the NL the best chance at a World Series win, or would one of the other postseason teams have a better chance against the Indians?
LS: The Cubs absolutely do because they are the best team, not just in the National League, but in all of baseball. They lead every team in batting value with 38.7 fWAR from their positional players and finished third in starting pitching with 17.3 fWAR behind the Mets (18.3) and the Nationals (18.2). So while pitching can play up in the postseason, the Cubs are just the more complete team because they can beat the Indians both ways. It should be a great matchup, but the Cubs always gave the NL the best shot at winning this season.
RD: There’s no question that the Cubs give the National League the best chance possible to beat the Cleveland Indians. They won 103 games and were the best team in baseball for a reason, and that is a strong pitching staff, a very good offense, and one of the best defenses in recent memory. It’s no guarantee that the Cubs win the World Series this year–the Indians have a quality team, too–but it’s difficult to imagine that any other team in the NL could represent a bigger challenge to Cleveland.
PL: The Cubs give the National League the best chance. While all of the other playoff participants had their strengths, the Cubs present the entire package of a powerful offense, a solid starting rotation, an excellent defense, a good bench, a deep bullpen, and a terrifying weapon at closer.
The Indians’ starting rotation is weakened and even though they, apart from Corey Kluber, are not expected to provide more than four or so innings, the team with the most top-to-bottom power of all the NL clubs is the Cubs. With that, the Indians’ bullpen will have to be perfect. They have been so far, but making one mistake can cost them a game and the Cubs are best-equipped to take advantage of that possibility if and when it happens.
AS: I really don’t think it matters who the AL opponent is; the Cubs are the best, deepest team in baseball, and would be the favorites against any of the AL teams in this year’s postseason. With the offense, defense, and all-around pitching the Cubs have, there’s no getting cute with this answer. The Cubs are the best team in baseball, plain and simple.
MS: The Cubs absolutely give the NL the best chance to beat the Indians. I thought Dave Roberts did the right thing in the NLCS by being basically as aggressive as possible with his pitching strategy, because the Dodgers’ pitching situation was piecemeal all year — they used 31 pitchers and led the league in bullpen innings thrown.
But that tends to catch up with a team; we saw it in the playoffs, as the Dodgers went 3-1 in games started by Clayton Kershaw and 2-5 in all other games. By the World Series, they’d have been playing with house money, and Kershaw almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to start more than two games given his back situation.
The Cubs, on the other hand, have been the best team in baseball all year by just about every metric. And with the Indians’ rotation decimated by injury, the Cubs will have a massive on-paper advantage on the mound, which matters more than ever in the postseason. Oh, and if there’s any fan base that will be even louder in its appreciation of the end of a World Series drought than Cleveland’s, it’s Chicago’s.
Is this season a failure for the Cubs if they don’t win the World Series?
LS: Would it be disappointing? Yes. Is the season a failure? No. When you haven’t even made the World Series in 71 years, getting there is a monumental accomplishment. It was the Cubs’ greatest achievement since 1945; how could that be considered a failure?
A World Series win is within reach, so 1908 will still linger if they can’t finish the job, but this team is built for the future and a repeat performance isn’t out of the question if they come up short. It will be disappointing if they can’t finish the job, though, just because of how close they came.
RD: Disappointing? Yes. A failure? Look, the Cubs are in the World Series for the first time in 71 seasons. Can that really be called a failure, no matter what happens from this point forward? I don’t see how you can say that. There are no guarantees in sports, so to think that the Cubs will definitely be back in the World Series after this season is fools’ gold. But they do have a strong core of players and great management, so the window for success will continue to stay open for a while in Chicago.
Fans will have every right to be disappointed if the Cubs don’t win four more baseball games, but a failure? This team has accomplished more than any other Cubs team since World War II. They have made progress after being swept by the New York Mets in the NLCS back in 2015. There is no failure here.
PL: The season will be a failure if the Cubs don’t win the World Series. This was the end in mind when Theo Epstein took over the organization, razed it and rebuilt it from the bottom up. As the farm system improved, the expectations for the Cubs rose commensurately. Since hiring Joe Maddon as manager, the Cubs have become the MLB darling and they acted like it. There’s a not-too-small amount of arrogance throughout the organization, and their history might have made them a popular story for fans and media, but they’re a target for the rest of baseball. Since the winter of 2015-2016 and a spending spree to win and win now, that grew geometrically.
They have to win it now.
The Royals lost in the World Series in 2014, made it back the next year and won. The last team to do that before the Royals was the Oakland Athletics in 1989. The multi-tiered playoff system makes it hard for a team to fight its way through in back-to-back seasons and have enough left in the tank to win the World Series. Young talent and intelligence in the front office aside, the Cubs are not guaranteed to make it back in 2017.
They have to win the World Series and they have to do it when the opportunity presents itself since there’s no guarantee they’ll be back next year…or for the next 70 years. Or more.
AS: There’s no simple answer to this one. Yes, the Cubs are baseball’s best team, and yes, to their fans, anything short of a championship will be a bitter pill to swallow.
But at the same time, the team got one step further than last season, and are still set up for sustained success. The Indians are a very good, albeit banged-up, ball club; if they win the World Series, it will be well-deserved. Can you call a season a failure if you’re one of the last two standing? I don’t know.
I suppose when you open the season as the favorite, you’re expected to win. But a World Series berth — the last step this team can take before winning it all — and 103 wins really can’t be defined as failing. I think.
MS: I’m generally against the “title or bust” mentality since only one team can in fact win a title in any given year, but in this case, yes. This is THE year for the Cubs.
As mentioned above, this has been the best team in baseball all year by almost every available metric. They put together a juggernaut of a team with no apparent weaknesses. They won big. They earned home-field throughout the NL playoffs. They made it. And now they have to finish it off.
They can’t get thiiiiis close and come up short, especially not with the curse and the history and whatnot all hanging over the franchise’s collective head — not without it being considered at least somewhat of a failure. Harsh as it may be, in this case, it’s true.
What’s your biggest takeaway from the NL portion of the postseason?
LS: The National League is chock-full of really, really great starting pitching. The matchups we’ve seen have been unbelievable. Noah Syndergaard faced off against Madison Bumgarner in an all-time great Wild Card Game to kickoff the NL playoffs. Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill went toe-to-toe with Max Scherzer. Jon Lester battled Johnny Cueto in the NLDS, the two teams combined for one run on nine hits. Kyle Hendricks, the league-leader in ERA, shut out the Dodgers over 7.1 innings to take the Cubs to the World Series.
These guys are all under contract (save for Hill) and going to be altering the playoff landscape in the NL for years to come.
RD: The biggest takeaway from the NL portion of the postseason is that, while it’s not always the best team that wins, the playoffs got it right this year. The Cubs were head-and-shoulders above the competition for the vast majority of the season and came into October with a rested and (mostly) healthy roster. There were no reasons for Chicago not to advance to the World Series, beyond the randomness of the playoffs. In this instance, even randomness didn’t stand a chance. The Cubs were the best team in the National League and they’ve proven it by every single measure available to them.
PL: The biggest takeaway is the way in which a properly-deployed and sufficiently-armed bullpen can change a series. The Giants might have been able to get past the Cubs had their bullpen not been so awful.
If teams are intending to follow the template set by the Indians and, to a lesser extent, the Dodgers and use their best relievers as early as the fifth inning, they’ll have to have the arms who can do it, a full buy-in on the part of the pitchers, and managers who are not so wedded to monotonous, simplistic strategies that they know when to change pitchers differently in the postseason than they do in the regular season.
Preparation for this will begin over the course of the season in both tactical planning and in acquiring players.
AS: Don’t overreact. The Cubs couldn’t buy a hit for a long stretch of the postseason before, shocker, they remembered how to do so. Clayton Kershaw “wasn’t a good postseason pitcher” until, shocker, he was again.
Playoff narratives are important, and they can be fun, but that’s all they are; it’s a telling of what’s happened, not what’s going to come. Teams and players don’t forget how to do what they do just because it’s the playoffs. When good teams or players struggle — or when not-so-good teams and players don’t (‘sup, Conor Gillaspie?) — don’t assume that’s the end-all, be-all of the postseason.
Water always finds its level, and in the short-sample postseason, it’s easy to lose sight of that.
MS: My biggest takeaway so far is that, even though I thought the NL playoff teams were collectively a little better than the AL teams, the Cubs were still pretty clearly the class of the league. They played 10 postseason games against NL teams and won seven them, collectively outscoring the Giants and Dodgers 43-30 (which is a pretty big margin in the context of playoff baseball).
I’m really not sure if they have a weakness; the offense struggled a bit early in both of the first two rounds — especially against Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw — but that’ll happen to anybody, and the bats bounced back impressively throughout the rest of both series. Meanwhile, the starters gave the Cubs a chance to win in literally every game. The bullpen might be the only area that’s somewhat of a question mark since there have been a few iffy performances (including two by Aroldis Chapman), but I don’t think anybody on the Indians will be feeling too optimistic if the Cubs have a lead late with Travis Wood and then Chapman waiting in the bullpen.