The Nationals have been vanquished, and so have the Giants, the Mets and everyone else in the National League. All that's left is the Dodgers and the Cubs, meeting in what should be an exciting NL Championship Series for the right to snap one of two long title-free streaks (Game 1
The Nationals have been vanquished, and so have the Giants, the Mets and everyone else in the National League. All that's left is the Dodgers and the Cubs, meeting in what should be an exciting NL Championship Series for the right to snap one of two long title-free streaks (Game 1 is at 8 ET tonight on FS1). The Dodgers haven't been to the World Series since 1988, and the Cubs, well... you know all about their history.
It's clear that the Cubs are the most talented in the Majors this season, and you don't get to that point without having a ton of talent. That doesn't make it a clean sweep, however, because the Dodgers have their strengths, so let's break this down position-by-position. Remember, this isn't just about "who has been good in the Postseason." Not entirely. A full season's worth of production has to outweigh a few games of good performance.
:: NLCS: Dodgers vs. Cubs coverage ::
This is a lot closer than you'd think, because Cubs rookie Willson Contreras had himself quite the nice debut after taking Miguel Montero's job by hitting .282/.357/.488 (126 wRC+, where 100 is league average). He also showed a strong arm and played some outfield. Yasmani Grandal, meanwhile, batted .228/.339/.477 (122 wRC+) while also ranking as the No. 2 framing catcher in the big leagues. We'll give the Dodgers the slight edge here because of Grandal's longer track record and superior framing, and because Carlos Ruiz has been doing exactly what the Dodgers acquired him to do -- hit lefties. But it's by a razor-thin advantage.
Small advantage: Dodgers
Remember when we said not to worry too much about small sample postseason stat lines when putting a judgment on who gets the edge? That's welcome news for Anthony Rizzo, who batted only .067/.176/.067 against the Giants in the NL Division Series. He's still one of the sport's true stars, coming off a .292/.385/.544 (145 wRC+) season that represents his third straight elite year, and he doesn't even come with the same platoon weaknesses that many lefty sluggers have. Rizzo is basically what Adrián González (.285/.349/.435, 121 wRC+ in 2016) once was. And while Gonzalez has a streak of 11 straight above-average hitting seasons, his career-worst slugging percentage gives this one to Rizzo.
In our Cubs/Giants NLDS preview, we had Ben Zobrist as the starter here, but it quickly became clear that this is the Javier Báez show now. He has started each game at the keystone, while Zobrist roamed the outfield. Baez has an argument to make as the game's most exciting infield defender, but you'll also remember that he hit the go-ahead home run off Johnny Cueto to win Game 1 of the NLDS, and that it was Baez who drove in the winning run in Chicago's wild Game 4 comeback. Add to that a career line of .279/.343/.458 (114 wRC+) against lefties (he faces a Dodgers team that may start three southpaws), plus the fact that Chase Utley batted .238/.283/.422 (90 wRC+) in the second half and not at all so far in October, and this is a clear call.
Big advantage: Cubs
Addison Russell is one of the Majors' most promising young shortstops, so it should tell you a lot about Corey Seager that this one isn't really close at all. Russell is a plus defender who tapped into some power to hit 21 homers as part of a .238/.321/.417 (95 wRC+) line, but Seager is the near-certain NL Rookie of the Year Award winner who clearly outperformed Russell at the plate (.308/.365/.512, 137 wRC+). He was also better than expected on defense, was the best overall shortstop this year and collected three times as many postseason extra-base hits (3) as Russell had hits (1). Russell is very good; Seager is better.
This one ought to be a slam dunk, because Kris Bryant (.292/.385/.554, 149 wRC+, 39 homers) is extremely likely to win the NL Most Valuable Player Award. But we also saw how valuable Justin Turner (.275/.339/.493, 124 wRC+) has been to the Dodgers both in October and over the last three years. Both are among the most elite third basemen in the game. Bryant still wins here, because he's Bryant. Turner's value keeps it from being a rout, though.
This is where Zobrist (.272/.386/.446, 124 wRC+) has landed, mostly, and that's a step up over a group led by Chris Coghlan and Jorge Soler. It's a testament to the great depth and versatility the Cubs have that they can move their second baseman to the outfield to add Baez and lose nothing in the transition. The Dodgers' tandem of Andrew Toles (.314/.365/.505, 132 wRC+, strong arm that averages 97.5 mph per Statcast™) and Howie Kendrick (.255/.326/.366, 91 wRC+, weak arm that averages 85.5 mph) has its uses and doesn't match Zobrist.
Do you prefer the 129 wRC+ fueled by the strong on-base skills of Dexter Fowler (.276/.393/.447)? Or do you prefer the 129 wRC+ that comes with the superior power of Joc Pederson (.246/.352/.495)? They both recorded one Defensive Run Saved, which means advanced stats considered them to be roughly average and equal outfielders. Pederson did have a huge home run to knock Max Scherzer out of Game 5 of the NLDS, but that's not enough to break this tie. Both clubs are pretty happy with their situations here.
This spot looks like a job share on both sides, because Zobrist will probably replace Jason Heyward against lefties, and Josh Reddick and Yasiel Puig will probably have a straight platoon arrangement. Heyward remains an elite defender, though his offensive struggles (.230/.306/.325, 72 wRC+, one hit in the postseason) have been well-chronicled. Puig hit well after his Minor League demotion (.281/.338/.561, 137 wRC+) and even walked three times in the NLDS. This is a tiny edge for Los Angeles because both sides of its platoon can do some damage, while it's less certain Heyward can -- though it's by the slimmest of margins.
Small advantage: Dodgers
This is where the Cubs shine, because manager Joe Maddon can mix and match Baez, Coghlan, Soler, Tommy La Stella, Albert Almora Jr., Montero, and David Ross (Ross' ability to limit the running game is an underrated skill) as needed. It's not that a bench with Puig, Kendrick (or Toles), Andre Ethier, Ruiz, and Charlie Culberson is a weakness, it's just that this kind of depth is exactly what the Cubs were built for.
Any imagined concern over whether Clayton Kershaw could "handle the playoffs" ought to be well out the window after his 11 strikeouts in Game 4 and relief heroics in Game 5. That said, Kershaw can't start until Game 2 (or maybe Game 3), Game 1 starter Kenta Maeda wasn't nearly as effective in the second half (4.25 ERA) as he was in the first (2.95 ERA) and in a seven-game series, manager Dave Roberts may not be able to back up Rich Hill with Julio Urías again if both are needed to start. Brock Stewart might even get a start, and he began the year in Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga. The fully rested Cubs rotation of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey might be better even if both sides were at full strength, and the Dodgers -- for understandable reasons, of course -- aren't.
You know by now all about the flamethrowing dominance of Aroldis Chapman, who was somehow even better with the Cubs (1.01 ERA, 45.1 strikeout percentage) than he was with the Yankees (2.01 ERA, 36.7 strikeout percentage). You should have already known about Kenley Jansen, who has had the best season (104/11 K/BB in 68 2/3 innings) of what's shaping up to be a historic career, but if you didn't, the 2 1/3 innings he gave the Dodgers in Game 5 certainly made up for that. There are very few closers who can match up with Chapman. Jansen is one of them.
The Dodgers' bullpen was very good this year -- MLB.com's Bullpen of the Year, actually -- though it flew somewhat under the radar much of the time. Joe Blanton has done more than enough to make it clear that the relief version of him is far different than the unimpressive starter version, and arms like Grant Dayton and Luis Avilán have their uses. But the Cubs have built up a stunning collection of non-Chapman arms, from former closer Héctor Rondón (58/8 K/BB in 51 innings) to Pedro Strop (60/15 K/BB in 47 1/3 innings) to the electrifying Carl Edwards Jr., who was the most difficult pitcher to contact inside the zone. It's a good Dodger bullpen; it may be a great Cubs bullpen.
Small advantage: Cubs
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.