CHICAGO -- It’s becoming an annual tradition for Chicago Cubs fans: predict the playoff roster and opening night lineup. Rosters aren’t due until the morning of Game 1 against the Washington Nationals, which is Friday, and the starting lineup can come even later in the day. But that won’t stop us from breaking it down now, knowing that things could change, especially with the health status of righty Jake Arrieta.
Let’s start with the roster composition. On Friday, manager Joe Maddon indicated that the baseline breakdown for position players and pitchers in a best-of-five series is 14 and 11, respectively. Those were the numbers the Cubs kept last season against the San Francisco Giants in Round 1. Let’s start there.
Position player locks: Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Alex Avila, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist.
The 13 above names make the playoff the roster, leaving one spot open -- if the Cubs indeed take 14 -- for either catcher Rene Rivera or outfielder Leonys Martin. Even without his game-saving catch Thursday in St. Louis, Martin is the favorite. A pinch runner who can play excellent outfield defense is simply more needed than a third catcher, especially considering that Schwarber could go behind the plate in an emergency.
After the sure things, there is room for one more pitcher between starter John Lackey and relievers Justin Grimm and Justin Wilson. In a perfect world, this would be Wilson’s job -- and it still might be -- though Maddon isn’t ruling Lackey out.
“It’s definitely possible to see all of them involved,” Maddon said Friday. “Somebody would have to be folded into the bullpen to do that, but it’s possible.”
The only problem with that sentiment is that over the course of the season, Maddon has repeatedly shot down the idea of having Lackey pitch out of the bullpen. Of course, that notion could change. But considering Lackey's age and need to warm up properly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Some believe the injury to Arrieta could be the reason to keep Lackey, but Montgomery would likely be the first arm out of the bullpen in a short start for any of the top four. If the Cubs have a need for more than one long reliever in a short series, then they have bigger problems than who their 11th pitcher should be.
The struggling Wilson might still be the favorite to make the roster, with the understanding that he would be used only as a last option. Then again, the Cubs could change course and take 12 pitchers, allowing Wilson and Lackey to make it while keeping Martin off. It’s a small thing, but the Cubs don’t have an obvious pitcher who can help at the plate or in the field in a pinch like they did last season, when Travis Wood was around. That’s another potential reason to keep 14 position players.
Opening night lineup: Maddon has given us clues over the final weeks about who could be in his go-to lineup, at least against a right-handed starter. The Cubs could face righties Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in Games 1 and 2, though with Scherzer leaving the Nats game early on Saturday with an apparent injury, his availability in the first two games may be in question. Maddon could use similar lineups for both games:
The actual batting order is less important than who is in it. This lineup doesn’t include Happ or Schwarber. It simply doesn’t feel like Happ would start over any of the above names, nearly all of whom had a part in last year’s World Series win. Schwarber is also the odd man out based on the matchups, even after he hit his 30th home run of the season on Saturday. It comes down to one thing: high fastballs. Both Scherzer and Strasburg live up there, especially when there are two strikes on the hitter.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Schwarber has a .213 batting average in at-bats ending on upper-half fastballs and 29 percent miss rate on fastballs in the upper half of the zone. Zobrist hits .245 with just a 7 percent miss rate on fastballs in the same place. Against that type of pitcher, Zobrist gets the edge.
In fact, considering that Strasburg throws high fastballs more often than Scherzer, combined with some reverse splits, Almora could get a look in Game 2. He has a .407 batting average in at bats ending on high fastballs combined with an 8 percent miss rate. Those numbers could play, even against a righty.
Two things are certain when it comes to the roster and lineup: The Cubs have several choices to make because they have a deep team, and whatever they decide, they’ll be second-guessed. It’s the nature of the game.