What the Cubs, Red Sox, and other playoff contenders need to do to stay hot
It doesn’t take a baseball Einstein to know that the Cubs are the team best built to win the World Series in 2016. From Day 1, the Cubs have been extraordinary, on pace for 104 wins. Entering Friday, they led the majors with a plus-233 run differential, with the Red Sox a distant second at plus-171.
They have elite pitching (an MLB-best 3.07 team ERA) and the third-most runs in baseball (4.97 per game). Likely to have home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs, the Cubs are 51-21 at Wrigley.
Like any team heading into the postseason, they need to be hot, on a roll. That didn’t help the Rockies against the Red Sox in 2007, but for the most part teams that get hot in the final two weeks can sustain it.
The Cubs do have some concerns.
Much like the Red Sox, they struggle in one-run games (21-23). Their lineup can certainly go into slumps, just like every other lineup, but they can throw four pitchers at you that have No. 1-type stuff. Their bullpen, like any, is vulnerable in the middle innings, but Aroldis Chapman is a buzz saw at the end.
Health is an issue. Reliever Pedro Strop (torn left meniscus) could return next week after being out a month and might need a few appearances before the playoffs. The Cubs don’t have a seasoned, lefthanded pinch hitter. Tommy La Stella was good in that role last year (6 for 14) but hasn’t regained his stroke since returning from a demotion. Chris Coghlan will get a lot of at-bats in the next two weeks.
It’s hard to imagine the Cubs not being in the World Series. If they don’t make it, it’s a huge disappointment.
As for other playoff contenders, the Red Sox need to solidify their No. 3 spot in the rotation, whether it’s Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, or Clay Buchholz. Steven Wright seems to be out of the picture as he rehabs the bursitis in his right shoulder. A big concern is the bullpen, but if Koji Uehara can be the eighth-inning reliever, that’s gold to the Red Sox because Craig Kimbrel can match up with any closer in baseball. The Red Sox will also have Brad Ziegler in a swing role.
We know what the Orioles are all about — the long ball. They also have the best closer in the game in Zach Britton, who is 44 for 44 in save chances. The concern is starting pitching. The Orioles have done it with smoke and mirrors this season. Kevin Gausman is capable of shutdown innings and Dylan Bundy, too. Chris Tillman is back from the disabled list, which is a plus. But the remainder of the staff is nightmarish and that could do them in.
The Jays haven’t hit lately, which is unexpected for that lineup, but they’ve actually pitched better. As one longtime Jays observer pointed out, “They’re just a little bit off this year from last year.”
The biggest issue with the Rangers is the back of their rotation. Colby Lewis is just returning from a shoulder injury, Martin Perez has been awful on the road, and Derek Holland and A.J. Griffin haven’t worked out. The bullpen is a problem as well. It hasn’t been nearly as good as it was last year down the stretch. Keone Kela has struggled since coming back from bone spur surgery, Tony Barnette has missed the last two weeks with oblique issues, Jake Diekman has had issues throwing strikes over last month —
The Nationals need to get their act together with their third and fourth starters. The assumption is that Stephen Strasburg won’t be back, so that leaves them with Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, and Gio Gonzalez, who is inconsistent. The key is Joe Ross, who has been out since July 3 with a shoulder injury and could return this weekend.
The secondary issue is Ryan Zimmerman, who has been awful all season. Their lineup 1 through 6 is very good, but after that (Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa) is a concern.
The Indians’ main concern is Danny Salazar being out for the remainder of the regular season (right forearm). If he comes back in the postseason, it would probably be in the bullpen. The Indians need a fourth starter behind Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer. Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger need to step up.
The Indians also have to replace outfielder Abraham Almonte, who won’t be eligible for the postseason because of his PED suspension this year. Coco Crisp will have to be that guy. Also, catcher Yan Gomes, who has been on the DL since July 18 with a separated shoulder, suffered a fractured right wrist when hit by a pitch in his final minor league rehab game last week and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks.
With Clayton Kershaw back, the Dodgers are jelling at the right time and now have a solid threesome in Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Kenta Maeda. But the offense has struggled against lefties — a major league-worst .214 batting average vs. lefties, and an 18-20 record against lefty starters.
There you go. Most contenders have nagging concerns, and don’t forget St. Louis (bullpen), Houston (lineup), Detroit (injuries), Seattle (bullpen), Mets (injuries), and Yankees (a long climb). No team is immune. But the most perfect among them is the Cubs.
Hill fits in well with Dodgers
Dodgers lefthander Rich Hill has a short memory. He’s on board with manager Dave Roberts, who pulled Hill from his Sept. 10 start in Miami after seven perfect innings and just 89 pitches. Hill knows that it was done for the good of the team. Perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pitch a perfect game? Oh well.
“This is not an individual sport and you can’t think that way,” Hill said Friday. “I know Dave did the right thing for the team and for me. He thought that was the right thing and he was right. I need to be out there every fifth day to help our team win and that’s fine with me.”
Hill had perhaps his worst outing in his next start, Thursday at Arizona, when he allowed four runs in 5⅓ innings, but he said there was no issue with the blister problem that has limited him to four starts since July 17.
“There’s actually a good callus on there, so I think I’m going to be fine with it,” Hill said.
Hill said he’s developed a friendship with All-Star lefty Clayton Kershaw and admires the way his teammate approaches things.
“If I could put myself in the seats watching a game, Clayton’s the guy I’d want to watch. His passion and his intensity is unbelievable. It’s incredible how he treats each game. The passion he brings to every pitch. That’s what it’s all about. I’d want to watch that. He’s a great competitor and I love talking baseball with him,” Hill said.
Hill is going to be pitching meaningful baseball the rest of the way. He’s had to deal with nagging injuries, like the groin pull he had while playing for the A’s, and the blister issue. In each case, Hill returned seamlessly into the rotation.
“I think I’ve learned over the years not to change my routine, whether I’m injured or active, and I think that’s helped me when I’ve come back from injuries,” Hill said. “I’ve learned that when it counts, when you’re on the mound pitching for a win, you turn on that pitch-by-pitch focus and make every one of them count, and that’s the approach I take.”
Hill said his arm has never felt better and credits the Red Sox’ throwing program with getting his arm to optimum shape. He said his recent success wouldn’t have been possible without that program.
He also continues to heap praise on Brian Bannister, who helped him see things a little differently through analytics and the basic premise that you should take what you do well and repeat it as often as possible. For Hill, that’s throwing his curveball almost 40 percent of the time and using his 92-mile-per-hour fastball with spin higher in the zone.
Hill has learned to change speeds and arm angles to keep batters off-balance. He’s perfected it, in fact. Hill enjoys LA. He’ll be entering free agency at 36, an age that marks the end of the line for most pitchers. But not Hill. In many respects, he feels his career has just begun. And the Milton native will likely have an array of suitors for next season.
“There will be plenty of time to think about the future when the season is over. Right now, I think our team can go far and I just want to do our part,” he said.
Apropos of nothing
1. Nice slogan, courtesy of Barry Arntz: “Porcello & Price and roll the dice!”
2. Bill Chuck points out that entering Friday’s game, David Ortiz had scored 72 runs, walked 72 times, and struck out 72 times.
3. Carlos Ruiz, who was traded to the Dodgers on Aug. 25, rented a billboard in Philadelphia on I-95 with this message to Phillies fans: “I loved playing for you. You will always be in my heart. Thank you, Philly — Chooch.”
4. There’s plenty of debate among scouts who come to Fenway regarding the Red Sox’ MVP — Ortiz or Mookie Betts? Betts gets more votes because he’s also a Gold Glove candidate, but Ortiz’s numbers are phenomenal. Ortiz leads baseball with a 1.031 OPS. Betts, who has an .892 OPS, has an 8.4 WAR compared with Ortiz’s 4.6 (no defensive rating). Betts is hitting .411 with a 1.270 OPS with runners in scoring position and two outs, while Ortiz is at .315, 1.077 in the same situation. Tough call.
5. Looking forward to the Fox series “Pitch,” debuting Sept. 22. It’s about the first female player in the major leagues, a pitcher. Former All-Star closer Gregg Olson is teaching the show’s star, Kylie Bunbury, how to pitch.
6. One of the best baseball books of this generation, Brian Kenny’s “Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution,” provides a lot of great analytical nuggets and a look into baseball’s emerging world.
Updates on nine
1. Koji Uehara, RHP, Red Sox — If Uehara has a strong finish, the free agent-to-be could return to Boston at a much lower salary than the $9 million he earns now. There will be a market for Uehara, said one major league source, who indicated Uehara could be a bargain guy, even at age 41.
2. David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox — He was probably kidding, but when I joked that at this time next year he would be sipping a pina colada on the beach, Ortiz, quipped, “Yeah, unless I miss this.” Would the Red Sox keep the door ajar and not go after a DH, just in case?
3. Aaron Judge, RF, Yankees — With his big body and long swing and high strikeout rate, Judge is still not considered a sure thing when it comes to the Yankees’ everyday lineup next season. Those who have watched Judge said he made strides in Triple A this season in shortening his swing, but “he tends to fall back into bad habits,” according to an AL scout.
4. Jose Fernandez, RHP, Marlins — There’s more buzz that the Marlins will listen to offers for Fernandez this offseason. Fernandez has long been the apple of the eye of a lot of big-market teams that wouldn’t mind writing that extension check. The Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs for sure would all be in line. Right now, it doesn’t appear there will be any extension talks early this offseason between Miami and Fernandez’s agent, Scott Boras, if at all.
5. Terry Ryan, former Twins GM — According to a major league source, Ryan will have his pick of teams to work for this offseason in a special adviser role. Ryan, one of the most respected baseball executives in the game, was relieved of his duties in Minnesota after the All-Star break. Ryan has many friends and admirers in the game.
6. Rob Antony, assistant GM, Twins — Antony interviewed for the Twins’ GM job. We also wonder if the well-respected Wayne Krivsky, a special assistant to Ryan and also a former Reds GM, will get to interview.
7. Torey Lovullo, bench coach, Red Sox — Could Lovullo become a candidate in Toronto if the Blue Jays change managers? Team president Mark Shapiro brought in Eric Wedge to the front office as a possible manager-in-waiting. He’s also fond of Bud Black and Lovullo, who coached in Toronto under John Farrell and worked in Shapiro’s farm system in Cleveland. Lovullo would obviously stand to be Boston’s top choice if Farrell was pushed out.
8. Jackie Bradley Jr., CF, Red Sox — Scouts are wondering if the Red Sox would make Bradley available in a deal with Andrew Benintendi being so impressive. Benintendi is a center fielder. There were rumors at the trade deadline of Bradley being packaged to the White Sox for Chris Sale, but they were just rumors. It would appear that unless the Red Sox can get a bona fide No. 1 starter such as Sale, Bradley won’t have to worry about changing teams.
9. Yoan Moncada, 3B, Red Sox — Scouts who watched him in the minors and in his short time in the majors feel Moncada needed to hit all of the minor league stations. “He just needs to learn to play,” said one AL scout. “It’s really a lot different than Benintendi, who had the major college environment. The kid is just overwhelmed. Sometimes it is too much too soon. That’s the case with Moncada. But he’s going to be a terrific player when he settles down and learns the game.”
According to David Smith of Retrosheet, the Cubs had recorded the most 1-2-3 innings this season with 499 through Thursday. The Dodgers were a close second with 497, followed by the Nationals with 455. Rounding out the top five were the Giants (452) and Indians (447). The clubs with the fewest 1-2-3 innings were the Reds with 343, the Angels with 362, the Twins with 363, the Diamondbacks with 373, and the Padres with 376 . . . Happy birthday, Brent Lillibridge (33), Billy Traber (37), Randy Williams (41), and Sam Bowen (64).
Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson is having one of the oddest good power, bad production seasons in the history of the game. Granderson had 26 homers but only 49 RBIs entering the weekend, putting him in line to be the first player to ever hit 30 homers and not drive in more than 60. Granderson could join these seven players who had at least 25 homers with 60 or fewer RBIs in a minimum of 125 games, according to Baseball-Reference.com: