Ryan Says: Cubs Have Tough Decisions in Outfield, NLDS Rotation Breakdown

There is an extremely good chance that by the time next week’s “Ryan Says” posts, the Cubs and Nationals will have finished their best-of-five NLDS series. That means this could also possibly be the last of these columns during the Cubs’ season. If that’s the case, it’s been an amazing ride. Winning the World Series may have spoiled us to a degree, but remember that every regular season is special in its own right. Don’t judge this team too harshly if they have a bad few games against Washington.

• Albert Almora Jr. has not-so-quietly had an excellent stretch in August and September. He batted .354/.367/.563 with four home runs in 99 plate appearances, including a homer in the 9th inning of the final game of the regular season. But during that stretch, Almora started only 17 of a possible 52 games.

That speaks to the Cubs’ depth more than anything else. On a lesser team, Almora would probably be the regular center fielder. That’s simply not possible with the Cubs, who started 11 different players — including Almora, Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, and Ben Zobrist — in the outfield this season on at least a semi-regular basis.

In the NLDS, you should expect that Almora will start against Gio Gonzalez in Game 2, seeing as though he hit .342 with a .898 OPS against lefties this season. But the Cubs will have some interesting decisions to make in the offseason. Heyward isn’t going anywhere and neither is Zobrist. Happ can play some second base, but Javier Baez will likely get the bulk of the time there in 2018.

That isn’t even to mention Schwarber, who also played on a part-time basis in the second half. If the Cubs still believe that he’s going to be a special hitter, you would think they’d be preparing to play him nearly every day in left field next season. The best bet? One of Schwarber, Happ, or Almora gets moved in a trade this winter.

• The Cubs announced their starting rotation for the NLDS, with Kyle Hendricks in Game 1 followed by Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Jake Arrieta. All things considered, this is the best they could’ve done. Hendricks absolutely earned the start in the first game, posting a 2.19 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 49.3 percent groundball rate, and just 25.7 percent hard contact since late July.

His velocity, which averaged around 84 mph upon his return from the disabled list, jumped to over 87 mph in his final few starts. In Hendricks’ last five starts, he threw 31 1/3 innings with 29 strikeouts and a 2.01 ERA. As good as the rest are, it seems clear that he is the Cubs’ ace.

Lester had a stretch of eight starts from August 1 to September 20 where he posted a 6.81 ERA in 39 2/3 innings. He was struggling to locate his pitches, racking up major pitch counts early in games and walking 19 batters while allowing an opposing OPS of .896. But he made some mechanical changes and responded much better in his final two starts, throwing 11 innings and allowing just one earned run with two walks and 11 strikeouts. His postseason experience has earned him a Game 2 start.

That also allows Quintana to start at Wrigley Field in front of a friendly crowd. It seems like small potatoes, but providing him the soft landing of making his first postseason appearance at home is the right move. That leaves Arrieta for the potential (and likely) Game 4, giving him 13 days off between starts to rest that aching hamstring.

Now all the Cubs have to do is win. If 2016 is a template, it’ll be extremely stressful but a whole lot of fun.

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