The challenge for any passionate Cubs fan — or fans of any team, for that matter — is getting stuck in “the bubble.” Watching the bulk of one team’s 162-game schedule leaves little time or energy to observe other teams for a better perspective. Same for front offices, whose evaluations of their own players can be tainted by too much familiarity and personal fondness.
That’s why the playoffs and World Series are so valuable. By watching the best of the best, you see more clearly how your team measures up. This can also correct for too much undue pessimism. It’s easy to get down when the Cubs lost the Wild Card game to the Rockies, who then got swept by the Brewers, who lost narrowly to the Dodgers, who are now in a 2-0 hole to the Red Sox.
Things aren’t quite that dour, but there’s no soft-selling it either. Theo Epstein has a lot of work ahead of him this offseason. So with the Red Sox halfway to their fourth title in 15 years, now’s a good time to see how the Cubs stack up to Boston and Los Angeles in six key areas.
The Dodgers and Cubs finished 1-2 in NL pitching ERA during the regular season. The Dodgers were tops in starters’ ERA and the Cubs tops in relief ERA. For playoff purposes, however, I would actually flip-flop those final rankings. I far prefer the Dodgers’ back-end bullpen and would take the Cubs’ top four playoff starters (especially if Yu Darvish comes back) over the Dodgers’ top four. This factors in Clayton Kershaw’s lost velocity and Walker Buehler’s inexperience (for now).
As for the Red Sox, their rotation seems to largely mirror the Dodgers. Chris Sales suffers from the same velocity loss as Kershaw. Buehler and Rick Porcello are both up-and-down righties, and David Price and Rich Hill can both dazzle and struggle from the left side. But Nathan Eovaldi over Hyun-Jin Ryu ultimately edges things for Boston.
I’m kind of shocked by my final ranking, as I’m usually not a homer in these things. But I would not trade the Cubs rotation for either of the other two.
Ranking: 1. Cubs, 2. Red Sox, 3. Dodgers
Even with a healthy Brandon Morrow and a career second half from Jesse Chavez, the Cubs’ back-end relievers can’t compete with the very deep Dodgers pen or Manager Alex Cora’s creative supplements to Boston’s (Eovaldi).
Joe Maddon’s playoff nervousness with his starters also leads to quicker atrophy of his bullpen assets. But if the Cubs’ pen is fully healthy and rested (big ifs), they remain just one quality high-leverage arm away from matching the Red Sox and probably two away from the Dodgers.
Ranking: 1. Dodgers, 2. Red Sox, 3. Cubs
This is where the gaps are truly greatest. Assuming a healthy Kris Bryant for a year and a rebound from Willson Contreras, one expects the home run power to return. This leaves offensive consistency as the Cubs’ biggest shortcoming. Most know by now the Cubs scored one or no runs in a game 40 times in 2018 (24%). By comparison, Boston hasn’t failed to put up a crooked run total in this year’s playoffs, and Los Angeles has done so only once in 13 games (8%).
Interestingly, this trio featured three of the five highest team OBPs in the majors in 2018. However, the Red Sox socked almost 100 more doubles than the Cubs, and the Dodgers tagged about 70 more homers. The Red Sox also struck out 135 fewer times than the Cubs while still notching a team OPS nearly 50 points higher (.792).
To catch up to the cream of this crop, diversifying the Cubs offense with a couple key additions will be crucial to avoid so many full-game slumps. And there are ways to do this without adding Bryce Harper’s up-and-down bat. With a couple savvy lineup-diversifying moves this offseason, the Cubs can certainly catch up to the Dodgers’ lineup. But matching Boston’s bats can’t be done without superior playoff pitching.
Ranking: 1. Red Sox, 2. Dodgers, 3. Cubs
This one is the hardest to evaluate because so much depends on how the Cubs address the shortstop position. Let’s just focus on the others for now.
None in this trio features a great defensive catcher, so when you consider throwing, blocking, and pitch framing, let’s call it about a draw. The Cubs’ most recurrent outfield alignment of Jason Heyward, Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber is good, but the defense drops when Ben Zobrist or Ian Happ are out there. By comparison, the Red Sox and Dodgers both feature better overall outfield defense in terms combined range, arms, and athleticism.
So a lot comes down to infield defense. The Dodgers will improve with the return of Corey Seager, but he’s really their only defensive standout. The Red Sox are steady at best. They have a weak left side, and even if Dustin Pedroia returns from injury at age 35, he’s many years removed from his Gold Glove youth.
Javier Baez is better at shortstop than both Xander Bogaerts and Manny Machado, but his fundamental flaws and lack of consistency on routine plays make him less than ideal for a championship run. If the Cubs somehow sign Machado to play third, keep Baez at second, and find a quality defensive shortstop, this infield alignment would shoot them straight to the top defensively.
As is, I rank them this way:
Ranking: 1. Red Sox, 2. Cubs, 3. Dodgers
The Red Sox’ dominance of this category demonstrates the importance of offensive diversification. In 2018, they were third in all of baseball with 125 steals (Milwaukee was fourth with 124). In addition, Boston featured the second-best stolen base success rate (80%), thereby turning this facet into a real sabermetric weapon.
In the regular season, the Dodger and Cubs just didn’t run much, stealing 75 and 66 bases, respectively. But the Dodgers have turned on the jets in the playoffs, stealing twice as many as the Red Sox (13 to 6) so far and doing so with an 81 percent success rate.
But the Cubs at least match the Dodgers through overall baserunning aggressiveness that creates far more defensive mistakes (and runs) than foolish outs. This keeps defenses on their toes and on edge. If only the Cubs could add a top base-stealer to the top of their lineup, a high-pressure front would regularly descend on Wrigley whenever opponents take the field.
Ranking: 1. Red Sox, 2. Cubs, Dodgers (tie)
All three managers are in the top tier and are excellent motivators. They also tend to over-obediently apply regular-season metrics to the more unique circumstances of the playoffs. Maddon is probably the most creative and gutsy of the three, but he too often under-leverages his rotational advantage by lifting starters too early and over-relying on an undermanned bullpen. Even so, only Dave Roberts wears a hair shirt for possibly losing a World Series by pulling a starter too soon (Rich Hill in 2017 Game 2).
Alex Cora has this same tendency, but so far in his short managerial career, no ghosts are haunting him. His real test will come when a sensational rotation and defense shuts down his offense. Then does he have the mastery of enough small-ball techniques to grind out a key 1-0 or 2-1 win?
Ranking: 1. Red Sox (tie), Cubs (tie), 3. Dodgers
The 2018 Cubs were not on the same level as the 2018 Dodgers or 2018 Red Sox. Their offensive shortcomings were more glaring and need the most off-season attention, followed by the bullpen. But assuming Boston remains a force next year, for the Cubs to find a competitive advantage to neutralize that crazy Red Sox lineup, they may need another rotation upgrade and effectively resolve the defensive question at shortstop.