As we sit in a rain delay and wait anxiously for another Chicago Cubs game to begin (they’re in Denver to take on the Colorado Rockies), it bears repeating how well Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have constructed this roster, and how well manager Joe Maddon has maximized matchups to get the most out of this team. Of course, you could argue that the Cubs are underachieving since they’re six games below their expected win total given run differential, but baseball is a strange cat. After a brief freakout session back in July, the motor has been humming along nicely, so much so that we barely batted an eye when this happened…
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 19, 2016
And depending on how you feel about him, Jason Heyward gets a few days off to relocate his chi…
Jason Heyward won't start all weekend. Healthy, Maddon giving him a long break.
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) August 19, 2016
The thing is, every single one of these guys could probably play if they wanted to, and would likely continue to play if the lead weren’t 13 games at press time. But the Cubs decided that they preferred to play it safe, and also take the opportunity to do some tinkering and experimenting.
It starts with the bullpen, where the first pitcher drafted under Theo and Jed with the Cubs will debut soon in the form of Rob Zastryzny. Rob-Z had a number of pretty good starts in Iowa, and aside from some command issues, seems like he has unhittable stuff. The idea is to use both him and Felix Pena in the bullpen to supplement a rotation that is jammed full of Cy Young candidates. It also helps that guys like Trevor Cahill and Mike Montgomery can piggyback to spell some starters (like John Lackey, who as you saw above is on the disabled list as a precaution), and now Rob-Z can be a swing man too if necessary.
The fortuitously good overall health of the Cubs position players and starting rotation, plus the fact that the team was built with so many contingencies and versatility, helps in allowing Maddon to give Heyward a mental break. Just about everyone brought up to play has performed admirably, and anything that doesn’t click can be readily jettisoned to be replaced with someone who does work out. It’s a far cry from even 2009, when the Cubs lost Aramis Ramirez for a while with the shoulder injury and the season went to hell. This year, the Cubs could lose Kyle Schwarber for the season (but maybe we’ll see a miracle?) and Jorge Soler for a long stretch, yet continue to build their incredible division lead. It speaks to the prescience of the front office and the depth of talent within the system now, as well as the winning attitudes of the players who anchor the team.
At this point, it’s just a matter of keeping everyone fresh and healthy, and tinkering with the bullpen options to see who can get the Cubs through October. We have already seen lots of conversations about whom the Cubs will carry in the postseason, and the situations where we don’t really know which starter to bump into the October bullpen or which reserve outfielder to leave off the roster are very fun problems to have. If the lead stays huge come September, we could see a lot of fun Maddon lineups and defensive alignments, plus plenty of bullpen experiments that will likely frustrate us, but also be very informative. It’s the kind of stuff you expect to see when a team is coasting along with a huge division lead and a magic number around 30…in mid-August.
I think we’re running out of stuff to complain about.