There was a lot of talk, much of it garbled by anxious Cubs fans talking around their fingernails, that the Marlins presented a particularly scary matchup because of the young pitchers leading their rotation. Some of that may also have been the two teams’ respective histories, and I don’t just mean the nauseating tropes that are sure to get plenty of airtime in the upcoming national broadcasts.
Like some sort of sporadic minor plague, the Marlins rise from obscurity once in a while to make the postseason and win the whole damn thing. This is only their third playoff appearance in franchise history and they’ve got two of Rob Manfred’s pieces of metal from their previous trips. Does that mean anything, given their last berth came 17 years ago? No, but this isn’t always about being rational.
The real fear is the Cubs’ uncanny ability to turtle up offensively for days at a time, like when they scored three total runs across three consecutive losses to the Pirates. Then there’s the idea that Cubs hitters seem to struggle against pitchers they’ve not seen before, though they looked putrid in Pittsburgh facing starters with whom they were familiar and had dominated in the past. Still, the lack of advanced scouting and the youth of the Marlins’ top starters could present a problem.
In the end, this matchup with Miami should be amenable to the paranoid among you for one reason: They’re not from the NL Central. Not only does this finally give fans the chance to see a team from another divisional group, but there’s significantly less chance for ignominy. I mean, if you’re worried about the Marlins’ rotation, what about the Reds? If Cincy’s starters get hot…nah, let’s not even speak that possibility aloud.
Setting superstition aside, let’s have a look at how the Cubs and Marlins stack up across each position and group to see if we can allay some fears.
The big question here is which version of these players we are getting, specifically whether Anthony Rizzo can shake free from his funk. Always a hot-cold hitter, he’s been running more cold throughout the season and really hasn’t gone on one of those patented tears, finishing the season with a .205/.297/.341 slash in September (101 PAs). However, he’s at .297/.422/.514 over the past two weeks (45 PAs) and rallied his teammates in a big way during their final series on the South Side.
Old friend Jesús Aguilar is familiar to the Cubs from his days in Milwaukee and he has raked for Miami this season after seemingly falling off the face of the earth two years ago. He walks at a good clip and is striking out at a career-low rate, though he’s not a very good defensive first baseman. Jesús, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball. Well, not when opponents are throwing them, because he has a .412 average against benders.
Edge: Cubs (because I’m biased)
Raise your hand if you know anything about Jon Berti. Now put it down if you’re lying. Cool, one of our three readers still has their hand up. The 30-year-old utilityman has only played in 39 games this season and has logged only 116 over his entire MLB career, but he’s got a .388 OBP and helps to clog the bases for the bottom of the order.
Jason Kipnis has cooled considerably and isn’t reaching base nearly as frequently as he was early in the season. Nico Hoerner has shown very little pop and probably could have benefited from more seasoning in a minor league campaign that never happened. This one is close, but…
Miguel Rojas has been a stud for the Marlins this season, slashing .304/.392/.496 with a 142 wRC+, 44 points higher than he’d ever posted in six previous seasons. That’s almost the inverse of what Javy Báez has managed, as his 57 wRC+ is 44 points below his career average (which was obviously dragged down by this season). If both trends continue, this one easily goes to Miami. But we’ve seen how Javy can impact the game in many different ways.
Kris Bryant looks to be back to normal after sitting for a few days with a lower right oblique strain, so another two days off should really help the wrist and finger that have bothered him. Brian Anderson has been very consistent for the Marlins and can do damage from the right side, so it’s the safe bet on season production vs. the upside of both historical and recent production.
Jorge Alfaro is a terrible offensive producer and isn’t a defensive specialist, while the Cubs have both Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini. This is the most lopsided matchup on the board and doesn’t merit much conversation.
Edge: Cubs in a huge way
Corey Dickerson and Kyle Schwarber are having pretty similar campaigns in terms of being down at the plate and not being game-changers in the field, so you go with Schwarber’s power potential here.
Ian Happ has scuffled since a hot start that made him a dark-horse MVP candidate, but Starling Marte has likewise seen a production dip since coming to Miami in a deadline deal. Marte’s defense is better, but Happ’s offensive floor is lower because he still reaches base at a good clip.
Matt Joyce figures to start against the Cubs’ righties, but neither his bat nor his glove are scary in the least. He’s put up -0.3 fWAR on the season and doesn’t have the pop to make an impact. Lewis Brinson, who may not play at all, has also posted negative WAR and isn’t a difference-maker. Jason Heyward just completed his best offensive campaign as a Cub — something we could say about each of his seasons in Chicago — and is still a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder.
Edge: Cubs in a big way
Though the Marlins could very well have the statistical advantage at every single spot other than catcher, the Cubs have a great deal more experience and much higher ceilings.
It’s pretty close in two positions and very lopsided in the other, so this one isn’t in question.
The trio of Sandy Alcantara, Sixto Sánchez, and Pablo López is very formidable. It’s also very young and might be prone to some postseason jitters. Alcantara has excelled on the road this season, though he’s had a little trouble with lefties in general and the Cubs have a lot of thunder. Sánchez has lived up to the hype in his rookie campaign, but his last few starts have him trending way down. López might actually be their best starter at this point in time.
One thing all three do very well is keep the ball in the yard, so the Cubs may not be able to rely on home runs for all their scoring. Sánchez is the only one out of the group with reverse splits and Manager David will have to make sure his lineups are constructed accordingly.
The Cubs will send Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish and postseason stalwart Kyle Hendricks to the mound in the first two games, followed by Jon Lester. Though much older and less electric as a group, the experience factor is important when pitching in the postseason. The Marlins are in the bottom third of the league when it comes to hitting righties, so that will play a big role here as well.
Marlins relievers have a 5.50 ERA, 5.65 FIP, and 5.39 xFIP, all the worst marks among the 16 playoff teams. Their 7.30 K/9 was the lowest in MLB this season while their 4.60 BB/9 was seventh-worst. When Brandon Kintzler is your closer, there’s not a whole lot for other teams to fear.
The Cubs aren’t at full strength after losing Rowan Wick, but Craig Kimbrel looks to have regained his form and hasn’t given up a run or walked a batter in September. You’re not really worried about depth in a three-game series, so the Cubs have a decided advantage here.
The Cubs don’t exactly have a group of world-beaters waiting their turn, but David Bote always seems to come up big in clutch situations and Billy Hamilton provides speed and elite defense. No one even recognizes most of the Marlins starters, so who can they possibly have on the bench?
While there are certainly some areas in which the Marlins stack up well with the Cubs, a combination of depth, experience, and potential all favor the home team. And when I say potential, I’m talking about immediately in this series and not down the road with projection. As long as the Cubs don’t look too far ahead and can maintain the swagger they regained this past weekend, they should win this series with relative ease.
Famous last words, huh?