Projecting Cubs playoff roster: Joe Maddon teases interesting October lineup


Kris Bryant in center field??

With his initial release for Friday's starting nine in Washington D.C., Joe Maddon teased what the Cubs postseason lineup might look like if Jason Heyward's balky hamstring becomes more of an issue. (Ben Zobrist was later scratched, leading to Ian Happ joining the lineup and playing center field and pushing Bryant to right field. Then, of course, the game never got played thanks to that awful rain.)

Like usual, there's a lot at play here. 

Let's start with the Heyward aspect. He was with the team in Milwaukee, but did not make the trip to D.C., instead staying in Chicago to rehab from the Grade 1 hamstring strain he suffered in Atlanta on Aug. 30. 

Hamstring strains are notoriously tricky injuries and obviously it would be difficult for Heyward to track fly balls in the outfield effectively with a hamstring that is less than 100 percent.

Maddon outwardly has no concern that Heyward is lost for the season, but the Cubs are running out of time fast (only 20 games remain) and it will take some time for Heyward to get up to speed after going a couple weeks without seeing live pitching and no minor league seasons to go to for a rehab stint.

So even if Heyward is healthy enough to be active, he might still be shaking some rust off as the Cubs enter October, which could lead to the Bryant-in-center possibility.

Bryant has only made one career start in center and has played just seven innings at the position over the last three seasons (and none in 2018). He has been playing a lot of left and right field since returning from the disabled list on Sept. 1 and while he hasn't made any egregious mistakes, he also hasn't been all that smooth in his routes, either. That's not surprising given he's only played 137 innings in the outfield the last two years as his infield defense has improved and he's locked down the hot corner.

Of course, Bryant playing center field wouldn't be the Cubs' optimal defense, but it would allow them to get their best offensive lineup out to begin a game and they can always insert Albert Almora Jr. to play center later if they're able to get a lead.

As is standard with this series of Cubs postseason roster projection, we'll line up how Game 1 would look against the opponent they would face if the season ended today.

The Milwaukee Brewers are hot on the Cubs' heels, but for the moment, they're still two games back in the division with a huge three-game series at Wrigley this week.

The Brewers are 2.5 games up on the Cardinals in the wild card, so they would host that one-game playoff and with that home field advantage, we'll project them to win and get into the NLDS to face the Cubs.

Milwaukee will probably use ace Jhoulys Chacin in the wild-card game, which could leave Chase Anderson as their Game 1 starter in the NLDS. Wade Miley has been great for the Brewers lately, but Anderson has more of a body of work, so at the moment, we'll go with him.

With some doubt about Heyward's health and rust at the moment, this could be what the Cubs trot out against a right-handed pitcher like Anderson in Game 1 of the NLDS:

1. Daniel Murphy - 2B
2. Kris Bryant - CF
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Javy Baez - 3B
5. Ben Zobrist - RF
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Cole Hamels - P
9. Addison Russell - SS

There's also a serious possibility David Bote starts at third base and hits ninth (as Friday's original lineup had) with Russell on the bench and Baez at shortstop.

Either way, the Cubs will have Murphy in there for his bat early in games, but figure to replace him at second base late in postseason games if they have a lead. Murphy's defense leaves a lot to be desired and the Cubs could easily move Baez over to second with Russell coming in to play short if he starts on the bench. Or move Baez over to second and Bote comes in to play third. Or Bryant moves back to third with Almora, Ian Happ or Terrance Gore coming in to help improve the outfield defense.

In other words — there are so many different possibilities here. 

But this much is clear: Against left-handed pitchers, Almora will start and play center field. 

If Heyward is healthy and not rusty in October, he will be in the lineup in some capacity almost every day and will probably play center against right-handers. 

As for the order, when Bryant initially returned from his shoulder injury, Maddon slotted him behind Rizzo often with Baez hitting second. But Game 2's lineup Saturday had Bryant in the two-hole, which makes more sense given the former MVP's supreme on-base skills.

So if Bryant is in center for Game 1, here's where it leaves the Cubs bench:

-Jason Heyward
-Albert Almora Jr.
-David Bote
-Tommy La Stella
-Victor Caratini
-Terrance Gore

Which means...Ian Happ is off the roster.

That possibility may seem insane given how often Happ still starts and plays for the Cubs in the midst of a pennant race in September. But Happ has struggled with consistency all season and especially of late (.186 average, .606 OPS, 42 strikeouts in 100 plate appearances since Aug. 1). 

Last October, Happ notched just eight plate appearances between the Cubs' 10 postseason games and did not start at all. 

Meanwhile, Gore — whom the Cubs acquired from the Royals in August — has impressed with his speed and brought another element to this 2018 team as a dynamic pinch-runner.

In close, low-scoring playoff games, that one skill from Gore (speed) can be an absolute gamechanger.

For reference, the Cubs carried 14 position players and 11 pitchers in both the NLDS and NLCS last fall with Leonys Martin active in both series in a potential pinch-runner capacity.

If Heyward is healthy, it could be between Gore and Happ for that final roster spot, with Gore's explosive speed winning out over Happ's switch-hitting ability, versatility and power.

That leaves us with this October pitching rotation:

Starting rotation

Cole Hamels
Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana

Hamels is still the Cubs' best pitcher, but Lester's long track record of postseason success (especially with this Cubs team) could win out, too, giving him the nod over Hamels.

Either way, the first three starters will be Hamels, Lester and Hendricks in some order.


Brandon Morrow
Pedro Strop
Carl Edwards Jr.
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Jesse Chavez

The Cubs carrying only 11 pitchers would be pretty tricky if Morrow is one of those pitchers. At this rate, we still have no idea if he can return as he was supposed to get on a mound for the first time since Aug. 18 and throw a bullpen Sunday in D.C. but the rain washed that away and turned it into a regular throwing session.

As we said with Heyward, time is running out quickly and Morrow hasn't faced a hitter in two months.

Even if he does return, he probably won't be able to pitch on back-to-back days.

That's not awful in a five-game series, as Morrow could pitch in, say, Game 1, Game 3 and Game 5.

In a seven-game series where there are only two off-days, that means Morrow would only be available in 4 of the 7 games, even in an absolute best-case scenario.

Even if Morrow can only pitch every couple of days, adding him and Montgomery back into the bullpen is a great way to supplement the current group of five guys — Strop, Edwards, Wilson, Cishek, Chavez — who are still studs, even if every guy in that group has faltered over the last week.

Still, with so much uncertainty surrounding Morrow, the Cubs may opt to keep an extra pitcher on the staff just in case. 

Who that extra pitcher is is not yet known, but it could be Brandon Kintzler if he can turn things around over the next three weeks. Jorge De La Rosa has found success with the Cubs (1.88 ERA, 0.98 WHIP in 14.1 IP) and could be an option as an extra pitcher, as well.

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