Ranking the most important Cubs in September and beyond

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Instead of continuing along the pattern of Cubs individual player power rankings by what they've done to this point, let's switch gears a bit with an eye on October.

What's happened up to this point in the season matters, of course. But there are still plenty of questions to answer in the final month of the regular season.

So with that in mind, here are the most important Cubs for September, ranked:

Honorable mention: Carl Edwards Jr., Addison Russell

This was a really tough list to compile, with so many question marks hovering over individual players. Two of the most important question marks will revolve around Edwards and Russell. 

Edwards has the potential to be the dynamic Andrew Miller-type weapon for Joe Maddon out of the Cubs bullpen in October. He can go multiple innings and has easily the best strikeout rate and potential of any Cubs reliever and that swing-and-miss ability plays in a big way in the postseason. But Edwards is also prone to some command issues and he did miss five weeks in the middle of the summer for a shoulder issue. Plus, the Cubs have rarely pushed him for multiple innings or several days in a row.

Russell is rehabbing and resting his injured left hand that transformed him into a glove-first shortstop with serious issues on offense. Will the time off allow him to come back and become a factor in the lineup again? The hand did not affect Russell's defense and at the very least, he gives the Cubs an elite middle-infield pairing with Javy Baez and defense is so important in tight, hard-fought playoff games.

10. Jason Heyward
9. Ben Zobrist
8. Daniel Murphy
7. Anthony Rizzo
6. Willson Contreras
5. Javy Baez
4. Brandon Morrow
3. Kyle Hendricks/Jon Lester
2. Cole Hamels
1. Kris Bryant

10. In 2018, Jason Heyward has looked a lot more like the hitter he was prior to signing the megadeal with the Cubs. He's still an elite defender in the outfield and a steadying presence in the clubhouse, but now he's also been hitting in a key spot in the heart of the Cubs lineup over the last few months. But now he's nursing a hamstring injury with only about four weeks left in the season. Can he come back strong and regain his form both at the plate and roaming the outfield? If so, he may well be the Cubs' centerfielder in the postseason with Ben Zobrist seeing time in right field and Albert Almora Jr. on the bench.

9. Are we sure Ben Zobrist is really 37? He's enjoyed a fantastic resurgence in 2018 after a difficult 2017, both statistically and physically. But he's healthy, he's been a very good defender wherever he's played and has once again become an integral part of the Cubs lineup. Wherever he plays, he will be a big part of the offensive game plan in October if he stays healthy in September.

8. Daniel Murphy's arrival wasn't the only reason the Cubs offense came out of its slump and rattled off seven straight wins, but it certainly helped. He's a game-changing bat and he can be penciled in at leadoff for each game in October, which has a positive trickle-down effect through the rest of the lineup. The questions here are health (he missed most of the first half of the season with a knee injury) and defense, but it would be hard to keep his bat out of any postseason lineup.

7. This could be seen as an insult to Anthony Rizzo, but it shouldn't be. Of course he's extremely valuable and important to the Cubs, but he's also such a consistent player that all that really matters with him in September is health and avoiding another April-esque slump.

6. There's a legit argument to make Willson Contreras No. 1 on this list, as I had before the 2018 season began. He's taken a big step forward with his defense and managing the pitching staff, but his power has been down all year. If he can get back into a groove, it would be an absolute gamechanger to the lineup. Remember when he hit cleanup behind Rizzo and Bryant for most of 2017? It will also be imperative for the Cubs to find a good balance of resting Contreras in September, but also utilizing him as an asset to clinch the division and top seed in the NL.

5. Even though he's in the NL MVP race, we know Javy Baez is still prone to making mistakes — whether on the basepaths, field or at the plate with a high chase rate and wild, out-of-control swings at times. If Baez can avoid prolonged slumps in September, he will definitely draw some MVP votes and at the moment, it looks like he'll be the Cubs starting shortstop and hit somewhere in the Top 4 in the lineup when it matters most.

4. David Kaplan asked me the question on our latest podcast — Can the Cubs win the World Series without Brandon Morrow? The simple is "yes," but there is serious concern. Bullpens and elite relievers have become incredibly important in October and Morrow is the Cubs' best reliever and the lowest-stress option at closer. If he can't return to health or regain his dominant form, it will be very difficult for the Cubs to win that final game of the 2018 MLB season.

3. I'm cheating here by choosing both Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester for No. 3 on this list, but you know what? It's my list and I make the rules. It's nearly impossible to win the World Series without quality — or dominant — starting pitching and the Cubs will need to turn to both Hendricks and Lester in October. If they can continue to turn the corner after some midseason struggles and serve as legitimate options in the postseason rotation, nothing will be more important to the Cubs.

2. What we said above about the value of starting pitching. Hamels won't have an ERA under 0.70 forever, but if he continues to pitch like an ace, that is such a shot in the arm to the Cubs' World Series chances. Even with other question marks in the rotation, the Cubs could get by and feel good about their October fate if Hamels, Lester and Hendricks are all pitching like they're capable of.

1. Who else could possibly be in this spot on the list? Bryant is clearly the Cubs' best player and getting him back in the lineup in September will be the absolute best addition any team in the league can ask for. The 2016 NL MVP is reportedly pain-free in his left shoulder and with a new swing that he believes actually may lead to more power, you're talking about Bryant as the ultimate X-factor in a pennant race.

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