Cubs in control of playoff bid, but questions persist

With September upon us, it's time to start looking forward to another playoff run for the Chicago Cubs as they have a solid lead in their division and own the best record in the National League.

Going into their game Thursday night against the Atlanta Braves, FiveThirtyEight gave the Cubs a 98 percent chance of making it to October. Even so, there are a few questions as the 2016 champions attempt to win the World Series for the second time in three years.

It starts with a certain former MVP returning from a lengthy absence because of a shoulder injury.

Q: What is the ideal lineup when Kris Bryant returns, likely on Saturday?

A: Following Joe Maddon's ideas of lineup construction, the Cubs can easily alternate left- and right-handed hitters throughout the order while maxing out on defense late in games. The return of Addison Russell from the disabled list will add another element to the lineup as the manager will have plenty of toys to play with.

Here is what it might look like with multiple options at several positions:

Daniel Murphy 2B

Kris Bryant RF/3B

Anthony Rizzo 1B

Javier Baez SS

Ben Zobrist/Kyle Schwarber LF

Willson Contreras C

Jason Heyward CF/RF


David Bote/Albert Almora Jr./Ian Happ 3B/CF

When Bote plays third, it moves Bryant to right and Heyward to center. When Almora or Happ starts, then Heyward moves to right field. Late in games, Russell will play short, moving Baez to second, and Almora will play center.

The Cubs' best possible defense might have Bryant in left field, Almora in center and Heyward in right with Bote at third. In other words, Maddon has an embarrassment of riches to work with.

Q: Are the Cardinals the biggest threat to the Cubs in the NL Central?

A: While it would be foolish to count out the Brewers, it's hard to look past how well the Cardinals are pitching. They have the top second-half ERA in the league while the Brewers rank 12th. Milwaukee bolstered its lineup and can win games by pounding the ball, but its staff is a bit of a mess. Even so, Milwaukee has shown resiliency -- and it's not as if the Cardinals have blown past them. Still, pitching is the name of the game and St. Louis simply has more of it. Assuming the Cubs win the division, it's a toss-up for second place right now.

Q: What will the Cubs' playoff rotation look like?

A: It keeps getting better and better with Cole Hamels and Jon Lester neck and neck for the Game 1 nod. Obviously, almost no one in the league is pitching better than Hamels, so if the postseason started today, it would be hard not to dub him The Guy. But the beauty of a best-of-five series -- with two off days -- is the Game 1 or 2 starter can pitch in Game 5 on normal or extra rest. In fact, both could be available. Game 3 probably would feature Kyle Hendricks, with Jose Quintana still the favorite for Game 4 -- unless he completely blows up in September, in which case Mike Montgomery could be in line. One caveat applies to Quintana in an October start: He's strictly a "two turns through the lineup" guy.

Q: How will the Cubs set up their bullpen in the playoffs?

A: That's a question that should be addressed again in the final days of the season, as relievers have peaks and valleys throughout the year. But assuming they keep only 11 pitchers for the first round, as they've done in the past, the top candidates are pretty clear.

Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, Jesse Chavez and a healthy Brandon Morrow are locks from the right side. Montgomery will likely be folded back into the pen, joining Justin Wilson as the lefty relievers, and the four starters make 11.

One of those pitchers would have to play his way out of a playoff roster spot, but a lot hinges on the health of Morrow. If he can't pitch the ninth inning every night, then Maddon will have to play the matchup game, a precarious notion in the playoffs.

Q: Is Maddon really managing for his job?

A: The only reason this isn't a completely crazy question is that three playoff managers -- Joe Girardi, John Farrell and Dusty Baker -- didn't return to their respective teams after last season. But every situation is different and it's not as if the Cubs have shown any signs of slowing down under Maddon. Postseason mistakes can be magnified, but barring a meltdown by his team -- in which he loses the locker room -- Maddon will surely be back for the final year of his contract. He's making $6 million in 2019, so the Cubs plan on making him earn it.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that the length of a likely contract extension could be determined by the playoff run. In other words, another World Series title is likely to buy Maddon up to three more years. Perhaps something short of that gets him one or two years past next season. Either way, Maddon's job is safe for next year. He has performed and exceeded every possible job requirement with the Cubs.
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