The Chicago Cubs are in the driver’s seat as they continue their playoff push, and questions are beginning to form about how the team will look should they punch a ticket into the postseason.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Cubs at this point in the season is how they would line up their playoff rotation if they clinch a berth. Who would start Game 1? Which of the five starting pitchers would be the odd man out if Joe Maddon goes to a four-man rotation for the postseason?
Here are the key battles to watch as the Cubs head down the stretch.
Lester vs. Arrieta: Who Gets the Game 1 Ball?
Jon Lester pitched the opening game of the 2015 season, but Jake Arrieta pitched the National League wild card game. Arrieta was the opening day starter in 2016, but Lester started in Game 1 against the San Francisco Giants.
This season Lester appeared to have the inside track to be the Game 1 starter, but a second half surge from Arrieta has put that in doubt. Since the All-Star Game, Arrieta has a 6-2 record with a 1.97 ERA and a .203 batting average against. He came back from injury strong in his last outing too, giving up just one earned run in five innings.
Meanwhile, Lester has a 5.11 ERA after the break in 11 starts, and he’s allowing hitters to hit at a .262 clip against him in those starts.
Our Pick: Arrieta for Game 1
Quintana vs. Lackey: Who is the Fourth Starter?
Like the rest of the pitching rotation, Lackey has flourished in the second half of the season, with a 3.88 ERA and a 6-2 record in 12 starts since the All-Star break.
The one area where Lackey has struggled, and has all season, is in the long ball department. The hurler has given up a staggering 36 home runs this season, including a pair of them to the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night.
That is the highest total in all of baseball, and even though Quintana has hardly been rock solid, his ability to keep the ball in the park is good considering the quality defense that the Cubs are capable of putting up behind him.
Our Pick: Jose Quintana
How Will the Four Starters Line Up?
Now that we’ve picked our four starters, how will they line up for the postseason?
A lot of that will have to do with the team the Cubs are playing, but the Washington Nationals are a relatively well-balanced team, so the Cubs likely won’t have to worry about stacking lefties or righties against them.
Those matchups will come up a lot more in the team’s bullpen, which is still definitely up in the air for October, but knowing Joe Maddon, he’ll try to keep a mix between riding the hot hand and trusting his veterans.
With that in mind, Arrieta will likely be first out of the gate, followed by Lester in Game 2. Kyle Hendricks, who has quietly had a strong second half to the season after dealing with command issues early, would be a great Game 3 starter at Wrigley Field, and Quintana could round out the rotation by pitching Game 4.
The Cubs’ rotation has been among the best in baseball during the second half, and if Maddon plays his cards right, they could be a strength in the postseason.