The Chicago Cubs, like many teams, are facing a squad they’ve yet to take on this season, but their task is even odder than most as they prepare to battle the Miami Marlins.
The season got off to a weird start for the Marlins, as they were forced to press the pause button on their campaign due to a series of positive coronavirus tests among players and staff.
Much like the St. Louis Cardinals did, the Marlins managed to get things sorted out, acquiring a slew of players and calling up others to flesh out their roster as they got their season underway and back on track.
Along the way they got some production from some unexpected places and had several players, including Brian Anderson and Jesus Aguilar, step up in a big way, allowing the club to remain afloat and to ultimately secure a playoff berth with a 31-29 record.
Even though the Marlins are an interesting story, there is a reason the Cubs are favored in the series. At minus-41, the Marlins have the worst run-differential of any team to reach the postseason, and they allowed more runs than every other playoff team except for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Marlins’ bullpen also had its fair share of struggles this season, ranking second-worst in the league in terms of WAR, according to Fangraphs. They are the only team to reach the playoffs with a negative fWAR bullpen, while the New York Yankees were second-worst at 0.7 wins above replacement.
Even with those stats and figures in mind, there is still plenty for the Cubs to be concerned about. The team has struggled badly to score runs in the last month of the season, with their recent series against the Chicago White Sox serving as more of an aberration than a continuation of a trend. The team, so reliant on home runs to drive offensive production, struggled to make hard contact for most of the month, and they’ll have to hope to reverse that trend in this series.
The Cubs will also have to figure out how to best line up their starting pitchers, as a lack of off-days in the postseason could really hamper their plans. In all likelihood, Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks will serve as the top-two starters in the rotation, but from there things get dicey. Will the Cubs trust Alec Mills to start games in the playoffs? Can Jon Lester find his postseason form and deliver for the Cubs in yet another big spot? Will Jose Quintana be used as a reliever or as a starter?
The rotation question will likely be less of an issue in a three-game series, but even a short series poses potential issues. With every game worth so much, will the Cubs go with extra bullpen arms in case a starter has to be pulled early, or will they deepen their bench and use the speed of players like Billy Hamilton and the offensive punch of players like Nico Hoerner or Jason Kipnis?
Ultimately, the fate of the Cubs rests on the biggest question of all: can players like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hit the baseball often enough to help the team win, or will they struggle like they did through most of the regular season?
That question, above all others, will determine the fate of the Cubs not just in the wild card round, but also further on in these playoffs should they advance beyond the first round.