A pair of historic franchises are set to do battle for the right to represent the National League in the Fall Classic. The Chicago Cubs – baseball’s best team – will be looking to end a 71-year absence and reach the World Series for the first time since 1945. To do it, they’ll have to get past the battle-tested Los Angeles Dodgers, who fought hard to get past the Nationals and reach the NLCS. Chicago took the season series 4-3, and only two of those seven games were decided by more than a two-run margin.
Before this highly anticipated series gets going, here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the NLCS:
The tandem of Yasmani Grandal and Carlos Ruiz has stabilized the Dodgers behind the plate. Grandal provides power; Ruiz brings an excellent glove and a history of October hits. Chicago’s got three good catchers, but back pain could force Miguel Montero out of this series and leave rookie Willson Contreras and retiring veteran David Ross to share the load. That’s a lot to put on either of them.
Ironically, the two starting first basemen in this series were once traded for each other by then-Padres general manager and current Cubs GM Jed Hoyer. Anthony Rizzo brings 30-homer power and a solid glove to first base for the Cubs. Gonzalez doesn’t bring that kind of power, and he won’t get first-place MVP votes like Rizzo almost surely will, but the 34-year-old’s still one of the top first basemen in the game and a dependable veteran.
The Cubs, depending on the day, can maneuver their infield to put either Ben Zobrist or Javier Baez at second; Baez, who’s been on a tear this October, will likely get a lot of time at the keystone in this series. Los Angeles boasts veteran Chase Utley and his stellar playoff resume, though he hit just .188 in the division series.
Addison Russell is going to be around for a long time. He’s a terrific fielder and had an excellent season at the plate. Corey Seager is a superstar in the making and is always a threat to do damage when he steps to the plate.
Justin Turner, who hit .400 against Washington, is a vital part of the Dodgers’ attack – and is all the more important given he hits right-handed. Kris Bryant is the likely MVP of the National League.
The Cubs can rotate any of Zobrist, Bryant, and Jorge Soler in the corners and not miss a beat, while Jason Heyward gives them excellent defense and Dexter Fowler is a solid leadoff option. Los Angeles’ platoon of Howie Kendrick and Andrew Toles in left field needs to produce; Yasiel Puig and Josh Reddick – two right-handed bats – will also be key if the Dodgers hope to get out of this series alive.
Thanks to the versatility of their players, the Cubs can play chess with just about any team. Manager Joe Maddon can move players around mid-game, and call on the likes of Baez or whichever of his catchers aren’t starting to come in as a reinforcement if need be. Dave Roberts doesn’t have those kinds of weapons, though he can call on the likes of Puig or Reddick and expect results.
The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw – then it could get ugly. Kenta Maeda has struggled, Rich Hill gave up five runs in seven innings during the NLDS, and Roberts has shown a reluctance to start 20-year-old Julio Urias. Chicago’s got a deep front four of Jon Lester, Cy Young favorite Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, and reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.
Aroldis Chapman has come as advertised on the North Side, despite hitting a brief bump in Game 3 of the NLDS. The rest of the Cubs’ bullpen has been locking games down all season; Carl Edwards Jr., Hector Rondon, and Travis Wood provide a solid bridge to the flame-throwing closer. The Dodgers’ bullpen saved them in Game 5 against Washington, and Kenley Jansen has had an excellent year, but it’s hard to say they’re better overall. Kershaw can’t finish every game.