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How Does a Shortened Season Affect the Cubs' Playoff Chances?

Most of the Cubs' weaknesses that would cause issues over 162 games are mitigated in a 'sprint' season.
chicago cubs 2020

Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

With the 2020 MLB season less than one week away, it’s time to analyze how this shortened season affects the Chicago Cubs. Many fans forget how uncertain this season was set to be for the North Siders even before the season was delayed.

After two consecutive disappointing seasons, the roster had shortcomings that were not addressed through trades or free agency, which led to questions. How will an aging rotation perform down the stretch of the season? Who will be the fifth starter in the rotation? Will the bench step up and provide some much-needed positional depth? All these questions shed light on some of the club’s weaknesses that would have most assuredly come to fruition in a 162-game season. However, each one of those weaknesses is reduced substantially with the season cut to 60 games, which brings me to my main point: the Chicago Cubs’ roster is set up to benefit as much as any team in baseball with this shortened season.

A Shortened Season Bodes Well for Jon Lester and Jose Quintana

The biggest factor that led to the 2019 end-of-season choke job was the starting rotation’s inability to perform in the month of September. The biggest culprits for that? Look no further than Jon Lester and Jose Quintana.

In September, Lester put up a 4.94 ERA in 27.1 innings pitched (IP). While those numbers are by no means catastrophic, they’re not going to get the job done in a heated divisional race. Quintana's numbers, on the other hand, are exactly that. A catastrophe. He turned in an 11.08 ERA in only 18.1 IP. He got out of the fourth inning only twice in five starts that month. You can talk all you want about the inconsistent bats, but when 40% of your pitching staff is putting up those numbers down the stretch, you’re not going to win many games against formidable opponents.

An aging Lester benefits immensely from a sprint season.Photo: Patrick Gorski/USA Today Sports

An aging Lester benefits immensely from a sprint season.Photo: Patrick Gorski/USA Today Sports

While Lester and Quintana did not perform in the month of September, that’s not to say they did not have their bright spots in 2019. It's an oft-forgotten stretch, but Lester posted a 1.16 ERA and looked as dominant as he ever has through his first seven starts in 2019. After his first 20 starts, he had a league-average 3.63 ERA. After that, the wheels fell off. It’s obvious he ran out of gas, and likely would do the same in 2020 if it was a 162-game season. However, this 60-game season assures that he won’t start more than 20 games, which allows Lester to put his foot on the gas pedal from the get-go. While he won’t be anything like the vintage Lester we saw from 2015-2017, him being around a league-average ERA would do wonders for this team, as he’s likely going to be the third starter.

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Like Lester, Quintana also ran out of gas. Prior to the month of September, he had a 3.90 ERA and led the team in innings pitched. The reason for his downfall is simple: overuse. That likely will not happen in a shortened season, presuming he comes back 100% from his lacerated hand injury. If Quintana, as their fourth starter, can be right around that 3.90 ERA, the pitching staff will be set up to succeed in this shortened season.

No Fifth Starter? No Problem

As of right now, the fifth spot in the starting rotation is vacant. While there are many candidates, such as Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Jharel Cotton, and Adbert Alzolay, all have a considerable amount of concern surrounding their ability to produce as a starting pitcher. This would be a serious weakness for the pitching staff over 162 games. However, it’s significantly less of an issue now. While I anticipate the Cubs will still employ a five-man rotation, there is zero pressure on the fifth starter, whoever it will be, to go even past the fourth inning. This type of strategy cannot be done in a 162-game season because the bullpen would be overused and decimated with injuries by game 100. Over 60 games? Not so much.

The Cubs could even employ a revolving door type of approach with their fifth starter once Quintana is cleared. Then, once the division race heats up and every game is 'must-win', they could elect to go to a four-man rotation. These are the type of strategies that are simply not doable under a normal-length season. Not having a true fifth starter is yet another weakness alleviated as a result of this shortened season.

Play Your Best 9

It’s no secret that the Cubs have a severe lack of positional player depth. Albert Almora’s inability to develop into an everyday starter, Addison Russell’s freefall into baseball irrelevance, and trading Tommy La Stella, who had a breakout year last season with the Angels, have all contributed to this fact.

While the additions of Jason Kipnis and Steven Souza Jr. will augment a lifeless bench, it is still nowhere near the depth the teams at the top of baseball have, such as the Dodgers and Yankees. Depth plays a major role in MLB and allows teams such as the Dodgers and Yankees to separate themselves from their divisions over the course of 162 games. But when you remove almost two-thirds of the season, depth is simply not as needed due to less wear and tear on players' bodies.

Willson Contreras Trade Rumors

Fewer games means a reduced rate of off days for the starting lineup. That means more plate appearances for catcher Willson Contreras, arguably the best bat on the roster.Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

As each individual game accounts for a larger percentage of the season, bench players will play at a reduced rate because games are more “must-win” and off days are less needed. As a result, star power is even more valuable than it already was. And as any Cubs fan knows, this roster is loaded with stars. Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras all have their share of All-Star appearances. Couple that with Kyle Hendricks, a career 3.20 ERA starter, and a fully healthy Yu Darvish, all of a sudden you have one of the more talented ‘Best 9's’ in all of baseball. This season is a perfect opportunity for David Ross to do exactly what Joe Maddon did not do: play your damn best 9 on a daily basis.

Honestly, with the reluctance of executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to address any of the club's weaknesses over the offseason, I would be hard-pressed to expect the Cubs to win the NL Central in a regular-formatted 2020 season. However, with how this roster is constructed and based on the reasons above, I believe the Cubs are set up to succeed under a 60-game format and finish at the top of the NL Central standings. We'll find out exactly how much truth there is to that statement in two months.