The World Series, like most major sports championships, is won by defense. In baseball that mainly translates to pitching, but also fielding. When you play the same team in a playoff series your hitters usually face the opponent’s best pitching, consequently you should plan for 3 or fewer runs scored and that means you want your pitching to hold the opponent to 3 or fewer runs.
Since the beginning of September the Cubs have been in playoff games. Nearly all of the teams they faced need to beat them to move ahead of the Cubs in the Wild Card playoff standings. By my count the Cubs have played 17 games so far in September and in 7 of them their opponent scored 3 or fewer runs. My conclusion is that the Cubs pitching is simply not good enough to win in the playoffs.
I think my conclusion holds if you look at the larger body of work over the season. I expect that in a high percentage of the games the Cubs won they scored 4 or more runs, too many of those they needed to score 4 or more runs. During the regular season it is not surprising that your hitters will have more success because they will be in many situations where they face poor pitching.
A team built to win in the MLB playoffs has the pitching that more often than not can hold their opponent to 3 or fewer runs. Truth is the Cubs got through the 2023 season with only one reliable starting pitcher, maybe two (Steele for sure, and possibly Hendricks). Stroman and Taillon have not been consistent and Taillon has been aweful. Javier Assad joined the starting rotation too late in to the season so it is really hard to assess his reliability. The bullpen is no better, only Merrywather and Alzolay has been reliable, though Leiter is borderline.
The fact that the Cubs are in a playoff race is much more important this year than they actually make the playoffs, and the goal long term is be winning division championships and not gain a playoff berth via the wild card. While at the beginning of the season there was some hope the Cubs could compete with the Brewers for the NL Central division championship, I think it was evident early on through head to head games with the Brewers that this Cubs team is not as good or better than the Brewers. Sure, the Cubs can win any game, but can they win a series?
Bottom line, the Chicago Cubs are on schedule for their long term goals of winning division titles and the World Series in upcoming years. Clearly, the Cubs need to improve their pitching. Jordan Wicks has shown he is a piece of the puzzle for next year, and we can hope Taillon will return to the how he pitched in the past. Stroman might be back, but with Hendricks being another year older I think the Cubs need to sign at least two reliable starting pitchers during the off season as well as keep Merryweather.
From the lineup perspective, I think the Cubs should be aggressive in their attempt to sign Bellinger, but I doubt he stays and his departure will create a big gap in their lineup. Maybe youngsters Morel, Mervis, or Crow-Armstrong can help fill that gap but all are too inexperienced with MLB pitching. Consequently, the Cubs need to sign at least one big-name hitter to maintain their current starting lineup performance.
Finally, the biggest question of the off season might be whether David Ross has what it takes to manage a championship caliber baseball team. Every manager makes questionable lineup and in-game decisions, and this is Ross’ first manager job so we need to keep in mind that he is learning on the job. I personally can’t pin the current Cubs situation on Ross, the bottom line is that the players have to perform and they are not performing. Ross has made lineup changes and pitching changes, as far as I can tell he is doing everything he can to try and have the Cubs win games. I would not be in a hurry to replace Ross unless there is a championship experienced person to replace him. So, David Ross’ fate, like Rick Renteria’s was in 2015, may be decided more by who is available rather than by his own performance.
I am frustrated by and mad about the Cub’s performance this month, but I am mostly mad at the Cubs veterans who have under performed with the pressure on. Frankly, if it weren’t for Suzuki the Cubs would probably would have a longer losing streak. Swanson, Bellinger, and Happ have not met expectations as the veteran leaders. In the big picture I am happy about where the Cubs are, they met my expectations for this season and look to be on track of near year and beyond. All of the younger Cub players who have never been in this position of a playoff race in September are gaining valuable experience of how to deal with the pressure, and in my opinion experience matters most.