CHICAGO -- The biggest task for the Chicago Cubs in September might just be planning a party to match the one they held in the visitors clubhouse in Pittsburgh after winning last season’s wild-card game. It was quite the celebration. Of course, that game came in October.
This time it will be a division title the Cubs will be celebrating earlier than anyone could have predicted considering their nearly insurmountable lead in the NL Central. When you’re a wire-to-wire leader with a comfortable cushion, party planning becomes very important.
After the celebration is complete, there are some issues for the remainder of the month to keep an eye on:
Starting pitching rest: It has been a season-long goal of the Cubs to keep their starters fresh for October this time around. Last season, Jake Arrieta in particular hit a wall come the National League Championship Series. Manager Joe Maddon already limited his starters to about 100 pitches per start in August and will continue that trend into September. The Cubs could add a sixth starter and might even skip a pitcher here or there to prepare for baseball’s second season.
Bullpen returnees: Perhaps more important than anything else in September -- besides that division-clinching party, of course -- is the status of the Cubs' seventh- and eighth-inning relievers. Pedro Strop (knee) and Hector Rondon (triceps) should feel fresh as long as they can find their form when they come off the disabled list. Rondon should return early in the month while Strop will take a little longer. Both are huge pieces to the Cubs' puzzle in the bullpen. Starter John Lackey is also returning from injury (shoulder), though in plenty of time to prepare for October.
Left-handed hitting tryouts: The Cubs are down a lefty or two for their playoff roster so the return of Tommy La Stella and Chris Coghlan from the minors should be a boost to the offense from that side of the plate. Lefty Miguel Montero didn’t hurt his cause coming off the bench on Monday against lefty Jeff Locke to deliver the game-winning hit. La Stella, Coghlan and Montero will battle for a spot or two on the playoff roster. La Stella should have the edge as a somewhat accomplished pinch hitter. There’s no question the Cubs could use help from the left side of the batter’s box.
Other playoff-roster implications: The Cubs have had the best five-man starting staff in baseball for much of the season, but one starter will have a different role come playoff time. Right now, odds are Jason Hammel will either head to the bullpen or be left off the best-of-five divisional playoff roster entirely. Nothing is set in stone and the final few starts of the season could determine roles for October, including starters in the first round. Several bullpen positions will be up for grabs come playoff time, so September will undoubtedly tell us more about young Rob Zastryzny as well as Felix Pena, Mike Montgomery and others.
Health: There won’t be a ton of meaningful games for the Cubs in September, but they’ll want to maintain their overall lead for home-field advantage throughout the NL postseason. Besides that, it’s all about health as injuries are about the only thing that could slow the Cubs' momentum heading into October and their chance to end the longest championship drought in pro sports history.