Here we are. Fans of the other 28 teams might disagree, but in one way, this matchup between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians is the ultimate World Series. It features the two franchises with the longest World Series title droughts, a combined 176 years without a championship.
The Cubs have the most unique catching arrangement we've seen for a World Series team in a long time. The last team to start three different catchers in a World Series was the 1998 Padres, who started Carlos Hernandez, Greg Myers and Jim Leyritz in a four-game loss to the Yankees. Ross catches when Jon Lester starts, and Montero has caught both of Jake Arrieta's starts so far. Here are Joe Maddon's batteries so far:
NLDS Game 1: Lester and Ross
NLDS Game 2: Kyle Hendricks and Contreras
NLDS Game 3: Arrieta and Montero
NLDS Game 4: John Lackey and Ross
NLCS Game 1: Lester and Ross
NLCS Game 2: Hendricks and Contreras
NLCS Game 3: Arrieta and Montero
NLCS Game 4: Lackey and Contreras
NLCS Game 5: Lester and Ross
NLCS Game 6: Hendricks and Contreras
Anyway, big advantage edge on paper here to the Cubs. Their catchers hit 30 home runs and ranked fifth in the majors in OPS. Perez is a good defender and pitch framer, but he hit .183/.285/.294.
If you just look at home runs and RBIs, this might seem like a close call (32 and 109 for Rizzo, 34 and 101 for Napoli), but Rizzo gets on base more, strikes out less and is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman. Carlos Santana might get a game for the Indians when the series moves to Wrigley Field.
Baez has been the breakout performer of the season, with several spectacular defensive plays and some key hits in clutch moments. Baez's defense and postseason hitting make this a close call, but Kipnis has rapped out 68 extra-base hits, draws some walks (unlike Baez) and has turned himself into a solid defender. With a 108/15 SO/BB ratio, Baez has holes in his swing that can be exploited.
Ramirez had a nice breakout season, hitting .312 with 46 doubles and 11 home runs, but Bryant is the likely NL MVP. Keep in mind that Bryant's numbers weren't quite as impressive against right-handed pitching (.896 OPS versus 1.060 against lefties), and the Indians will throw almost all right-handers at him. It will be interesting to see what happens in the Bryant-versus-Andrew Miller showdown we'll likely get at some point.
This is a fun one, with 22-year-olds who both play Gold Glove-caliber defense. Russell has a little more raw power, but Lindor has gone deep twice in the playoffs and puts the ball in play at a higher clip.
Zobrist, normally a second baseman, started just 11 games in left field during the regular season (and 18 in right field), but Baez's performance has pushed him to left in the postseason. He's the quintessential tough out, with more walks than strikeouts. He hit .261/.380/.442 against righties. Crisp, the 36-year-old vet acquired in August from the Athletics to replace the suspended Abraham Almonte, can still turn on a mistake and swipe a base. The Cubs can take advantage of his weak arm, however. Guyer will likely start against Lester.
This is another platoon position for the Indians, with Naquin playing versus the right-handers and Davis against Lester. Naquin had a big season, hitting .296/.372/.514 in 116 games, despite a 31 percent strikeout rate. His numbers were built on a fluky BABIP, and he struck out nine times with no walks in 16 PAs so far in the playoffs. His defensive metrics in center field were also terrible (minus-17 defensive runs saved). I wonder if Davis, who led the AL with 43 steals, ends up playing more here, even against right-handers.
Heyward has looked completely lost at the plate, to the point that Maddon even benched him in Game 6 of the NLCS (granted, with Clayton Kershaw starting). Chisenhall mostly platooned during the season, but he homered off David Price in the division series after not homering all season against a lefty. He is going to see a lot of left-on-left matchups out of the Chicago bullpen.
Edge: Indians, due to Heyward looking awful at the plate.
Designated hitter: Jorge Soler versus Carlos Santana
The Cubs could start anyone here: one of the catchers, maybe Chris Coghlan, possibly even Kyle Schwarber, who was removed from the 60-day disabled list and put back on the 40-man roster. Schwarber will play a couple of games in the Arizona Fall League this weekend. Considering Maddon likes his roster flexibility, it seems unlikely Schwarber would be added to the World Series roster with so little live-game playing time since early April.
Both teams will have the ability to start their aces in Game 1 -- Lester on four days of rest for the Cubs, and Corey Kluber on six days of rest for the Indians. It appears the Indians will add Danny Salazar, who has been out since Sept. 9 because of a forearm strain, to the roster, although in what role remains to be seen. That could depend on the availability of Trevor Bauer or manager Terry Francona's willingness to start Ryan Merritt again after his strong effort against the Blue Jays in the ALCS.
Even if Salazar is available, this seems like a clear edge to the Cubs, given all the uncertainly in the Cleveland rotation. Kluber has been superb in his first postseason, but Lester has been one of the great postseason pitchers of this generation (2.50 ERA in 119 innings). You do wonder if Francona will be tempted to start Kluber in Games 1, 4 and 7. Josh Tomlin has been on a roll -- a 1.98 ERA and one home run allowed in 36⅓ innings over his past six starts. Arrieta had a 3.69 ERA in the second half and two so-so playoff outings (six innings, two runs; five innings, four runs) so Tomlin-Arrieta, the probable Game 2 matchup, might be closer than it appears. Of course, Francona will continue with his playoff strategy of extracting the bare minimum from starters other than Kluber.
Certainly, the number of innings Francona will be able to get from Miller and Cody Allen will be key to Cleveland's title chances. One thing to keep in mind: While the Blue Jays had an almost all-right-handed lineup, the Cubs will be harder to match up against. Bryan Shaw allowed an OPS of more than 100 points higher against lefties, and Allen was .176 points higher against lefties.
For the Cubs, Aroldis Chapman has been shaky at times in the postseason, struggling with inherited runners and allowing two runs in a non-save situation in Game 5 of the NLCS. Bringing him in in the eighth, which he doesn't seem to like, has to be considered a minor concern. If the Cubs' starters go deep, Maddon will have the flexibility to go lefty-on-lefty for Kipnis and Chisenhall. Still, if Miller pitches like he did in the first two rounds, you have to like Cleveland here -- assuming he can get the ball with a lead.
Everything Francona has done has turned golden. Maddon has actually had a few moves backfire -- like his uncertainty on using Chapman in the eighth -- and seemed to overmanage his bullpen in a couple of games when he didn't have to. Maddon didn't panic when Russell went 1-for-25 to start the postseason, but I'm curious to see how the two skippers employ the struggling Naquin and Heyward. Anyway, it's two of the best in the game; the chess matches -- especially in the games at Wrigley -- will be fascinating. At a minimum, we'll get some good quotes and maybe a middle finger or two.
Baserunning could play a big factor in the series. Everyone knows about Lester's inability to throw to first, but base stealers were 23-for-26 against Arrieta as opposed to 28-for-41 against Lester. Lackey and Hendricks aren't as bad, but they can be run on as well. The Indians led the AL in steals, another reason you might see more Davis in the series. The Indians were also second in the majors in taking the extra base -- such as going from first to third on a single -- doing so 45 percent of the time. But the Cubs were also strong in that area at 43 percent. None of the Indians' outfielders is known for a strong arm; Heyward was known for his strength in the past, but he made one particularly poor throw against the Dodgers and rated below average on the season.
As for other intangibles -- well, everyone knows what's at stake. I don't think any team has an edge in want or desire or any of that other stuff.