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The Cubs and Nationals have each announced their roster for the NL Division Series they’ll begin playing tonight, and there are a few things that deserve your attention. On the Cubs’ side, the interesting names are Leonys Martin, John Lackey, and Justin Wilson. Conspicuous in their absence are Hector Rondon and Rene Rivera.
Let’s start with Rondon. The Cubs’ trust in their former closer (and before that, perhaps the best Rule 5 pick in franchise history) has eroded over the last 15 months or so, in large part due to some arm issues that have sapped his electric stuff and damaged his ability to execute consistently. Rondon’s energy and his tenure make this a bit of a gut punch, but truthfully, you could see it coming for months. A reliever whose manager doesn’t trust him in high-leverage spots is a luxury no team can afford in October, especially the way teams are looking to navigate games this fall.
Martin getting a spot over Rivera is a little bit closer a call, but ultimately, it’s a good one. Joe Maddon has expressed sufficient confidence in Kyle Schwarber as a catcher to use him as their emergency backstop, and there are so few cases in which the Cubs are going to want to get Willson Contreras off the field that carrying a third true catcher doesn’t make much sense, anyway. With Martin on the roster, Maddon can pinch-hit for his outfielders a little more aggressively than he otherwise might; pinch-run if the situation demands it; and field the best possible Cubs defense in the final innings when there’s a lead to protect. The fact that Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist, and Kris Bryant can all flow freely between the infield and the outfield opens up a lot of options for the team, and Martin makes some of those options slightly easier to put into motion.
Lackey and Wilson are wild cards. They could both add valuable depth to a Cubs bullpen that sometimes loses contact with the strike zone, but Lackey is vulnerable to the long ball, and Wilson has had nothing but trouble consistently finding the zone since coming over from Detroit. Lackey really seems to be on the roster solely as insurance against a short start by Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta, which is ok. That keeps Mike Montgomery from being locked into that role, and allows Maddon to use Montgomery more as a situational, short-burst lefty if needed.
The Nationals are countering the Cubs’ lefty-heavy position player corps with a quartet of southpaws in the bullpen. The problem is, again, with their manager, because Sean Doolittle is the only good pitcher of those four, and Dusty Baker has him locked into the closer’s role. It’s possible we’ll see Baker come out of his traditional mode and manage nimbly this series, keeping up with the rest of the league. That’s not his track record, though, and if he does fall into his old traps—leaving starters in too long, using a rigid bullpen hierarchy—the Cubs are going to make him pay, over and over again.