It's the final 2016 edition of The Rotation! Here's a look at five hot topics as we head into the postseason.
1. World Series? Or bust?
The fact of the matter is that the 2016 Cubs have no true comparable. Because while a few teams have run roughshod over the rest of the league en route to October, the way the Cubs have this year, none of them did so while also hounded (whether these Cubs acknowledge it or not) by the ghosts of a 108-year championship drought.
Unfortunately, there's really no analyzing ghosts -- or goats -- so let's just stick to what we know: The Cubs have a major historical hurdle placed in front of them as they prepare to embark upon their October adventure, and it doesn't even involve their own tortured organizational history.
In the Wild Card era, these are the only teams who finished with a winning percentage as high as the Cubs' .640 mark:
2001 Mariners (.716)
1998 Yankees (.704)
1995 Indians (.694)
1998 Braves (.654)
2004 Cardinals (.648)
2002 Yankees (.640)
In that group, only the '98 Yankees won the World Series, and only two other clubs -- the '95 Indians and '04 Cardinals -- even reached the World Series. The '01 Mariners tied a record with 116 wins, only to flop in the ALCS round against the Yankees.
Furthermore, only four times in the past 21 seasons has a team with the most wins (either outright or in a tie) in the regular season gone on to win it all.
It's the point we feel compelled to make every year at this time: October baseball is just different. Different schedule, different managerial style, different weather, different start times, etc. And it is in this decidedly different environment that Joe Maddon's club will face unique pressure to perform. There is little doubt that the national TV schedule will be geared toward putting the Cubs in prime time.
Win or lose, they will be a source of fixation.
"It's heavy," said Sandy Alomar Jr., catcher for that '95 Tribe club that was probably the Cubs' closest comparable in terms of in-season dominance and a so-called "curse" to overcome. "You carry that on your shoulder, or at least we did here. We cared about what it meant to the organization and the city and yourself. The Cubs have a lot of veteran players that have done it before, and I'm sure they're prepared mentally and physically. But you can't take anything for granted in the postseason."
Of course, for the Cubs, public pressure in 2016 is nothing new.
"All the stuff we talked about in camp [regarding] embracing the target and utilizing the words 'pressure' and 'expectations' in a positive way, I think we've done all those things," Maddon told reporters. "Going into camp, with all those words attached to you, it can lead to a bad result during the season, but our guys have handled it well."
You've got to feel sick about what happened to Wilson Ramos.
This guy was once kidnapped in his native Venezuela. He has broken his hamate bone. He has had seasons shortened by injured knees and hamstrings. But finally, here in 2016, in his free-agent walk year, he put it all together, with an .850 OPS and an All-Star nod for a division winner, only to see it end with a torn ACL in the last days of September.
Now we'll see if the Nats' good vibes are similarly undone. When your starting catcher doubles as one of your key middle of the order bats, there is no greater loss to suffer on the precipice of the playoffs. Not even the Stephen Strasburg injury compares.
For the Division Series against the Dodgers, it's no Ramos, no Strasburg, a potentially compromised Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper and a rotation that leans right (the Nats' only starting option for exploiting the Dodgers' susceptibility to left-handed pitching is Gio Gonzalez, who had an adjusted ERA south of league average this year). You couldn't possibly label the Nats the favorites here, even though their NLDS will begin in Washington. And obviously, this is an organization with a heightened need to advance, given the instant exoduses in 2012 and '14, not to mention the frustrating regular seasons of '13 and '15. It's a huge test for Dusty Baker.
3. Looking for the "K" in Kimbrel
This is a bad time to be scrambling behind the dish, and it's a bad time to have a closing controversy, too. The Red Sox have one, and they certainly can't afford to let a shaky ninth inning situation undo all the good mojo of David Ortiz's final lap.
Manager John Farrell says he's sticking with Craig Kimbrel, for now, but it's fair to wonder how short that leash might be. Koji Uehara's return from the DL earlier this month proved to be the big boost the back end of the Boston bullpen sorely needed, and now Uehara, who hasn't allowed a run since his return, stands as an attractive alternative to the increasingly uncomfortable Kimbrel experience.
Kimbrel's control has really been a season-long issue, as his walk rate has jumped from 9.2 percent in San Diego last year to 13.6 percent. But the control problems have been particularly pronounced of late. From Opening Day through Sept. 24, Kimbrel threw 62 percent of his pitches for strikes. In three outings against the Yankees and Blue Jays last week, it was just 49 percent.
Boston pitching coach Carl Willis said it's an issue with Kimbrel's posture that is easily correctable in advance of the Division Series with the Indians, which begins Thursday. The Red Sox better hope so. They have what portends to be a great matchup with the Tribe, given the pitching injury issues that have pushed former No. 4 starter Trevor Bauer all the way up to the Game 1 assignment. But the Indians, who dramatically reshaped their 'pen with the in-season acquisition of Andrew Miller, have a distinct edge in the late innings if Kimbrel doesn't know where he's throwing the ball.
And we know how much the bullpens, which accounted for 39.5 percent of all postseason innings last year, matter in October.
4. Simply Amazin'
Once again, Yoenis Cespedes saved the Mets' season late. Only this time, he did it by coming off the disabled list (on Aug. 19) as opposed to arriving off the transaction wire (on July 31, 2015).
Hey, whatever works. The Mets have been a different ballclub since Cespedes returned from that quad injury, which frankly should have been rested far earlier than it was. Aug. 19 doubled as the day Asdrubal Cabrera came back, and the Mets averaged north of five runs per game from that point to waltz away with the NL's top Wild Card spot.
You can almost hear The Grinch narrating the Mets' playoff bid. "It came without [Neil] Walker! It came without [David] Wright! It came without three-fifths of the rotation [Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey] in sight!"
This postseason field is littered with great stories of adversity overcome. The Rangers lost Prince Fielder to sudden retirement due to neck issues, endured a rash of rotation injuries in June and sent Shin-Soo Choo to the DL a handful of times but ran away with the AL West anyway. The Indians are here despite getting just 11 ineffective games out of Michael Brantley, which you would think would be a killer on a club with a small payroll. The Dodgers didn't have Clayton Kershaw for 75 days and used 15 starting pitchers.
But the Mets' inclusion is the real stunner, and in nailing down the top NL Wild Card spot as they did Saturday, they assured themselves of having a rested and ready Noah Syndergaard available for the one and done against the Giants on Wednesday night. They've also got an offense that has repeated the '15 trend by morphing from feeble to ample when it matters most.
The question is: Will it remain ample against October legend Madison Bumgarner?
Before the season began, I picked the Cards to win the NL Central over the Cubs, if only to zig where others zagged. That didn't work out. I had the Royals and Blue Jays repeating in their respective divisions. Oops. I had the Astros, Mariners and Marlins as Wild Card clubs. Non, nein, nyet.
I'm so bad at this that I think getting three out of six divisions right and still having my two World Series clubs -- the Rangers and Nats -- alive actually qualifies as a good year on the prediction front.
In other words, don't put any stock (or money) on what follows. But here we go …
Wild Card Games: Both home teams (Toronto and New York) win. This is actually a bold prediction, because the home team has won just two of eight Wild Card Games, to date.
Division Series: Cubs over Mets (their magic runs dry), Dodgers over Nats (for reasons stated above), Indians over Red Sox (also for reasons stated above, with Terry Francona's bullpen usage a difference-maker), Rangers over Blue Jays (and hopefully nobody gets punched).
League Championship Series: Dodgers over Cubs (just so I can be the only person in the world not picking the Cubs in the Series … though this rationale didn't work for me in the NL Central this year), Rangers over Indians (my preseason AL champion pick, and I'm sticking to it).
World Series: Dodgers over Rangers (OK, so it's not 1908, but first title since 1988 is still a decent wait!).
Thanks, as always, for reading this season. Enjoy October … and possibly a few days in November.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.