He said, “Both teams are elite, but the Astros are simply deeper. And Houston plays in the right division.”
“It’s a lot of fun playing against guys like this,” Albert Almora Jr said before the series.
He meant an Astros team full of stars but no less than three of their bigger names have yet to take a swing in the first two games. George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are banged up, so instead, first-time big leaguers Jack Mayfield and Garrett Stubbs have led the way. And the Cubs have played without Kris Bryant the past two days — they’re now 0-4 without him in the lineup this season — but the Astros’ depth has won out.
Of course, two days in a long season usually doesn’t tell us anything, but considering it’s the only time the 2016 and 2017 champions will square off, let’s examine where they are, starting with that “right division” in which the Astros reside.
The Oakland Athletics just won 10 games in a row, yet they barely dented the lead the Astros have already built in the AL West. Oakland can be a formidable opponent for Houston but everyone else in the division is fish food for the Astros. It gives them leeway to get players healthy while developing from a good farm system.
Meanwhile, the Cubs play in the rough-and-tough NL Central where only five games separate the top from the bottom. Just missing Bryant for a few days feels like a big blow to Chicago because that’s all it takes to drop in the standings — a few bad days. And the Cubs aren’t producing help from their minor league system the way they were just a few years ago. With the standings so tight, it’s not the right season to lack depth.
Houston is tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the major league lead in quality starts with 31, and has the lowest bullpen ERA — 2.91, the only one under 3.00. That combination makes them lethal on any given night and will obviously play well in October. Even the Cubs’ manager can’t deny what the Astros can do and have done on the mound.
“They probably have pitched to a little bit higher level, overall,” Joe Maddon said.
The Cubs can pitch a little too, but they can’t match the Astros out of the pen. Houston’s 80 percent save percentage is in line with the best in the league, and Chicago ranks 28th at 47 percent. That’s the Astros’ advantage as both starting staffs are capable of going on winning runs. The Cubs did it for about a month before some regression. The difference is in the bullpen where middle relievers have become key cogs.
At the plate
In a mini poll of several scouts comparing the middle of each order, they chose Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez over Altuve, Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley. But Springer put the Astros over the top when you deepen the comparison to the Nos. 1-4 spots in the order. Kyle Schwarber just doesn’t cut it compared to Springer, who has a .389 on-base percentage. Then again, Schwarber is filling in while Ben Zobrist is on leave from the team for personal reasons. Either way, Springer is about as good as there is.
But the Cubs’ lineup from top to bottom, considering it resides in the NL, earned high marks. One scout noted the lift the Cubs are starting to get from Addison Russell, who has homered in the first two games of this series.
Who can get better?
Obviously, the Astros will be better when their walking wounded return, but the Cubs have more room for improvement. First off, a couple of June or July additions in the bullpen seem paramount considering how many leads the Cubs have already blown. And Chicago is more likely to deal than Houston simply because its needs are more widespread.
But the Astros have proven to be smart buyers in July, as well, so they’ll probably strengthen what is already strong for them. Maddon says he knows an October rematch won’t necessarily look like a series in May.
“There’s so much time between now and then for us to get better, for them to get worse, or vice versa,” he said.
Maddon called the two teams “real close” and “real similar.” Many do not believe that after watching the first two games of the series, but Memorial Day is no time to pass judgment. If it were, the Astros would win any contest right now — as they have the first two games of the series.