We are easing into the portion of the baseball season when attention gravitates to the margins. Contenders spent the days and hours before Monday's trade deadline addressing shortcomings, adding bullpen arms and number-three starters and six-hole hitters and Josh Reddick's avant-garde grooming. General managers were tasked with making their rosters complete, in the sense we've come to accept as a prerequisite for October success. What exactly that completeness entails changes with each new World Series champion, but in broad strokes it looks like this: sure defense, ready bench bats, and a lights-out bullpen to supplement the presumably sturdy offense and pitching staff.
The Chicago Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman to take care of the ninth inning, but in the other areas they were already pretty well set. The Cubs haven't been baseball's best team all season long, but they have been its deepest and most flexible. They have a prodigy at shortstop and a safety net in the outfield. Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez split time at second, the former a hitter who conducts at-bats like treaty negotiations and the latter one who threatens Wrigley's fancy new scoreboard every time he steps to the plate. Two of their catchers are David Ross, certified Crusty/Trusty Old Guy, and Willson Contreras, a supremely promising 24-year old with a half-dozen potential MLB futures still in front of him.
Point is, the Cubs are well-stocked. And in this stretch of the year, when the wellness of every team's stock takes over the baseball news cycle, it can be tempting to confuse edges for center, or dressing for foundation. Chicago does have a lot of uniquely brilliant and variously gifted players, all manner of speedsters and crack defenders and opposite-field technicians and doubles machines and any combination thereof; at the deadline, they added one of the last extreme-sidearm relievers in the game just to round it all out. They have enough going on that it's easy to forget they also have Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who hit baseballs hard enough that, on good days, all that other stuff is redundant.
Most days are good days, at least for these two. Bryant and Rizzo have the rare sets of statistics that don't just compile but evoke: a .289/.396/.578 line with 24 homers for one, .282/.379/.542 with 26 for the other. It doesn't really matter whose is whose. Though the right-handed Bryant bats second and the left-handed Rizzo third, they can give off the impression of being at the plate simultaneously, lounging like a pair of high-school bullies on either side of the hall, waiting to converge on whichever straggler gets picked out. The part of the whimpering kid, here, is played by a pitch a fraction slow or misaimed or insufficiently vigorous in its break. Any variety of weakness gets it pounded into or over the Wrigley ivy. Bryant and Rizzo are classic, comprehensive sluggers.
But they are not the same. Just a year removed from his rookie season, Bryant has the more studious vibe. Batting, he stands in an unnaturally deep crouch, elbows tucked in and bat dropped low over his shoulder. You sense that if you asked him, he could tell you exactly how many millimeters his feet were apart. His swing, big and flat, seems to result from some athletic equivalent of a sound engineer's booth, all adjusted dials, balances of power and control and timing. A fly ball can sometimes look a little too high and short off his bat, but while outfielders mill hopefully he starts his home run trot. He's already charted it; he knows it's gone.
Rizzo, though stouter and thicker, is the gummier of the two. He crowds both the plate and himself, pinched inward, shoulders hunched and hands bobbing around in front of his sternum. Choking up on the bat, he looks like he's doing an impression of a smaller player, but the impression goes away when he starts moving. His swing isn't a slap but a blindingly fast uppercut. It can reach the far corner easily or swerve back in to cover the inside. It has an element of the slingshot to it: there's built-in leverage and timing, and then a baseball that's a long way gone, in a hurry.
The effects of this combo can be gleaned from whichever measure or on whatever scale you like. No pitching staff has kept both players out of the hit column since June 17, when Rizzo went 0-1 with a pair of walks against the Pirates while Bryant took the day off. Of the Cubs' last 15 games, 10 have featured at least one extra-base hit from the pair. They are really good really often, to the point that they seem less like contributors than constants, the givens around which the real drama orbits. They are less performers than an element in the setting. When the Cubs lose, it's not because the field caved in beneath their feet, and it's not because their big bats didn't show up.
As the season starts to shrink and the postseason arrives to give everything a randomizing jolt, the baseball discourse will center on which strengths are preferable. A lot of people will say that starting pitching wins in October, and a lot of others will point to the recent fall success of the Kansas City Royals and vouch for contact hitting, defense, and pedigreed bullpens. We'll know which of these is true when we know which team has won the World Series, at which point a new Unified Theory of High-Pressure Baseball will retroactively fall into place, and every other team will chase it.
In the meantime, teams can only cover as many bases as well as possible. Whether they end up winning the World Series or falling in the divisional round, the Cubs have done what they can. They run fast, pitch well, field, and throw. They work counts and get on base and take big cuts. Whatever will give their fans the most peace of mind in some late, chilly game a couple months from now—a right-handed bat stashed on the bench for the opportune moment, a leftfielder called in to shore up what small cracks in the outfield defense existed, Joe Smith's wonky release point out of the bullpen—the Cubs will have available.
Chicago seems like a safe bet to take home the Commissioner's Trophy because they are built to wriggle out of almost any kind of trouble they could get into. Baseball fans are doomsday strategists; the Cubs are the solid shelter, the stuffed kit. The biggest assurance, though, may come from the part of their team that will never need any adjusting. The Cubs have Bryant and Rizzo, and Bryant and Rizzo hit all the time. That will take care of most other problems before they start.
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