Kasper: For Cubs, priorities come into focus as playoffs get closer
With the Cubs embarking on their final month of the regular season, let's keep a few things in mind as they prepare for what is hopefully a long run in October.
It could be an early clinch for this team, which has been running away with the National League Central. It would be nice to see the Cubs finish with the best record in the NL to guarantee home-field advantage up until the World Series, during which the American League will host a potential Game Seven after winning the All-Star Game.
In terms of what the Cubs should do once they cross off their regular season boxes, it starts with targeting the health of the pitching staff.
Getting John Lackey, Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop off the disabled list and in tiptop game shape is the first priority.
Secondly, lining up the rotation with some possible extra days off will be in play as manager Joe Maddon wants all his guys as fresh as possible for the postseason. As part of this process, the club will have to figure out how all five starters fit into the mix in October. Will the Cubs use one or two guys in relief at some point? That's always a possibility in the playoffs.
Thirdly, what will the bullpen bridge between starter and closer look like? With injuries to Rondon and Strop, some other guys are getting good looks and could force their way into higher-leverage spots. Depth doesn't matter as much in October if your starters are going deep and your back-end relievers are doing their thing because you do have more off-days to work with than in the regular season.
But injuries and downturns in performance can always open up chances for those depth guys.
Position-player wise, I think Maddon will continue to play his main starters for the most part and not get them too much out of their routine. There will be strategic days off, but everyday players, unlike pitchers, don't normally sit too often.
Hopefully Tommy La Stella comes back from the minors and blends right in again as the team's top left-handed bat off the bench. And the catching situation bears watching with Willson Contreras gaining more experience and playing time. Will Miguel Montero be in the mix come playoff time?
The Cubs should be able to maximize their roster and rest better than any team in the playoffs. The caveat here is that we don't really know how much that matters in the big picture. You would always rather have as much time and rest as you can get going into the playoffs, but once the new season starts, everyone is back to even and with small sample sizes masking a series, randomness abounds.
It will soon be World Series or bust for the 2016 Chicago Cubs. As it should be. This team is built to win not only in the near future, but right now. They're absolutely a championship-caliber club on paper. And as much fun as this season has been, it will get a lot more fun and intense in a few short weeks when the real test begins.
• Len Kasper is in his 12th season as the television play-by-play voice for the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter@LenKasper.