Why The Cubs Are Still The National League Favorite

The Chicago Cubs are 3-for-3 under manager Joe Maddon when it comes to at least making the National League Championship Series and there’s every expectation that this year’s Cub team will make it four in a row in the NLCS—if not more. Chicago, in spite of being 3 ½ games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, is a 5-1 betting favorite to win the National League pennant. And a closer look at these Cubbies tells you the optimism is eminently justified.

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Chicago does everything well offensively. They lead the league in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage. They’re top three in walks, doubles and batting average. The only stat where the Cubs are not among the NL elite is home runs. Even there, they rank a respectable sixth and more to the point—does anyone really think balls aren’t going to be flying out of Wrigley as we settle into the warm summer months?
Even better for North Side baseball fans is that there isn’t any hitter in the lineup swinging the bat so well that you assume they simply have to cool down. I suppose Ian Happ (.360 OBP/.504 slugging) may take a step back, but Chicago has plenty of depth, with five outfielders vying for playing time (Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist).

On the flip side, it’s a virtual certainty that first baseman Anthony Rizzo is going to hit better. Rizzo’s numbers are, for him, relatively meager, at .347/.418. A power surge from Rizzo will quickly move this team up the ranks when it comes to home runs. The other side of the infield sees Kris Bryant poised for a run at his second MVP award.

Nor do the Cubbies have any real problems with pitching. Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks are rolling along as a 1-2 punch atop the rotation. The bullpen is deep, balanced and ranks third in the National League in ERA.

Given all this, why, we might ask, is Chicago not in first place? The answer is some shaky performance from a couple veteran pitchers the organization has invested heavily in.

Jose Quintana was acquired last summer from the crosstown White Sox for a big package of prospects. Quintana’s ERA is 4.78 in ten starts. Yu Darvish was signed on the free agent market in the offseason. Darvish seems to have dragged his bad World Series Game 7 performance for the Dodgers into the new season. His ERA is 4.95, he’s only made eight starts and just hit the disabled list for a triceps problem. Maddon isn’t worried about this being a long-term injury, though we need the MRI results back for that to be finalized.

The struggles of Quintana and Darvish have created some early season rumblings among the Wrigley faithful against general manager Theo Epstein. Really? If there was one front office executive you think would be immune from criticism it would be Theo. This is the guy who broke championship droughts for the Red Sox & Cubs. It’s enough to make you wonder why the Cleveland Browns don’t call him. But in the tunnel vision world of sports fandom and media, there’s a growing segment of fans that have reduced Theo’s Wrigley tenure to the early season performances of Quintana and Darvish.

Even that is shortsighted though. Quintana and Darvish are traditionally good for sub-4.00 ERAs. How about we wait until at least the All-Star break before really getting worried. In the meantime, in an NL Central race that promises some real excitement, the Cubs are still clearly the team to beat.