As of last night’s games, the Chicago Cubs stand in a percentage points lead for first place in the National League Central, and subsequently two games out of the Wild Card race.
Despite the two teams being stuck together in the standings, the Cardinals’ sailing has been much smoother on their way to a 59-51 record. They have been consistent all year in a division that has not seen any team take advantage of the other’s struggles. Their longest winning streak and longest losing streak on the year is five in both categories, and they have not had many negative headlines.
One question mark that arose for the Cardinals early in the year was the question of who would protect slugger Albert Pujols in the batting order. Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel have not been up to the task of doing so in trying to repeat their breakout performances of last year.
To ignite the offense and protect the best hitter in baseball, the Cardinals added a couple of veteran pieces that are sure to help mightily during the stretch run. First, Mark DeRosa was acquired for a couple of mid-level prospects, and he has done a solid job batting in the two spot.
After starting his Cardinals career 0-for-15, DeRosa is batting .242 since with seven homers, 12 runs batted in and an .891 OPS. He has batted all over the lineup, anywhere from the two spot to the seven spot, and he has shown his versatility by playing first, second, and third base in the field while still having the capability to play outfield.
For as average as DeRosa has been since coming to the Cards, Matt Holliday has picked him up and then some. Since putting on a Cardinals jersey, Holliday has batted a blistering .477 with three home runs, 11 runs batted in, and an on-base percentage of .549 in just 11 games.
Along with the new and improved offense, the Cardinals' starters have been outstanding this year, and the defense has been superb. The Cards’ starters rank tied for second with the Cubs in the National League in ERA at 3.67, and they have walked just 192 batters, which is good for third in the majors.
Ryan Franklin has been about as shut-down of a closer as there is possible, and the bullpen, while having an average season statistically, has thrown the second-least amount of innings this year, which is always important for a stretch run in September.
But enough about that. It’s time to focus on the North Siders.
That team with the “C” on the helmet that has been tricking you and deceiving you for the past 106 games.
Oh, don’t worry Cubbie fans. You will probably make it to the postseason this year for reasons that we will go over in just a second.
But once you are there, it’ll be the third year in a row that you don’t even sniff the "W" column during the second season.
In case you haven’t heard, the National League Central is one of the the worst divisions in all of baseball. As a division, it has a .485 winning percentage and is the only division in baseball to have four teams at .500 or below.
Yes, for the Chicago Cubs, it’s almost too much fun to be in the National League Central and get to feast on some of the worst teams in the league this year. And feast they have, as we get to the first reason why the Cubs’ record and production is tainted.
They have played 55 games against the National League Central this year and will wind up playing a total of 80 against the worst division in the NL. In those 55 games, they have gone a solid 32-23, and the 32 wins are the most by any team against their own division in all of baseball.
Sounds pretty good, right?
But realize that the Cubs are 11-12 against the other top two teams in the division, Milwaukee and St. Louis, as opposed to the 21-11 record they sport against the cellar dwellers of the Central in Houston, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.
Even better, they still have nine games left against Pittsburgh and a combined six against the other two teams at the bottom. Tell me those numbers won’t end up looking good on a playoff resume. I hope the Cubs can pull the Pirates or Reds in the NLDS.
Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies are slaving away as they battle in the deepest division not named the AL East. With three teams as legitimate contenders to make the playoffs, including the best team in all of baseball in the Los Angeles Dodgers, times are not easy over there.
Thus far, the Rockies and Giants have had the 16th- and 17th-toughest schedules in the majors, while the Cubs have relaxed with the 7th-easiest in all of baseball.
If you think that kind of stuff always evens out at the end of the year, think again.
To end the year, the Cubs will play 38 games against teams with losing records and just 19 games against teams with winning records.
To put that in comparison, the Giants will play 28 games against teams with losing records and 26 games against .500 or better teams.
The Rockies have it even worse, playing 27 games against teams with losing records and 30 against teams with winning records.
Simply put, there is a very good chance that the Cubs get into the playoffs while the Giants and Rockies beat each other up. San Francisco and Colorado will play each other 10 times before the end of the year in what will either decide the Wild Card race or let a Central team in.
Let’s say, for a moment, that the Chicago Cubs make the playoffs as the National Leauge Wild Card representative. Let’s say that the easy schedule was just easy enough and that the Giants and Rockies could never pull away from each other. In all honesty, there’s a good chance it happens.
San Francisco will get the Dodgers nine times before season’s end, and the Rockies get to face them six times.
Now the real question: Would the Cubs stand any kind of chance in the playoffs against, more than likely, the Los Angeles Dodgers?
The simple answer to this question is no, but because it’d be a lame ending to this article, I’ll explain why.
This season, the Cubs have played 18 different ballclubs. They have played every team in the National League other than the Mets (14) and have played four American League teams as well.
The Cubs have played 27 games against the top six teams on their schedule and have won just 10 of those games. The middle six of their schedule has seen the Cubs go 24-21. And right on cue, the Cubs are 22-13 against the worst six teams on their schedule this season.
Against teams with winning records this season, the Cubs are a dismal 19-29, which is good for a .395 winning percentage. Compare that record against other clubs' results against .500 or better teams such as the Cardinals (.545 win percentage), the Giants (.528), the Rockies (.490), and the Dodgers (.566), and you see a huge disparity.
The numbers don’t lie, and what they show is that the Cubs do not fare well against good teams but do very well against the lower-tier teams. Because they are in one of the worst divisions in baseball, that trait is magnified, and it makes the Cubs look better than they really are.
The Giants are 16-11 against teams in the Central, and the Rockies are 17-8 against those same ballclubs.
In reverse effect, the Cubs are just 8-9 against the National League West this year. This clearly shows how much easier it is to play in the National League Central and indicates that the Giants and Rockies have outperformed the Cubs this year by more than the two games the standings imply.
Other indicators that spell doom for the Cubs if they make it to the playoffs are the bullpen woes. The Cubs have the fourth-most blown saves in the National League with 16, and their bullpen has walked more batters than any other team in the NL. Walks might fly against the Astros and Diamondbacks, but when it comes time to play against the big boys, you’d better not give up any free passes.
When thinking about teams in the National League getting ready to make their stretch runs, the word "aggressive" came to mind this year. The Phillies went out and got Cliff Lee, the reigning Cy Young award winner and new ace for the next two years.
The Giants obtained Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko to add some good solid bats to help support the best pitching staff in the league.
The Dodgers helped their shaky bullpen out by getting one of the best, if not the best, lefty specialists in the game in George Sherill.
The Cardinals traded their top prospect and other first-round draft picks in order to get their hands on a guy that could drive in Albert Pujols instead of stranding him on second.
With the Cubs and their acquisitions of John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny, you didn’t get the sense that they were making that "push" to reach the pennant or beat out the Cardinals. They got what they needed in another lefty arm, but it didn’t put them over the edge.
The sale of the team hurt them, as Jim Hendry was advised not to increase payroll, but something a little more spicy would have been nice. Grabow is an average arm in the bullpen, and Gorzelanny does not give the Cubs anything that Kevin Hart was not already giving them.
With the best record in the National League, it’s all but set that the Los Angeles Dodgers are going to obtain the top seed in the National League playoffs this year. It will be an award well-deserved, and there is no doubt they will honor that title and back it up as best as can.
Standing in their way, if they get there, will probably be the Chicago Cubs.
If the Cubs win the National League Central and the Wild Card comes from the National League West, or if the Cubs win the Wild Card, they will visit Chavez Ravine to start the playoffs.
Not only do the Cubs struggle mightily on the road with a record of 24-30, but the Dodgers are a National League-best 35-19 when playing in "Mannywood."
Clayton Kershaw has a 2.06 ERA at home this year, Jonathon Broxton has allowed just one earned run all year there, and a ridiculous eight Dodgers are batting over .265 when at home.
When looking at the schedules of all contenders in the National League, the Cubs have a very good shot at contending with other squads in the Wild Card race. As easy as their schedule is, the Cardinals have an even easier schedule, as St. Louis will play the Padres seven times, the Pirates six times, and the Reds six times.
However, the Cubs’ inconsistent and struggling play against the good teams this year is what will be their downfall in the playoffs. It’s no secret that whoever comes out of the Central will have a tough time competing, but that statement applies even moreso to the Cubs.