Champion Cubs Are Lurking as Dangerous $200M Postseason Underdogs

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2017

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo (44) and Kris Bryant (17) celebrate after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in a baseball game to clinch the National League Central title Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

On Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs clinched a second consecutive National League Central crown. A year ago, they rained confetti on the North Side.

The defending champions are headed back to October. Screw the curse and the billy goat it rode in on.

At the same time, there are caveats. The Cubs will enter the postseason with the third-best record in the Senior Circuit, behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals.

They sport the fourth-best run differential (plus-119) in the NL, behind L.A. (plus-193), Washington (plus-148) and the wild-card Arizona Diamondbacks (plus-143).

OddsShark shows bookmakers put them behind the Dodgers, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros and Nationals to win it all.

They aren't the favorites by any measure, despite a roster laden with emerging talent and a payroll that rounds up to $200 million, per Spotrac.

If anything, these Cubbies are underdogs.

It's a familiar position. The franchise defined lovable losing for more than a century. Now, to hear skipper Joe Maddon tell it, they are re-embracing the role.

"No issues with that," Maddon said of the Cubs' underdog status, per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. "It's very understandable. So it's kind of fun to go on the other side of the street. I'm good with that."

Ralph Freso/Associated Press

There's some false modesty at play. After wobbling in the first half, the Cubs have led the majors in runs scored and OPS since the All-Star break.

Third baseman Kris Bryant (29 home runs, .949 OPS) is putting together a quiet defense of his 2016 NL MVP Award. First baseman Anthony Rizzo has clubbed 32 homers with 109 RBI, while whippersnappers such as catcher Willson Contreras (21 home runs, .852 OPS) and infielder/outfielder Ian Happ (23 home runs, .839 OPS) have leaped forward in a big way.

Chicago's bats are young and dangerous—just as they were last year.

On the pitching side, right-hander Jake Arrieta owns a 6.10 ERA in three September starts and lefty Jon Lester has a 4.79 ERA since the All-Star break.

Then again, Kyle Hendrickswho finished third in Cy Young Award balloting in 2016has been rounding into form after returning from a nagging hand injury.

"He's throwing the ball as well as I've ever seen him pitch," Maddon said, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. "I have not seen this combination of velocity and location."

Add trade-deadline pickup Jose Quintana, who has won five of his last six decisions, and the Cubs have enough in the rotation to make it work.

As for Chicago's bullpen, it ranks fifth in the NL in ERA and can lean on closer Wade Davis, who coughed up a pair of home runs Sept. 23 against the Milwaukee Brewers but is 32 for 33 in save opportunities with a 2.34 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 57.2 innings.

MILWAUKEE, WI - JULY 30:  Wade Davis #71 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during the ninth inning of a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on July 30, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Cubs will get a test in the division series against the Nats, who lead the NL in OPS and have a rotation fronted by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. 

If they survive that test, they will probably clash with the Dodgers, who have hiccuped down the stretch but boast a stacked roster and the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw. 

For what it's worth, the Cubs are 2-4 against Los Angeles this season and 3-4 against Washington.

That's just the National League. If Chicago qualifies for the Fall Classic, the loaded Astros or streaking Tribe (rematch!) could be waiting. 

Since 1979, only two teams have repeated as champions: the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993 and the New York Yankees, who threepeated from 1998 to 2000.

It's tough to do, in other words—no matter how good you are. The repeat road is dark and full of failure.

The Cubs, though, have the tools to do it. Shortcomings aside, they are a year older and wiser. They are cresting at the right time. Maddon says it's fun.

Mostly, they are dangerous underdogs—caveats be damned.

         

All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of Baseball Reference

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