Alright, before I go on I must provide a disclaimer. I'm a die-hard Chicago White Sox fan who dislikes the Chicago Cubs. That being said, I know many of you will dismiss my opinion as simply being biased. However, with everyone seemingly handing the Cubs the NL Central Title, the Pennant, and practically the World Series (current Vegas odds are 1:1), I feel it's necessary to play devil's advocate and provide some insight from someone not sipping the Cubbie-juice.
Beware Chicago, your Cubs may not be as invincible as you thought.
Yes, the Cubs are favorites in the National League. Yes, they are still leading the Central Division over two teams who, on paper, they are clearly superior to. And yes, they just acquired a stud when healthy in Rich Harden.
However, before putting your World Series' shirts on order, beware of some glaring problems with your team. Problems that, if stay problems, could result in a stunning collapse or at very least another playoff defeat.
Offense—The Cubs' offense has been phenomenal all season. Lou Piniella has done a great job at playing the hot hand at the right time and not staying committed to guys who are struggling. Whether it be Reed Johnson, Jim Edmonds, Mark DeRosa, or Mike Fontenot, Piniella will shuffle guys in and out of the lineup at will depending on who's hitting at that time.
But lately the Cubs have shown signs of weakness. Kosuke Fukadome, a normally patient hitter since joining the Cubs has been pressing at the plate as of late and has seen his OBP drop to .374. Likewise, both Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez have been streaky hitters who are prone to stretches of hitting .400 for a few weeks and then going 2-30 over the next few weeks.
Even with Alfonso Soriano coming back within the next week, the offense shouldn't expect much of a boost. With Soriano, DeRosa, Lee, and Ramirez, the team has four regular hitters in their lineup who strike out 100 or more times in a season.
When the playoffs come around and they have to face strikeout pitchers such as Ben Sheets, C.C. Sabathia, Dan Haren, Brandon Webb, Cole Hamels, or Johan Santana, that won't fare will for the Cubs.
The one thing the Cubs' offense does have that could carry the team through the prolonged slumps is clutch hitting. The team has been able to win consistently throughout the season and the primary reason for that is their ability to come through in the clutch. If they continue to do so and win close games, they will still be on the right track to the World Series.
Bullpen—The Cubs' bullpen is probably the team's most glaring problem. Early in the season it was seen as a positive—something that would carry the team late in the year. But the wear and tear the bullpen has endured by pitching such extensive innings thus far could prove damaging, and signs of such have already begun to surface.
Carlos Marmol isn't a shadow of the dominance he was in the first half of the season. Many times of late he has struggled with control and when he does hit the strike zone, he's been getting pounded. At the same time, the middle relief guys such as Bob Howry, Michael Wurtz, and the currently injured Scott Eyre have shown signs of weakness.
Additionally, the oft-injured yet seemingly rejuvenated Kerry Wood has gone down with an injury yet again. And while the injury is supposedly just a blister and he may return shortly, with Wood you can never be so sure.
Opponents—As previously stated, the Cubs clearly have a boatload more talent than the Brewers or the Cardinals on paper. However, the Brewers have an offense that can match the Cubs swing for swing. They shouldn't be expected to falter down the stretch as they did a year ago for the simple reason that they have a year of experience in a playoff race under their belts.
The Cardinals are the team that everyone has expected to fold from the beginning of the season. But somehow, some way, they just keep winning. Pundits still expect the team to fold despite the fact that they lead the Majors in one-run victories and have one of the most experienced managers in the league in Tony LaRussa.
LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan have been getting the job done with mediocre talent for years dating back to their years with the Oakland Athletics. They are great at taking minimal talent and turning them into contenders and are doing just that with this year's Cardinals team.
Cubs' fans can continue to think that the team will run away and hide from the Brewers and Cardinals, but don't expect that to be so. Even if the Cubs come out in front, and that's the most likely scenario, this race is likely to come down to the final weeks of the season.