FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project the Cubs as a 100-percent lock to make the playoffs, with their odds to win the division set between 99.5 and 99.8 percent.
Save it, nerds, might be the appropriate response from Cubs fans preconditioned to expect the worst. And this clubhouse should still have enough of a fried-chicken-and-beer hangover from September 2011 — when a Boston Red Sox team built by Theo Epstein collapsed and Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays surged into the playoffs — to not take anything for granted.
But how the Cubs got to this point by Aug. 8 — 11.5 games up on the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central — shows why they should be able to withstand almost anything across the final 52 games before painting an even bigger target on their backs in the postseason.
“I just like how we’ve gone about our business,” Maddon said. “We’re playing good baseball again. We’ve caught the ball really well. We’re pitching well. We’re getting the timely hit — (and) the timely walk, the timely wild pitch. But we’re just playing good ball right now, up and down the lineup. The bullpen has really gotten stern again. And the starters have been fantastic.”
The Cubs are loaded with star power, but unglamorous elements like depth, flexibility and redundancy have lifted them to a season-high 28 games over .500. A rotation that was supposed to be all about the three alpha males at the top now has Kyle Hendricks essentially leading the majors in ERA (2.17) and Jason Hammel putting together his best individual season (11-5, 3.07 ERA) during his 11th year in the big leagues. A bullpen that once looked shaky now has Pedro Strop (95-mph average fastball), Carl Edwards Jr. (95.2) and Hector Rondon (96) setting up in front of game-over closer Aroldis Chapman (100.2).
The Cubs (69-41) also have baseball’s best record (69-41) with Kyle Schwarber contributing zero hits, Miguel Montero hitting .190, Jason Heyward putting up the sixth-worst OPS (.634) among all qualified major-league hitters and Dexter Fowler (more than a month) and Jorge Soler (almost two months) each missing significant time with hamstring injuries.
“We think it’s a big advantage to be able to throw a quality lineup out every night,” Epstein said, “even if you have a guy or two banged up or you want to give someone a rest. Not having to dip down and put a replacement-level utility guy out there is a pretty big advantage. Sometimes, it’s subtle, but it manifests quite a bit over the course of the season.”
While harsh economic realities forced the small-market Rays and Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s to embrace platoons, the big idea here is that the Cubs can buy hitters and still exploit matchups, roll out different lineups each night and indulge all of Maddon’s mad-scientist tendencies with Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras.
“Versatility has gone from a luxury to a requisite, really, at this point,” Epstein said, when eight-man bullpens are normal and a 162-game schedule is jammed into a 183-day window. “And then with a manager who’s probably even more mindful of building a versatile roster, we know he’ll use them that way.
“It’s sort of a low bar to cross for him to send a guy out to a position. Sometimes it’s: ‘Has this guy ever played outfield?’ We’re like: ‘Well, no, but one time I saw him walk across the outfield during batting practice.’ (Joe’s like): ‘Well, OK, good, we’ll put him out there tomorrow night.’
“He’ll get creative with how he uses guys. It increases their versatility and then guys can learn, too, in the big leagues. The more versatile, the more positions a guy can play, the better it is for us. There’s a difference between having like backup emergency versatility and then real quality depth and versatility. We’re lucky to have that.”
This seven-game winning streak started with — what else? — that 12-inning comeback victory over the Seattle Mariners where lefty reliever Travis Wood moved between the mound and left field and All-Star pitcher Jon Lester dropped the two-strike, walk-off bunt on national TV.
“That’s how Joe manages,” Lester said. “You don’t ever really catch guys completely off-guard. We’re young enough and athletic enough where it doesn’t faze guys. They just go out and be baseball players.
“Everybody respects the hell out of him, so they know that he’s not going to put them in a bad situation. He’s not going to let you go out there and make a fool of yourself.”
The Cubs begin a 10-game homestand on Tuesday night against Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels, with the looming possibility of finishing off the Cardinals this weekend during a four-game series. The Cubs might not be the sure thing run through the computer simulations, but this is where the organization is at now, never feeling overmatched on the field, in the dugout or in the front office.