To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Cubs became the first team to clinch a spot in the postseason this season. Although they lost Thursday night to the Brewers (MIL 5, CHC 4), the Cardinals lost to the Giants (SF 6, STL 2) to give the Cubs the NL Central title outright. This is their first division title since 2008.
The Cubbies have been baseball's best all-around team pretty much since Opening Day. They reached 93 victories before any other team reached 89. That's how far ahead of the pack they are. Chicago is on pace to win 104 games, which would be the most by any team since the 2004 Cardinals won 105 games.
Last season, the team's rebuild under Theo Epstein yielded results in a big way; the Cubs went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 and a trip to the NLCS in 2015. Expectations were sky high coming into the 2016 season. Anything less than an NL Central title would have been deemed a colossal failure, even for such a young team.
The NL Central title is merely the beginning for these Cubs -- or so they hope. This team is not the Lovable Losers anymore. They're a bona fide juggernaut that is making good on all the top prospect lists we've read over the years and all the expectations coming into the season. They're not overachieving. They're only doing what's expected.
For this group of the players, the NL Central title and another trip to the postseason was never the ultimate goal. Their goal is to win the World Series. Simple as that. Last year, the Cubs snuck up on everyone to win 97 games -- even Epstein admitted the team "arrived" a year ahead of schedule -- and there was no sneaking up this season. Not at all.
No team has a brighter future than the Cubs thanks to all their young players, many of whom are already providing star-caliber production, but keep in mind the club's best chance to win with this group is right now. They might never have a better chance to win a World Series than in 2016. There's a few reasons for this.
1. There is no other dominant team in MLB
By record, the second-best team in baseball this season is the Nationals, the same Nationals who might not have their co-ace (Stephen Strasburg) for the postseason due to a recent elbow injury. The Rangers, the team with the third-best record in baseball, are without their starting right fielder (Shin-Soo Choo) and have some middle-relief issues. The Indians just lost Danny Salazar to an injury. The Dodgers have all sorts of injury problems, too.
We all know any team can beat any other team in a short postseason series. That unpredictability is what makes baseball so fun. That 105-win Cardinals team in 2004? Nearly lost to the Astros in the NLCS, then got swept in the World Series by the Red Sox. The fact there is no other dominant team in baseball bodes well for the Cubs. There is never an easy path to the World Series, but the Cubs have it a little easier than everyone because ... well, they don't have to play the Cubs.
2. Will the pitching ever be better than this?
The Cubs came into Thursday with a team 3.07 ERA, best in baseball by more than three-tenths of a run. Their rotation has a 2.89 ERA, best in baseball by nearly six-tenths of a run. The combination of great pitchers and a historically great team defense has made the Cubs the preeminent run-prevention team in the game.
Realistically, is it possible to sustain this level of run prevention going forward, or even coming close to matching it? Possibly, sure. But consider ...
- Jon Lester will be 33 in January and is likely to soon enter his decline phase.
- Jake Arrieta will be a free agent after next season and is said to be seeking huge money.
- John Lackey will be 38 in October.
- Kyle Hendricks probably isn't the type of pitcher who will lead the NL in ERA by nearly a half-a-run every year.
- The farm system is short on potential impact pitchers close to MLB.
There are reasons to believe the Cubs will never prevent runs this well again. That isn't to say they'll be bad going forward. Certainly not. But when will it be better than this? Their best chance to win is with the team collectively keeping runs off the board as well as they have in 2016.
3. They paid big for Chapman
Epstein and the Cubs front office declared themselves in it to win it when they traded four players, including top prospect Gleyber Torres, to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline. That's not a trade you make when you're content with sneaking into the postseason. That's a trade you make when you want to win the World Series.
Remember, the Cubs only traded for half a season of Chapman. He'll be a free agent this winter, and sure, they could sign him, the same way they could have signed him had they never acquired him in the first place. They paid a big price to get three months of an excellent reliever, and they paid that price for the third month. They brought in Chapman to be a difference-maker in October, not August and September.
4. Those young players will be expensive soon
I've seen estimates that suggest a World Series title would lead to billions in revenue for the Cubs. Billions. With a B. So perhaps it won't matter much when young players like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell hit their arbitration years and get expensive, or when it comes time to re-sign or replace Arrieta. One championship and those folks have more than paid for themselves.
Now, that said, the fact players like Bryant and Russell are so cheap now gives the team more payroll flexibility to make moves. It allows them absorb Chapman's salary, or pay big annual salaries to get Lackey to take a short-term contract. Simply put, the more expensive their young players get in the coming years, the less money they Cubs will have the spend elsewhere on the roster. Payroll is not infinite.
Make no mistake, an NL Central title and a seemingly inevitable 100-something wins are a tremendous accomplish for any team, even one as heavily favored as the Cubs. And yet, despite their history, the pressure is on the Cubs to win right now. Their best chance to win their first World Series since 1908 is with this group in 2016. It'll only get more difficult in the years ahead.