The Chicago Cubs are Benefiting from an Underwhelming National League

The 2018 Chicago Cubs are not an unbeatable, or flawless team. But at 71-53, they own the best record in the National League and are benefiting from the underwhelming NL, as a whole.

The Cubs have been hard to decipher. They’re in first place in the National League Central, but aren’t running away with the division. With the St. Louis Cardinals 2.5 games back and the Milwaukee Brewers three games back of the division lead, the Cubs will have to earn their third consecutive division crown, and they have been fighting to do it without their star player, Kris Bryant, as of late.

Yet, even in Bryant’s absence, the Cubs went into Tuesday night ninth in runs (588), third in hits (1,118), second in team batting average (.262), first in on-base percentage (.340), and fourth in OPS (.757). Led by Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and Albert Almora, among others, the Cubs are posing one of the biggest threats at the plate in the game. They’re getting runners on base as well as any other team and have the composure necessary to come back late in games. Their maturity is one of the biggest reasons why they’re viewed as an NL powerhouse.

When it comes to their arms, the Cubs possess a reliable starting rotation. With savvy veterans such as Jon Lester, Kyle HendricksJose Quintana, and the recently acquired Cole Hamels, manager Joe Maddon has a number of arms who he can turn to in a five, or seven-game series. He and the Cubs also have a reliable bullpen. Going into Tuesday night, the Cubs were fourth in bullpen ERA (3.22) and ninth in overall ERA (3.77).

The Chicago @Cubs are the best team in the National League, but they're benefiting from an abysmal NL competition level.Click To Tweet

At the same time, while the Cubs have four starters who have proven they can be relied on in the past, this season has not been some of their finest work, as a group. Lester currently owns the lowest ERA on their starting staff at 3.72, and Hendricks owns the lowest WHIP at 1.24. Of course, the permanent loss of righty Yu Darvish, who it was announced Tuesday afternoon would miss the rest of the season with elbow and triceps injuries, is a discouraging event, but the Cubs have been without him for the last four months. Their worst fear has grown true regarding his health, and based on his postseason struggles (Darvish owns a career 5.81 postseason ERA), Darvish wouldn’t have been a shoo-in to start in the playoffs anyway — if the Cubs reached such play.

But in his four starts with them thus far, Hamels has been a godsend. He’s surrendered just two earned runs in 25.0 innings pitched and owns a WHIP of 0.88. He’s been the Hamels of old and is beginning to look like he could be this year’s version of Justin Verlander in terms of making a profound impact on a contending team down the stretch.

Look around the NL. The defending pennant winners, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have been unable to go on a big run even with the acquisitions of Manny Machado and Brian Dozier. They’re not the same team who, for the most part, had their way with the Cubs in the National League Championship Series last year, and they aren’t in the playoffs for the time being. The Arizona Diamondbacks have an all-around great pitching staff, but also have a lineup that is inconsistent and, quite frankly, one of the worst in the game. The Colorado Rockies starting pitching has been better this year, but it hasn’t shown it can be trusted in the big moment, and their bullpen is disturbingly troublesome.

The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies are each mostly composed of young players, and they’ve been playing near-.500 baseball over the last two months. The Brewers aren’t fading, but the Cubs have held their own in head-to-head matchups going 9-4 versus them. Meanwhile, the Cardinals pose a threat in the division, but are not as talented and proven as the Cubs.

Last year, the NL was five teams deep with the Dodgers, Washington Nationals, Cubs, D-Backs, and Rockies. But this year, the NL has been competitive in terms of above-average teams battling for playoff spots. Granted the Cubs have been one of the hardest teams to beat, their NL-best 71-53 record wouldn’t even be enough to clinch the second American League Wild Card which, for the moment, is in the hands of the 76-50 Oakland Athletics.

The Cubs have been reliable in every facet of their ballclub. But, at some point, whether it be this week, or in October, they will have to play at a higher level, and Tuesday afternoon, they bolstered their roster in a big way. Acquiring All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy from the Nationals, they added one of the best pure hitters in the game and someone who has hit at, or above, .300 in each of the last three years. It’s not yet known what his role will be with the Cubs, but given that he’s finally healthy and is one of the best hitters in the game, Maddon will surely find a spot for him in their lineup, despite his mediocre glove.

The Cubs have been mostly consistent. They’re predictable and have no gaping holes, or ones that will solely prevent them from going to the Fall Classic. But if they reach the World Series, the picnic will be over. All but likely, the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Houston Astros, or Cleveland Indians will be waiting for the winner of the NL Pennant, and all four teams are on and maybe even above the Cubs’ level; they will, at some point, have to play at a higher level. Adding Murphy and getting Bryant healthy will significantly help their chances.

The 2018 Cubs haven’t been the dominant Cubs of old, but, right now, they’re the best team in the NL. But a big part of that is the fact that their competition in the NL isn’t what it once was.

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