Should the Cubs Tank the Division?
I'm not really advocating this strategy, but hear me out. The current NL standings after the jump.
and the Wild Card standings
So the Cubs have a seven and a half game lead on a playoff spot and ESPN has them at 97.4% chance of making the playoffs and 81% at winning the division. BP goes with 98.04% to make the playoffs and 79.41% to win the division. Plus they lead the league by a healthy margin in runs scored (57 over the Phillies) and are second in runs allowed with 490; just 11 behind the Dodgers. That is a good baseball team that - sans any black cats crossing their paths - is headed to the playoffs.
But here's the rather small dilemma for the Cubs. If they win the division and finish with the best record in the league, there's a real good chance they'll have to face the division winner with the worst record. That's because they can't play the wild card if it's from the same division and with the Brewers at around 86% to make the playoffs with the Cardinals on their heels, that seems pretty likely. Right now, the Cubs opponent looks like the winner of the NL West between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks in a five game set. That means either facing the trio of Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Randy Johnson or the slightly less intimidating Chad Billingsley, Derek Lowe, Clayton Kershaw troika of the Dodgers. The Dodgers could also throw a healthy Brad Penny at us or Hiroki Kuroda, whom we should not forget dominated the Cubs' asses at a level not seen since the last soft-tossing lefty or rookie made his major league debut against them. Furthermore, both West teams added a huge bat recently to their lineups. The D'Backs with Cub-killer Adam Dunn, and the Dodgers with Manny Ramirez. And the Dodgers should be adding Rafael Furcal before it's all said and done as well. So I don't think their current records or the records they end up with are truly reflective of what will be on display during the playoffs.
Counter that with the NL East, where the Mets and Phillies are tied and the Marlins are lurking. The top two teams go only one deep with studs in their rotations (Johann and Hamels) and then a cavalry of question marks. The Mets go with Pedro Martinez, Oliver Perez and John Maine; all of whom are capable of real good starts, but kind of in the way that Ted Lilly is capable of one. They're not striking fear into the hearts of batters. The Phillies go with Joe Blanton, Jamie Moyer and either Kyle Kendrick or Brett Myers.
I think the Cubs will have the upper hand in any pitching matchups with Zambrano, Harden and Dempster with Lilly lurking, although the Brewers and D'Backs sure could give the Cubs a run for their money in that department. And as the saying goes, you have to beat the best to be the best. Plus a trip to the West Coast means I most likely get to catch a game or two in person. But if they do lose out on the division, but still win the wild card and have to face the NL East winner, I hardly think all will be lost.
That is other than their pride.