The Cubs are in good position in the push for a berth in the National League playoffs. They enter the new week 3.5 games out of the division lead, and just a half-game out of the final Wild Card spot. They’ve proved their mettle in a prolonged hot stretch since the All-Star break, taking two of three from the World Series-favorite Atlanta Braves and three of four from the Reds (to usurp them in the standings, albeit not permanently). Combining all of that with a favorable schedule on tap, the Cubs appear ready to forge ahead into the playoffs for the first time since 2020.
If we can make the bold assumption that the Cubs do meander into the big dance, what will they be staring down as they try (against VERY stacked odds) to make it back to the Fall Classic?
First things first: the top two seeds in the National League are all but sewn up by the Braves and Dodgers, respectively. The Cubs are a whopping 14 games behind Atlanta for the best record in the NL, and 9.5 behind the Dodgers. That makes Chicago highly unlikely to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs.
From there, the Cubs have two relatively straightforward paths: win the division, or secure one of the three Wild Cards. If the Cubs take the Central, they’d become the third seed, matching them up with the six seed (the Wild Card with the worst record). Looking at their prospective opponents in that scenario, it’s likely the Cubs would face one of their division rivals in the Brewers or Reds, though the resurgent Padres and Marlins are also within shouting distance of the playoffs. The Diamondbacks are also only a few games back, but they’ve been mired in an abysmal slump since July 1, and appear to be fading fast. It’s reasonable to suspect one of the Phillies or Giants (holders of the top two Wild Card spots currently) could fall back a seed or two, but we’ll assume they hold steady and match up as the four and five seeds.
If the Cubs can’t quite capture the division flag, but do sneak in as a Wild Card (again, assuming they would grab the six seed in this scenario), they would play the winner of their division - either the Brewers or the Reds.
So, against these likeliest of opponents (the Brewers, Reds, Padres and Marlins), who do the Cubs stand the best chance against?
1. Milwaukee Brewers
So far this year: 3-4
Games left: Six
The Brewers are a good team, anchored once again by their pitching staff. Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta are fronting the rotation, old friend Wade Miley is having a fine bounce-back season after an injury-plagued sojourn on the North Side, and Brandon Woodruff was just activated off the 60-day IL. Their bullpen is also pretty lights-out, with Devin Williams and flamethrowing wizard/warlock/magician Abner Uribe shutting things down late in games.
However, their offense has been… well, offensive, with Willy Adames and Rowdy Tellez particularly struggling after years of solid production. For a Cubs team geared to win with defense and timely hitting, the Brewers pose a massive threat. They're wired to win the close, low-scoring affairs that become more prominent in the playoffs.
2. Cincinnati Reds
So far this year: 4-5
Games left: Three
The Reds are the antithesis of the Brewers: electric offense, horrendous pitching. The lineup is loaded from top to bottom, with young studs like Elly De La Cruz and Spencer Steer solidifying their major-league credentials. Joey Votto is also having a resurgent year, posting an .842 OPS across 42 games.
Their pitching staff, on the other hand, is downright atrocious. Rookie Andrew Abbott is the only starter with a sub-3.00 ERA, and most of the pitchers on the team are sporting ERAs starting with a 4 or a 5. The bullpen, while anchored by a dominant Alexis Diaz, is also a mess, ranking 17th in the majors in ERA even with their closer’s contributions. This is the team the Cubs should want to play in the Wild Card round, as their inexperience and unreliable pitching should do them no favors against a team led by World Series champions Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger.
3. San Diego Padres
So far this year: 4-3
Games left: Zero
The fact that this is the one team on this list against whom the Cubs have a winning record this year (so far) is emblematic of the Padres’ wildly disappointing season as a whole. They are, on paper, perhaps the most talented team in all of baseball, with a trio of aces in the rotation (Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Blake Snell); one of the best relief pitchers in the league (Josh Hader); and an absurd cache of talent in the lineup (Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Xander Boegarts, Ha-Seong Kim… it just goes on and on).
They’ve been burned by injuries and poor performances all over the roster, but this team is still the scariest on this list. Any one of their star hitters can take over a three-game series, and their rotation is uniquely suited to throw out an ace-caliber arm every game in the Wild Card Series. This team is currently sub-.500 and the farthest away from a playoff spot of everyone here, but that means that if they do get in, they’ll likely be riding a wave of momentum. Hopefully, the Cubs can avoid them in the first round.
4. Miami Marlins
So far this year: 2-4
Games left: Zero
A somewhat similar profile to the Brewers (good pitching, anemic hitting), though closer to average on both ends rather than the Brewers’ extremes. The Miami lineup has some legitimately good players, notably including former Cub Jorge Soler and batting champion Luis Arraez. The pitching staff has some big names, but reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara has been less consistent in his brilliance this year, and wunderkind Eury Perez has been on a tight innings limit since May.
You’d have to feel good about this matchup, especially since it would mean the Cubs won the division and are playing at Wrigley in October (a stark contrast for a team based in Florida).
If the Cubs were to beat their first-round opponent, they’d go on to face the Dodgers (if they are the three seed) or the Braves (if they are the six seed) in the National League Division Series. While further analysis of those potential series would be warranted, it’s a “cross that bridge when you come to it” situation--especially since, all things considered, the Cubs are probably losing either of those series. Both teams are top three in team OPS (the Braves are shockingly secure in first place, with an almost unfathomable .840 OPS as a team), and their pitching staffs are much deeper than the Cubs’ Justin Steele-plus-a-hope-and-a-prayer construction.
Regardless of that, though, anything can happen once you’re in the playoffs, and the Cubs can make some serious noise if they get there this year. Although the more important thing for fans to focus on is how the Cubs perform here in crunch time down the stretch, rooting for a potential playoff opponent (even if it’s a division rival) has its own merit.
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