Cubs could take a page from soccer playbook

North Siders aim to end long title drought like Leicester City

May 3rd, 2016

The sporting world was mesmerized by Leicester City's clinching of the prestigious Barclays Premier League title Monday. And because a certain National League squad hasn't won the World Series since 1908, it's easy to draw a baseball parallel to Leicester ending its 132-year wait for glory.

Yes, it is true that if the Chicago Cubs do what they set out to do this season, it will be a story that transcends the States and garners international attention from even non-baseball fans. Leicester (and do I even need to point out that it's pronounced "Lester," a la a certain Cubs lefty?) made worldwide waves from central England, and the Cubs can do the same from the NL Central.

But there is a discernible difference in these two stories that can't be ignored: Leicester spent most of the previous season near the bottom of the table in the BPL, had a paltry payroll and entered the 2015-16 season facing 5,000-to-1 odds of winning the title.

The Cubs? Vegas favorites, of course. A 97-win season and an outstanding offseason will do that.

Can it be, though, that we collectively undersold the Cubbies?

Is it possible that this team is actually better than advertised?

The (still very, very early) outcomes lend some credence to the concept.

Frankly, I don't care how early it is. When you have a +83 run differential -- at any juncture in the season schedule -- you're doing something right. According to @ktsharp on Twitter, that's the best run differential for an NL team through 24 games since the 1905 New York Giants (+90).

We're a month into the season, and there are still four teams (including the defending World Series champs) who haven't scored 83 runs all year. For the Cubs, that's the difference between what they've scored and what they've allowed.

Crazy, right?

We poke holes in teams. It's what we do in the Big 162. But while the Cubs aren't perfect, they are a club without a legitimate weakness at the moment.

That will evolve, naturally. The target is always moving in this sport. But look at the ways this club has responded to its two (perceived) trouble spots:

1. The back end of the rotation

If there was one place we thought these Cubs looked particularly vulnerable going into the season, it was the starting setup beyond Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey.

So what's happened?

Well, Jason Hammel was really good again Monday night in holding a dangerous Pirates lineup to a pair of runs on five hits with a walk. Granted, Hammel is generally held to about 90 pitches per start to maximize his effectiveness. And on Monday, he surrendered his first home run of the season (the other first-place Chicago club's Jose Quintana now holds the distinction of being the only qualified starter in the big leagues who has yet to be touched by the long ball, and he'll be put to the test Tuesday night against the Red Sox).

But you can't argue with the overall results: Hammel has a 4-0 record and a 1.24 ERA in five starts. And Kyle Hendricks has an adjusted ERA+ that is 19 percent better than league average.

The only Cubs starter who can be accused of scuffling is Lackey (4.32 ERA), but his Fielding Independent Pitching is a full point lower and, in fact, better than the FIP he posted in his transcendent 2015 with the Cardinals. So Lackey should be fine, and the Cubs have a stash of former starters in their bullpen -- Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren and Travis Wood -- to potentially turn to should Hammel or Hendricks regress.

2. The loss of Kyle Schwarber

We found out Schwarber's season was over on April 8. The Cubs averaged two runs per game more with Schwarber in the lineup than without him last year. Nobody was expecting his absence to be an outright season killer, but you'd think it would have some impact on the output, especially with Jorge Soler doing next to nothing in his stead and Jason Heyward struggling as a result of a nagging wrist injury.

So what's happened?

The Cubs are averaging 6.08 runs per game. It has been 63 years since an NL club (the 1953 Dodgers) averaged more than six in a full season, so, you know, don't get used to it. But really, Dexter Fowler, with a .357 average and a 1.057 OPS, is the only regular who can legitimately be accused of being out over his skis at the moment -- and even if Fowler trends back toward his 2015 level, that's a really good leadoff man right there.

The bench has also been a big separator, and perhaps that will regress. Well, OK, in the cases of Tommy La Stella (.940 OPS) and Matt Szczur (1.041), both of whom have made the most of the increased playing time afforded by the Schwarber situation, regression is probably inevitable. But the Cubs' depth has delivered as advertised, and there's still upside when or if Heyward and Ben Zobrist more closely approximate their career norms.

Given the breathlessness of this dispatch -- and in an effort to scale back the hate mail from Pirates and Cardinals fans -- let me just repeat that the Cubs aren't perfect, OK?

Schwarber's season-long absence and Miguel Montero's current back condition compromise the catching position, and it remains to be seen if any other major injury blows will test the limits of the lineup depth. There's also the concern that a strong starting pitching market simply won't materialize this summer (executives are already opining that it could be a weak one), so maybe the Cubs won't be able to land a magic bullet should anything or anybody go south in the starting five.

These are the Cubs, which means things can and maybe will go wrong.

But if there was any concern that all the Cub love, all the unfettered media hype and fan hope that preceded 2016 would overwhelm this club in any measure, those concerns have been quite literally batted away convincingly in the early going. On average, the Cubs are more than doubling up their opponents.

Forget meeting expectations. In the early going, they've exceeded them.

Combine the Cubs' early clout with what just happened in England, and it's enough to make you wonder if perhaps 2016 is the year, whether you're in Leicester City or Lester City, to get off a more than century long schnide.