It's too early to discount the Pirates or Cardinals

May 13th, 2016

How good have the Cubs been? Earlier this week, MLB Network's Twitter question was, "Will the Cubs break the 2001 Mariners' record of 116 wins?''

Not can they -- could they? Do they have a shot? But will they?

It was an audacious question, without a doubt.

It probably won't happen, but it's fun to think about a team being this dominant for a full season, isn't it? If you're ever going to make this pick, this is the team, and now's the time.

The 2016 Cubs didn't come out of nowhere, after all. They've picked up where they left off last August and September.

While it's the 25-8 start through Thursday that grabs your attention, consider their 70-26 record since July 29. That's an even more impressive way of looking at what the Cubs are doing. They've played .729 baseball over 96 games. Do that for 162, and you've got 118 wins. It's crazy, but don't those 96 games show that it's possible?

It's also possible that reality will bite for Cubs fans, and Joe Maddon's team won't even win the National League Central. Here are five reasons that it's far too early for the Cubs to begin taking the Pirates and the Cardinals for granted.

The Jung Ho Kang factor

When the Cubs swept the Pirates in Pittsburgh in early May, Clint Hurdle's team was still missing its third baseman from Korea, whose rookie season ended on a takeout slide by then-Cub Chris Coghlan on Sept. 17. Kang will be playing this weekend at Wrigley Field, and in theory, in the other 13 games remaining between the teams.

Kang is a difference-maker, especially when you put him alongside veteran run producers like Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. He's got impressive power for a guy who can play anywhere on the infield, including shortstop, and it doesn't appear that knee surgery cost him any of it.

The Pirates tried to ease Kang into the NL when he arrived from the KBO, and he turned into a force in the second half of last season, hitting .310/.364/.548 with 11 home runs in 197 at-bats after the All-Star break. He homered twice against St. Louis last Friday in his return and has three homers and six RBIs in five games since he's been back.

It'll be fun to watch Kang at Wrigley Field. Even with Coghlan now in Oakland, emotions could be high on Friday.

Unfinished business for McCutchen

While the Bucs have fallen seven games behind the Cubs, there's no way they're not thinking about the Wild Card standings. Not after finishing behind St. Louis in each of the past three seasons, which has forced them into the win-or-go-home opening game of the postseason.

The Pirates lost to the Cardinals in a great five-game NL Division Series in 2013. They believed they would be the team to take down the Cards, and it stung them to lose the Wild Card Game to Jake Arrieta last season. You better believe they're tired of hearing talk that the Cubs are the team to beat in the NL.

If McCutchen and Hurdle weren't such positive people, the disappointments could sink Pittsburgh. But the Bucs will tell you that the challenge will only make winning their first division title taste even sweeter.

Thunder that wasn't in the forecast

The Cardinals ranked 11th in the NL in scoring last season, rolling to their third consecutive division title in a pitching-and-defense mode. They made no major additions to the lineup in the offseason, but they have come out swinging, thanks to fast starts from Stephen Piscotty, Matt Carpenter and rookies Jeremy Hazelbaker and Aledmys Diaz.

Only the Cubs are outscoring the Cardinals in the NL, and the Cards have a higher OPS than the Cubs. The run scoring is buying time for the rotation to get on a roll. Turnarounds from Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake would go a long way toward helping the Redbirds close ground.

John Mozeliak, card player

The Cardinals won 100 games last season, but they are on pace to win only 86 so far this season. That's along the line of the projected regression suggested by many analysts after a quiet offseason, when the biggest headlines in St. Louis were the failed attempts to sign David Price and re-sign Jason Heyward.

Don't overlook general manager John Mozeliak's feel for what his team needs, though. He struck gold with the much-criticized signing of free-agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta before 2014, as well a midseason trade in '14 for John Lackey.

The Cards, who have 16 games left against the Cubs, are positioned to make midseason upgrades. Look for Mozeliak to add another bat or two or improve the pitching depth.

It's just not this easy

The NL Central was a meat grinder last season, with only three wins separating the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs. No one would figure that the Cubs would run away with it this season, unless they can race past the 100-win mark.

Should they let off the gas, it will get interesting in a hurry. Baseball Prospectus says the Central race has been mostly decided, giving the Cubs a 93 percent chance of winning in its Playoff Odds Report, but should we buy it?

Theo Epstein says there will be a time this season when the Cubs hit a long skid, when they feel like they may never win again. What's he supposed to say? That they're going to set a record for wins in a season?