MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

NL Central title mere stepping-stone for Cubs

Built for sustained success, talented, likable North Siders focused on loftiest of aspirations

NL Central title mere stepping-stone for Cubs

CHICAGO -- As good as baseball gets.

That's how the Cubs have operated for more than 400 days now, with no end in sight.

When they clinched the National League Central title on Thursday night after the Cardinals lost to the Giants, it was a pinch-me moment for the adoring fans who packed Wrigley Field, even if it was more anticlimactic than dramatic.

Shop for Cubs NL Central champs merchandise

We've known the Cubs were coming since they started their charge to a Wild Card spot in late July a year ago, and here they are, favorites to win their first World Series since 1908. If you listen to the players, you hear that they don't feel like they've done anything yet.

"It's kind of like, 'Job well done, now let's move on to the next phase,' " Jake Arrieta said.

Whether or not the Cubs go on to capture baseball's Holy Grail this year, they've already marked themselves as a team that will be in the spotlight for years to come.

It's not just that they've won 138 of their last 209 regular-season games to establish themselves as a powerhouse, but also how they've risen at the end of the massive rebuilding program launched by Tom Ricketts and executed with brainpower and discipline by Theo Epstein.

They hired their Phil Jackson in Joe Maddon and turned over to him a team of complete players who win with style and lose with grace.

Their front men are as likable as they are talented, and they all reflect the scouting and think-tank analysis of a front office that has found ways to stay a step ahead, first in Boston and now Chicago.

Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Dexter Fowler and Arrieta were acquired through shrewd trades or the Draft. Ownership provided the resources to augment the young core with free agents like Jon Lester, John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward.

They're a group of consummate professionals who look at baseball as a game, not as a business -- and should they forget every now and then, there are role players like David Ross and Travis Wood to put a smile back on their faces. They've got so much talent that they haven't felt the loss of young slugger Kyle Schwarber to a knee injury suffered in their third game.

Ross' two-run smash

In the fifth season since Epstein arrived from Boston, the Cubs have left the angst over 101-loss seasons, rooftop views and long overdue Wrigley Field renovations in the past. They've taken Chicago by storm and now stand on the threshold of becoming a modern version of the 1985 Bears, awaiting their ultimate validation in October.

Seriously, what's not to like about these Cubbies?

They stumbled in the NL Championship Series a year ago, mowed down by the Mets' power arms after eliminating the Pirates and Cardinals. But they had long since exceeded expectations, causing Epstein to proclaim 2015 as "a beautiful baseball dream."

What does that make 2016?

"A blast," Epstein said Thursday. "It's a great group of guys to be around every day. Last year was kind of a breakthrough season when we snuck up on people. There was a kind of innocence about everything that was really memorable and special. I wondered if it was possible to have as much fun in a year with much different expectations coming in. It's proven to be just as fun."

The Cubs went 45-18 down the stretch to get to 97 wins last year. They followed that up with a 25-6 start this season and are on pace to win 104, the most for the franchise since 1910.

A year after Arrieta won the NL Cy Young Award and Bryant was a unanimous pick for NL Rookie of the Year, the Cubs have two strong Most Valuable Player candidates in Bryant and Rizzo as well as two Cy Young frontrunners in Kyle Hendricks and Lester.

Hendricks' near no-hitter

No team has had two position players and two pitchers finish in the top five for those awards in the same year since 2004, when Epstein's Red Sox broke the so-called Curse of the Bambino behind David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. That's how rare it is to have this much elite talent contributing with maximum efficiency.

Two of the team's cornerstone players, Rizzo and Lester, are cancer survivors who fought their way through treatments early in their career just to be able to wear uniforms.

Bryant is like Magic Johnson was for the Lakers in the 1980 NBA Finals. He combines his athleticism, hustle and gamesmanship with a willingness to do whatever his team needs. He's started games at third base, left field, right field and first base while making appearances as a shortstop and center fielder.

Bryant's diving play at third

Maddon, the minimalist manager who laughs at billy goats and says batting practice is over-rated, has been a terrific addition since Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer went to an RV park on the Florida Gulf Coast to recruit him two years ago.

He guided the Rays from obscurity to the World Series in 2008, but he could see what was being built in Chicago.

"To be this young, to be this good, that's the part that's a little bit different to me," Maddon said Thursday. "That's the part that really stands out. ... Everybody's saying how good we are, and that's wonderful, but I'm telling you, these guys are going to get better. They are that good. They deserve every moment they're going to have this season, but they are going to get better. They just need more experience. As they gain more experience, we are going to get better."

After building a 10-game division lead in the first 56 games of the season, the Cubs sputtered for a few weeks but have played with machine-like efficiency since the All-Star break. They haven't lost more than two games in a row in that stretch, holding opponents to 2.9 runs per game.

"[Our] defense is unbelievable," Maddon said. "I'm amazed every night. I love it. I love to watch it every night. ... If you can pitch it and catch it, you can compete on an annual basis. Why we haven't lost is about pitching, but pitching has really benefited from our defense, too."

Epstein upgraded the bullpen with a midseason deal for Aroldis Chapman, possessor of the most electrifying arm in the Major Leagues. He has helped turn the Cubs' one possible weakness into just another strength.

Now comes the hard part.

Baseball is not like Premier League soccer. Having the best record at the end of the season merely qualifies you as one of 10 teams in the postseason.

You have to earn your championship from there.

Here comes the best team.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.