The Cubs and the D-backs will meet in a National League Division Series starting on Wednesday at Chase Field. By virtue of reaching this point, they have had, one way or the other, indisputably successful regular seasons. That is where all similarity ends.
The Cubs set themselves up for NL Central success with a spending spree, $297 million on free agents in the offseason. That doesn't even get into the $91 million they bestowed upon their apparent rotation ace, Carlos Zambrano, at midseason. The thing is, and this is a rarity in contemporary baseball, it all seems to have been money well-spent.
The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, have gone with young players, young players, and then, some more young players. They all have obvious talent, and as Jim Leyland always says, when it comes to winning, don't think about age, think about talent. The one serious move the D-backs made in the opposite direction, with Randy Johnson, ended prematurely with back problems. Maybe there was a lesson in that.
The Cubs are loaded with household names. The Diamondbacks have names with household-name potential, but before this series starts, this team may be the least-known commodity of the eight postseason survivors. All of that could change with some October success.
The Cubs haven't won a World Series in 99 years. The D-backs haven't won a World Series in six years. Even in the desert, that isn't much of a drought. This Arizona team has nothing to do with that Arizona team, which was loaded with veterans.
The managers come from opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Lou Piniella is mercurial, emotional, given to public venting. How different is Bob Melvin? When Melvin succeeded Piniella as manager of the Seattle Mariners, people spent much of Melvin's first year noticing that Melvin was the personality opposite of Piniella. Melvin is a supremely organized, diligent individual, who does not like his public pronouncements to create any controversy whatsoever. The term "low-key" is often applied to him, and it fits to a point, but it isn't completely accurate, because it misses his competitive drive.
The Cubs have succeeded, in part, because with a portion of their free-agent spending, they have rid themselves of their annual and unsuccessful dependence on the health and well-being of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. (When Wood returned this year to pitch capably in a relief role, it was sort of a bonus, rather than being an all-important factor in this team's success.) The acquisition of veteran starters Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis freed the Cubs from the Prior/Wood, "oh, no, hurt-again" dynamic. And in the case of Lilly, in particular, it gave the Cubs the kind of solid pitching that a division-winner must have.
National League Division Series schedule
|Wed., Oct. 3||10 p.m.||Chase Field||TBS|
|Thu., Oct. 4||10 p.m.||Chase Field||TBS|
|Sat. Oct. 6||6 p.m.||Wrigley Field||TBS|
|*Sun. Oct. 7||1 p.m.||Wrigley Field||TNT|
|*Tue. Oct. 9||10 p.m.||Chase Field||TBS|
|Wed., Oct. 3||3 p.m.||Citizens Bank Park||TBS|
|Thu., Oct. 4||3 p.m.||Citizens Bank Park||TBS|
|Sat. Oct. 6||9:30 p.m.||Coors Field||TBS|
|*Sun. Oct. 7||10 p.m.||Coors Field||TBS|
|*Tue. Oct. 9||6:30 p.m.||Citizens Bank Park||TBS|
|* If necessary. All times ET.|
The D-backs built through the farm system, and how that farm system has delivered, with more quality and with more quantity, and sooner, than many anticipated. It is ironic that the D-backs, a brand-new kid on the block compared to the Chicago North Side franchise, have taken the time-honored, old-school route to success.
The Cubs won 85 games, giving them the least-impressive record of any of the 2007 postseason entrants. The Diamondbacks won 90, and they were the only 90-game winner in the National League. Only two years ago, baseball people were telling jokes about the NL West. Now, that division has supplied this season's NL Wild Card and the team with the NL's best record. Now, if there are divisional jokes to be told, they are directed at the NL Central.
But the difference between 85 victories and 90 victories is not worlds, and this time of the year, the competition isn't about the endless arguments about which is the better team. This time of the year, the competition is about which team is playing better. (Check the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, winner of two fewer games in the regular season than these Cubs, but still World Series champs.)
This is a fascinating meeting of contrasts between managers, players, organizations and entire franchises. But mostly this should provide a highly competitive series, and a compelling beginning for baseball's best month.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.