cubs win standings flags scoreboardAfter winning the second game of the series against the Dodgers, the Cubs had won four in a row and were nine games over .500 for the first time since August 2009. Although it didn’t quite feel like the start of the season, it was actually the best we had seen of the Cubs in six years. Like most of us, no doubt,  I had begun to let myself dream of taking three of four from the first place Dodgers and riding high into St. Louis to do the same.

Unfortunately, it didn’t play out that way. Indeed, it played out in the worst possible way.

The Cubs dropped the final two games to L.A. and were promptly swept by the Cardinals. After losing five in a row, the Cubs (39-35) stand 11.5 games behind the first place Cardinals and 1.5 games out of a Wild Card slot. The Cubs remain squarely in the Wild Card race, but their playoff odds have slipped of late; the latest ZiPS projections, for example, have them just missing the second Wild Card:

With a final projected record of 85-77, ZiPS projects the Cubs to finish third in the NL Central behind the Pirates (88-74) and Cardinals (98-64). The former takes the first Wild Card slot with the San Francisco Giants (86-76) beating out the Cubs for the second Wild Card by one game.

With the Cardinals historic start to the season, the Cubs chance at the division is essentially zero (1.7%). It would take an equally historic fall for the Cardinals to lose their lead at this point – not to mention the Pirates.

The Cubs’ chance of claiming a Wild Card slot (42.7%) is still second best in the league, behind the Pirates (67.2%), but their overall chance at the playoffs (44.3%) is a full ten percent lower than the Giants (54.6%) and thirty percent lower than the Pirates (74.0%).

The optimist notes that the Cubs are clearly in contention for a playoff spot this fall after five straight years of last place finishes. Improvements are likely coming via trade and reinforcements are likely coming from the disabled list. With a lighter schedule immediately following the All-Star break, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine the Cubs outperforming their projections.

The pessimist reminds you that the projection system includes things like strength of schedule and players returning from the disabled list. Further, trades are not guaranteed, even if they are desired. The Cubs’ true talent level, then, might leave them stranded in “better luck next year” land with 85 wins.

The truth, as usual, likely falls somewhere in between. The Cubs are not a shoe-in for the playoffs, but they have a fighting chance. If a few players can get heathy (Jorge Soler, Mike Olt, Tommy La Stella, Javier Baez, to name a few) and a few stars align for a trade, they’ll be that much closer. It was never going to be an easy ride, but at least meaningful baseball lies ahead.

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