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Series preview: The Chicago Cubs are living up to the hype

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Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Here's what to expect in this week's three-game set against the Cubs.

Game times and probable pitchers

Monday, 7:05: Jason Hammel vs. Gerrit Cole
Tuesday, 7:05: Jake Arrieta vs. Jon Niese
Wednesday, 12:35: Jon Lester vs. Juan Nicasio

The first matchup is the only one of the three that looks favorable for the Bucs, and even there, Hammel has allowed only two runs the entire year. There's little to be written about Arrieta's dominance and his no-hitter that hasn't been written already, and we're left grasping at the same straws we were prior to last year's Wild Card game. Uh, his peripherals (8.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 55.8 percent ground ball rate) suggest he's merely incredibly good, as opposed to being Walter Johnson after a deal with the devil? Um, he isn't throwing quite as hard as he did last year? I haven't got much here. The beginning to Lester's season has quietly been overshadowed by that of his teammate, but Lester has been terrific in his own right, with a 1.83 ERA, 8.7 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 so far.

Position players

C David Ross, Tim Federowicz
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Ben Zobrist
SS Addison Russell
3B Kris Bryant 
IF Javier Baez
IF Tommy La Stella
LF Jorge Soler
CF Dexter Fowler
RF Jason Heyward
OF Matt Szczur

The Cubs' position players have been beset by injuries -- Miguel Montero is on the DL, Kyle Schwarber is out for the season, and Bryant only returned to the lineup yesterday after spraining his ankle. Clearly, though, this is a deep and talented group. (In fact, the only team whose position players have a higher fWAR this season is the Pirates.) Fowler, Rizzo, Bryant, La Stella and Szczur are all off to excellent starts. Baez, too, has hit well in a small sample (although the plate discipline issues that have dogged him throughout his big-league career might still end up holding him back). Heyward has hit poorly, at .211/.317/.256, although as usual, he's contributing good value with his glove and his baserunning.

The Cubs have a modest .680 OPS thus far against left-handed pitching, although I'm not sure that means much at this early stage, and I'd be inclined to make more of it if Francisco Liriano were taking the hill this series.

Bullpen

Hector Rondon
Travis Wood
Pedro Strop
Adam Warren
Justin Grimm
Neil Ramirez
Trevor Cahill
Clayton Richard

The Cubs are currently carrying an eight-man 'pen. Rondo, Strop, Warren, Grimm and Wood have been terrific so far, with Ramirez, Cahill and Richard struggling. Entering the team, I thought the Cubs' bullpen might be the team's one potentially weak area, but so far that hasn't been the case -- Cubs relievers rank seventh in baseball with 1.0 fWAR, and their 11.13 K/9 ranks first in baseball.

Recent performance

The Cubs have faced a relatively weak schedule so far, with 13 games against the Reds, Brewers, Rockies and Braves. In addition to beating that group of teams, though, they've also fared well against teams you'd mostly think are better, going 7-3 against the Angels, Diamondbacks and Cardinals.

There isn't much point parsing this further, though. The Cubs already have a ridiculous +78 run differential, scoring more than twice as many runs as they've allowed. That run differential is more than twice as big as that of any other team. Last year, three teams (the Rangers, Mets and Dodgers) won divisions with run differentials smaller than +78 for the entire season. The Cubs' record so far is 17-6, the best in baseball, and you could make the case that they've probably been even better than that suggests -- their third-order win percentage is .835, which I believe is the highest figure I've ever seen this late in a season.

In other words, the Cubs have lived up to the hype so far.  Maybe this won't be their week. Maybe these suits will jinx them. So far, though, they look like the best team in baseball, and by a large margin. We'll see if the Pirates have any tricks up their sleeves to stop them.