Baseball's postseason doesn't begin for almost a month, but we already know one thing for certain: The Chicago Cubs will be heavy favorites to win the World Series and end the most infamous championship drought in professional sports, one that dates to 1908.
Before the Cubs can advance in the postseason, of course, they need to officially qualify for it. That’s a foregone conclusion at this point, with Chicago sporting the best record in baseball at 89-48. It has a 15 1/2-game lead on the Cardinals in the National League Central, and an eight-game edge on the Nationals for home field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. Entering play on Wednesday, the Cubs' magic number to clinch the Central is 10, while they need a combination of 17 wins and Washington losses to lock up the best record in the NL. (If you're curious, Chicago has a magic number of eight to wrap up at least an NL wild-card spot.)
Given the history of this franchise, it behooves us to say that it remains mathematically possible for the Cubs not to win the division, even though the odds calculated by Baseball Prospectus give Chicago a 100% chance of finishing first in the NL Central. Putting aside the extremely unlikely chance that St. Louis or Pittsburgh (which entered Wednesday 21 games out) pulls off a historic comeback and steals the Central title, the Cubs are not only going to wrap up the division, they are likely do so earlier than they ever have in franchise history.
The Cubs have won five division titles since that format was introduced in 1969: 1984, '89, 2003, '07 and '08. In that most recent season they set the franchise record for earliest division-clinching date by doing so on Sept. 20. This year, Chicago could clinch as early as Sept. 12.
Assuming the Cubs and Cardinals play to their season-long winning percentages (rounded up to the nearest whole win), Chicago would go 8-3 from Wednesday through Sept. 19, while St. Louis would go 7-6. That would clear Cubs magic number by four games, so it’s entirely likely they won’t need the full window to beat the previous franchise record. The teams meet at Busch Stadium for a three-game set that starts next Monday. Should the Cubs win two of their next four games, they could clinch in St. Louis with a sweep, no matter what the Cardinals do the rest of this week. In other words, Chicago has a great chance of popping the champagne in its arch-rival's park, something the Cardinals did to the Cubs in 2005.
Clinching home field advantage could take a bit longer. The Nationals are an excellent team in their own right and are only being left in the dust by Chicago because the Cubs are on pace to win 105 games, which would be the most wins in the majors since the Cardinals won the same number in 2004. The Nationals own the third best record in the majors, trailing the Cubs and Rangers, and are on pace to win 95 games. It's not uncommon for that total to secure the top seed in the playoffs. For example, last year the Royals won 95 games, which was good enough to secure home field advantage throughout the postseason, which Kansas City used to its advantage en route to the franchise's first World Series championship since 1985.
Using the exercise we deployed earlier in which we assume both teams will continue to play at their current winning percentages, the Cubs will wrap up home-field advantage on Sunday, Sept. 25, which would be Chicago's 155th game of the season. In other words, the Cubs will have gotten the most they possibly could out of the regular season with a full week still remaining on their schedule.
Doing so would allow Chicago even more time to line up its pitching staff and to rest its regulars for its playoff opener, which will almost certainly come on Friday, Oct. 7 in Game 1 of their Division Series. That, of course, is when the Cubs' real work will begin.