We have seen it for three seasons now, the pattern that any Cubs season will take amongst its fans. There's always a faction, waiting impatiently to strike at the first sign of trouble to declare everything a facade, a phony, and to decry everyone in the organization an overrated and overhyped peon that will assuredly tear the whole city down with it. To counter that, there's a another group that waits impatiently to declare that they always believed, to stick it to the first faction, so that they can claim a superiority when the Cubs win that they were there the whole time and "never left the bandwagon." Everyone wants to be right, and perhaps more to the point everyone wants to be seen to be right.
So figuring out where the Cubs actually are can be a bit tricky if your vision gets clouded by the migraine you assuredly get from listening to all the noise. So let's try and get there while turning the volume down.
These are the facts of the case: The Cubs have the best record in the National League, and are in first place in the Central by 2.5 games. They've done this with their #2 starter either ineffective or hurt all season. They've done it while Kyle Hendricks has been basically trying to figure it out. They've done it while Jose Quintana has been iffy at times. They've done it with fifth starter who is something of out Meow Wolf. They've done that while their two best players, "Bryzzo" if I must, really haven't been all that good for chunks of the season, and with Bryant carrying an injury that could linger all season (and he's still on course for about a 4-WAR season, which is quite the "off" year). These are the facts, and they are indisputable.
What they mean is certainly open for interpretation, and the changing way in which we view a baseball season also plays a role. Let's look at the second part first.
For the rest of the regular season, you can be pretty safe in saying that the Cubs are likely to win the Central, and are only slightly less likely to finish the year with the best record in the NL. And if you're worried about the Dodgers possibly getting Manny Machado later today, remember they're already 2nd in the NL in team slugging and 4th in team wOBA (or 1st and 3rd in a non-Rockies category), so how much better Machado can possibly make their offense is a question. The Cubs rotation, even in its iffy state at the moment through injury, inconsistency, and Lester's magic act, is still likely to be much better than the Brewers', and that really should be enough. The offense is better, too. Sure, a Brewers acquisition of Jacob deGrom might change the math a little, but we're not here to discuss the effect of trades that haven't happened yet.
However, we don't view "success" in baseball through regular season accomplishments any more. It still sounds weird to some, but basically the judgement of this season and the many more to follow are based on the 3-17 games the Cubs will play in October, where the methods and rules are almost entirely different.
And for the "this team is a fraud" crowd, you can see the potholes. One, the Cubs have never looked like the Astros, Red Sox, or Yankees, though the Cubs would only have to "get hot" against one if everything worked out. Meanwhile, those teams will most likely have to beat the other two just for the right to get to the Cubs or someone else.
The Cubs bullpen unquestionably has worked a bit too much to feel totally comfortable, but that is highly unlikely to make a difference in the regular season. It obviously could in the postseason. While much was made of the unique nature in which the Astros essentially "piggybacked" relievers in some games during their run last year, they still had Verlander every few games to come in, throw down the hammer, and everyone went on with their lives. None of his starts were less than six innings. The Cubs didn't have much of a pen by the time the playoffs rolled around in '16, but they had Lester, Hendricks, and Arrieta which saw them outlast both the Dodgers and Cleveland, who could only use three starters each and only one "plus" pitcher.
Right now, it's hard to see where the Cubs get that one dominant postseason starter. Some of you will scream "LESTER!," but the markings of a 2nd half regression are too hard to ignore (as pointed out there by a truly talented, charming, and handsome writer). Hendricks gave us that one start in San Francisco, and has the playoff pedigree from the past, but until he puts it all together in the season you'll never be sure. Quintana and Darvish are both capable, but you know the questions hanging over both of them right now.
While the Cubs have a great pen overstocked with arms right now, it's really, really hard to bullpen your way to 11 postseason wins. It can be done, but it's generally a good idea to have at least one guy every fourth game or so who just goes, "Here's seven innings where they'll do nothing so go get three runs you morons." Remember Lester put up three of those starts two years ago, and Hendricks managed four (though somehow the Cubs lost two of those).
In the NL however, it's hard to see where someone might do that to the Cubs. The Nats are a mess. The Phils are interesting as Nola, Arrieta, Pivetta, Velasquez, and Efflin are pretty nasty, but they're doing it for the first time and who knows how they hold up. The Braves? Get outta here with that. Only the Auld Enemy of the Dodgers are a possibility, but other than Kershaw and his back made of graham crackers now they're doing it with spare parts and reclamation projects. If you want to trust Ross Stripling when the lights are brightest, you go right ahead.
That still leaves the AL monsters, but that's the price you pay for going that far. The Cubs simply can't match up with anything the Red Sox or Astros can throw at them, and we'll worry about that then.
The offense is probably enough, and with any revival from Bryant and Rizzo is certainly is. You don't want to have to trust Happ, Schwarber, Baez, and the supporting cast to carry the team, but a few of them already have in a postseason so you wouldn't toss your eggs either at the prospect.
So there's something for everyone. You're perfectly right to think the Cubs are going to cruise through the rest of the regular season, especially given how they've closed in the 2nd half for three straight seasons now. And you're also right to be apprehensive about the playoffs, where the final verdicts will be rendered. Sadly, these are two different forms of baseball, and it's hard to have a team for both.
She's a strange beast, this game.