Last winter's spending spree paid off for the Cubs, at least in the short term, although it took just about every penny of their $300 million spent to win the 83-plus games required to take the National League Central title. The piper may come soon to collect payment on those deals, but for now, the North Siders are in the dance.
The Cubs bring the most balanced team to the playoffs among the four NL participants, but they don't have any major area of strength. Playing in the majors' worst division, they posted the league's second-best ERA, but that reflects the terrible offenses their pitchers faced in nearly half their innings. Chicago's out-of-division ERA was 4.34, which is just a touch better than the overall NL average of 4.42. The Cubs' offense was also decidedly middle-of-the-road, finishing eighth in runs scored.
The Cubs' middle relief corps has been a big part of the team's success this year, starting with the revelation of Carlos Marmol. At times, he has filled a multiple-inning relief role similar to Mariano Rivera in 1996. Marmol, a converted outfielder, has a pretty rough arm action that relegated him to relief work, but he features an outstanding fastball-slider combination and is effective against hitters on both sides of the plate. Against right-handed batters, he'll utilize the run on his 92-93 mph fastball to keep the ball moving away from the hitter, and he'll throw his slider with more tilt to hit the inside corner or to sweep it down and away to make the hitter chase. Against left-handed batters, he runs his fastball in hard on their hands, and lifts his arm angle very slightly to get more depth on his breaking ball. Two caveats with Marmol: he can be wild, and he's been very lucky this year to give up just three home runs (given how flat his fastball is). He'll eventually have to make an adjustment when he gives up a few long balls.