When you put the Chicago Cubs up against the San Francisco Giants, you might get caught up in a simple comparison: the fun, young Cubs, overloaded with blue-chip talent and obviously going places, and the Giants, the team with three World Series titles over five years who have already been there. You might think that while the Giants owned the past, the Cubs own the present and the future.
That would be a mistake, because as much fun as this Cubs team is to watch, the 2016 Giants aren’t some fading dynasty. Compare the two clubs in the early going, and you might think it’s still all Cubs, with their league-best record and plus-111 run differential. But take a closer look behind the aggregate numbers, and you won’t see one team with a clear, overwhelming advantage. Instead, you see two teams with similar strengths, built to win now.
Take the starting pitching, the edge the Cubs enjoy over everybody these days thanks to Jake Arrieta and his historic run of dominance, combined with the free-agent additions of Jon Lester and John Lackey. If that sounds familiar, it should: The Giants have their own history-making ace in Madison Bumgarner, backed by Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija.
On the strength of their rotation trio, the Cubs are tied with the Nationals for the National League lead in quality starts with 29. But there the Giants are, right behind them with 27. The Cubs might lead the majors in starter ERA with 2.52, and the Giants might collectively eat their dust at 3.94. But that’s because of how bad Jake Peavy and -- until recently -- Matt Cain have been in the Nos. 4-5 slots for the Giants, and Cain did just beat the Cubs. Compare front three starters to front three -- the guys who are supposed to carry the load in a five- or seven-game series --- and the Giants don’t surrender anything. And their front three is the younger group, not least because Bumgarner is four years younger than Arrieta.
Similarities between the two teams run deeper, of course. Both offenses owe much to walks: The Cubs lead the majors with a 12.3 percent walk rate, while the Giants are fourth at 10 percent. Both have outfields that go at least four deep in good players, further still in the Cubs’ case. Thanks to Jason Heyward’s defense and Dexter Fowler’s big start, and the Cubs look better at the moment. Then again, the Cubs don’t employ a potential Hall of Fame catcher like Buster Posey.
How about a franchise shortstop? Check. The future might belong to Addison Russell of the Cubs: He’s 22, putting up a .756 OPS, and ranks fourth among MLB shortstops with plus-5 defensive runs saved. But the Giants’ Brandon Crawford is in his prime, the reigning Gold Glove champ, and he’s tied for first among all MLB shortstops in DRS at plus-7. And where last season’s breakout at the plate with a .783 OPS and the most extra-base hits among shortstops (with 58, 10 more than anybody else) was a huge step forward in his age-28 season, all Crawford is doing this season is doubling down, putting up a .758 OPS. The future title as the best shortstop in the league might be Russell’s, but Crawford concedes nothing in the present.
Then again, that’s the Giants’ infield in a nutshell. Crawford is the oldest player among them, with first baseman Brandon Belt next, in his age-28 season. He’s cranking out an .897 OPS. The point isn’t that Anthony Rizzo is better, but that you win with guys this good. Second baseman Joe Panik and third baseman Matt Duffy are both in their age-25 seasons, with Panik already demonstrating that his sophomore season slugging spike is legit: In 2015, his isolated power rate jumped to .143, and then to .175 this season. Including Posey, and Giants control all five of the guys around the bases through at least 2020. This isn’t a unit that has seen better days. It’s a team that owns the present, and much like the front three in its rotation, it’s a relatively young group you can expect Bruce Bochy to win with for years to come.
We could also bring up the Giants’ competitive environment. In the NL West, the “bad” teams employ guys like Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, players so good you wouldn’t be surprised if they won the MVP award this season. Compare that to the NL Central, where the Brewers and Reds will dutifully play out the schedule and do their part to contribute to the Cubs faithful's season-long fangasms over their team's run differential. Run differential piled up against bad teams and worse bullpens -- like the Cubs’ plus-40 racked up against the Reds in just seven games -- might give you a brag-worthy pile of excess, but those numbers don’t necessarily tell you much about how a team will do against other good teams in win-or-go-home series.
And that’s the thing about comparing these two really good teams in a nutshell. We anticipate that the future belongs to the Cubs because of players like Rizzo, Arrieta, Russell and Bryant, and because of the win-now veterans that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have surrounded them with. But if you want to see what that blueprint of homegrown greatness combined with experience looks like after it has already yielded results, and is still winning, you only need look across the field on Sunday night. These Cubs have not yet won a division, a pennant, or a title. And these Giants? They’re anything but yesterday’s men.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.