But seriously, folks: Are the Cubs still the NL’s team to beat?

The Cubs are a subpar offensive team this season, next-to-last in the National League in batting average and so averse to success with runners in scoring position, one wonders if the clutch gene they shared all last year has mutated insidiously.

Yet most observers wonder and worry more about the Cubs’ starting pitching. It’s far from a hopeless situation, but the rotation, though most of the names and faces are the same, is a shell of its 2016 self. If the rotation were a pitching arm, it would be somewhere between gnarled and shattered — and that’s aside from any actual injuries.

So … are the Cubs still the team to beat this season?

That’s the question we posed to All-Star members of the five NL teams with better records heading into the second half than the 43-45 Cubs — from the Central-leading Brewers (50-41) to the wild-card-contending Rockies (52-39) and Diamondbacks (53-36) and, of course, the runaway East-leading Nationals (52-36) and the out-of-control-good Dodgers (61-29).

The Cubs, led by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, have championship talent and pedigree. But will that really equal contention in 2017? (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

We asked them all if the Cubs are the team to beat. Would you believe none of them laughed?

“The Cubs are a great team,” Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper said. “They’re still a really, really good team. There’s a long ways to go. I think the biggest thing for baseball players is that’s why the season is so long.

“You can never count the Cubs out. They’ve got a great manager, great team, good pitching staff and veteran guys on the team that run the clubhouse.”

Look, a man is entitled to his opinions.

“Yeah, they’re the team to beat,” said Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu, who began his big-league career with the Cubs in 2011. “They’re not having the year that they would like, but they’re the defending champs. They’re going to have a good second half.”

They might need to have a very good second half to outfight the Brewers, owners of an impressive 5½-game lead in the division.

“Are the Cubs the team to beat?” Brewers closer Corey Knebel said. “I mean, I don’t really know how to answer that. Let’s just see how it plays out.”

D-backs third baseman Jake Lamb somehow managed to be even more vague than that. He did say that the Cubs’ struggles have taken him by surprise, but then he ducked for cover behind the convenient fact that his team hasn’t actually played them this season.

“I don’t know about the 2017 Cubs,” Lamb said.

Fair enough. Then there’s Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, who definitely knows a thing or two about the Cubs. The teams have played two series, with the Dodgers going 4-2. That includes an L.A. sweep at home that was cruelly one-sided and really launched the Dodgers into a hot streak that seems like it might never end. Oh, yeah, Turner also beat out Kris Bryant for the final NL roster spot.

“Well, we’ve already played them our [six] times,” Turner said, “so we don’t have to play them anymore — so now they’re no longer the team for us to beat.”

The Dodgers are pitching machines, striking out more batters than any team in the league, walking the fewest and allowing opponents a barely perceptible speck of a batting average — .223. This team can rake at the plate, too.

Do the Cubs really even begin to compare?

“I think any team that won the World Series the past year, they’re the World Series champions until the next team wins,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “It doesn’t really matter who you beat to win the World Series. But the Cubs still won, so you’ve got to respect that, for sure.”

Speaking of raking, the Nationals do it better than anybody in the National League.

They lead the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and runs scored. Oh, and they have Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of their rotation.

Who plays for the Cubs again?

“Come on, they’re the champs,” Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I would by no means think that they’re anywhere near out of the [World Series] picture by any chance. That’s a good team with a good roster. They’ve got a run in them for sure. They’re going to be right back in the thick of it.”

Maybe, just maybe, the man knows what he’s talking about.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com


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