The NL Central: The Most Even Division in Baseball
There is only one division currently in baseball where all five teams in the division are still in “realistic” contention for the division title. That division would be the National League Central. The statistics show that this division is very even from top to bottom, as each of these teams are doing well in different statistical categories. According to FiveThirtyEight, the National League Central is the only division where all five teams in the division still have greater than a 1 percent chance to win the division. Let’s take a look at each team’s season so far, and preview their future.
Chicago Cubs (Current Record 37-28)
Season Summary: The Cubs scared their fan base this season by jumping out to a dismal 2-7 start. In 8 of those first 9 games, they gave up 6 or more runs. Since that 2-7 start, the Cubs have gone 35-20 in their last 55 games, anchored by a 24-11 record at Wrigley Field, and an offense that currently ranks 2nd in the National League in home runs. They do need to crack down on defense as their 46 errors ranks them next to last in the National League in that category.
The Cubs, however, did make one of the biggest splashes of the season so far when they signed free agent Craig Kimbrel to a 3 year, $43 million dollar deal. They will be looking for Kimbrel to anchor down a bullpen that has been up and down for most of the season due to injuries and lackluster performances. The money to sign Kimbrel was freed up due to Ben Zobrist being on personal leave. His $9 million no longer will count against the salary cap (unless he returns), and the first year of Kimbrel’s deal is worth just over $10 million. They also added Carlos Gonzalez to a minor league contract on May 30, and immediately called him up to the big leagues. The addition has severely cut into the playing time of Albert Almora, which weakens the Cubs defensively, but may improve them offensively in the long run.
Schedule: Of their 97 remaining games, 43 of those games are against teams that are currently .500 or better in the standings. 6 of those games happen this week as they have a series in Colorado, and a 4 game set against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. They currently have 52 divisional games remaining, but 30 of those 52 do come on the road. The Cubs are 2-7 in their first 9 divisional road games this year compared to 11-4 in their 15 divisional home games. In such a tightly packed division, they will need to improve their performance away from Wrigley Field in these important divisional games.
Roster Need(s): Even though they signed Kimbrel, the main roster need for the Cubs may still be in their bullpen. The only left handed options in the pen for the Cubs are Kyle Ryan, who sports a less than stellar 4.57 ERA and 1.38 WHIP, and Mike Montgomery who is more of a middle relief specialist that can go 2-4 innings if needed. If the Cubs make a move around the trade deadline, I would expect it to be some additional help for the bullpen.
Milwaukee Brewers(Current Record: 38-28)
Season Summary: The Milwaukee Brewers jumped out to the early lead in the NL central, winning 8 of their first 10 games. They then receded back to .500, winning only 5 of their next 16 games, including getting swept on the road by both the Angels and Cardinals. The injury bug hasn’t been too kind to the Brewers in the first half of the season, as Freddy Peralta, Chase Anderson, Travis Shaw, Manny Pina, Gio Gonzalez, and Jhoulys Chacin have all found themselves on the 10 day IL this season.
The Brewers have been led by an offense with 114 home runs, which leads the National League. Christian Yelich, Mike Moustakas, and Yasmani Grandal have all helped the Brewers overcome the very slow starts by Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw this season (currently batting .195 and .170 respectively). The pitching staff is currently being held together by duct tape, but Jimmy Nelson returned last week to the rotation, and Gio Gonzalez and Jhoulys Chacin are both expected to return in mid-June. Top prospect Keston Hiura was called up to replace Shaw when he was on the IL, but was sent back to the minors when Shaw returned, which puzzled many Brewers fans that thought Hiura was here to stay.
Schedule: Of their 96 remaining games, 51 of them are against teams with a .500 record or better. 27 of these games are at Miller Park, where the Brewers are 22-13 so far this season. The Brewers still have 12 interleague games against AL opponents with records of .500 or better (4 vs. Houston, 2 vs. Minnesota, 3 vs. Oakland, 3 vs. Texas), with 7 of those games at home. The Brewers still have 48 divisional games this season, with 25 of those on the road (the Brewers current road record against divisional opponents is 7-6 and their home record is 11-4).
Roster Need(s): At the current time, the Brewers biggest need would be a veteran starting pitcher that could provide some stability to their rotation. While Brandon Woodruff and Zach Davies have been superb so far this season, there has been a revolving door of pitchers filling the back part of the rotation. Those pitchers have included Gio Gonzalez, Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, and Jimmy Nelson. If the postseason started today, two of those four pitchers would have to be part of the Brewers postseason pitching rotation. I expect the Brewers to be actively looking for a starting pitcher like Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke, or Marcus Stroman to bolster their rotation.
St. Louis Cardinals (Current Record: 32-32)
Season Summary: The Cardinal fan base has seen multiple glimpses this season of how good their team can be. Even though they are currently .500, the Cardinals have had 3 separate 5 game winning streaks this season. They have swept a 4 game home series against the Dodgers, a 3 game home series against the Brewers, and a 3 game home series against the Cubs. Wrigley Field has been the Achilles heel for the Cardinals however, as they are 0-6 in their 6 games at The Friendly Confines.
The pitching staff has under-performed for the Cardinals as they currently are ranked 8th in both ERA and WHIP in the National League. Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha all have ERA’s over 4.00 so far this season, and Dakota Hudson sports the best ERA of the staff at 3.70. The offense hasn’t fared any better as the Cardinals are in the bottom half of the National League in total runs, home runs, and batting average. They are currently missing the services of their primary catcher, as Yadier Molina landed on the IL on May 31 with a right thumb injury.
Schedule: Of their remaining 98 games, only 44 of them are against teams that have records that are currently .500 or better. If the Cardinals are going to make a serious run at the division title, it needs to start now. From now until July 25, the Cardinals play NO games against teams that have a record that is better than 3 games over .500. The next 45 days will be possibly the most crucial time of the season for the Cardinals as they play 6 vs. Miami, 4 vs. the Mets, 3 vs. the Angels, 2 vs. Oakland, 3 vs. San Diego, 3 vs. Seattle, 3 vs. San Francisco, 3 vs. Arizona, 7 vs. Pittsburgh, and 4 vs Cincinnati(none of these teams would make the playoffs is the season ended today). Of those 38 games however, 23 of them will be on the road. Nevertheless, this 38 game stretch will set up the home stretch which will be filled with opponents with better records.
Roster Need(s): Since both the Cardinals offense and pitching staff has under-performed so far this season, it is harder to prioritize which needs are more pressing than others. In my opinion, however, the Cardinals should follow the same path as the Brewers and find a starting pitcher to help stabilize the starting rotation. Adam Wainwright has just landed on the IL, and since no starting pitcher has an ERA under 3.70, they are really in desperate need for quality starts. The Cardinals do have a plethora of minor league talent, so they are likely to be an active participant around the trade deadline, most likely looking for a starting pitcher or a source of power for their offense.
Pittsburgh Pirates (Current Record: 30-35)
Season Summary: Pirates fans have most certainly been on a wild ride for the first part of the regular season. The Pirates currently have the 2nd worst run differential in the National League at minus 83. They also sport the NL’s worst ERA at 5.03 and the NL’s worst WHIP at 1.42. They are 5 games under .500 at home, and are 17-30 against teams with a record of .500 or better. Their offense ranks 12th in the National League in runs scored, and 13th in the National League in home runs.
Given all of those stats, the Pirates find themselves only 5 games under .500 and only 7.5 games back of the division leading Brewers. The Pirates have beat up on teams currently under .500, as they are 13-5 in those 18 games. They also sport the most road wins in the NL central, as they are currently 17-17 in their 34 road games. Josh Bell has been on a tear this season, with a .331 batting average and 18 home runs. Given a pitching staff that has been atrocious and an offense that has under-performed, the Pirates have to probably actually be happy with where they are currently at, because there is a lot of room to grow.
Schedule: Of their remaining 97 games, 60 of them come against teams that currently have a record of .500 or better. They also have 50 divisional games left, with half of those at home and half on the road. Of those 50 games, 16 of them will come against the Cubs and 12 against the Brewers. They have a challenging road ahead of them, and they are going to have to play better baseball if they want to stay in the race for the National League Central division title.
Roster Need(s): When you are in the bottom 3 of the National League in Runs, Home Runs, ERA, and WHIP, it becomes hard to decide what your biggest needs are. Like the Brewers and Cardinals above, it appears that their biggest need is starting pitching help. Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, and Trevor Williams have all found themselves on the IL this season. Jordan Lyles and Joe Musgrove have been great at times, but terrible at other times. No matter what their deficiencies on offense may be, if the Pirates don’t turn around their pitching woes, it will be almost impossible for them to stay in the race for the division title.
Cincinnati Reds(Current Record: 29-35):
Season Summary: When you compare and contrast the statistics of the Pirates and the Reds, it is hard to believe that they are a half game apart in the standings. The Reds have the 2nd best run differential in the NL central at Plus 33. They are currently pitching really well (2nd in ERA and 3rd in WHIP), anchored by the ace of their staff Luis Castillo. Last year, Scooter Gennett parlayed the starting 2B job to a career season and an all-star selection. This year, Derek Dietrich has parlayed the 2B job to 17 home runs and 37 RBI.
With the veteran leadership of Joey Votto, and bats like Eugenio Suarez, Yasiel Puig, and Dietrich in the middle of the Reds lineup, this is a lineup whose best days may lie ahead. The Reds started the year 1-8 in their first 9 games (Reds fans remember last year’s horrific start), but have played over .500 baseball in the 55 games since that time (28-27). It may be a statistical anomaly, but the Reds are currently 9-21 in day games. They need to somehow turn that trend around and play better in the daytime. They are also the only road team to win a series at Wrigley Field this year.
Schedule: The road for the Cincinnati Reds will be a tough one, if they want to make a serious run at the division title. Of the 98 games left in the season for the Reds, 72 of them come against teams that currently have records at .500 or better. They have 47 divisional games remaining, 25 of them at home, and 22 on the road. If the Reds are going to hang in the race for the division, they are going to need to play their best baseball of the year in the upcoming months.
Roster Need(s): The Reds are in need of either starting pitching help, or an extra outfielder to provide them some more power and stability in the outfield. The outfield is currently being manned by Yasiel Puig, Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel. The Reds are currently in the bottom half of the league in runs scored and home runs, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Reds go after some outfield help. They also may go after another starting pitcher, as the back end of the rotation is filled with young pitchers and off-season acquisitions that only have decent ERA’s as of now.
The National League Central division race will be a tight, interesting race all year long. With more than half of the season to go, all of these teams have yet to play their best baseball, and all of them could be buyers on the trade market as we get closer to the trade deadline. Remember that last year, this division end with a tie atop the lead as the Brewers and Cubs had to play a one game playoff to settle the tie. Could we have deja vu all over again this year?