Handicapping the NL Central Race

The division that seemingly nobody wants to win is shaping up to be one of the more exciting races in recent memory as baseball enters its second season.

Right now, four teams – count ’em, four are within five games of first place. Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis are each within a game of each other. Cincinnati, while playing sub-.500 ball, remains just four games out with plenty of baseball still to be played.

Adding to the sense of urgency is that the only way for them to get into the playoffs this year is to win the division. Philadelphia and Atlanta are both playing stellar baseball in the NL East, and whichever one of those teams doesn’t win the division is likely headed to the postseason as the Wild Card entry.

Much like any horse race, this one needs to be handicapped, with odds denoting each team’s chances. I’m not much of a gambling man myself, so take from these what you will.

Cincinnati Reds (15-1) — It’s going to take a collapse from all three teams at the top or a major resurgence in the Queen City for the Reds to pull ahead of the pack. That being said, We’re still in July which means it’s still anyone’s – ok, definitely not the Astros’ or the Cubs – ballgame. Cincinnati’s problems have stemmed from the fact that they’re just an average team — literally. 2 games over .500 at home, 5 games below on the road.

That said, this is not a bad team. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips have lead a fairly potent office that is averaging nearly 5 runs per game. The problem — and it’s one that needs to be addressed at the deadline — has been with their pitching staff, which has been inconsistent at best.

Johnny Cueto leads all starters with a stellar 1.98 ERA, but after that the dropoff is precipitous. Mike Leake’s 4.11 ERA is the second best, which tells you about all you need to know in regards to how well the rotation has fared this season. Veteran Bronson Arroyo (7-8, 5.56 ERA) is having a season to forget to put it kindly, while Travis Wood and an assortment of others have done their best to hold up the back end.

If the Reds can hold on through a stretch that includes series against Atlanta and San Francisco however, the scheduling gods smile upon them the rest of the way. The team will be able to feast with 16 games against the cellar-dwelling Cubs and Astros, providing some much needed notches on the left side of the ledger coming down the stretch.

Bottom line — the offense can only score so many runs. Eventually the rotation and bullpen are going to have to step up to help stop the bleeding at some point, otherwise Great American Ballpark will remain dormant this October.

Pittsburgh Pirates (10-1) — The feel-good story of 2011 looks like it’s going to have a less than happy ending. The Pittsburgh Pirates have perennially been baseball’s whipping boys but no longer, as for the first time in 20 years, there’s reason for hope in the Steel City.

They’re still a game out of first, but after the way the team has played against St. Louis this weekend, that one game that they currently stand out of first place feels more like ten. Realistically, this team has been getting by on smoke, mirrors and moxie all season long. As a team, they rank near the bottom of the league in runs scored (25th), batting average (23rd), OBP (22nd), and slugging percentage (25th). Oof.

MVP candidate (yes, I did just type that) Andrew McCutchen (.280, 14 HR, 59 RBI) and Neil Walker have helped keep the team in most games with clutch hits and stellar defensive play. But it’s become abundantly clear in recent weeks that this team needs to add a bat at the trade deadline — perhaps even bringing back an old friend in Aramis Ramirez?

Pittsburgh’s saving grace has come in the form of their pitching staff, which has been stellar. Starters Jeff Karstens, Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia lead a surprising rotation that has been buoyed by one of the best bullpens in all of baseball. Joel Hanrahan has been a welcome surprise in the closer role and should provide a solid anchor at the end of games at PNC Park for years to come.

If the Buccos are going to maintain their spot at the top of the standings, simply put they’ve gotta hit the ball better. It’s like a bizarro Cincinnati situation, wherein the team cannot seem to find enough power to buoy their stellar starters. But if this team can keep it together, even making the playoffs would make this team one of the best sports stories in the past decade. 

St. Louis Cardinals (7-2) —  Never sleep on Tony LaRussa, even when he’s been handed an injury-riddled and under-performing roster.

This team’s numbers indicate a roster that should be running away with this division. The Cardinals are among the league leaders in batting average, on-base percentage and runs scored. This is something that doesn’t appear to be letting up either, with a healthy Albert Pujols returning to the lineup and Lance Berkman continuing to play like it’s 2004 all over again.

While loaded with offensive firepower, the Cardinals’ pitching staff has been an absolute disaster. The team currently ranks 23rd in the league in quality starts and is carrying a staff ERA of 3.91 — good, but not nearly enough to make it far in October. Jaime Garcia has stepped up in an expanded role this season, leading the team with a 10-4 record and a 3.01 ERA.

The bullpen has been an adventure as well. The team just gave up on former closer Ryan Franklin after a disastrious season that saw him post an 8.46 ERA in just 27.2 innings pitched. Fernando Salas has converted 18 of 21 save opportunities but remains unproven in pennant race pressure situations.

This team is probably the most likely to give the Brewers a run for their money depending on what they do at the deadline. GM John Mozeliak has got to go out and get at least one if not more reinforcements for the back end of the bullpen to keep this team in it. 

Which of course leads us to your odds-on favorite to win baseball’s most exciting division…

The Milwaukee Brewers (5-2) — Manager Ron Roenicke is having an exciting inaugural campaign, having pressed all the right buttons to get the most out of a potent lineup. Of all the teams on this list, the Brewers have the right mix of pitching and power to get them over the hump and into the postseason.

Zack Greinke (7-4, 4.84 ERA) has underachieved so far at the top of the rotation, but the Brew Crew has gotten solid contributions from Yovani Gallardo (11 wins, 3.96 ERA) and newcomer Shawn Marcum (9-3, 3.35) at the top of the rotation. GM Doug Melvin has shown yet again that he’s not afraid to raid the farm if it means winning today either. He shocked the baseball world by pulling off a trade for Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, helping plug a major hole in the bullpen and helping bridge the gap to lights-out closer John Axford.

Much has been written about the Brewers’ offense, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time telling you what you don’t already know. Prince Fielder is in a contract yer and will likely be leaving after this season. He along with Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks have been giving opposing pitchers headaches this season, reminding some fans of the old Harvey’s Wallbangers days from the early 1980s. Defensively, Nyjer Morgan (aka Tony Plush) has been a pleasant surprise, making numerous highlight reel-worthy plays while contributing at the plate as well.

At the deadline, this team needs a shortstop and perhaps another middle reliever. Yuniesky Betancourt isn’t getting the job done for the Crew either at the plate or in the field. Rodriguez, while solid, can’t compensate for the struggles of Kameron Loe and others in the pen. All that being said, while this team has holes, it is by far and away the Central’s most complete roster. Look for the Crew to roll out the barrel well into October as the rest of the division scrambles to keep up.