Alex Kielar| July 10th, 2019
The NL Central is the tightest division race in the Majors at midseason, with only 4.5 games separating first and last place. By season’s end, it will probably end up being a three-team race between the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals. Let’s dive into each team in this division, starting with the first-place Chicago Cubs.
Chicago Cubs (47-43)
The Cubs have gotten solid production from their offense, putting up a plus-63 run differential in the first half. Javier Baez has been the Cubs’ MVP this season so far, and could again be in the running for NL MVP after being the runner-up to Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich (more on him later). Baez has a slash line of .288/.324/.526 with 22 home runs and 60 RBI at the All-Star Break. Including his 81-pitch “Maddux” (complete game shutout under 100 pitches) performance on May 3, Kyle Hendricks has been the Cubs best and most consistent pitcher this season. Hendricks has pitched to a 7-7 record with a 3.49 ERA through 95.1 innings pitched in 16 starts while striking out 85 batters and only walking 19. His HR/9 has also been very good, at 0.89, which is 16th among starters. He has been able to lower his BB% to the lowest of his career, to 4.5%, while also putting up eight quality starts (three runs or less in six innings+) of his 16 starts. Other players having solid seasons are Kris Bryant (.297/.403/.552, 17 home runs, 44 RBI), Willson Contreras (.286/.381/.556, 18 home runs, 52 RBI), and Cole Hamels (6-3, 2.98 ERA, 97 SO, .234 BAA, 1.20 WHIP).
The Cubs have been very inconsistent all season long, starting the season 3-8, going 22-6 in the next 28, then going 19-23 in the next 42. They either look really good or really bad. Other than their 22-6 stretch, they’ve been a very mediocre team in all facets and might not be good enough to make noise in the playoffs. Their pitching has been their worst piece (starting and bullpen), while many of their hitters have also shown streakiness. Their bullpen has blown 13 saves, while having an ERA of 4.20 (insert marijuana joke here), and have allowed a .334 OBP, which is 20th in the league. Adding free agent Craig Kimbrel following the MLB Draft hasn’t helped lower Cubs fans’ pulses either, as, in his four appearances over 3.2 innings, he has walked three, hit a batter, allowed five runs, and has struggled with finding control. One concern has been his velocity being down to 95 after being around 98 last season. The good news is, he still has time to find it again, and give the Cubs what they paid for.
As I stated earlier, Javier Baez has easily been the team’s MVP, as he has been the most consistent hitter and provides excellent baserunning and defense as well.
Buyers or Sellers:
The Cubs definitely need to find some more help in the bullpen if they want to contend in the playoffs, and in all honesty, they may miss the postseason entirely if they keep up the inconsistency. One more piece in the bullpen may help mold it all together, but they probably need even more than just one.
Milwaukee Brewers (47-44) 0.5 GB
Going into the season, most people expected regression from the Brewers and from reigning MVP Christian Yelich, but neither has happened to this point. The Brewers sit just a half-game back of the Cubs, while most people expected them to fall into third place. They currently are projected to challenge 90 wins and have a good shot at winning the division. Yelich has pretty much picked up where he left off in his MVP season and shows no signs of slowing down. At the All-Star Break, he has a slash line of .329/.433/.707 with 67 RBI, 31 HR, and 19 stolen bases. He leads the league in home runs, slugging, OPS (1.140), and AB per HR (9.8), while also being fifth in the league with a 4.9 WAR (third in the NL). Milwaukee has also seen very good production from Mike Moustakas and new addition Yasmani Grandal, both along with Yelich getting All-Star nods. Moustakas has a slash line of .263/.334/.551 with 53 RBI and 25 HR, while Grandal is slashing .259/.372/.525 with 48 RBI and 19 HR. They have gotten very consistent pitching from starters Zach Davies (7-2, 3.07 ERA, 63 SO, 2.10 K/BB) and Brandon Woodruff (10-3, 3.67 ERA, 126 SO, 5.04 K/BB, 1.14 WHIP), and closer Josh Hader (20/21 saves, 2.09 ERA, 79 SO, 6.08 SO/BB, .106 BAA).
Besides the six names I mentioned above, the Brewers haven’t gotten much production. All other pitchers besides Davies, Woodruff, and Hader are a combined 29-36 with an 8.30 (6.01 excluding Deolis Guerra 4-run, 0.2 inning appearance) ERA, and averaging nearly two homers per 9. They have a -17 run differential and were outscored by 20 runs in the month of June. Their defense has also been very shaky, committing 51 total errors and having the 12th worst team UZR at -0.6 and UZR/150 [games] of 0.4. Looking at this team right now, it’s hard to see them being anywhere near the same team that pushed the Dodgers to Game 7 in the NLCS last season.
This isn’t even a question, the clear Team MVP has been, of course, Christian Yelich. Right now, Yelich is unquestionably either the frontrunner or a close second in the NL MVP race, with the Dodger’s Cody Bellinger.
Buyers or Sellers:
They definitely need some help in the pitching department, with relievers Will Smith and Ken Giles probably being on the market. Other second-tier relievers like Orioles’ Mychal Givens or Giants’ Sam Dyson could also be an option. Either of them would help mightily in building a bridge to Hader. They should also be in on the starting pitching market and potentially for another bat.
St. Louis Cardinals (44-44) 2.0 GB
Despite struggling more often than that in the first half, the pitching staff had an okay month of June, holding an overall ERA of 3.65, going 13-13, and lowering their allowed-OBP to .311 for the month. They are also a pretty solid defensive team, being fourth in the league in fielding percentage at .988 and fifth in defensive efficiency at .704. They are right in the thick of the NL Central and Wild Card race, despite being a .500 at the break.
Expectations were much higher coming into the season, with the addition of Paul Goldschmidt raising the hype to some even picking the Cardinals to win the division. But the team, including Goldy and several other big-name stars, have underachieved thus far. Their best hitter has been Marcell Ozuna, slashing .259/.331/.515 with 20 HR and 62 RBI, and his .847 OPS is way ahead of the rest of the team. Their pitching, other than the month of June, has been mediocre, and the news of closer Jordan Hicks undergoing Tommy John surgery doesn’t help raise hopefulness.
Shortstop Paul DeJong is the team’s lone All-Star and is easily their MVP, as he is slashing .258/.343/.442 with 13 HR and 36 RBI. He has also been one of the team’s best defenders, with a +7 DRS and +6.6 UZR. He’s also seen a bit of bad luck with a .291 BABIP.
Buyers or Sellers:
This is a bit tougher to predict; on one hand, their record would tell me they should either sell or stay put, while them only being two games back in the division tells me they should buy. Even if they were to buy, what would they go after? They need help in all areas and don’t really have much in their farm system to use as trade pieces. Selling off wouldn’t make much sense either as they have the talent to compete for the next few years. My final verdict is that they just stay stagnant and hope that they can turn it around enough to stay in the playoff race.
Pittsburgh Pirates (44-45) 2.5 GB
Josh Bell has broken out as one of the top power hitters this year and has pretty much kept the Pirates afloat. He is slashing .302/.376/.648 with 27 home runs and a league-leading 84 RBI. Other Pirates having great seasons are Bryan Reynolds (.342/.414/.536, 7 HR, 33 RBI), Melky Cabrera (.312/.348/.459, 6 HR, 31 RBI), and Joe Musgrove (4.15 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 7.5 SO/9, 0.9 HR/9). The pitching staff as a whole has a 70.7 LOB% and a 41.6 GB% (groundball rate). Even though there have been some struggles, the Pirates are still right in the mix in the division and the wild card, and they certainly exceeded expectations coming into the season.
Besides Joe Musgrove, and even he has struggled, the Pirates’ pitching staff has been very mediocre. All their starters have an ERA over 4.00, while the bullpen has been near disaster-like, other than closer Felipe Vazquez (20 saves, 2.11 ERA, 0.7 HR/9, 6.00 SO/BB) and Franciso Liriano (3.09 ERA, 1.133 WHIP, 8.7 SO/9). The defense hasn’t been much help, the least efficient in the league. Jameson Taillon had been looked at to being a major key to the pitching staff, but has suffered through an elbow injury, and the trade for Chris Archer (5.56 ERA) is looking dumber and dumber by the day, who is struggling mightily this season, while Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow having great seasons for the Rays.
Josh Bell, as I said earlier has been what has kept the Pirates afloat in the tight NL Central race. Easy choice here.
Buyers or Sellers:
Even though the Pirates are still in the division and wild-card race, that won’t last. Their pitching will be their ultimate demise, and better to build for the future with some promising youngsters already on the team. The Pirates should look to move guys like Musgrove, Starling Marte, Liriano, and Cabrera, among others.
Cincinnati Reds (41-46) 4.5 GB
The Reds have gone far and beyond all expectations coming into the season so far and are still much in the playoff hunt as well. The pitching staff has vastly improved from last season, with Luis Castillo (8-3, 2.29 ERA, 124 SO, 10.5 SO/9, 1.085 WHIP) breaking out into a stud, Sonny Gray (5-5, 3.59 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 103 SO 10/3 SO/9, 0.9 HR/9, 3.12 SO/BB) bouncing back from last season, Tanner Roark (5-6, 3.51 ERA, 9.0 SO/9) pitching well, and bullpen arms Raisel Iglesias (16 S, 1.38 WHIP, 11.2 SO/BB), Michael Lorenzen (3.74 ERA, 8.9 SO/9, 3.75 SO/BB), and Amir Garret (1.70 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 1.22 WHIP, 13.1 SO/BB) being solid. They have improved their ERA to 3.65 after a 4.63 ERA last year. Coming into the season, I was actually expected them to make some noise, but not do this well as far as pitching is concerned. They also have a plus-40 run differential.
While the pitching has exceeded expectations, the hitting has been the opposite. I thought the offense would be what would carry the Reds to this point, but they have performed well under those expectations. New addition Matt Kemp has struggled while Eugenio Suarez and long-time Red Joey Votto have been just ok. Even with the plus-40 run differential, the Reds are one of the worst offensive teams in the NL, third-worst to be exact.
This has to go to Luis Castillo, who as I said has broken out into a stud for the pitching staff. His only problem is walks and control, but he has been outstanding other than that.
Buyer or Seller:
No question they should sell, with there being no shot the pitching will keep being able to carry them the way they have, just to stay afloat.
Questions and comments?
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images