The state of the NL Centralby Jason Linden
August 06, 2012
The Reds are at the top of the top tier of the Central. They stand 4.5 games above the Pirates and more than any other team in the NL, they can think about printing playoff tickets. They got here by playing out of their minds over the last month. Here's how their last 26 games have gone: six wins, loss, win, loss, 10 wins, loss, five wins, loss. Oh, and Joey Votto has been out for most of that stretch.
This ridiculous stretch has put them in position to win more games than any Reds team since the Big Red Machine won its second title in 1976.
And it's not exactly going to get harder. Votto is expected back any day now (he's traveling with the team on the upcoming road trip), the Reds are about to play 22 straight games against teams with losing records, and their remaining opponents have a .471 winning percentage.
Given the likelyhood of October baseball in Cincinnati, what should the Reds be focusing on for the remainder of the season?
1. Get healthy - The Reds have been seriously banged up. Recently, they had to play a game with no extra infielders. This is not a deep team. If it's conceivable that you can end up with Miguel Cairo starting at second base, you need to make sure your primary contributors are healthy.
Votto is still on the DL. Brandon Phillips is not on the DL but is hurt. Devin Mesoraco is out with a concussion. Scott Rolen is healthy, but don't blink on that one. Regular rest is called for whenever possible, and don't push players with minor injuries.
2. Figure out who's pitching Game Three. Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos will pitch the first two games of the playoffs, but Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo, and Homer Bailey all have things to recommend them for the third contest.
In a great bounce-back year, Arroyo isn't walking anyone and has a nice 3.87 ERA. But he often loses it quickly and can't be counted on for more than five or six innings.
Bailey has shown flashes of brilliance and has a solid 3.85 ERA, but his peripheral stats are less impressive and he's been so inconsistent historically that it's hard to know what you're getting with him.
Leake is the most interesting case and probably would be my pick. He has the highest ERA of the three, but his xFIP, which is much better at predicting future ERA than actual ERA is, has him at 3.67. But, in the end, the three of them are so close together there isn't a wrong or right answer. Of course, that may all change in two months.
3. Watch Rolen and Ryan Ludwick and get Todd Frazier at-bats - Rolen was miserable for the first half and has been excellent so far in the second half. Still, keeping his shoulder healthy is like trying to hold together jelly with Scotch tape. Ludwick has been a wonderful surprise, but I'm not at all betting on the 34-year-old suddenly become a good player again after three years of being totally mediocre.
And then there's Frazier. If I were to make a bet, it would be that Frazier will outperform both Rolen and Ludwick for the remainder of the season. At 26, he's old for a rookie, but he was seemingly ready the last two years while the Reds were busy engaging in a misguided love affair with Juan Francisco.
This year, given a chance to play, all he's done is post a .276/.327/.528 line. Unfortunately, Frazier probably will play the least of the three. Still, he should be inserted at third base or left field the moment Rolen or Ludwick starts to slip, as those two are almost certainly hitting on borrowed time.
I probably owe an apology to Pirates fans. The last time I did one of these updates, I simply did not believe they were for real. Of course, given that they didn't have a positive run differential until the end of June, perhaps I can be forgiven a bit.
But make no mistake now, Pittsburgh is about to have its first winning season in 20 years, and if things go right, the Pirates are going to see playoff baseball. While catching the Reds isn't out of the question, 4.5 games is a lot to make up in August against a team that has a much better run differential.
So the focus probably should be on holding on to a Wild Card berth. The NL Wild Card is a quite a scrum right now with the Braves, Pirates, Cardinals, Dodgers and Giants all possible winners, and we could argue about the Diamondbacks as well.
The big key here is, somewhat obviously, Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen has been wonderful this season. His .369 average is so good that his latest career average of .294 is higher than he's managed during any previous season. It's tempting to call this luck, and some of it probably is (he's not going to keep that .420 average on balls in play going), but he's hitting a lot more line drives and, at 26, he's reached the age when many excellent players start putting up a few truly great seasons.
Unfortunately, he's such a huge part of the offense that he pretty much has to keep hitting. As long as he does. the Pirates should find themselves in October. If he suddenly returns to his previous (but still very good) level of performance, the Pirates may find themselves on the outside looking in.
Pittsburgh fans will also have to hope the pitching keeps this up. Their 3.61 staff ERA places the Pirates in the upper echelon of the league, but advanced metrics see them as more of an average pitching team. Still, A.J. Burnett has been excellent this year, as has James McDonald (though the Pirates must be hoping that a recent solid start against the Reds marks the end of some control issues he's had of late). You can go to the playoffs with their rotation.
So there's a lot of reason for hope in Pittsburgh, but they are still in a battle. Like the Reds, they have an easy schedule for the rest of the year. If they can pick a up a few games on the teams behind them, they'll be able to breath a little easier.
St. Louis Cardinals
Ah, the Cardinals. Owners of the best run differential in baseball. They have outscored their opponents by 107 runs and yet, they sit in third place. What's that about? Well, injuries certainly haven't helped. Lance Berkman, of course, has barely played. Jon Jay missed six weeks. Chris Carpenter never threw a pitch. Jaime Garcia has been out for two months. All of those players were significant losses. But they still have that crazy run differential, so it's not like the replacements are falling on their faces.
Here's the best I can come up with: The Cardinals have won five games by at least nine runs. They have outscored their opponents by 55 runs total in those games. They have lost exactly one game by at least nine runs (a 14-5 defeat against the Pirates). Beyond that, the Cardinals, largely by virtue of playing in the NL Central AND getting to play the Royals six times, have thus far played one of the weakest schedules in baseball. So it may be that they are piling it on with weak teams and can't hold their own when they face tough competition.
Except it isn't that at all. It's luck. The Cardinals are six games below .500 in one-run games. They are four under in extra-inning games. That's why they have lost six more games than Pythagoras says they should have.
What those first three paragraphs should tell you is that the Cardinals are good. If your team is going to play them soon, you should be scared of them. They almost certainly aren't going to win the Central; there's simply too much ground to make up. They are so loaded with excellent performers that it's just about impossible to pick players to highlight. They might be the best team in the NL. And they might not make the playoffs.
If your a Cardinals fan, then, what should you be worried about? Well, first, they have a tougher schedule than any other contending NL team for the remainder of the season. This is the price they pay for having had such an easy run until now. Additionally, they are old in important ways. They have a lot of big contributors on the wrong side of 30. Some of them already have broken down, and some others might still.
Overall, though, Cardinals fans have to be hopeful. They aren't out of it yet. There's still plenty of baseball to play.
Speaking of bad luck, meet the Brewers. The Brewers, like the Cardinals, have been unlucky in those games that are largely decided by luck. There is more to it than that, though. According to FanGraphs, Brewers pitchers have an ERA somewhere between 0.4 and 0.6 runs worse than it should be. The Brewers aren't a good defensive team, but they aren't that bad. It's hard to believe the pitching numbers from them are anything other than horrible luck this year.
But is doens't matter. Everyone thought the Brewers had a shot to contend this year. But everyone also knew they didn't have a big margin for error. Right now, they have no realistic shot of making the playoffs. The season is over. Zack Greinke is gone. And you have to wonder if we aren't looking at the start of a long descent.
What on earth do you say about the Cubs? They can't even lose enough to get the first draft pick. I guess Alfonso Soriano has, surprisingly, not been a disaster. Starlin Castro... yeah, that kid's all right. Beyond that, I really don't know.
I'm sure there will come a time when the most exciting thing about the Cubs isn't that Theo Epstein is the GM, but that time certainly hasn't come yet. It's difficult to imagine them at the top of the division any time in the next few years unless something changes really quickly.
Rome wasn't built in a day, or some other cliche, I guess.
The Houston Astros are the worst team in baseball. It isn't close. I see no point in piling on. Next year, they have to move to the American League. That is not going to be a good time for them, though the rest of us following the NL Central will certainly miss them.
Jason has too many irons in the fire. He fancies himself a fiction writer and also writes about the Reds at Redleg Nation, books at Elephants for Bookends, and everything else at The Winesburg Eagle. Email him at winesburgeagle *at* gmail or follow him on Twitter @jasonlinden