State of the NL Central: three teams in Octoberby Jason Linden
September 16, 2013
When last we checked in, there was a three-team scrum, and it was impossible to guess who would come out on top. Now, six weeks later, let's see how the picture has changed.
Not at all. Okay, great. In that case, let's dispense quickly with the bottom feeders before we get to the three teams that are really interesting.
The Cubs currently have the second-worst record in the NL. They recently jettisoned Alfonso Soriano and are preparing for next season. Though Soriano wasn't nearly as bad over the course of his mega-deal as many are prone to believe, his exit from Chicago signals the end of an era. With his departure, Edwin Jackson is the only player on the team making eight figures, and many of the front-line Cubs are still in or awaiting their arbitration years.
Despite their lousy record, the Cubs' run differential of -53 portrays a team that is not as bad as its record (six NL teams are worse). And where major contributors are concerned, this team is young. The Cubs have no important players signed beyond this year who are over 30. This seems like a team that could make a leap any time, especially given the fairly light payroll obligations in such a huge market.
All year, I've found myself thinking the Cubs really weren't that bad and that other teams in the NL Central would need to contend with them soon. Soon might start next year.
Well, there's the whole Ryan Braun thing and the whole can't-find-a-first-baseman thing, and this just seems like a team on the way down.
Braun will, of course, be back next year, and that will help. And they have some great young offensive players in Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez. Outside of first base, they're solid offensively.
But they cannot pitch. At all. The moundsmen were terrible this year. Terr-uh-ble. You'd have thought the staff would have been better. I mean, at least they had Yovani Gallardo. But among starters, only Kyle Lohse has been decent and healthy.
Overall, this feels like a club that needs to do some soul-searching in the offseason. The Brewers have to decide which way they want to go, and they have to worry about how Braun will be when he returns and if their pitching will bounce back. It's ugly in Milwaukee right now.
Heading into Monday's games, the Reds just finished dropping two of three to the Brewers and have fallen three-and-a-half games back of the Cardinals and Pirates. The division crown isn't very likely, and neither is hosting the Wild Card game. At this point, the Reds have to hope they will destroy the Pirates when the two teams play each other six times in the last nine games of the season.
Still, barring a collapse that would border on historic, the Reds are good bets to make the playoffs as the second Wild Card. And once they get past that game, they have as good a chance as anyone.
The Reds' primary weakness is offense. They have, of course, Joey Votto. Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce are also potent offensive weapons, but after that, there is a whole lot of underwhelming batters. Cincinnati has given something like two-and-a-half seasons worth of plate appearances to players with a wRC+ at or below 80. In between are a bunch of mediocre hitters who don't scare anyone.
But there's hope. The rotation is fantastic and, oh, by the way, Johnny Cueto is starting a game this week. It's been established that pitching matters a bit more than hitting in the playoffs, and in that sense, the Reds are well-prepared. A playoff rotation that features Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Cueto can beat anyone. Cueto, though, is perhaps more likely to be part of the playoff bullpen.
Of course, the rotation is irrelevant if they don't score some runs.
The Pirates finally have ended their preposterous string of losing seasons and are essentially guaranteed at least one playoff game.
The more I stare at the Pirates roster, the more I think the rest of the NL needs to watch out. The lineup is very solid from top to bottom. Andrew McCutchen should win the MVP. This is a team that could absolutely win it all. if its gets the pitching.
The Pirates have been cobbling together their rotation all year, and they aren't going to have any pitchers reach 200 innings. While their playoff rotation—which should be headed by A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole—looks solid, their relievers have thrown the third-most innings in baseball, and the most among teams who have any chance of playing in October. That overuse could come back to haunt them.
Still, heading into the playoffs, this isn't a team with a lot of weaknesses. If no unfortunate injuries happen (think Cueto for the Reds last year), the Pirates are a team others should fear.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals had spent the entire season steaming along, but during the last month, they've hit some bumps. FanGraphs' splits see them as a poor team (both pitching and hitting) over the last 30 days.
Still, they're the team to beat in the NL. No other team has anywhere near the run-differential and an NL Central team has to have its overall record taken with a grain of salt because the intra-division schedule has been so tough.
But that rotation is starting to wear thin. Sure, there's Adam Wainwright, and he's great, but after that, I don't see anyone really scary, especially if you look at the peripherals. And after the top three, there's so little to like that I've seen mentions of them maybe going with a three-man rotation in the playoffs. And, let's be honest, that almost never works.
The Cardinals are the team to beat, but they also look like a team we see often enough: the offensive juggernaut that just can't get it done in October because their starters keep getting knocked around. I don't know if it will happen, but it has to be a concern.
The NL Central is likely to send three teams to October, but none of them is perfect. It will be interesting to see how far the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals are able to advance.
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