NL Central division update: June edition

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All stats through June 22.

The general shape of the National League Central division standings is about as expected. The specifics, though, are a bit surprising.

Before the season began, 21 Hardball Times staffers made their division predictions. The bulk of us had the Reds ahead of the Cardinals, but aside from Cincinnati needing to make up a few games for reality to match our expectations, the order of teams is none too shocking. But the fact that this is a fairly tight race at the top with a couple of hangers-on duking it out for the cellar is a bit of a surprise.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals were supposed to be good. Everyone expected them to compete for a playoff spot, whether that was the division title or a Wild Card entry. No one expected them to be this good. St. Louis currently sports the best record in baseball and the largest run differential, too, indicating the team’s success has not been fluky.

How have the Redbirds reached such a lofty perch? Well, their offense has scored more runs than any other NL team and is second only to Boston in the majors. The pitching and defense have been nearly as impressive, allowing the third-fewest runs in the league. It’s been a steady, balanced team effort with numerous contributors.

An example of that steadiness is their well-chronicled run from late April through mid-June during which St. Louis did not lose a single series. Of course, this excellent spurt by the team with the best record in the game was ended by Miami, the team with baseball’s worst record. That’s so baseball.

The biggest contributor to the Cards’ success has been catcher Yadier Molina. Long known for his defensive prowess, he has elevated his offense year after year, and he currently paces the NL in batting average. Additionally, the surprising Matt Carpenter has made a smooth transition to second base, and Carlos Beltran continues to shine despite heading into his late 30s.

On the mound, things have been chaotic but successful. Adam Wainwright is back to his former studly self, Lance Lynn has gotten off to another excellent start, and Shelby Miller has been a rookie revelation. Beyond that big three, things have been shakier. Jake Westbrook has an ERA under 2.00, but he missed a month with elbow concerns, and Jaime Garcia‘s season-ending shoulder surgery has led to a patchwork of rotation trials with only the occasional good result.

In the pen, Jason Motte‘s Tommy John surgery opened up the closer role, and after Mitchell Boggs failed to grab it, St. Louis turned to last year’s deadline acquisition, Edward Mujica, who merely has converted all 21 save chances he’s gotten while posting an ERA under 2.00. Flame-throwing setup man Trevor Rosenthal came out of the gates a bit slowly, but his ERA approximates Mujica’s, and Rosenthal has struck out over 12.5 batters per nine innings.

Going forward, if the Cardinals simply hold steady, a playoff spot is quite likely. It seems reasonable for the hitters to maintain their pace—as a whole, if not on a player-by-player basis (Molina probably won’t hit .360 all season long). However, the pitching has a few more question marks.

Lynn faded badly last season, so greater durability will be crucial to his, and the the team’s, success. Counting on a rookie to continue to post an ERA under 2.50 is asking for a lot, but Miller has been highly touted since he was drafted, so maybe he can keep going strong. Westbrook is getting the results in the ERA department, but in 51 frames, he’s walked 22 batters while striking out only 21. That’s a strikeout-to-walk recipe for disaster. And Mujica is unlikely to finish off every save opportunity successfully, though stranger things have happened.

St. Louis may not be the best team in baseball, and the Cards may not even win the division, but when October comes around, it looks very likely that they’ll be one of the teams in the fall tournament.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Every season for the last few, the Pirates have gotten close and closer to finishing with a winning record for the first time in two decades. Two years ago, the fade started just after the All-Star break. After a 7-7 stretch following that respite, Pittsburgh dropped nine in a row and 13 of 15, and it just got worse from there.

Last season, the Pirates were 70-60 after an Aug. 29 victory. A 2-11 stretch brought them down to a single game over .500, and then a 2-6 run put them below the break-even point for good.

Right now, the Pirates sit 15 games over .500, and their .600 winning percentage is second-best in baseball. At a mere two games back of St. Louis, Pittsburgh goal is loftier than a winning record; it’s a playoff spot, and possibly a division crown, though it should be noted that the Pirate’s Pythagorean record is closer to 41-34 than their actual 45-30, indicating there’s been a bit of luck involved in their performance to date.

Not surprisingly, the offense has been led by Andrew McCutchen. He’s been as solid as ever, if not quite as excellent as he was last season. His fellow outfielder, rookie Starling Marte, has been nearly as potent with the bat, though he’s been on a slow fade since his stellar first several weeks.

Russell Martin‘s success has to be frustrating the Yankees, who chose not to re-sign Martin, instead letting him go to Pittsburgh on a reasonable two-year deal. Pedro Alvarez has gotten his average up to a tolerable level while providing plenty of thump with 18 homers so far. As with the Cardinals, the Pirates’ hitting success has been a balanced effort.

The same can be said about the pitching staff. While the highly paid duo of A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have done well, both currently are on the DL, so the young and/or cheap members of the staff have had to step up. Jeff Locke and Jeanmar Gomez have been very pleasant rotation surprises, the gamble on Francisco Liriano has panned out well, and Gerritt Cole has pitched well in his first three turns in the rotation. James McDonald? Well, let’s just say that his current DL stint isn’t bothering the Pirates much.

In the pen, Jason Grilli has been lights-out. He leads the league with 26 saves, his ERA is 1.07, he’s striking out nearly 15 batter per nine, and he’s allowed only a 0.74 WHIP. Setup man Mark Melancon has been nearly as effective, though his whiff rate is only about two-thirds of Grilli’s.

Can they keep it up? It sure seems likely. There’s no one player, not even McCutchen, who is so crucial that a season-ending injury would create chaos. There’s no player performing so far over his head that a massive regression can be expected, though Locke’s 2.01 ERA is likely to rise.

It’s unlikely that the Pirates will continue to win 60 percent of their games. But with a 6.5-game lead on the Giants, a 15-game margin on the .500 mark, and solid contributions all over the field, it seems a good bet that Pittsburgh will be in the running for a playoff spot to the very end of the season this time around.

Cincinnati Reds

Despite being in third place in the division, the Reds have the second-best run differential in the NL and the fourth-best in baseball, which matches up nearly perfectly with their 44-32 record.

The offense has been sort of a three-tiered attack. At the top, Joey Votto is, of course, one of the best hitters in the game, Shin-Soo Choo is one of the best at getting hit, and Jay Bruce has shaken off a slow start to hit the ball often and far recently. In the middle tier, Brandon Phillips has been getting a ton of RBI despite merely decent triple-slash numbers (.265/.318/.417), and Todd Frazier has been just solid.

In the bottom tier, shortstop Zack Cozart and catchers Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan play positions that aren’t supposed to be offensive juggernauts. However, left fielders Xavier Paul and Derrick Robinson have been pretty weak at a traditionally strong offensive position—not that anyone would have expected a healthy Ryan Ludwick to have replicated last season’s 26-homer performance level.

The pitching staff doesn’t seem to have an ace, though all the rotation members have done well on the whole. Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo have the best ERAs but lower strikeout numbers, while Mat Latos and Homer Bailey are punching out nearly a batter an inning. Johnny Cueto‘s return from the DL meant lightning-bolt hurler Tony Cingrani would be serving bullpen duty, where he and Jonathan Broxton will help get the ball to Aroldis Chapman and his 15.75 K/9 mark.

Looking ahead, the bats don’t seem to be a concern. Bruce’s hot hitting should slow down, but perhaps a Ludwick return can compensate. On the mound, it’s questionable whether Leake and Arroyo can maintain their run-limiting ways despite low whiff rates, though Bailey has the potential to improve his ERA if he keeps punching out so many batters.

Simply put, the NL Central appears to have three strong, well-rounded teams. Any of them could win the division, and all of them could make the postseason. And with the three top records in the league at the moment, that’s a distinct possibility.

Milwaukee Brewers

And now we get to the portion of the division that’s akin to the last half-hour of Saturday Night Live, when we’ve already seen the good stuff, and what remains is the dreck that has been to be included to fill out the rest of the program.

There was a time that Milwaukee was one of the stronger offensive teams in the league. Now, despite the performances of Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun, Norichika Aoki and Jonathan Lucroy, the Brew Crew is right in the middle of the pack in run scoring. Maybe it’s the continuing floundering of Rickie Weeks. Perhaps the difference between Prince Fielder and the Alex Gonzalez/Yuniesky Betancourt duo is significant. Perhaps.

The bigger problem is the pitching staff, which has surrendered the most runs of any NL team. The only full-time starter with an ERA under 4.00 is Kyle Lohse. At the back of the bullpen, John Axford quickly lost his closer job, replacement Jim Henderson spent a few weeks on the DL, and Francisco Rodriguez was brought back to fill the void during Henderson’s absence. The latter two pitchers have done very well, but their 41-inning contribution can’t make up for the hot mess the rest of the staff has been.

When do the Brewers go from here? Youngsters Segura and Gomez can partner with Braun as the core of a strong offense, but the right side of the infield needs an infusion of talent. The mound is a mess, which is the other area where the team should be focusing its talent-acquisition efforts.

Milwaukee had a strong run over the last several seasons, doing a great job bringing in lots of fans to the ballpark in one of baseball’s smallest markets. However, it looks like a fallow period has begun, so it’s time for the front office to get creative while the marketing department works overtime to keep those fans coming out.

Chicago Cubs

One team that famously has not had problems selling tickets despite less-than-stellar on-field performance is the Cubs. However, it seems a few of those fans have run out of patience, as the Cubs’ attendance is experiencing a bit of dip this year, though not enough to cause serious panic.

Cub fans looking for bright spots for this year and in the future haven’t seen much from the lineup. The team’s best hitter has been Nate Schierholtz, who is unlikely to be a key cog in the next contending team on Chicago’s North Side.

After signing Anthony Rizzo to a long-term deal, the Cubs have seen their first baseman of the present and future run into a dry spell with the bat. Shortstop Starlin Castro has seen his batting average plummet from its usual .285-305 range, taking his on-base and slugging percentages with it.

Role players Welington Castillo, Luis Valbuena and Darwin Barney have been decent, though it will take significant further development for them to be players Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer can build around. Veterans Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus could serve the team best as trade bait to acquire talent for the future, though Soriano’s contract and DeJesus’ presence on the DL make dealing them difficult.

Young(-ish) pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood have been better than their losing records indicate and will be around for a few years. Scott Feldman‘s performance should make him a desirable acquisition, so look for him to be moved in the coming weeks.

The same trade thoughts center around Matt Garza, though his performance and recent injury limit his appeal. Edwin Jackson isn’t going anywhere, with his peripherals indicating he’s pitched notably better than his 3-9 record and 5.49 ERA indicate.

Carlos Marmol‘s atrocious season won’t stir up much interest, but the Cubbies should shop closer Kevin Gregg hard. He’s been terrific, but Chicago doesn’t need a 35-year-old closer.

Basically, with a few exceptions—Rizzo, Castro, Samardzija and Wood—the cellar-dwelling Cubs should sell off nearly anybody they can. It’s not about 2013, nor 2014, on the North Side, so continuing to stock the farm system with anything resembling upside talent is the name of the game.

References & Resources
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com and Baseball-Reference.com.

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Comments

  1. Remington Gehrke said...

    The question is will Yadier continue to his hot hitting?  I think being a catcher will catch up to him and we’ll see a slight decline in his average.

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  2. Paul G. said...

    Dealing Kevin Gregg makes sense, but what can you really expect back for a 35-year-old closer with a career 108 ERA+?  Are there still suckers out there who trade major prospects for a couple month rental of a decent player?  That’s why they wanted Marmol to succeed as a good Marmol could demand some talent back.  Gregg: not so much.

  3. Greg Simons said...

    Paul G. – I don’t think the Cubs would get much for Gregg (too bad the Phillies aren’t in contention), but even a B/C-level prospect in the low minors would be worth it.  And Baltimore is paying most of his salary, so he’s been essentially free.

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