NL Central update: surging, sliding and insignificance

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The Cincinnati Reds are your 2012 National League Central champions. Okay, it’s not official yet, but it would take perhaps the worst collapse in baseball history, making last season’s failings by Boston and Atlanta look tame, for anything different to happen. After that, though? Well, that’s where things get really interesting.

(All stats through Saturday, Sept. 15)

Cincinnati Reds

They lose their best player for several weeks, and all the Reds do is play their best stretch of baseball on the year and bury the competition. With Joey Votto healthy and back in the lineup, Cincy just may be the best team in the game. The Reds may not have any other superstars in the lineup, but they also don’t have (m)any weak spots to cover for.

The catcher trio of Ryan Hanigan, Devin Mesoraco and Dioner Navarro won’t make anyone forget Johnny Bench, but it gets the job done. On the infield corners, Votto is trying to get back to his pre-injury level, Scott Rolen is hoping his body will let him stay on the field the bulk of the time, and Rookie of the Year candidate Todd Frazier has done a fantastic job filling in for both players as needed. The middle infield combo of Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart provided strong defense and plenty of power—a combined 32 homers and 62 doubles between them—even if Cozart isn’t living up to his preseason billing as the team’s top Rookie of the Year candidate.

Out in the pasture, Ryan Ludwick‘s resurgence and Jay Bruce‘s continued growth provide plenty of middle-of-the-order thump. They may not provide great range afield, but their bats more than make up for it. In center, Drew Stubbs provides good speed, but he continues his hacking ways at the dish. A .215/.282/.348 line with 144 strikeouts explains his talents rather tidily. Fear not, though, because Chris Heisey is around to provide a bit more offensive consistency and to provide some rest for the corner guys.

The starting pitching has been extremely healthy, with the five Opening Day rotation members taking all but one start, and mostly effective. Johnny Cueto has scuffled over his last few starts, including a loss to Miami Saturday night, but he’s clearly the team’s ace. After a rough first few weeks with his new team, Mat Latos has been terrific, while Bronson Arroyo is having his best year in some time. Homer Bailey may finally be living up to the hype of a half-decade ago, and Mike Leake is quite capable as a No. 5 starter.

The bullpen story is, of course, Aroldis Chapman, with 119 punchouts and a 0.798 WHIP in 67-2/3 innings. Anyone see the Reds trying to put him back in the rotation again? Didn’t think so. While his pen mates have delivered overall steady performances, too, Chapman rightfully steals all the headlines, and not simply because he’s racking up a nice save total.

Again, there are few holes for Cincinnati to worry about, though an injury at second base or shortstop would be difficult to fill, unless you think Wilson Valdez has some postseason magic just waiting to burst forth on an unsuspecting world. Battling Washington for the league’s best record while staying healthy until the playoffs start should be the Reds’ primary concerns. After that, fans of the game’s first all-professional team will be hoping, praying and cheering for the Reds first World Series title since 1990.

St. Louis Cardinals

Unlike last year, this season the Cardinals are trying to maintain their hold on a playoff spot instead of vault into one. Well, at least for now they’re on the inside looking out, heading into Sunday’s action tied with the Dodgers for the second Wild Card.

Many analysts were saying earlier in the year that St. Louis ought to be doing better than it was based on the team’s league-leading run differential. Well, a four-game stretch in which the Cards scored all of one run while surrendering 32 brought their scoring differential closer in line with their win-loss record.

Even after busting out of those doldrums, a 5-9 record has reinvigorated the playoff chances of a few teams that appeared to be dead and buried earlier in the year. So instead of just battling LA and Pittsburgh, St. Louis now has Milwaukee, Philadelphia and even Arizona to keep track of. A dogfight for the right to appear in the new one-game Wild Card showdown appears inevitable.

Health has been a big issue for the Cardinals since day one. Chris Carpenter hasn’t made a single appearance (yet!), Lance Berkman has hardly played, and Carlos Beltran has been nicked up and unproductive in the second half. Lance Lynn was excellent in the first half as Carp’s fill-in, even making the All-Star team, but he has faded as the innings have piled up. Joe Kelly stepped into the void and twirled some nice outings, but the league has caught up to him somewhat, too. If rumors of a late-September return by Carpenter are true, that could be just what the Redbirds need to gain that final postseason birth.

If only they still had Albert Pujols. Okay, that’s not quite right, because the Cardinals would be on the hook for another nine years and over $200 million. And, besides, they’ve gotten strong production from Pujols’ replacements. Allen Craig has been a life saver at first base and filling in for Beltran in right field, and Matt Carpenter has been solid at all four corner spots and—in manager Mike Matheny‘s apparent tribute to Tony LaRussa—a bit of time at second base. It also helps that Yadier Molina has been a stud behind and at the plate, and Jon Jay‘s overall game is better than expected.

On the down side, the middle infield has been a major issue. And Jason Motte? Too soon.

It won’t be boring for Cardinals fans over the next 2-1/2 weeks, that’s for sure. And thanks to the team’s recent performance, the same can be said for many other NL teams, too.

Pittsburgh Pirates

How many teams have 82 victories as an annual goal? I mean for the last 20 years? When you’re the Pirates, it’s been like Don Quixote dreaming the impossible dream. Last season’s four-month tease heightened expectations, and the following two-month collapse flat-lined them. But a strong beginning of the year, which carried into August this time, once again has given Steel City fans hope that this would be the year the team finally would put together a winning record.

Pittsburgh was 16 games over .500 as late as Aug. 7, but the Buccos needed a victory Saturday against the Cubs (which they got) to stay above the break-even mark. They’ll need to maintain that break-even pace over their final 18 games to achieve that ever-elusive winning season. Games in Chicago, Houston and New York should help their efforts, but visits from Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Atlanta are significant challenges. If the Pirates are lucky, the Reds and Braves won’t have much to play for and will be getting ready for the postseason.

Andrew McCutchen has been an MVP candidate stud, playing a terrific center field and providing excellent offense and basepath acumen. Pedro Alvarez‘s power bat finally has come around, while Neil Walker has been strong at the keystone. The rest of the offense has performed in fits and spurts, flailing in the first half as the pitching did the heavy lifting, then stepping up after the break.

A.J. Burnett‘s strong performance has been about as unexpected as McCutchen’s was expected. Burnett has been the workhorse leader of the starting staff, while James McDonald has regressed somewhat, and the rest of the rotation has pitched about as well as forecast. The infusion of Wandy Rodriguez in a deadline deal has been a nice prop for the sagging pitching, though his 4-4 record and 3.36 ERA in 10 Pittsburgh appearances is a great representation of the team’s mediocrity.

Even though Pittsburgh is fading, and even if the team doesn’t break the .500 barrier, it’s been another step in the right direction for the franchise. Baby steps may not be exciting, but they’re better than a diaper blow-out at the beginning of a cross-country flight, which is what most of the last two decades have been like for Pirates fans.

Milwaukee Brewers

An 19-6 run has turned what looked to be a lost season for last year’s division champs into a strong surge into Wild Card contention. Not surprisingly, Ryan Braun has been the team’s anchor, as he has shrugged off his offseason PED “issue” and produced another stellar season, as his .311/.386/.592 line with 38 home runs, 101 RBI, 93 runs and 24 stolen bases aptly demonstrate.

Aramis Ramirez came out of the gate slowly but is putting up another typically strong year, Jonathan Lucroy has produced surprising offense from the catcher spot, Carlos Gomez has been a better version of Cincinnati’s Drew Stubbs, and the rest of the offense has been solid. Somehow, dealing away Zack Greinke hasn’t been a problem, as Mike Fiers has contributed a 127 ERA+ that actually exceeds the 119 mark Greinke provided. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez have alternated in their attempts to give away the closer role, and the rest of the pen has been middling.

So that’s one superstar, some strong performers, a dash of mediocrity, and a few letdowns. Sounds like a .500 team, and that’s the Brew Crew, sitting at 73-72 going into Sunday. This season, that puts Milwaukee 2-1/2 games out of the playoffs. For a team that was 54-66 less than a month ago, I’m sure the Brewers and their fans will take it.

Chicago Cubs

Well, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer picked up Anthony Rizzo before the season started. A few weeks ago they signed Starlin Castro to a long-term extension. And Alfonso Soriano has been much better than expected. And, well, Jeff Samardzija is the Cubs’ version of Stephen Strasburg. I think that last item tells you all you need to know about the 2012 Cubs.

Houston Astros

I think I’m contractually obligated to mention the Astros one last time before they move to the American League West in 2013. Um, good luck with that, Houston.

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Comments

  1. #44 said...

    The best thing about HOU changing leagues is the end of the endlessly forced ‘rivals’ interleague games.  The loss of easy interleague opponents will surely shake up the standings in 2013.

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