The National League Central Division proved just a few years ago that it would be a division to watch for the foreseeable future and this year is a perfect example why.
The division’s top four teams are separated by just 3.5 games, meaning that the final two months of the 2017 season will be a close fight to the finish. The order of teams from first to fourth is Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers (1.5), St. Louis Cardinals (2.5), and Pittsburgh Pirates (3.5).
There’s no telling who will win the race for the NL Central crown but we at RealSport can at least try.
We’ll kick things off with the defending World Series champion Cubs, whose record sits at 59-53. That’s uncharacteristic of a team that won 103 games last year and has its championship core intact, but it could just be further proof that there is such a thing as a World Series hangover.
The Cubs, despite being in first place, have just not looked like themselves this year. Kyle Hendricks, who led the Majors with a 2.13 ERA last season, has dealt with injuries this year. Reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant looks slower while dealing with various bumps and bruises, and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist has struggled terribly.
It’s also clear that teams have become wise to the Cubs’ pitching staff, even though the team still ranks seventh in MLB with a staff ERA of 3.98. John Lackey has shown signs of age at 38 years old and even former Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta has lost a step, posting a 3.83 ERA after posting a mark of 2.42 from 2014-2016.
The Cubs could still find that hot streak in time for a deep playoff run, but there’s no denying that the Fall Classic hangover runs deep at Wrigley Field.
Milwaukee is special because it is a young team with limited star power. Ryan Braun is still in their outfield, but he is far from the power threat he once was and is slowing down at 33 years old.
What the Brewers have, however, is a balanced lineup that features incredible talent in relative unknowns like Travis Shaw, who came over from the Boston Red Sox and has 24 home runs with 75 RBI to go with a .290 batting average. Big outfielder Domingo Santana is also an intimidating presence at the plate and has 18 dingers of his own.
Don’t forget first baseman Eric Thames, who has contributed 25 home runs after spending the previous few seasons playing in Korea.
Milwaukee’s pitching is also highly underrated and in a three-way tie for ninth place in baseball with a staff ERA of 4.13. Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies form a reliable 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation while soft-tossing lefty Brent Suter has plenty of potential.
These Brewers are young, but not to be underestimated. They can capture the divisional crown if they get hot at the right time.
St. Louis Cardinals
These are not your father’s St. Louis Cardinals, who wrote the book on fielding a deep minor league system whose players could step up when called upon. This team has just struggled so badly this year it’s an absolute puzzle why they are not running away with first place, or at least looking better.
The simple answer is that there has just been no offense. St. Louis ranked fourth in runs scored last year and has hovered around the middle of the pack this year. This can be attributed to the entire outfield struggling at the plate. Dexter Fowler’s batting average has dropped 30 points this year and Randal Grichuk has been riddled by injuries once again. Stephen Piscotty, who signed a six-year extension at the start of the season, has struggled so much that he was sent down to the minors yesterday.
Veteran Adam Wainwright pitching to a 5.00 ERA and showing serious signs of ageing at just 35 years old.
The long and short of it is that of the teams in the NL Central race, the Cardinals are probably the least likely to win the crown. They haven’t looked right all year, and that probably will not change.
The Pirates have average pitching and not a particularly strong offense. That said, the biggest mistake anyone could make is to sleep on Pittsburgh. What this team lacks in consistency it makes up for in heart and star outfielder Andrew McCutchen’s continuing hot streak proves that.
Keep in mind that at the start of June, the former MVP was batting just .224 and looked like a potential trade candidate. He has hit .359 since then and has his batting average up to .293, and his $14 million option for next season will surely be picked up.
Throw in other talented bats like switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell, not to mention super utility man Josh Harrison, plus a young pitching staff headlined by Gerrit Cole, and the Pirates do have the talent to go on a hot streak and make a run at first place. They may not look like that team now, but don’t write them off yet.
This is a blue-collar team from a blue-collar city, so count on the Pirates to fight until the end of what is shaping up to be an incredible NL Central race.
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