While the AL Central is the least surprising division in the Major Leagues, the NL Central is the complete opposite. The story lines in the NL Central either revolve around surprise performances or under performances. The Brewers still lead the division but by a slim margin of 1.5 games. The Pirates are still slumping, the Reds are looking better, and the Cardinals are starting to look like the NL Champions of old. In fact, the only thing that seems normal in the NL Central is that the Chicago Cubs are sitting prominently dwelling at the bottom of the division with no hope of getting out.
Here is where each team stands at the end of this week:
Milwaukee Brewers (30-21, 1st in NL Central)
They no longer have the best record in baseball. In fact, the holes in the Brewers line up are starting to show themselves. The Brewers went 3-4 this past week, only taking one game in a four game series against the Braves and taking two in a 3-game series against the Marlins. What was concerning for the Brewers in these series, though, was their inability to generate any offense. Slugger Ryan Braun was struggling with an oblique injury that sidelined him earlier this year, while other hitters struggled to do anything at the plate. One of their top prospects, Jimmy Nelson, did pitch a very good game against the Marlins, but the starting pitching is also starting to decline. The ERA of the Brewers staff is starting to increase as the offense fails to produce. The ultimate question for the Brewers is still what is was in the beginning of the year: can they maintain this level of play? Are they actually an elite team in the NL Central or the middle-of-the-pack dwellers many experts expected them to be?
St. Louis Cardinals (28-22, 2nd in NL Central)
So far, it’s been a disappointing season for the Cardinals, especially for their pitching staff. After going 5-1 during the week and cutting the Brewers lead down to 1.5 games, it may be fair to say that the best of the Cardinals season is yet to come. Adam Wainwright dominated again in his start against the Reds, striking out the five of the first six batters he faced. He also became the first pitcher to win eight games this season, ironically against a team he struggled against last summer. However, there are still rotation questions for the team whose pitching was so dominant last season. There have been talks that the Cardinals could trade for another starting pitcher or middle reliever. The upcoming series against the New York Yankees could be very telling for the Cardinals. It is a chance for them to take full control of the division and boot the Brewers down to the second or third. So far, the Cardinals have been the team to beat in the central and seem to be taking flight at the right time.
Cincinnati Reds (22-26, 3rd in NL Central)
The Reds went 3-3 this week, winning their series against the Washington Nationals and losing the series to the St. Louis Cardinals. They also were forced to place first baseman Joey Votto on the disabled list. The NL Central was expected to be the hottest race in baseball and the Reds were expected to be a part of it. So far, they have underperformed. They are a sub .500 team that was expected to be well above at this point in the season. Losing closer Aroldis Chapman at the beginning of the season may have been a sign of troubling times to come. There is still time, though, for Cincinnati to overcome their early struggles. The Reds aren’t making any splashed or headlines, though. If they want to heat up the race in the NL Central, they will have to take the spotlight away from the Cardinals and Brewers. Until then, the Reds may just stay in the background. They are currently sub .500, underperforming in the shadows.
Pittsburgh Pirates (22-27, 4th in NL Central)
The Pittsburgh Pirates had the highest expectations coming into the 2014 season, especially after their tremendous 2013. They’ve also had the most disappointing season up to this point. The Pirates pitching has underperformed the entire season. However, some glimmers of the 2013 pirates were seen this week. They went 4-2 this week, splitting a two game series with the Baltimore Orioles and taking three of four against the Washington Nationals. All of their wins but one came by a 1-run margin (the other was a 2-run margin over the Nationals last Thursday). The Pirates showed they can comeback and win close games, but they can also lose by huge margins. They lost 9-2 to the Orioles and 5-2 to the Nationals, both fairly crushing defeats. No doubt the Pirates are not living up to their own expectations, and it will probably take an entire season to figure out who the team actually is. If their pitching starts to perform as expected, though, the Pirates should move up the ladder in the central. It may not be enough, though, to get out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves and make a run for the playoffs.
Chicago Cubs (18-30, 5th in NL Central)
The Cubs went 3-3 this week, splitting with the Padres and taking one game in a two game series against the Yankees. However, more headlines were made with an off field acquisition than their onfield performance. The Cubs hired former MLB outfielder Manny Ramirez as a player-coach for their Triple A minor league baseball team. This is the number top story that comes up when the Chicago Cubs are googled. Their season: technically, its not going very well, but that seems to be what most people expected. The Cubbies are in control of the basement of the NL Central and don’t look to be giving up the position any time soon. Their minor league farm system is filled with prospects who may not be ready now, but when the time comes, these Cubbies may be the team to beat in the NL Central. That time, though, won’t come for a while. So for now, all the Cubs can do is wait, and hope Manny Ramirez doesn’t self implode as a coach in their system.