While my colleges have largely concentrated on defining the best divisional race of the MLB’s second-half of quality alone, studying the NL Central proves that both quality and quantity are possible. The division leading St. Louis Cardinals are just 2.5 games up on the second place Milwaukee Brewers. The ever-dangerous and to date disappointing Chicago Cubs – as badly as they’ve played this injury-riddled season – are just 3.5 games back of the leader. They’re tied with the Houston Astros who started poorly but have rebounded thanks to consistent offense and a good bullpen. The Cincinnati Reds have gotten some bad injury news of late, but still factor in to the race with an always aggressive Walt Jocketty serving as the team’s general manager.
Like Bleacher Fan pointed out about the AL Central, the NL Central falls victim to the same curse of balance – the division’s winner will be their lone representative in the post-season give how good the NL East has been this season. The NL Central is the only division in Major League Baseball with four teams at or above the .500 mark. The top five teams in the division are separated by just five games, with a few early season rain outs back-loading the schedule of a few teams, including the Cubs who have played the fewest games in baseball at 86.
Why is the division so close? Four of the league’s top seven best pitching staffs reside in the NL Central. And that does NOT include the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals and the Cubs both have ERAs under 3.84. The Cardinals have walked the fewest opponents in the majors with only 265 while the Cubs are within striking distance of the most strike outs in the league with 662. The pitching is outstanding, and good pitching always leads to close games.
The Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs all have winning records against their interdivision rivals, too. Unlike the AL Central, there is not one team that struggles against the division, or dominates – they’re as close to even as a division can be at this stage of the season.
Trades are exciting. The NL Central promises to be one of the most active divisions this season with trades. Because the teams are so bunched up, they must make some moves to set themselves apart.
Talk about a Hollywood script! The Cardinals routinely make a joke of the “odds” and the prognosticators, basically winning consistently with very little consistent hitting (besides that “Al” guy). The Cubs have the fourth worst on-base percentage in the NL, the second worst batting average and the second worst RBI – but still have managed to win 43 games. The Brewers have the fourth worst pitching staff in baseball, but sit 2.5 games back. The NL Central is truly defying the baseball odds this season.
Movies need stars, and the NL Central has plenty. The Cardinals have the biggest star in the game right now, first baseman Albert Pujols. The Cubs have third baseman Aramis Ramirez who just returned from injury, plus starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano. The Brewers have right fielder Ryan Braun and first baseman Prince Fielder (who is the subject of some of the best sports satire I’ve ever read).
With each team in the mood to buy at the trading deadline, it’s impossible to forecast how the next chapter in the division’s season will unfold. Unpredictability is part of what makes for a great race to the post-season. The NL Central has all of the ingredients to be the most exciting division race in baseball.