Who Has the Edge in the NL Central's Three-Team Race?




 

Before the season began, it seemed likely the NL Central was going to be a fight between the Brewers, Cardinals and Cubs. Now, with more than three quarters of the season complete, those three teams remain as much in contention for the division title as they were on Opening Day.

Entering Monday, the Cardinals (65-57) hold a single winning percentage point lead over the Cubs in the division (66-58), with the Brewers (64-60) two games back. No other division has a team within two games of first place. Let's take a look at what each team needs to do to win the NL Central.

All stats are updated through Sunday's games.

St. Louis Cardinals

Why They'll Win the NL Central:

First baseman Paul Goldschmidt and starter Jack Flaherty. While the Cardinals wallowed in mediocrity for the first half of the season, two of their most important players were vastly underperforming. St. Louis was 41-41 entering July 1, but with a win over the Reds on Sunday, is 24-16 since then. The team's successful turn in that span has correlated with improvements from both Goldschmidt and Flaherty.

Paul Goldschmidt

Jack Flaherty

Beyond Goldschmidt and Flaherty, other players have found their grooves as of late. Second baseman Kolten Wong has been the Cardinals' best hitter in the second half (.371 average), while outfielder Marcell Ozuna has regained his form since coming off the injured list earlier this month. Over his last 10 games, Ozuna is slashing .314/.400/.571. Plus, their bullpen's 3.72 ERA is the lowest in the NL and third best in MLB this season.

Why They Won't Win the NL Central:

Behind Flaherty, the Cardinals' rotation is a bit murky. Dakota Hudson is their only other starter with an ERA+ above 100, which is league average, though his 3.82 ERA is much better than his 5.21 FIP, suggesting his numbers are better than he's actually performing and that a regression could be coming. Both Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas have been dreadful away from Busch Stadium, with road ERAs of 6.64 and 6.54, respectively. Michael Wacha has been downright awful for most of the year. Their bullpen has been great, but if their starters continue to struggle, an overworked relief corps could soon do the same.

Chicago Cubs

Why They'll Win the NL Central:

The Cubs have tons of star power in their lineup, with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez among the league's best players at their respective positions. Nicholas Castellanos has been an impactful addition to their offense, slashing .348/.392/.710 with six homers in 17 games since he was traded to Chicago from the Tigers. Plus, with Yu Darvish looking like the ace of old as the Cubs'-gulp-No. 5 starter, their rotation is among the best in baseball.

Why They Won't Win the NL Central:

Relief pitching has been the Achilles heel for nearly every contender this year, Cubs included. Craig Kimbrel has a 6.08 ERA in 15 games since joining the Cubs in late June, while veteran righthander Pedro Strop has a 5.40 ERA. This week past week alone, the Cubs lost two games via walk-off. If they can't keep the leads their starting pitchers give them, Chicago will be in trouble.

Milwaukee Brewers

Why They'll Win the NL Central:

Christian Yelich's MVP surge during the second half of last season carried the Brewers to the division title. If they win the Central this year, Yeli will once again be the reason. The 27-year-old is slashing .335/.424/.698 with 41 homers in a tight MVP race with the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger.

Of course, this Milwaukee team is not as good as last year's squad. The Brewers' pitching staff was fueled by a deep bullpen and lefthanded fireman Josh Hader to mask the woes of their rotation. Hader has struggled in the second half, posting a 5.93 ERA in 13 2/3 innings. But, if he can return to form and anchor the bullpen like he did in 2018, the Brewers could be OK.

Why They Won't Win the NL Central:

For some of the reasons I said above. The 2019 Brewers are not as good as they were in 2018. Yelich is even better than he was a year ago, and he very well might hit 60 homers. Rookie second baseman Keston Hiura has been a much-needed reinforcement to the lineup, and Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas and Eric Thames have also provided thump to the middle of the order. However, all of this might not be enough to overcome a pitching staff allowing more than five runs per game. Among NL contenders, Milwaukee's rotation has the worst ERA, while only the Mets and Nationals have higher bullpen ERAs than the Brewers.

And the Winner Is...

The division is going to come down to the Cardinals and Cubs, with seven of their last 10 games against each other. Neither club has as large a deficit as the Brewers do (pitching) and both of their offenses, when right, can out-hit Milwaukee.

Both teams should make the playoffs, but neither wants to settle for the one-and-done wild-card game, quite possibly against either Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom or Aaron Nola-last year's top three finishers for the Cy Young. The Cardinals were my preseason pick, and I'm sticking with them here. My reasoning throughout the season was their best players hadn't played their best yet. Goldschmidt and Flaherty have turned it around. Maybe Matt Carpenter has another salsa-scooping surge in him.

A parting thought: The last three games of the season are between the Cards and Cubs in St. Louis. Chicago has struggled (25-39) all season away from Wrigley Field. If that series is the one that decides the division, the Cardinals will be back on top in the Central.

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