Who will win the NL Central?

Posted: 07/21/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Four out of the six divisions in baseball are one or two team races. The AL Central is the Tigers’ to lose, while the AL West (Athletics and Angels), NL East (Nationals and Braves), and NL West (Giants and Dodgers) are between two teams. The other two, the AL East and NL Central, are thankfully more open. I’ll talk about the AL East race later, but today it’s the NL Central, a division in which four teams are within 2.5 games of each other. That means that every team except for one, the sorry Cubs, is in the race. That’s pretty cool. Most people would consider the Cardinals the favorite, just because of their name value and history. Others like the Brewers, because they’ve arguably performed the best this season and have easily the best offense of the four. Others still like the Pirates, because they have won 29 of their last 46 games. Finally, even the Reds, without the services of star hitter Joey Votto, who has been on and off the DL all season, are in the mix. It’s a wild race, and I’ll try to handicap it here.

Case for the Cardinals: They’ve been here before, and have the most playoff experience of any of these teams. That will help down the stretch. They are also very well-rounded, both offensively and pitching-wise. Even without Yadier Molina- and the loss of Molina really, really hurts- the lineup is pretty deep. The lineup goes seven deep, from Matt Carpenter at the top to Jon Jay in the seven hole. Interestingly, even with all the big name offensive players, the Cardinals have really struggled to score runs. They are 29th in the league in homers with 63, and have scored just 370 runs, also second worst in baseball. That’s going to improve, and the pitching probably won’t have to carry the team as much as it has been. The pitching has been really good. Adam Wainwright is the obvious guy, and he has been even better than advertized; even with everyone focusing on Clayton Kershaw, it can be easily argued that Wainwright has been the best pitcher in baseball this season. Even with the injuries to Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, the rest of the rotation has also been, for the most part, terrific. Lance Lynn has been a steady hand all year, with an ERA hovering around three and just seven homers allowed in 120 innings. That’s another positive from this pitching staff: the offense has struggled mightily to hit the ball out of the park, but the pitching has been even better at keeping it in the park. They’ve allowed 58 homers, fewest in baseball. Joe Kelly, recalled after the injuries, is unheralded but has a 3.05 career ERA in a decent sample size. This is a team that has been relying on its pitching and defense (this is also one of the two or three best defensive teams in baseball), and the pitching and defense have successfully carried the team. The argument is this: we know the pitching is there, and we know the offense has been underperforming but has the talent to bounce back. And when the offense bounces back, who in this division has the players to stop the St. Louis Cardinals?

Case for the Brewers: First, I want to touch on Jonathan Lucroy, who just so happens to be the most underrated player in baseball. His WAR, 3.8, places him in the top 10 among all hitters and is nearly a win better than the next best catching. He was known as a defensive catcher, but he can also hit. He’s hitting .311 with a .872 OPS, and Fangraphs has him at 42% better than the average hitter (a 142 wRC+). Lucroy is the key to the Brewers’ success, but he’s not the only good offensive player on the team. Ryan Braun might not be a good person, but he’s definitely a good baseball player, PEDs or no PEDs. Carlos Gomez is the superstar, with good defense, speed, and power. He’s a five tool player, and a 30-30 waiting to happen. Those are the three key offensive pillars, and they are supported by guys like Aramis Ramirez (.787 OPS), Scooter Gennett (hitting above .300), and Khris Davis (16 homers). Not bad, and certainly better than the Cardinals have been this year. On the pitching side, there are definitely some holes, but it’s solid all around. They lack an ace, but have four solid starters, from Kyle Lohse to to Wily Peralta to Yovani Gallardo to Matt Garza. The fifth starter, Marco Estrada, isn’t so great, but there are worse problems to have than a bad fifth starter. And the bullpen has, again, been solid if unspectacular. That, really, is the Brewers’ argument. They have two star players, Lucroy and Gomez, and then a bunch of solid parts around them. That is sometimes enough to make the playoffs, especially in a bad division. The Brewers have hung around for more than half the season, and have the ability to stay in the race and win it at the end.

Case for the Pirates: Andrew McCutchen is not only the best player in the division, but also probably the second best in baseball behind Mike Trout when you consider positional scarcity (knocking out Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Cabrera), and ballpark (bye bye Troy Tulowitzki). Like it or not, all of Pittsburgh’s hopes are pinned on McCutchen. They need to be, because, outside of Cutch, this is an ordinary team. And boy has McCutchen produced. He’s hitting .320 with a .981 OPS, 17 homers, and 16 steals. He walks nearly as much as he strikes out (14.1% BB and 17.6% K), and has a 175 wRC+, which means he has been 75% better than the average hitter. Only Trout has been a better offensive player this season. Period. What else to the Pirates have? Well, they have a couple of other above-average offensive players, from Russell Martin to Neil Walker to, uh, that’s about it. Gregory Polanco, the hotshot prospect who was hitting everything in sight in AAA, was supposed to be the Robin to McCutchen’s Batman. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, as Polanco has hit for no power and has just a .324 slugging percentage. That hurts. The case for the Pirates is this: the rotation can improve, and the Pirates have the prospects to improve through trade. They’ve also been playing really well recently and have the best player in the division in Andrew McCutchen. It’s a longshot, but the Pirates have a chance in this division.

Case for the Reds: According to Fangraphs, the Reds have added more defensive value than any other team in baseball. The average fan might discount that, but you shouldn’t, because that’s why the Reds are in this race. They have the best up the middle defense in baseball, with Devin Mesoraco behind the plate, Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart up the middle, and Billy Hamilton in centerfield. Hamilton and Cozart in particular have been amazing, placing as two of the eight best defensive players in baseball, ahead of the likes of Andrelton Simmons, Dustin Pedroia, and Sal Perez. The Reds also have a guy named Todd Frazier who, believe it or not, has turned into a very good player. He has power (has 20 homers and was in the home run derby), speed (15 steals, which shocks me), on base ability (.350 OBP), and defensive ability. He’s a great all-around player. Unfortunately, the rest of the offense hasn’t been too great, and the Reds place 25th among teams based on strict offensive value added. A couple of starting pitchers have really stepped up for the Reds. Jhonny Cueto has been among the best starters in the national league, with an ERA of just 2.18. He’s been joined by a huge surprise story in Alfredo Simon (only started the season in the rotation because Mat Latos was out and now has a 2.74 ERA), and, with the return of Latos, the Reds boast perhaps the best rotation in the division. They also have an incredible closer who goes by the name of Aroldis Chapman. You probably know all about Chapman, so all I’m going to say is this: he is striking out more than two guys per INNING, with 61 strikeouts in 30 innings. Even last year, when he K’d an obscene amount of hitters, the strikeout rate was in the 15 range. Now it’s above 18? Unbelievable. The Reds case is run prevention: they’re going to win a lot of 3-1 and 2-0 games, because their defense and pitching are both good. Without Votto, who will be out for more than a month, their hitting is below average, and probably the worst among the four teams. But their pitching and defense will make up for it, and they’ll be in the race when Votto comes back for the stretch run.

Bottom Line: I like the Brewers, and I love Andrew McCutchen, but in the end I think this is a race between the Cardinals and the Reds. The Cardinals have to be favored, since they have a better offense and more depth. But the Reds have been sneaky-good over the past weeks, and are just hanging around in striking distance. If they are still in contention when (if?) Votto gets back, watch out. Here are my predicted final NL Central standings:

1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs (don’t forget the Cubs!)

  1. philabundant says:

    Welcome back to the blogosphere, 5tool

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