Monday, May 12, 2008

Thoughts on the NL Central

In what was supposed to be a 2-horse race between the Cubs and Brewers in an all-around poor division, the NL Central is turning out to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball. This is certainly getting overshadowed by stories like the hot start of the D-Backs, who field the youngest nine in baseball and have 8-0 Brandon Webb, Florida's two teams leading their respective divisions with a combined $60 million payroll, and the Twins coming out of nowhere with a rotation featuring only one starter and one outfielder from their awesome 2006 team to blow past the White Sox and Indians (aside: There is no reason that Ron Gardenhire and Tony LaRussa should not win the Manager of the Year EVERY year). But back to the NL Central...who would have thought that the Cards would be in 1st place, the Brewers and Reds would be in 4th and 6th, and the Pirates would be near .500 after taking two from the Braves this past weekend? And the Astros have been on fire! There is no division in baseball where the game's parody is more present.

If the Cardinals can keep getting quality starts from their hodgepodge rotation of former relief pitchers, and if Albert Pujols continues his .500 OBP, they will continue to contend. And remember - they will only get better when Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, and Juan Encarnacion return, and when Jason Isringhausen irons himself out. The Cubs and Brewers are pretty much the same team on paper, so I imagine these two teams will also contend if the back ends of their bullpens don't wear out. Both teams have horrible leadoff men that somehow still score runs, both have stable bullpens, both are built for power all the way down the lineup, both teams have two solid starters, both play pretty excellent defense, and both have closer issues. The Brewers had a pretty rough week, getting swept in two consecutive series, but on the bright side they have been swinging the bats much better lately, and when you combine that with the fact that up to this point they have played (A) the most road games in the majors and (B) had the toughest schedule in the Majors, things can only get better. I'm a little surprised by the Astros - they usually don't choose to contend until around mid-August, so it's hard to gauge if their latest surge into 3rd place has been all momentum or a sign of the team's true potential. What is clear is that their major offseason acquisitions of Jose Valverde and Miguel Tejada were great front-office moves. The Reds are showing that the signing of a dominant closer doesn't help if he doesn't get the opportunity to close games. Their young pitchers have been unable to string together consecutive good starts all season, and the offense is greatly underachieving, surely due to the stress of knowing they have to put up 7-8 runs a game to have a chance to win. As for the Pirates, I told all my friends (who cared to listen) that they (and the Royals) would contend for their divisions in 2009, and the Pirates are certainly showing signs that they are going to prove me right. With a new GM in place and the retention of their "star" players, this team has shown flashes of brilliance, particularly in their dramatic series against the Braves this past weekend.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the division shakes out and how many teams are still in contention at the All-Star Break.

Note: Interleague Play starts this weekend!

Brewers 18-19, -4.0 (3 v. Dodgers, 3 @ Red Sox)
Reds 15-23, -7.5 (4 v. Marlins, 3 v. Indians)
Twins 19-17, +1.0 (3 v. Blue Jays, 3 @ Rockies)

Erik - 7
Peter - 12

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