With just a month and a half left in the regular season, let’s take a look at the closest, most dramatic divisional race in baseball: the NL Central.
Chicago Cubs (66-58, T-1st Place NL Central)
The Cubs have been having a relatively shaky year, especially when you look at the talent on their roster. When we dive into where their pitching and hitting rank in the league, their rotation is top ten, and their hitting ranks middle tier at 15th in the league.
Their bullpen is definitely an issue. Looking for solutions, they signed Craig Kimbrel in early June in hopes of jumpstarting their bullpen. However, that experiment is most definitely a work in progress. Kimbrel is struggling this year, posting a 6.08 ERA with a 1.65 WHIP. His 19 strikeouts over 13.1 IP also look confusing compared to his absurd K/9 ratio. His 13.1 innings pitched make it seem like the Cubs are using him lightly, either in one batter situations or save situations.
Runs seem to be a bit of a problem for the Cubs. For how talented their lineup is, their run production is not close to meeting expectations. Oddly enough, Chicago traded for Nicholas Castellanos at the deadline, and he has been their best hitter since they acquired him. With the Cubs, Castellanos has played 17 games and is hitting .348. His six homers and seven doubles have helped his slugging percentage reach over .700. His 1.102 OPS ranks first on the team in his time in Chicago.
Their starting pitching has actually been the best part of this team when comparing it to the rest of the league. Yu Darvish has pitched fantastic in the second half of the season with a WHIP of 0.74 and an ERA of 2.36.
Kyle Hendricks is also having a great season with a 1.13 WHIP and 3.37 ERA. On first glance you wouldn’t expect him to be having a great season due to his 8-9 record, but pitching wins are one of the most controversial stats in the game. Once you dive into his advanced stats, you get a sense that he truly is having the best season in the Cubs pitching staff, but his run support has been minimal.
Jon Lester had a solid first have of the season, but his second half is undoubtedly one he would like to forget. In the second half he is posting a 5.45 ERA with a 1.66 WHIP alongside that. Another problem he is enduring this season is left-handed batters having success facing him. Although the portion size is much smaller compared to the amount of times he’s faced righties, lefties are batting .309 off of Lester. If Lester doesn’t make a change, he may see himself in a bullpen role in the playoffs if the Cubbies make it there.
According to Fangraphs, the Cubs have a 75.3% chance of making the playoffs and 60.2% chance of winning the division. If we look at their remaining schedule, they play the Brewers and Cardinals SEVEN more times this season. Their next divisional matchup is against the Brewers in a three-game home series on August 30th.
St. Louis Cardinals (65-57, T-1st NL Central)
The Cardinals made a splash in the offseason by trading for the elite Paul Goldschmidt. With Marcell Ozuna expected to have a huge year for the Cards as well, their lineup was looking dangerous. However, this has not been the case. St. Louis has the 7th worst OPS in the league at .721. Their run production has also been in the bottom tier along with the worst teams in the league. They rank 25th in the Majors in runs.
The main reason they are in the hunt is because of their pitching. Their ERA as a team ranks 5th in baseball at 4.01. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty deserve a majority of the credit. Flaherty has been the team’s best starter with a 3.46 ERA. His ERA leads the rotation, as does his 1.10 WHIP. His second half has been one of the most dominant stretches in the league with a 0.83 ERA that includes a 0.83 WHIP as well. His 11.42 second half K/9 ratio also sticks out on his stat line.
With Marcell Ozuna sidelined for more than a month mid-season, the weight fell onto Paul Goldschmidt in hopes of run production. He hit a homer in six straight games and hit 11 in the month of July alone, winning NL Player of the Month honors. But even with that production, the Cardinals severely lacked run production.
A major problem for this team has been the season that Matt Carpenter is having. His .688 OPS is by far the worst mark in his career, as well as his .213 average. His playing time has decreased as the Cardinals have looked for replacements that have done just as poorly, if not worse.
It’s truly a miracle that the Cardinals share 1st place honors with the Cubs. If their pitching slips even the slightest, I do not see this team making the playoffs. In fact, Fangraphs gives St. Louis a 27.2% chance of claiming the division and a 47.8% chance of making the playoffs as a whole. Even if they do make the postseason, it is evident that they won’t be a threat. I even think the next team in the division has a better chance of winning the division, even though they are two games back.
Milwaukee Brewers (64-60, 2nd Place NL Central, 2 GB)
Milwaukee showcases one of the best and most exciting players in the league with Christian Yelich. The 27-year-old has a .335 average with 41 homers and 89 RBI’s. His 1.122 OPS ranks as the best in baseball. While his efficiency and production are narrowly the best in baseball, I predict Cody Bellinger to win MVP honors due to the fact that the Dodgers are the much better team.
You may think, how does a team with Christian Yelich float around .500 on the season? It’s easy to see: their pitching has been the team-killer.
The Brewers’ team ERA ranks in the bottom third of all teams at 4.74. However, injuries have plagued the staff. Their two best pitchers, Zach Davies and Brandon Woodruff, are injured. Woodruff, being the best pitcher on the staff, has been out for a month with an oblique injury. While his estimated return is just a week or two away, the rest of the rotation has not pitched well whatsoever.
The team has the best reliever from 2018 in Josh Hader. He continued to show that he was the most untouchable reliever in the game in the first half, but the second half has brought out his struggles. His 0.86 WHIP does not differ much from his 0.81 WHIP from last season, but he is failing to miss the bat on his pitches. His 5.93 ERA in this half of the season differs drastically from his first half ERA of 2.09. He has given up 11 runs in his last 16 innings with a WHIP of 2.36 in August. Regardless of how poorly he is pitching, his K/9 rates are always league-best at 16.84 on the season.
With how deadly their lineup is with the bats of Yelich, Hiura, and Moustakas, both their starting pitching and bullpen need to find a way to pitch better if they want to win the division, let alone make the playoffs. Fangraphs gives the Brewers a 25.2% chance of making the playoffs as well as a 12% chance of winning the division.
In my opinion, I see this team having a better chance of winning the division than the Cardinals. Even if they do not win the division but secure a wild card spot, I think this team can make a deep playoff run similar to what they did last season before losing in seven games to the Dodgers in the NLCS.
Waiver Wire Targets
Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers (45.9% owned/ESPN)
Will Smith is having a fantastic season. Though he only has 80 AB’s, he is hitting .325 with 10 homers and 28 RBI’s. He also has a 1.198 OPS thanks to his .800 SLG%. Russell Martin seems to be the Catcher that the LA pitchers like throwing to, so he remains the Dodgers primary catcher. But with how hot Smith’s bat is, he’s a top option off the bench as a pinch hitter and also still splits time with Martin behind the dish.
Ivan Nova, Chicago White Sox (18.9% owned/ESPN)
In his last outing, Nova pitched a complete game allowing just four hits and walking none against the Houston Astros. What? Well, it’s become a trend for Nova. In his last 37 innings he’s allowed TWO earned runs. Again, what? I do not think Ivan Nova is a good pitcher. In fact, he’s most definitely below average. Nonetheless, this hot streak has been absolutely incredible. You might as well pick him up as long as this streak lasts. His next start is tonight against the Twins, so judging by how he does against one of the league’s best lineups you may want to add him to your watch list/pick him up.
Retired Little League baseball utility player.