June 22, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller (40) throws to a Texas Rangers batter during the first inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

What Will the NL Central Look Like Down the Stretch?

The National League Central had been, host to a trio of laughingstocks for quite some time, with the Pirates, Cubs, and Astros routinely bringing up the back half of baseball’s only six-team division. The Astros’ move to the American League West served to improve the division’s overall competitiveness, and while the Cubs are still in the midst of rebuilding in Theo Epstein’s second year at the helm, the remaining four teams in the N.L. Central were very much expected to compete for the playoffs in 2013.

Only the Brewers have disappointed thus far, entering play on Tuesday with a 31-43 record, identical to that of the Cubs and tied for last in the division, 15 games behind St. Louis. The Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds, however, are clumped at the top of the ladder just before the midpoint in the 2013 season.

So who will win the division? Will the eventual second-place winner have a shot at a wild card berth? What is the staying power of the Pittsburgh Pirates, as they have faded quickly post-All-Star break over the past few seasons? We’ll go team-by-team and take a quick look at why they may or may not hold serve and give us an exciting division race down the stretch in September.

The Defending Division Champs: St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are pretty clearly the best team in the majors, and it’s actually surprising they don’t have anything larger than their current one game lead over the Pirates, with their impressive +106 run differential. The team has few holes, with only Pete Kozma’s sub-par play at the shortstop position showing up as a position that would potentially need significant improvement moving forward.

Kozma’s .249/.294/.317 line is not pretty, but he’s played solid enough defense that it hasn’t been a massive problem for the Cards, although it is certainly a spot to monitor as we close in on the July 31 trade deadline. The rest of the lineup is dynamite

The Cardinals’ stellar rotation was detailed here about six weeks ago, and everything I wrote then still holds true. It’s the best rotation in the game, especially while the Nationals are banged up and under-performing. The only thing that they really have to worry about is Shelby Miller breaking down. There was a small blip on the radar a couple of weeks ago with some short outings and struggles, but he’s rebounded since then.

Spoiler alert: If the Cardinals maintain their relative health, they should win the division rather easily. They have one of the top prospects in baseball in Oscar Taveras knocking on the doorstep, and he’ll likely be on the big club before September rolls around. This organization is built more solid than any in the game, and it continues to show between the lines.

They Always Seem to Fade Away: The Pittsburgh Pirates

Seemingly every year (okay, recently), the Pirates “surprise everybody” and are in “contention” in late spring and into early summer, only to fall apart in the second half of the season. In fact, 2012 was supposed to be the year when they put it all together. They didn’t, and the post-All-Star break swoon commenced.

This year might be different, but let’s pump the brakes before we get too far ahead of ourselves. Yes, the pitching staff is night-and-day improved, in adding Wandy Rodriguez and a thus-far resurgent Francisco Liriano, in addition to having a mostly-healthy A.J. Burnett. Jeff Locke has been a revelation, and 2011′s #1 overall pick Gerrit Cole already has 3 wins and a 3.44 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 18 1/2 innings.

The rotation is likely due for some slight regression, as pretty much all of the aforementioned pitchers have pitched beyond their career/expected norms. Overall, Cole and Locke are a nice 1-2 punch moving forward, but there really isn’t any way that Locke keeps cruising along with a 2.01 ERA, especially given his shaky peripheral numbers.

The offense is solid, but Andrew McCutchen (.289/.358/.454) remains the only standout, with Sterling Marte (.278) as the only other regular that is even hitting above .260. They’ve had interesting bounce-back years to this point from players like Gaby Sanchez (.245/.355/.441)  and Russell Martin (.257/.357/.427), but they need more production from former top prospects like Pedro Alvarez (.237/.303/.513) and Travis Snider (.238/.306/.356).

Pittsburgh again will not have staying power in the Central, and will ultimately settle in third place. Their +26 run differential (in comparison to St. Louis’ +106 and Cincinnati’s +56) suggests that they shouldn’t even be ahead of the Reds for second place at the moment, and unless Alvarez, Snider and Co. start mashing and the rotation maintains it’s impressive start, they won’t end that miserable playoff drought this year.

I Always Feel Like They Should Be Better Than They Are: Cincinnati Reds

The Reds are a really, really good team that just happened to be stuck in the same division as the best team in baseball. Put them in any other division in baseball except for maybe the A.L. East and they’d easily be the favorite to take the top spot. Joey Votto is arguably still the best hitter in baseball, and at worst he’s in the top three. No power shortage here, as he’s clubbed 13 home runs and now has his line sitting at a wonderful .326/.440/.517.

The rest of the offense has disappointed, with Brandon Phillips slumping to a poor .265/.318/.425, and only three players in the entire lineup (Votto, Xavier Paul, and Shin Soo-Choo) have on-base percentages higher than .340. That isn’t a good recipe for offense, even if you’re manager is Dusty Baker and you think you can bunt everyone to death.

The pitching staff has been terrific, with Mat Latos providing exactly what the Reds expected him to when they dealt for him prior to the 2012 season. Mike Leake has had a very impressive turnaround, although we can absolutely expect some regression on that front. While his ERA has plummeted from 4.58 to 2.61 and his WHIP from 1.35 to 1.17, there has absolutely been some luck involved.

Leake has certainly improved his control this season (walk rate of 5.4%, compared to 5.1 in 2012), opponents are actually hitting more line drives (23%, compared to 21% in 2012) and simply reaping unlucky results. Opponents’ batting average on balls in play is just .291, compared with .310 last season. Perhaps most importantly, just 6.5% of fly balls hit off of Leake in 2013 have landed in the seats. Compare this with his career rate of 9.2% and 2012′s rate of 9.9%. And the fact that he plays his home games in a band box. Regression is unavoidable.

Despite Leake’s inevitable regression, Latos, Homer Bailey, and Bronson Arroyo should be largely consistent moving forward. Johnny Cueto has only started eight games to this point, and he’s their best pitcher. Assuming Phillips’, Todd Frazier, and Co.  pick up their poor offense performance and the pitching remains solid, the Reds should finish in second place and give the Cardinals somewhat of a run for the money en route to a likely wild card berth.

Tags: Cincinnati Reds MLB Pittsburgh Pirates St. Louis Cardinals

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