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Sep 6, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) hits a three run home run off of Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Bryan Morris (not pictured) during the seventh inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

How will the N.L. Central Division look at the end of the season?

The National League Central has quickly gone from a laughing stock dominated by the St. Louis Cardinals seemingly every single year to the most competitive and entertaining division in baseball this side of the A.L. East. Of course, shedding the woeful Houston Astros helped tremendously, but the Pittsburgh Pirates are virtually guaranteed a spot in the playoffs for the first time in two decades, and the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds have continued their playoff-worthy play from the past few seasons.

The Milwaukee Brewers have taken a step back, but boast a young, exciting tandem at the top of their lineup in Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura. And the Chicago Cubs are knocking on the door of respectability with a remade front office, prospects headed up the pipeline, and a chance to beat out the Brewers for fourth place in the division.

But the three-way race between the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds has been intriguing, and promises to come down to the final days of the season. Rather ironically, the new playoff format that allows two wild card teams has likely robbed us of some end of the season drama, as it is all certain that all three teams will indeed qualify for the playoffs. The race now becomes a competition to avoid playing in the coin-flip of a one-game playoff. Still a worthy goal, indeed.

So how will the N.L. Central standings look at the close of September? How do the schedules stack up, and whose luck just might be about to run out? We’ll go team by team and ultimately predict the order of finish for the trio of contenders.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are still seen as the class of the division, with their two World Series titles in the past seven seasons and a championship coming as recently 2011. But that reputation is not based solely on past performances, and rightfully so.

St. Louis owns the best run differential of the three teams, at a National League-best +147 through play on September 9. They’ve outscored the Pirates by a whopping 132 runs and the Reds by 62 runs. The pitching has been atypical compared to Cardinals teams of recent years, but has absolutely been good enough to contend down the stretch and deep into the playoffs.

Lance Lynn took a disappointing downturn this year on the mound, following up a very good 2012 with a mediocre 2013 campaign. Of course, playoff rotations are shortened considerably, and the likes of Lynn and Jake Westbrook will likely find themselves as long men out of the bullpen.

As for the bullpen…it’s been fantastic. All things considered, the Cardinals are absolutely still the best team in the division, if not the league, despite the Atlanta Braves’ slight edge in wins. St. Louis doesn’t have too difficult of a schedule over the past three weeks of the season, and they do have the most home games of the three clubs. I would expect the Cardinals to play very well down the stretch and end up with yet another division crown.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The upstart Pirates shouldn’t have surprised anyone too much this year with a certain level of competency, but their sudden leap into (alleged) contender status has been a bit startling. I’ve gone on record more than once this year questioning the ability to hold off a decent at-best run differential and some potentially vicious regression to the mean from their starting staff.

And lo and behold, Jeff Locke indeed came crashing back to earth with a 7.39 ERA over 31 2/3 innings after July 31. Gerrit Cole continued to play well and veterans A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano maintained their impressive starts, solidifying the front end of the rotation and the pitching staff as a whole.

The hitting, on the other hand, has remained suspect, with the Pirates having scored just 556 runs on the season. To put that into perspective, only the White Sox, Phillies, Marlins, Padres, and Giants have scored less runs, and the last place Cubs have crossed the plate the exact same number of times. And of course, none of those teams have records within ten games of .500.

The Pirates attempted to shore up their offensive attack with additions such as Marlon Byrd (.330 pre-Pittsburgh .OBP), John Buck (.285), and Justin Morneau (.315). Not exactly a Murderers Row of acquisitions, so it’s difficult to imagine a club with really only Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte as consistent, above average offensive performers advancing too far in the playoffs.

On top of that, being in the playoffs means facing off against other team’s aces and top-of-the-rotation starters, meaning that scoring runs is difficult. Sure, the Pittsburgh staff seems to be up to the challenge; a Liriano-Burnett 1-2 punch looks pretty formidable right now. But will they be able to score enough to win games?

The Pirates have the toughest schedule of the three contenders in the N.L. Central, and finish the season with six out of their last nine games against the Reds, with the final three games of the schedule coming at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Not exactly an easy go of it. My prediction: the Pirates will finish in third place and play in a one game playoff. Keep in mind though, anything can happen in that one game, so I’m not willing to project much beyond that at this point.

Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati’s +101 run differential dwarfs Pittsburgh’s +40 mark, and they’ve been the most balanced of the three clubs during the 2013 season. The pitching has been surprisingly stout, especially given that Johnny Cueto has only started nine games this year due to injury.

Cueto will likely be back before the end of the regular season, and a playoff rotation featuring Mat Latos , Cueto, and some combination of rookie Tony Cingrani, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake should be quite fearsome. However, the Reds may be the least-suited for a one-game playoff (the Wild Card round) of the three teams, as Latos isn’t particularly overpowering and Cueto will be coming off of injury. But the offense is just as explosive as the Cardinals, and especially at home in Cincinnati.

The Reds have the easiest schedule down the stretch, facing the Astros, Cubs, Brewers, and Mets (all with winning percentages below .451), and their only series against a team with a record above .500 are their six games against the Pirates.

The Reds relatively easy schedule, combined with the Pirates comparatively difficult schedule and the absurd difference in run differential should be enough to push Cincinnati past Pittsburgh over the next three weeks. It’ll certainly be close, and I can’t stress enough that anything can happen in a one-game playoff.

The new structure, more than ever before, is simply a “get in and see what happens” format. Don’t get me wrong — any of these three teams could get hot in the playoffs and make some noise. Anything can happen, and these last three weeks of the regular season should make for some compelling baseball.

Tags: Cincinnati Reds MLB NL Central Pittsburgh Pirates St. Louis Cardinals

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