Two years ago, the National League Central was the best division in baseball, and it wasn't particularly close. The best record belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that went 100-62 and became the first to win 100 games since the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies. Despite that record, though, they had the tightest pennant race of any division winner, finishing ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates by only two games. (The Pirates hadn't won more than those 98 games in a season since 1909.) Not that any of that particularly mattered, because the team that finished third in the division with a measly 97 wins -- the Chicago Cubs -- went out and swept them both out of the playoffs over a matter of seven days. The Cubs would have won every other division in baseball by at least two games, and they would have won the American League West by seven. In the NL Central, they couldn't even host the Wild Card Game.
It has been a mere 19 months since that 2015 season ended. Suffice it to say, the NL Central is a different place right now.
As the first one-third of the 2017 season comes to a close, it is undeniable that the once-great NL Central is off to the worst start imaginable. On Tuesday night, every team in the division lost: the Cubs lost to the Padres (!); the Cardinals lost to the Dodgers; the Brewers lost to the Mets; the Reds lost to the Blue Jays; and the Pirates lost to the Diamondbacks. Since last Friday, the division is 7-18. The defending champion Cubs' record is one game under .500 -- something that never happened last season -- and they're in second place! Seriously, look at these NL Central standings:
If the first-place Brewers were in the AL West, they would be 9 1/2 games out of first. After 51 games last season, the Cubs were 36-15; they're somehow 11 games worse already than they were in 2016. The Pirates have lost arguably their best player and only have two above-average hitters in their lineup … and they're as close to first place in their division as the Red Sox are in theirs. Here's a good way to put it: The first-place team in the NL Central is four games out of the second NL Wild Card spot. The first-place team in the NL Central is on pace for 84 wins.
This division has collapsed. What is happening? Let's take a look at each of the division's teams, evaluate what has gone wrong and decide whether they've got any chance of rebounding.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (24-29, 3 1/2 games out)
The Pirates' strength during their renaissance of the past decade has been pitching and defense, but both have taken hits this year. The loss of Starling Marte messed up the Bucs outfield, and as much as Andrew McCutchen wants to be a top-shelf center fielder, he just isn't anymore. Ivan Nova has been terrific, and Gerrit Cole is back in his groove, but until Jameson Taillon can find his way back (and he's been excellent in rehab starts since his surgery for testicular cancer), there isn't much there.
The lineup is missing two massive pieces in Marte -- who is eligible to come back July 17 -- and Jung Ho Kang, who is unlikely to return at all this year. The team has gotten boosts from Josh Harrison, David Freese and Adam Frazier, but with a diminished McCutchen (who is hitting .215) and a stagnant Gregory Polanco, it just lacks the depth needed to be a serious contender. Remember when we thought the Pirates had the best outfield in baseball?
The Pirates have two advantages. One, they play in this division, so no one has run away from them. And two, they've got reinforcements coming, in Marte and Taillon. The Bucs' season looked over when Marte got suspended. It still might be. But Pittsburgh is just 3 1/2 games out of first place despite everything that has gone wrong so far. The Pirates must feel incredibly fortunate.
4. Cincinnati Reds (24-27, 2 1/2 games out)
The Reds were actually in first place on May 7, and the club's record was a season-high four games over .500 on May 11. They then lost six in a row. This was the collapse many were expecting, but as the division has wilted alongside them, the Reds are still hanging around.
The Reds' key has been their offense, which has been so good that Joey Votto hasn't even been their best hitter. That would be Zack Cozart, who is getting on base at a .422 clip, a mark which is in the top five in baseball. Eugenio Suarez, Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler and even Scooter Gennett are also off to fast starts: Schebler has 15 freaking homers! Duvall has 14!
The pitching is the issue, of course, as anyone who noticed Bronson Arroyo and Scott Feldman in the Opening Day rotation might have pointed out. (Feldman hasn't been half bad, but Arroyo has a 6.62 ERA, and rising.) The bullpen, particularly Raisel Iglesias, has been fantastic, but it has been used so heavily that the tires are about to burst.
The Reds saw this as a rebuilding and learning season from the get-go, and they've certainly learned positive things about some of their young hitters, namely Suarez (who is 25) and Schebler (26). Cincinnati is going to finish last in this division, and it will be OK with that. There are some foundations being set here.
3. St. Louis Cardinals (24-25, 1 1/2 games out)
The Cardinals have the best rotation in the division -- all five starters have been at least average, and Mike Leake has essentially been Greg Maddux for the season's first two months -- and they're getting breakthrough seasons from Jedd Gyorko, Tommy Pham and even Kolten Wong, who looks like he's about to (finally) establish himself as the team's second baseman for the next half decade. They've got two dominant arms in the bullpen in Seung Hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal. So why are Cards fans so miserable?
Let legendary Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon take this one.
The Cardinals are a lousy fielding team, a lousy baserunning team and a lousy … well, just a lousy fundamental team. I know that fundamentals aren't in vogue, but when you watch the Cards play every day, they are sloppy and lackadaisical and all together ugly. They lose games because of mental lapses -- they have to lead baseball in TOOTBLANS -- and dumb errors and odd managerial decisions. They find new ways, seemingly every night, to lose.
There is talent here, particularly in that rotation. If the Cardinals could tighten up their sloppy play, they could still make a run in this division. But when's the last time you saw a team suddenly turn from this error-prone to fundamentally sound midseason? The Cards bear little resemblance to their solid, reliable teams of the past. And as talented as they are, they don't have enough talent to overcome their daily brainfarts. No team is at a more pivotal moment right now than the Cardinals. The Brewers and Reds are still building; the Pirates have a ton of young talent; the Cubs are still the Cubs. What are the Cards? What's the plan? What are they, exactly? That question is far from being answered, and until it is, this team looks like what it record says it is: Mediocre.
2. Chicago Cubs (25-26, 1 1/2 games out of first)
Can you imagine what Cubs fans would be doing had they lost the World Series last year? (Which, I remind again, they were this close to doing.) To come that close, lose and then come back with a team that's supposedly even better, and they have this start? That would've been a problem. The Cubs looked like they were about to take control of the division like everyone was expecting them to just last week … and then they lost five games in a row, including two to the Padres, somehow.
So what's wrong? Kris Bryant has been great, Anthony Rizzo is finally coming on, Ben Zobrist has been fine, but the rest of the offense has been rough, particularly Kyle Schwarber, whose struggles have been so profound that some think he should be sent down to the Minors. It still feels like all those guys are going to start hitting, though.
Which brings us to the pitching. Jake Arietta and John Lackey look like they're in their 30s -- Lackey, in particular, looks like a tired, angry old man -- and it's a little worrisome that their best starter so far has been Eddie Butler, a Rockies castoff. They still have an excellent bullpen, and the basic foundation is still all in place. The Cubs obviously aren't as good as they were last year; they'd have to go 78-32 the rest of year to match 2016's pace. But they don't have to be that much better than they're playing right now to still run away with this division. Before this five-game losing streak, they looked ready to take control. They still look that way, after the losing streak. Joe Maddon says he has "all the faith in the world." The way this division is set up, that seems as good a strategy as anything.
1. Milwaukee Brewers (27-25, in first place)
The Brewers were hoping they could be the 2014 Cubs of this season: A team that wasn't quite ready to contend but showed enough young talent to let the rest of the division know that their time was imminent. Well, they're going to be in first place on June 1, and that's despite Ryan Braun's usual injury issues and a dreadful start for Keon Broxton, who was supposed to be the star.
Eric Thames has cooled off after that insane start, and he's actually batting .074 with no homers over the past two weeks. Fortunately, that has coincided with Broxton's bat starting to come alive, as well as some further improvement from Domingo Santana. Plus, as mentioned, the division is falling apart.
The Brewers have some pitching prospects coming -- if Josh Hader weren't struggling so much in Triple-A, he'd probably be up already -- which could help out a rotation that has been steady but hardly spectacular. (The bullpen has been better, particularly Corey Knebel, who has a 15.6 K/9 ratio.) In an ordinary year, Milwaukee would just let it ride, maybe experiment a bit, have this be a season of coming attractions. But until the Cubs floor it, or the Cardinals figure out their problems, or the Pirates hang on enough until Marte returns, the Brewers are as much a part of this thing as anyone.
You can fall on your face a lot in the NL Central and still be a part of the race. Nineteen months ago, 97 wins wasn't even good enough for second place; this year, 87 might be enough for first. One thing is certain, though: With all five teams on a losing streak, no fan base is happy. Even if, considering every other division in baseball, they're all pretty lucky to be exactly where they are.
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