Although play has varied in quality over the last six years, the NL Central just keeps bringing the drama. After Sunday's games, which saw the Brewers and Reds pick themselves off the mat after difficult Saturday losses against the Cardinals and Pirates, the gap between first-place Milwaukee and fourth-place Pittsburgh sits at a mere 3.5 games, with St. Louis and Cincinnati one and 1.5 games back, respectively. According to the Baseball-Reference Play-Index, 2014 becomes the third time in the last six seasons first and fourth in the NL Central have been separated by four games or less at the All-Star break, and the fourth time in the last six years the division's top three has been separated by 2.5 games or fewer.
Sunday's 11-2 win over St. Louis kept Milwaukee in first place, as they have been for the past 100 consecutive days. Many have been waiting for the other shoe to drop for what has been a shocking Brewers team, and it nearly did over the past two weeks. Sunday's win was just the Brewers' second in 12 July games, and they have been outscored 63-40. As much as every team will go through bad stretches, the Brewers' cold streak has exposed weaknesses the club will need to cover going forward, in the bullpen and on the bench.
Other than closer Francisco Rodriguez, the Brewers bullpen features just two right-handers -- Brandon Kintzler and Rob Wooten -- both of whom own an ERA over 5.00 spanning the past 30 days. Both have good peripheral numbers in the major leagues, but lack the swing-and-miss stuff necessary to hold down a setup role. The club hopes to get last year's closer Jim Henderson back from injury soon (and perhaps Tyler Thornburg as well), but right-handed relief should be a top deadline priority for Milwaukee.
Another strong right-handed reliever would take pressure off Wooten and Kintzler, but lefty Will Smith may benefit the most from righty reinforcements. Smith, who carried a 0.36 ERA into June, allowed nine of his 15 earned runs of the season in three consecutive appearances between July 2 and July 10. Smith has struck out 30 of the 66 left-handers he has faced and allowed just three extra-base hits, but right-handers own an .813 OPS against him. Another right-hander or two in the Brewers bullpen would allow Ron Roenicke to be more selective with Smith's appearances (the Brewers' other two lefty relievers, Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny, have not shown as exaggerated platoon splits).
The bench will be a trade priority as well. The Brewers need a capable backup infielder, as both Elian Herrera (.519 OPS) and Jeff Bianchi (.388 OPS) have been overmatched at the plate. The same goes in the outfield, where Logan Schafer has provided great defense but no punch (.612 OPS) and Herrera, forced to the outfield on multiple occasions, has struggled to adapt. Lyle Overbay's clubhouse presence has been praised, but the Brewers could also look to upgrade the left side of their first base platoon: Overbay's .685 OPS doesn't cut it at the diamond's most offensively demanding position. The only Brewers bench players with safe jobs should be catcher Martin Maldonado and second base platoon man Rickie Weeks.
According to Baseball-Reference, Brewers pinch hitters have been a full win below average, better than only the Phillies and the Cubs this year. But as Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez, Jean Segura, and Khris Davis have all dealt with varying injuries over the last month, these bench issues have been exposed even more than usual. Schafer, Bianchi, Herrera and Overbay have combined to bat 74 times (the equivalent of roughly 18 starts) in the last 14 days. Between the inevitability of injuries and the need for solid pinch-hitters in the National League, the Brewers need to find some major-league talent for their bench.
Despite the NL Central's four teams over .500, the overall power of the Athletics, Angels and Mariners arguably make the AL West even scarier. But the NL Central is primed for unmatched drama down the stretch. The Brewers' flaws have been exposed over the last month, and the Pirates have had their own maddening stretches, but the talent of St. Louis and Cincinnati will be drawn back to the pack thanks to major injuries to Yadier Molina, Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto. Not only are all four teams within 3.5 games in the standings, the difference between the quartet's best and worst run differentials is a mere 30, between Pittsburgh's minus-2 and Cincinnati's plus-28, smallest of the six divisions by 20 runs.
Those who doubted the Brewers' early-season strength have been vindicated by the club's atrocious opening to July, but by avoiding a sweep in the first half's final weekend, Milwaukee remains in first place at the break. Their flaws are exposed, but those chasing them will be short-handed for much of the second half. Perhaps it won't be the best baseball ever, but as we've often seen in recent years, the second half is primed for high drama in the National League Central.