NL Central: Down to the Wire

As a Cubs fan, this year has been a rollercoaster. If you’re a Brewers fan, it may be even more of a rollercoaster. As a Cardinals fan, perhaps even more than a Brewers fan. As a Pirates fan, arguably more of a rollercoaster than a Cardinals fan. If you’re a Reds fan, I’m sorry.

Last season, the ten teams with the best run differential made the playoffs. This year, the top twenty teams look like this:

Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 10.05.49 PM

Courtesy of teamrankings.com, we can see that this is not the case this year, especially in the NL Central.

The Cubs, the best record in the NL, have a +113 differential that does point to their place in the playoffs. However, the Cardinals outrank the Brewers by +19 runs and Milwaukee is the 13th team whereas the Diamondbacks, Rays—and most surprisingly—the Nationals have better run differentials than the Brewers.

(Worth noting: the Rockies have a -5 differential to the Dodgers +152 and are only 0.5 GB from the Dodgers. That points to the Rockies being incredibly lucky on their journey to Rocktober 2k18.)

Back to the NL Central, though. Let’s dive into a little bit on each team in reverse standings order.

Cincinnati Reds:

The Reds have had a good season by all measures. Sure, the record might not show it, but as our own Cam Cain noted recently—Jose Peraza has been sneaky good. Scooter Gennett has arguably been one of the best second basemen in all of baseball. No one is complaining about Eugenio Suarez’s contract and in fact could probably be featured on this year’s actual MVP series. Raisel Iglesias is one of the best closers in the league. The rotation needs some extreme work, but Luis Castillo still has a chance to be a budding star. A core of young position players led by Joey Votto could be dangerous in a couple years. Don’t count the Reds out in 2020 with some major pitching additions.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Who would’ve guessed that selling Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole in the offseason would lead to a season like this for the Pirates. At the deadline, the Pirates were big buyers—winning the Chris Archer sweepstakes. Gregory Polanco has had a decent return with 2.5 fWAR, .340 OBP and a 123 wRC+. He is walking significantly more but also striking out more than ever in his career (interesting combination). Between a rotation of Taillon/Archer/Nova/others, a core of Polanco/Marte/Harrison/Cervelli and others, and a bullpen led by a young Felipe Vazquez—it is very possible that this team is just a couple pieces from being competitive as soon as next year.

St. Louis Cardinals:

After a first half meltdown under Mike Matheny, the Cardinals game storming back with Mike Schildt at the helm. The good: Matt Carpenter has a legitimate MVP case with a .381 OBP, .384 wOBA, 144 wRC+ and a 5.0 fWAR. He’s led this team to a decent run at the postseason the second half. Mike Mikolas has been more than they could’ve hoped, and Molina seems to be just as consistent as ever with a slash line of .270/.323/.445. Also, the Blue Jays turned down Jack Flaherty and more for Josh Donaldson this offseason, which couldn’t have turned out better for the Redbirds. The bad: Marcell Ozuna, while solid, has not been the key cog in the center of the lineup that the Cardinals were hoping for. Bud Norris had that weird statement about the state of the Cardinals clubhouse midseason (hopefully that has improved). The ugly: Dexter Fowler has been far below average—some would say dismal. He has a -1.2 fWAR compiled from a .180/.278/.298 slash line. It pains me, as a Cubs fan, to see him fall so far. His stats are disturbingly different than his time with the Cubs—hopefully that turns around.

Milwaukee Brewers:

The Brewers were probably hoping for a better outcome this season (as in running away with the division), but the Cubs haven’t been so nice. On the other hand, the Brewers haven’t let the Cubs run away with it either. They appear on their way to a Wild Card game and don’t count them out of the division yet only 2.5 games back. The Brewers also have an NL MVP candidate in Christian Yelich and maybe not MVP-level, but close, Lorenzo Cain. Yelich’s basic slash speaks for itself: .318/.385/.570. Add on a .405 wOBA, 154 wRC+ and a 6.0 fWAR, that’s nothing to scoff at. Furthermore, Cain has put together a .309/.399/.425 slash. The Brewers couldn’t ask for much more from these two guys when they got them in the offseason. They acquired Mike Moustakas at the deadline and added to that core of the lineup with him. If they can put together a playoff rotation, their bullpen will be lights out (led by Josh Hader and co.) and could be a dark horse for a deep playoff run.

Chicago Cubs:

The Cubs have clearly had a tougher time running for the division title this year than in the past few. However, that doesn’t mean it’s been a bad season. Deadline acquisitions Cole Hamels and Daniel Murphy seem to have rejuvenated a core of Rizzo, Baez, Heyward, Schwarber, Zobrist and more. Baez also has a legitimate MVP case and it will be interesting to see how that Carpenter/Yelich/Baez race works out. For reference, Baez’s stat line is .294/.321/.505 with a .371 wOBA, 133 wRC+ and a 5.1 fWAR. If there is one thing the Cubs can point to that’s hurt their season, it’s injuries. Yu Darvish was the first and biggest of many in the 2018 season; Bryant, Morrow, Strop, Heyward, Schwarber, and many more have been beat up—especially in their last thirty games in thirty days stretch. Down the stretch, the Cubs can’t really rest up either with the Brewers lurking close behind. Some tough decisions will have to be made about the postseason roster with the Strop and Morrow injuries in the bullpen, as well.

This will be an incredibly interesting last ten games for the NL Central. If nothing else, to see who rolls into the postseason hot—because often times that makes all the difference. My best guess is that the Cubs will be taking on the Brewers with home-field advantage in the NLDS. They had more success against the Brewers earlier in the year while recently they have proved a harder opponent. I’ll be watching just as closely as you.



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