No division in baseball is nearer and dearer to me than the National League Central, home to my St. Louis Cardinals, as well as the team geographically closest to me (the Cincinnati Reds). I grew up in Louisville, KY, which has been home to a AAA baseball team since before I was born that has been affiliated with three NL Central teams–the Cardinals, Reds, and the Milwaukee Brewers. I’ve followed this division as long as I can remember, and this year it is really shaping up to be a doozy of a race.
No division in baseball has seen as much upheaval as the NL Central–the 1994 realignment that created it pulled three teams from the old NL East and two teams from the NL West and put them together in a division. Old rivalries took a backseat (Cardinals-Mets, Reds-Dodgers), while new ones heated up (Cardinals-Astros in the 2000s, recently Reds-Cardinals). In 1998, the Brewers were added to the NL Central, and now the division exists as the largest in the league (6 teams, while most divisions have 5, and the AL West only has 4). The St. Louis Cardinals have essentially dominated the division, winning eight of the seventeen championships–and they account for the only World Series to be won out of the division. The Astros have won 4 division titles, the Cubs have won 3, the Reds 2, the Brewers have won one wildcard, and since the inception of the division, the Pirates have never been to the playoffs.
That all might change this year. While the Reds and Cardinals were expected to compete for the division title during the offseason, the acquisition of Cy Young award winner-Zack Greinke and the injury to Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright had people thinking this division might be a bit more competitive than previously expected–and when former Astro Lance Berkman started coming on strong for the St. Louis Cardinals, those predictions came true. The early season race was between those three teams, but a surprising thing started happening right before the All-Star Break–the Pittsburgh Pirates started coming on strong.
As I stated earlier, the Pirates have never won the NL Central. But the story is actually much sadder than that–the Pirates haven’t had a winning season in 18 years, and have been the victims of terrible mismanagement in recent times. However, the Pirates managed to develop some great pitching, including a shut-the-door closer in Joel Hanrahan and some great team speed including Andrew McCutchen. No one expected them to win the division title this year–and honestly, no one even thought they would compete. But today, the Pirates are in 1st place–a full game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.
The race will be exciting. I don’t believe the Pirates have what it takes right now to win a division title–but I think they are in a great spot to end their 18 year drought of winning seasons. With the talent currently on the roster, this team will be very competitive in a few years. From what I have read and heard about their farm system, talent will continue to pour into this team, ensuring that Pittsburgh is the next Boston–the town all the champions call home. The biggest mistake the Pirates can make this year is trading some of their younger prospects–some of whom are all the way down in single-A ball and would need to put into a bigger package–for a big contract that the franchise couldn’t hold on to. It seems extremely mean to tell a team who has waited 18 years for a winning team to wait longer–but that is the smart move.
The Brewers and Cardinals are the most likely teams to take the division–but if the Reds can address the problems that their long-time closer Francisco Cordero is beginning to show, and start winning close games, they will be right back in the race. The Brewers biggest hurdle to the division title is their proclivity towards close games. Right now, everything is bouncing for the Brew-Crew–they have a aggregate run differential of -15 (in English: other teams have scored 15 more runs than the Brewers) even though the team is five games above .500. This means that the Brewers win close games–if they can continue to do that, it bodes well for them to win the division.
The Cardinals main issue changes daily. At the beginning of the year, starting pitching and the slow start of Albert Pujols was thought to be a big problem for the Cards. However, with the emergence of Berkman and the return of Albert, offense hasn’t been much of an issue. Furthermore, the starting pitching really stepped it up for the Cardinals. The bullpen was the next thing to break down, but with the addition of Fernando Salas as the every day closer and the emergence of Mitchell Boggs as a good long reliever, the bullpen hasn’t been so bad. The Cardinals have a chance to be great–but only if everything works at the same time. Which it hasn’t done yet this year. The Cardinals are an impossible team to predict, and as a fan that is both extremely engaging and very frustrating.
The Reds problem is with their bad luck–which I think they wasted during the previous season. Last year, when the Reds won the division title, they won nearly every close game. This year has been a different story. To mirror the Brewers, the Reds have a +26 run differential while being 3 games below .500. This speaks of a team that can blow some teams away, but fails to win the close games. The Reds have the talent to win–they proved that last year. Brandon Phillips is having a phenomenal year defensively, and isn’t doing too poorly offensively either. Joey Votto is MVP caliber, and they have a good-enough rotation. The chips just need to start falling for Cincinnati if they are to win the title.
So, the end of the regular season should be fun, but if recent history is to be any guide, whoever wins is doomed in the post-season. The NL Central is 1-15 in the playoffs since the Cardinals won the title in 2006, including sweeps over the Reds, Cubs, and Cardinals, and a 1-3 series where the Dodgers beat the Brewers. I usually don’t do this, but I think this year, I’ll cheer for the NL Central no matter who wins the division–just to restore some pride in my favorite division of all.