MLB: NL Central Memorial Day Check-In

The NL Central is a pretty balanced division, but within that balance there does appear to be a mild caste system. The true Midwest teams—the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, and Chicago Cubs—are poised to push for the playoffs, with the Brewers setting the early tone. The Rustbelt teams—the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds are bringing up the rear, although both could change this dynamic with a hot couple of weeks.

We wrap up our early divisional check-ins with a concise breakdown of these five:

Milwaukee (33-23)
The Brewers have been a pleasant surprise under new manager Pat Murphy. They are balanced in every way possible. Milwaukee ranks between second and fifth in the significant offensive categories, meaning they’re doing a nice job on everything from putting the ball in to play to driving the gaps to hitting for power to the running game. Their pitching is balanced, with respectable work from the starters and a good relief corps. Even within these broad categories, the personnel is mostly balanced. All of that bodes well for long haul success.

All balance isn’t created equal though, and catcher William Contreras has been the best everyday player. A stat line of .387 on-base percentage/.500 slugging is excellent for anyone. For a catcher on a first-place team, it should put him at least in top-5 discussions of the MVP vote. Brice Turang leads the running game with 19 steals and the second baseman also hits .290. Joey Ortiz is having a good all-around offensive year. And being a DH seems to agree with Christian Yelich. He’s still only 32-years-old, and is off to a strong start with a .386/.532 stat line.

After trading Corbin Burnes to Baltimore, the pitching staff was expected to take a step back. While the Brewers do clearly miss having an ace at the top of the rotation, they are getting solid work from Freddy Peralta, Colin Rea, and Bryse Wilson. The star of a balanced bullpen has been setup man Bryan Hudson with his 1.96 ERA.

An intriguing X-factor here is 25-year-old Robert Gasser. In his four starts, Gasser has ripped off a 1.96 ERA. If he’s for real, Milwaukee could run away with this thing. As it is, even if they come back to the pack a bit this summer, they’re still better than expected, holding a five-game lead at the season’s first turn.

St. Louis (27-27) & Chicago (28-29)
The Cubs seem to be a more likely bet than the Cardinals to pick up the pace and make a move on Milwaukee. The main thing holding Chicago back is a bullpen that ranks 13th in the National League in relievers’ ERA. Handling a bullpen was always a strength of manager Craig Counsell when he was a couple hours north in Milwaukee, and I fully expect him to find a way to piece a relief corps together. I’m not saying he has a magic wand, without anyone in particular really pitching well. But Counsell was always good at squeezing the most out of a pen.

That job gets easier when you have a strong rotation to fall back on. Shota Imanaga has delivered the goods on the North Side, with a dazzling 1.86 ERA and 5-1 record in his ten starts. Javier Assad isn’t far behind, with a 2.17 ERA. Jameson Taillon is throwing the ball well. Even if the up-and-down Taillon slips, Justin Steele is capable of more than his current 4.45 ERA.

What Chicago needs is some bats to pick up the pace. Nico Hoerner, Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki should all be expected to hit better in the coming months.

When it comes to bats needing to get rolling, no one needs to do that more than St. Louis first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Two years removed from his MVP campaign, Goldschmidt is batting just .224 with seven home runs. And the Cardinal offense ranks 14th in the National League for runs scored.

That’s reason for optimism in St. Loo, but losing catcher Wilson Contreras until at least mid-July was a big blow. I also wonder if we should expect Nolan Arenado to start hitting better. You can look at his poor numbers of .311/.366 stat line and see someone ripe for improvement. But he did show some decline last year and is 33-years-old. Obviously, that’s not too old to make a comeback, but it is at the point where Cardinal fans have to feel a little nervous over whether premature decline is setting in. It’s an interesting point to watch in the summer months.

The Cardinals can also count on Miles Mikolas to pitch better. He’s been awful in the early going with a 5.64 ERA. I don’t know if they can count on better from Steven Matz (6.18 ERA) after he gets back from the IL, but it’s not unreasonable to hope for it.

You can make a good argument for either team (or both) getting back in it, but I lean Chicago here, simply because I believe in Counsell, I suspect the Cub front office may again show an interest in winning at the trade deadline, and I have no idea what’s going on with the Cardinal organization these days.

Pittsburgh (26-30) & Cincinnati (24-32)
The Pirates look like a team that’s on the right path, but not quite ready yet. If they arrive ahead of schedule, it will be on the strength of starting pitching. The Buccos are fifth in the NL in starters’ ERA. Mitch Keller is now an established arm and he’s now been joined by Jared Jones, Bailey Falter and Paul Skenes. All are young and all are pitching well. Skenes, less than a year ago, was pitching LSU to the NCAA baseball title. Now, in his first four big league starts, his ERA is 2.45. Let’s get the Pittsburgh offense some help for first baseman Connor Joe (.357/.463 stat line) and second baseman Nick Gonzalez (.375/.547).

Cincinnati is a massive disappointment, at least as far as I’m concerned. I had them penned in for a breakout year and to win this division. Frankly, I don’t regret making the pick. They’re still getting good starting pitching from Hunter Greene, Andrew Abbort and Nick Lodolo, all of whom have ERAs in the 3s. But the bullpen has been atrocious, with closer Alexis Diaz getting rocked to the tune of a 5.75 ERA. Just a year ago, Diaz was unhittable.

A young and talented lineup has underperformed. It’s not on Elly De La Cruz—while the shortstop is only batting .249 in his second year, his OPB Is a solid .346 and he slugs a respectable .443. That’s a good second season. But there’s a notable lack of contributions elsewhere. I think the Reds need to ask themselves whether or not they’ve given manager David Bell enough chances to win, and whether they’re going to make a move now while they’re still in reasonable striking distance. If it were me, I’d make a managerial change. The Reds should be better.

That’s a wrap on our Memorial Day Week check-ins!