State of the Division: NL Central

One of the most surprising divisions in baseball

Javier Baez and Kris Bryant
Photo: Getty Images

Before the 2021 season began, the Cardinals looked like the clear favorite to win the division, with the four other teams in the NL Central looking for answers. Compared to the rest of the league, this division seemed to be one of the weakest.

Fast forward to June, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. This division has three teams with a record above .500, something that only the AL East and the NL West can also say. The Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals and Reds will all be competing for playoff spots. Meanwhile, the Pirates are unfortunately still the Pirates. 

Milwaukee Brewers – Tied for First

The Brewers might have the best starting pitching trio in the league. Led by Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, pitching is certainly not the problem in the Cream City. Milwaukee is top 10 in both team ERA and WHIP. The bullpen remains electric, with Josh Hader and Devin Williams mowing down hitters left and right (the two relief aces have combined to strikeout 90 hitters in 55 innings). 

The lineup, on the other hand, is anything but electric. As a team, they are 23rd in runs scored. Christian Yelich has struggled to gain any momentum, thus far, after dealing with back troubles that cost him a month of action. Outside of that, the remaining options in the lineup look slim: 

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The Brewers should add a bat at the deadline, as history tells us they’re not a club that will lie down while in contention. My brain reverts to the CC Sabathia acquisition from the Indians in 2007. Could we see the Brewers make some similar magic?

Chicago Cubs – Tied for First

Remember when the Cubs were pegged as sellers? When nobody (including myself) thought the Cubs could even sniff playoff contention? This is why baseball is so awesome. Kris Bryant is back to being Kris Bryant, unleashing on an MVP caliber start to the season. Javier Baez is also back, leading the team in Home Runs and RBI. In addition, both Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera look like All Stars in the back-end of that bullpen. 

However, it’s clear that their starting rotation isn’t built for playoff baseball. Although they’re ranked 10th in team ERA, that’s largely due to the success of the bullpen. Kyle Hendricks and Adbert Alzolay are both solid arms, but they’re not going to cut it. So if I was Jed Hoyer, I would give the Colorado Rockies a call for German Marquez to try to solidify the remaining three spots in the rotation.

St. Louis Cardinals – Barely Over .500

At this point, it’s hard to say the Cardinals aren’t one of baseball’s most disappointing teams. Injuries have hit the redbirds hard, with star pitcher Jack Flaherty sidelined with an oblique injury. In addition, OF Harrison Bader, SP Miles Mikolas, RP Jordan Hicks and SP Kwang Hyun Kim all join him on the Injured List. Meanwhile, the rest of that rotation isn’t doing the team any favors and the offense has been below average. Tyler O’Neill is having a breakout season, and Nolan Arenado has been solid, but that’s about it.

Similarly, the bullpen has disappointed as well. Before the season, it was supposed to be a strength of the ball club, but at this point, Giovanny Gallegos is the only arm with an ERA below 3.80. The Cards must add a starting pitcher and a bullpen piece at the deadline if the plan is to compete in October. 

Cincinnati Reds – 4th Place

The story of this team is that they can score runs (7th in MLB Runs Scored), but can’t pitch to save their lives (28th in MLB Team ERA). Unbelievable offensive performances so far from Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker (each have an OPS above 1.000) have kept this team afloat, but at some point, someone else is going to have to step up.

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Although the pitching has been brutal, Tejay Antone and Tyler Mahle have been bright spots. Sonny Gray is still a valuable piece, but has been injured twice. However, the biggest issue with the rotation has been Luis Castillo’s struggles. If he continues to pitch to an ERA north of 5.00, it’ll be hard for the staff to get going. This team could plan on selling at the deadline to reload one of the weaker minor league systems in baseball, but don’t be surprised if their two MVP candidates keep them in contention.

Pittsburgh Pirates – Last Place

If this doesn’t define the Pirates this year, I’m not sure what does:

Ke’Bryan Hayes got some flack here, but he’s the lone potential All Star on this roster. He’s clearly the player Pittsburgh should build around for the future. Richard Rodriguez has been a valuable back-end bullpen piece, and 2B Adam Frazier is one of the league leaders in hits. Beyond that, there’s not much to get excited about. 

At the Minor League level, Nick Gonzales has been tearing it up in his first professional season, and Roansy Contreras (acquired from the Yankees for Jameson Taillon) looks like a potential building block in the rotation. This team should focus their efforts on selling off some of their veteran pieces, continuing to reload their farm system, and look forward to owning the first overall pick in the 2021 draft.