The Race for the NL Central is a Battle of Different Vibes

The Cardinals attacked the trade deadline with a plan to improve chemistry and talent. The Brewers traded one of the faces of the franchise.

Albert Pujols
DENVER, COLORADO - AUGUST 10: Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals is congratulated after hitting career home run number 687 against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on August 10, 2022 in Denver, Colorado.(Photo by Harrison Barden/Colorado Rockies/Getty Images)

Aside from the three-horse race in the AL Central, no division in baseball is more tightly contested at the top than what’s happening in the National League Central.

While the Cubs, Pirates, and Reds are jostling in the basement of the division, the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers are virtually side-by-side, clipping at each other’s heels to take the crown in what’s looking more and more like a one-bid division as we inch closer to the postseason.

Last week’s MLB Trade Deadline certainly shook up how both St. Louis and Milwaukee line up for the final six weeks of the regular season, but it may have done more than what meets the naked eye.

The Cardinals leaned into their “contender” mindset, trading for Pirates left-hander Jose Quintana and swapping defensive savant Harrison Bader for Yankee southpaw Jordan Montgomery. The Brewers, on the other hand, traded arguably the best closer in baseball over the last several years to San Diego for a set-up man and a solid prospect return.

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The Cardinals got better. The Brewers arguably took a step back. But, there’s so much more to these separate deadline approaches than what we see between the foul lines. Time to burn some sage, break out the incense, and assess the energy that each team is radiating.

St. Louis Cardinals: Positive Vibes Only

The mantra of the St. Louis Cardinals so far this season seems to be similar to that of The Last Dance. This is their last shot to win a ring with three franchise cornerstones with legitimate Hall of Fame cases in Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright leading the charge.

While Molina has spent a good deal of the middle months on the IL, Pujols is thriving in his platoon-DH role, and Wainwright continues to throw like a front-line starter, even though he may be starting to think about the benefits that come with having an AARP Account.

What the Cardinals have done to hedge the aging pillars is truly remarkable. Paul Goldschmidt, at the age of 34, is putting together as strong a case as anyone to take home the National League MVP.

Nolan Arenado, 31, has cemented that superstardom can leave Coors Field and still thrive in the right environment. Mid-20’s stars Tyler O’Neill and Tommy Edman have been steady contributors, while youngsters Dylan Carlson, Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, and Juan Yepez have provided an influx of youthful energy and legitimate production.

On the mound, Miles Mikolas, despite a blow-up outing this week in Denver, has excelled. Andre Pallante has turned into an incredible swingman as a rookie, while All-Star flamethrower Ryan Helsley has transformed into an other-worldly closer.

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Now, to the deadline. The Cardinals knew that they needed to improve the starting pitching, and they’d prefer to do so without dealing from their top prospects in Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn, Matthew Liberatore, Gordon Graceffo, and Tink Hence. Mission accomplished.

St. Louis added Quintana and a buy-low reliever in Chris Stratton for a surplus (but effective) reliever in Johan Oviedo and a 21-year-old corner infielder in Malcom Nuñez. Just before the buzzer on August 2nd, they swapped Bader, who was seemingly phased out of an everyday role in center field, for an arm that hardly anyone thought would be made available in Montgomery.

Quintana’s first two starts for the Cardinals have gone exceptionally well. Across 12 innings, the 33-year-old has allowed just eight hits and three earned runs while striking out 13 and walking four. Montgomery’s lone start for the Cardinals so far came against his former teammates in New York, and he was supreme, throwing five shutout innings.

The vibes have simply been immaculate. Since the Trade Deadline on August 2, St. Louis’ .888 Team OPS ranks second in all of baseball, and they’re 7-1. That’ll play.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Vibes Are Off, Man

The Brewers have wrung the towel dry of everything the market can give them over the past several years, and the immense success they’ve experienced on the mound is indicative of that. Led by the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner in Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee’s 3.64 staff ERA since the start of last season ranks sixth in all of baseball.

The problem that they have sought to address over the last several seasons has been offensive depth, especially considering their prized possession, Christian Yelich, has yet to truly live up to the seven-year, $189 million extension that he signed ahead of the 2020 season. They have done so effectively, finding consistent-but-not-flashy contributors via the trade market in Rowdy Tellez, Willy Adames, Hunter Renfroe, and Luis Urias.

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This deadline presented a pristine chance for the Brewers to make the jump from postseason mainstay to legitimate World Series contenders. Instead, President of Baseball Operations David Stearns opted to ship the career 2.54 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 15.4 K/9, and 4.6 H/9 of four-time All-Star and three-time NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader to the ultra-aggressive A.J. Preller and the Padres.

Looking at this trade from a pure value perspective, it seems to be mutually beneficial. Hader will enter free agency after next season, and the Brewers got Padres closer Taylor Rogers in return with flier Dinelson Lamet (who they designated for assignment shortly thereafter) and promising prospects Esteury Ruiz and Robert Gasser.

However, not assessing this trade from an optics perspective would be doing the Brewers fanbase a disservice. The Brewers were met by so much backlash after the move that Stearns felt the need to issue a statement regarding the trade.

The statement didn’t quell all concerns, if any. Even former Rookie of the Year and NL Reliever of the Year Devin Williams, who functions as the Brewers closer now that Hader is on the West Coast, was outspoken about the lack of feel that the move represented.

Since Hader was moved on August 1, the Brewers are 3-5, which includes a sweep by the Pirates and dropping two of three to the Reds at home. Williams, who had not allowed a single run since May 10 in Cincinnati, took the loss in their first game post-Hader after Jake McGhee had blown his fourth save of the season earlier on in the afternoon.

If this tight race in the NL Central carries through the end of September, it’ll be worth revisiting how last week’s deadline truly changed the trajectory for both of these sides.

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Thank you for attending this vibe check.