Things Are Getting Much More Interesting in the NL Central

As the Brewers continue to win and the Cardinals struggle out of the gate, the NL Central race is opening up.

Cardinals and Brewers
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 28: Paul Goldschmidt #46 of the St. Louis Cardinals and Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers meet at first base in the eighth inning at Miller Park on August 28, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The MLB season is 162 games long. That means we’re less than 5% of the way through. If this were the NBA season, we’d only be four games in. If it were the NFL, we’d just be entering the fourth quarter of the first game. And if it were The Lord of the Rings, we’d be arriving in the Shire for the very first time.

In other words, it’s far too soon to make serious judgments about the 2023 campaign. At this point in Fellowship, Frodo didn’t even know he had the One Ring, let alone that he’d be the one to save Middle-earth. Anything can happen over the next six months.

Even so, that doesn’t mean the games we’re watching now are inconsequential. The games in April mean just as much as the games in September. The teams that succeed in the early going have a better chance of succeeding in the end. Thus, the postseason race is already changing before our eyes. Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about the NL Central.

The Brewers Are Making Things Interesting

The Milwaukee Brewers are off to an incredible start. After losing to the Cubs on Opening Day, they’ve won six in a row. Their winning streak has included a dominant sweep of the Mets, in which they outscored their opponents 26-6, and a big victory over the Cardinals on Friday night.

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The Cardinals, meanwhile, are floundering. They won their first series of the season against the Blue Jays, but things quickly went downhill. The Braves came to town and swept them, outscoring the Redbirds by a 17-7 margin. The situation went from bad to worse on Friday when their division rivals from Milwaukee shut them out 4-0.

The Brewers now hold a four-game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Central. That may not seem like much, especially with 155 games left to play, but it could be enough to tilt the scales in a close division race. After all, in my own preseason predictions, I pegged the Cardinals for 89 wins and the Brewers for 85. If St. Louis plays like an 89-win team and Milwaukee plays like an 85-win team from here on out, they’ll finish with identical 87-75 records. The Cardinals have dug themselves into a four-game hole; they’ll have to be more than four games better than the Brewers over the rest of the season if they want to get out.

The NL Central Odds

According to FanGraphs, the Brewers are now the favorites in the NL Central, projected to finish with 88 wins. The Cardinals are projected to finish two games back. FanGraphs gives Milwaukee 51% odds to win the division and 71.4% odds to make the playoffs. The Cardinals sit behind them with a 39% chance in the NL Central and a 62.3% chance to play in October. Here’s how the odds have changed since Opening Day:

PECOTA, the projections system at Baseball Prospectus, has always preferred the Brewers. Entering the season, PECOTA projected Milwaukee to pace the division with 87 wins, while St. Louis would fall short with 85. Those projections have only gotten more extreme, with the Brew Crew now leading the Cardinals by almost five projected victories:

TeamProjected WinsDivision OddsPlayoff Odds
Milwaukee Brewers88.465.5%75.4%
St. Louis Cardinals83.627.1%43.5%

Despite all this, I still like the Cardinals in the NL Central. Their lineup is deep, their defense is strong, and I have faith that John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch will take action to address their needs throughout the season. The Brewers, on the other hand, are relying on a few star players to carry them to October. They’re not as well equipped to deal with injury, and I can’t say I have as much faith in Matt Arnold to acquire talent at the deadline.

However, the Brewers are certainly making things more interesting. I’m not nearly as confident in the Cardinals as I was last week, and I’m starting to believe this division could really go either way.

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The season is still young, and things could look entirely different once another week has gone by. All the same, the results of the first seven games can never be erased from the standings. Frodo couldn’t have destroyed the One Ring if Gandalf hadn’t told him what it really was. If the Brewers win the NL Central crown, they’ll look back on this week as an equally consequential moment.