Due to the presence of the rebuilding Cubs and Astros, no one is going to mistake the NL Central as the toughest division in baseball. In fact, earlier this season, a good argument could have been made that it was the worst division in baseball. But now, as we head down the stretch, it appears to merely be top-heavy. There are three very strong teams with playoff aspirations.
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We have to start, of course, with the first-place Reds. They're coming off a 19-7 July and were spurred by winning 20 of 23 games at one point. Brandon Phillips is back from his minor injury, Joey Votto will be back soon and several others have swung hot bats with the stars out (Ryan Ludwick, anyone?). The bullpen is strong, with the most dominant closer in baseball anchoring. Perhaps most impressive: They've used only five starting pitchers all season (the Padres, Blue Jays and several others weep).
I will be shocked if the Reds don't make the postseason. And yet, they haven't been able to shake the formerly-maligned Pittsburgh Pirates.
We know about MVP frontrunner Andrew McCutchen, but the rest of the Pirates offense has filled out around him the past few months. The pitching staff is really solid and sort of underrated. And just in case you're looking for a rerun of 2011, I'll remind you that last Aug. 8, the Pirates were 54-59. This time around, they are 62-47. So drop the comparisons, pronto.
That leaves us with the defending World Series champions. How are the Cardinals under the radar? I'm not sure, but they are. With Adam Wainwright starting to look like Adam Wainwright again, Jaime Garcia coming off the disabled list soon and an utterly stacked offense, they aren't going away.
In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to be kicking around the word "repeat" come late October.
Stick around, the Big 3 in the NL Central aren't going anywhere.
As always, rankings, comments and stats are through Tuesday. Please feel free to contact me via email with comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.