Thursday in St. Louis' Busch Stadium, the Cardinals and Brewers are set to do battle for the first game in a series of four. This will be the second time this season the two NL Central contenders square off, as they split a four-game series in Milwaukee the second week of the season.
Coming into the series, the Brewers lead the division by 3 1/2 games, meaning things could end up anywhere from the Brewers leading by 7 1/2 games to the Cardinals leading by a half-game after this weekend. That's pretty fun.
Big picture, obviously, this is a huge series because it looks like there are two playoff-caliber teams in the division with three teams ranging somewhere from "worst team in baseball" to "not very good at all."
How will things shake out moving forward for the gambling folks out there? Let's take a look at the current odds to win the NL Central and break it down. Records are as of Thursday, May 26.
Odds to win NL Central
Cubs, Pirates, Reds (nah)
Save your money. There's no reason to discuss, because it's already over for these three. Clip and save this if you want, for purposes of possible future mockery, but it's a waste of effort.
Brewers (27-16; -350)
Things are mostly going as planned for the Brewers. They lead the division, have been excellent at run prevention (second in NL in team ERA) and they've had enough offensive bursts to be in the top third in the NL in runs scored.
There are certainly concerns, though. Aside from Josh Hader, the bullpen is just good rather than dominant -- and with a 0.00 ERA in 13 2/3 innings, Hader is bound to be touched up at least a little at some point. Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes is himself again, but the rest of what looked like a trio of aces includes Brandon Woodruff's struggles and Freddy Peralta . Eric Lauer's breakout is something to behold, though -- even if this rate isn't sustainable, he's unlikely to fall apart -- and Adrian Houser has been very good, too.
As noted, they are fifth in the NL in runs. They are only ninth in average and 10th in on-base percentage, but fourth in slugging. Slug-dependent offenses are always going to be boom-or-bust.
Really, the only hitter who feels like he could be bringing better consistency is Christian Yelich and it's now been since 2019 since he was an elite performer. Lorenzo Cain and Andrew McCutchen are in their mid-30s, and no one else has a track record that screams a big correction in consistency is coming. Maybe Keston Hiura puts it all together and has a big second half and Yelich returns to MVP form (he's still only 30, after all) while Rowdy Tellez and Willy Adames (once he's back) keep banging.
They definitely pitch well enough to keep playing at this pace with this kind of offensive support.
This is the favorite for a reason. It's a good team that takes care of business against inferior opponents. They were my preseason pick here. Those odds are steep, though, and I wonder if this pace (103 wins, at present) is them maxed out. That is to say, I think they falter here in the coming weeks and if you truly believe they'll still win the division, wait on a cold streak for the odds to drop.
Verdict: I'm not sure enough in them to lay these odds. If you're a believer, hold out for a bit.
Cardinals (24-19; +230)
Most of the projection systems tell me I'm wrong. I predicted the Brewers to take the division back before the season started, too. I believe a swing is going to happen here, though.
Behind two superstars who, unlike Yelich, are playing like it in Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, this is one of the best offenses in the league moving forward. Tommy Edman is an excellent table-setter, Juan Yepez has been a revelation and Nolan Gorman's potential is off the charts. Tyler O'Neill will be better once he's off the IL, too.
The rotation looked like it would be a big question mark, but Miles Mikolas has been outstanding and Adam Wainwright is still fending off Father Time. Oh, and while the Brewers lost one of their big guns in Peralta, Jack Flaherty is working his way back and will return sometime soon. The bullpen as a whole hasn't been far off the Brewers' bullpen in production and there are some really intriguing pieces (shout out to Ryan Helsley).
My opinion from this point to the rest of the season, given the personnel of each team, is that the Cardinals are better. Are they 3 1/2 games better? Well, that's the question.
This is my pick. They have better value and more staying power.
Verdict: The odds are better, the team is better and it's time to hop on board before they beat the Brewers this weekend several times and move the line.