The NL Central isn't a great division, but it may give us an entertaining race
The Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, and Pirates are all within range of the division lead
Despite housing the defending world champion Cubs, the National League Central is not presently a strong division. The teams of the Central are a combined 11 games below .500 against teams from outside the division, and they've teamed up for a cumulative run differential of -16. Framed another way, the current leaders -- the Cubs -- are on pace for a middling 85 wins.
All that said, a division doesn't have to be strong in order to provide us with stretch-drive intrigue. On that point, please regard the current NL Central standings ...
St. Louis Cardinals
As you can see, three teams are within three games of the division-leading Cubs. The second-place Cardinals have at this writing won six in a row, and they boast a better run differential than the Cubs. The Brewers have been circling the drain of late (five losses in a row and a 9-17 mark since the break), but thanks in part to the Cubs' recent struggles they're very much still in the mix. As for the Pirates, yes, they're below .500, but the more prevailing reality is that they're just three games out. Yes, we all keep waiting for the Cubs to play up to their expected level, but it's getting late out there ...
All of that's intriguing enough, but there's also the current wild card standings. The Diamondbacks and Rockies are nip-and-tuck for that pair of berths, and the Cardinals are the closest non-division leader to them. However, the Cardinals are at this writing 5 1/2 games out of second wild card position. That's a sizeable deficit, especially as we come upon the middle of August. The upshot is that these four NL Central teams of relevance are very likely doing battle for one single playoff spot.
The implementation of the wild card has provided us with plenty of drama, but it's come at a cost. Mostly, that cost has been the diminishment of the division race. Typically, when a team comes up short in its quest for the flag, they console themselves with a spot in the wild card game. The general mediocrity of the Central, though, means that "service entrance" is probably not going to be available to the second-place team. That very likely leaves us with four division rivals crossing swords over one playoff berth.
So we've got the Cubs as the favorites, which makes sense given that they have the lead and won 103 games a season ago with a similar roster. Note, though, that they're less than 50 percent to take the crown, which reflects the compression among those top four teams. The Cardinals' superior run differential is noted above, and if you look at the BaseRuns system at FanGraphs we find that the Cardinals are also a bit ahead of the Cubs when you drill down to the batted ball/plate appearance outcome level. Given the hostilities between those two fan bases, this could be one to watch the rest of the way. SportsLine expects the Brewers and Pirates to fade, but the system still expects a hotly contested race between the two blood rivals of note.
Pleasing for us, the baseball observers, is that MLB's schedule-makers behaved as though they saw this coming. Consider ...
- The Cardinals end the regular season by playing three at the Pirates, four at home against the Cubs, and three at home against Brewers.
- The Cubs precede that series in St. Louis with four games at Milwaukee.
- Prior to those series against the Cardinals and Cubs, the Brewers pay a three-game visit to Pittsburgh.
While the AL wild card race is very much intriguing, the remaining division races aren't shaping up to be as high-stakes as they could be, thanks to that wild card "soft landing." The NL Central teams, however, likely won't have that option, which means this four-team race could be the only old-school, pre-wild-card-style division race of 2017. No, the NL Central isn't home to the best baseball, but it may be home to the most white-knuckled race down the stretch.
Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, and Pirates -- Let's do this.
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