What is wrong with the National League Central in 2017?

The Chicago Cubs dominated the National League Central in 2016. The Cubs rode their historic momentum all the way to their first World Series championship since the 1908 season. The other four division rivals stood no chance against Chicago last season. 2017 has been a completely different story. Nobody has been able to get out of the blocks and take command of the division. It is safe to say the National League Central is the least intriguing division in Major League Baseball in 2017.

The Milwaukee Brewers sit atop the National League Central by default.

The Brewers have been irrelevant since the 2011 season. Milwaukee’s trajectory is certainly pointing upward. The future looks bright for this organization. That does not mean the Brewers should be viewed as a legitimate division contender in 2017. They sit in first place primarily because other teams in the division cannot get things going.

This is not meant to completely downplay the first-half success this team has had. Young position players stepped up and proved their worth, thus far. Outfielder Domingo Santana boasts a .280 batting average, 11 home runs and 35 RBI. First baseman Jesus Aguilar has a .287 batting average with six home runs and 21 RBI. Shortstop Hernan Perex bats .276 with nine home runs and 30 RBI. Finally, third baseman Travis Shaw has a .302 batting average, 11 home runs and 46 RBI.

As a team, the Brewers rank 16th in baseball with a .252 batting average. Milwaukee’s first-half ability to score runs (318) ranks them sixth. Their team speed is third in MLB with 58 total stolen bases. This young lineup will only get better as time moves forward.

The pitching staff is middle of the road, at best. Milwaukee currently ranks 15th in baseball with a 4.24 team ERA. Starting pitcher Zach Davies leads the team with a 7-3 record, despite having a 4.91 ERA. Fellow starters Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson have done well for themselves. Anderson has a 5-2 record with a 2.83 ERA. Nelson is 4-3 with a 3.67 ERA. Young closer Corey Knebel took the position over by storm. Knebel’s 1.07 ERA and 59 strikeouts, through 33.2 innings, place him at the top of the Milwaukee bullpen.

The Brewers’ 36-32 record is nothing to ride home about. This is still good enough to stand alone in first place in the National League Central. Milwaukee still has a little ways to go, before fans consider them a legitimate threat. That said, they are off to a good start.

The Chicago Cubs have mightily struggled to defend their world championship.

The Cubs were the talk of baseball in 2016. Their regular season dominance was nothing short of historic. Chicago captured their first World Series championship since the 1908 season. They defeated the Cleveland Indians in seven games.

2017 was suppose-to be a repeat of the previous season. Nobody was suppose-to be able to compete with this revived franchise. The Cubs were destined for a second consecutive trip to the fall classic. These predictions have turned out to be wrong, thus far.

This team is a shell of their former selves. The pitching staff, that dominated the National League last season, has struggled from the start. Starters Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks cannot get out of the blocks. Arrieta has a 4.68 ERA and a WHIP of 1.33. Hendricks has a 4.09 ERA with a WHIP of 1.20. He has also spent time on the disabled list. Lester is having a lackluster third season in Chicago. Through 14 starts, he has a 4-4 record despite having a 3.89 ERA.

The bullpen is not a disaster. A jumbled mess is a better way to describe them, at the moment. Some relievers have done well (Wade Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Koji Uehara). Other relievers have struggled mightily (Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm). The Cubs rank 13th in MLB with a 4.20 team ERA. This was a top-five pitching staff in 2016.

The Chicago offense lacks the explosiveness it had in 2016. There have been moments and spurts, but nothing consistent thus far. The Cubs rank 30th in baseball with a .235 team batting average. Despite being ranked ninth in home runs (90), the team is 19th in MLB with 284 runs scored. First baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant have put together solid first-half performances, at the plate. Outfielder Jason Heyward is having a better second season in Chicago. Still, the stable production has just not been there.

The defending world champions are too talented to not have a breakout performance. At some point this season, the Chicago Cubs will get things going. That said, time is ticking.

The St. Louis Cardinals are a hit or miss team.

The Cardinals built a reputation of being the class of the National League, since 2000. This is true because no other franchise in the NL consistently succeeds as much as St. Louis. This team, however, is not as formidable as fans have grown accustomed to seeing. Truth be told, the red birds are one of the most inconsistent teams in baseball.

Cardinal Nation does not know which team they will get, on a routine basis. St. Louis lost nine of their first 12 games. They followed that by winning 18 of their next 24. They lost 17 of 22 games (including a seven game losing streak), after that. If this pattern continues, the Cardinals are due for another streak of good baseball.

That is the story of the 2017 season: this team is streaky. The St. Louis lineup has been shuffled more than a deck of cards on game night. The Cardinals are ranked 26th in baseball in runs scored (254). They are 17th in team batting average (.252). They are 26th (tied with the Philadelphia Phillies) in home runs (65).

The starting rotation goes through periods of good starts and bad starts. Despite being ranked sixth in MLB in team ERA, St. Louis averages 4.01 runs allowed per game this season. Starting pitcher Carlos Martinez proved he has the best “stuff” in the rotation. Fellow starters Mike Leake, Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn have had moments of brilliance. Lynn’s return from Tommy John Surgery has been fantastic as he boasts a 2.69 ERA (best of the starters).

The infield and outfield defense are both hit or miss. The only consistent thing about the 2017 Cardinals is the consistently bad bullpen. Though the statistics do not declare them a bottom six unit, they have not performed any better than this. Some bright spots exist (i.e. Trevor Rosenthal, Seung Hwan Oh). Not much else to ride home about, after that.

St. Louis is not impressive this season. This organization deserves the benefit of the doubt. Their pedigree over the last two decades is an indication of that. The Cardinals need to find a niche, offensively, and galvanize this bullpen into improvement. Things can quickly turn around if these things are accomplished.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in an awkward position.

The Pirates suffered from a turbulent 2016 season. The team finished with 78 wins and a third place spot in the National League Central. Things were expected to improve, this season. Not much has. Pittsburgh started the 2017 campaign on a rocky note. This franchise caught a break: the division is incredibly inconsistent. They can still make a season out of this.

The pitching rotation is very young. The potential for a prosperous future is there. Starting pitcher Ivan Nova has been a revelation for the Pirates. His 2.83 ERA leads all starters on the team. Starter Gerrit Cole has struggled, thus far. Cole’s 4-6 record and 4.54 ERA do not tell the story of a young pitcher once dubbed “the future of the organization’s staff.”

Despite his rocky performance in 2017, Cole is still considered one of the future stars of the Pirates. Finally, Jameson Taillon is an inspirational player. Taillon defeated his battle with testicular cancer and recently returned to the mound. The 25-year old is talented. He will become an anchor in the Pittsburgh rotation. The Pirates are 18th in baseball with a 4.34 ERA. This will likely improve over the next three seasons.

The lineup is below average. Pittsburgh ranks 19th in MLB with a .249 team batting average. The team ranks 25th in runs scored (255) and 29th in home runs (61). This offense has the potential to be better than average. This, however, is a tall task to take on. Since shuffling the lineup, outfielder Andrew McCutchen found his form at the plate once again. McCutchen’s ascension will determine whether or not the rest of the lineup will follow suit.

The Pirates are currently five games behind the Brewers in the National League Central. There is still a chance to make some moves and climb up the ranks. The bullpen will need to be upgraded. A veteran pitcher will need to be brought in. Maybe another impact bat in the lineup. Manager Clint Hurdle has pushed the right buttons in Pittsburgh for several years now. Hurdle is capable of pushing more buttons in 2017.

The Cincinnati Reds have something good going for the future.

The Reds are building something nice. This organization has been a laughing stock since the 2013 season. The city of Cincinnati can look at their baseball team with optimism, once again. They are not close to taking the next big step. Baby steps, however, are appropriate for this situation.

This is a very young team. The pitching staff suffers from a lack of consistent productivity. The statistics back up the underwhelming play on the mound. The potential for a turnaround is still there; only time will tell. The Reds currently rank 30th in baseball with a team ERA of 5.00. The Cincinnati bullpen has some talent.

Relievers Michael Lorenzen, Wandy Peralta, Raisel Iglesias and Drew Storen have performed well, thus far. The starting rotation is the biggest issue. Starters Tim Adleman, Scott Feldman, Bronson Arroyo and Amir Garrett had flashes of productivity. Nothing consistent, however. The collective ERA of these four pitchers totals higher than 5.00. The youth, talent and potential are all there. These just need to be practiced.

The Reds’ offense is impressive. The team ranks 10th in MLB with a .261 team batting average. They rank sixth in home runs (94), and seventh (tied with the Tampa Bay Rays) in runs scored (315). Cincinnati ranks second in baseball with 60 total stolen bases. Outfielder Billy Hamilton leads the team with a ridiculous 28, of his own. Individual players stood out, this season, thus far.

First baseman Joey Votto is having an all-star caliber season. Votto boasts a .303 batting average with 19 home runs and 51 RBI. Shortstop Zack Cozart leads the lineup with a .324 batting average. Cozart has nine home runs and 33 RBI. Outfielders Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler and third baseman Eugenio Suarez have contributed at the plate, in great ways.

Duvall has a .276 batting average with 15 home runs and 47 RBI. Schebler has 18 home runs and 35 RBI. Suarez hits .280 with 10 home runs and 36 RBI. Finally, second baseman Scooter Gennett turned out to be a nice addition for Cincinnati. Gennett bats .290 with seven home runs and 32 RBI. The Reds’ lineup is formidable. It will be interesting to see if the young bats can maintain this consistent performance.

Once more, Cincinnati is building something nice. There is no reason to believe this team will make a legitimate push to win the division (with this pitching). This franchise is three years from really contending.

The National League Central is a tight division. This does not mean it is a good division. It is hard to try and figure out why nobody can make a run. Let’s just ignore this elephant in the room and see who ends up on top at the end of September.

 

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