We are not even a quarter of the way through the Major League Baseball season, so there hasn’t been enough time for the perceived “favorites” in each division to create separation between themselves and the rest of the pack. There will likely be tight division and wild card races that go down to game No. 162, and one of the divisions where that is almost assured to happen is the National League Central.
Heading into Monday, the top four teams in the division were within two games of each other, from the 15-10 Pittsburgh Pirates to the 12-11 Milwaukee Brewers. This week will feature four series pitting NL Central teams against each other. While it is still quite early in the season, this week could begin to provide clues as to who might emerge as division champions come September.
The Pirates head to Milwaukee and the St. Louis Cardinals host the Cincinnati Reds to begin the week. Then St. Louis travels to play the Brewers, and Cincinnati and the Chicago Cubs square off over the weekend.
Here’s one pressing question each of the teams in the NL Central will hope to address this week.
Pittsburgh Pirates – Can they maintain success?
Through 25 games in 2013, the Pirates sit at 15-10, whereas last season, Pittsburgh was 11-14. The Pirates peaked in June and July last season, as their wave crested at 63-47 on Aug. 8. They then scuffled down the stretch, going 7-18 over the final four months of the season to fall to fourth place in the division. Left fielder Starling Marte was tied for the league lead with 32 hits entering the week while sporting a .323 average. He has been holding down the leadoff spot and helping the Pirates off to their best start since 1992.
St. Louis Cardinals – Will the bullpen come together?
The Cardinals’ starting rotation has been solid, as Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn and Jamie Garcia have all been good, while Jake Westbrook has been remarkable with a 0.89 ERA through his first four starts. After that? St. Louis’ bullpen has blown six saves, Mitchell Boggs has a 12.66 ERA and Mark Rzepczynski was just sent down to Triple-A. With the offense also producing, it’ll be on the bullpen to help the Cardinals earn a few more wins.
Cincinnati Reds – Will the stars start producing?
The 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto and new acquisition Shin-Soo Choo have combined for just 20 RBIs through the first 25 games of the season, four fewer than team and league-leader Brandon Phillips. The role-players have produced, especially Todd Frazier who has six home runs and 19 RBIs. Choo and Votto are leading the team in OPS (1.051 and .907 respectively), so that duo is swinging the bat well, but the Reds need them at even a higher level if they want to pull away in the division.
Milwaukee Brewers – Will returning starters provide line-up stability?
Extended time on the disabled list for Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart has forced manager Ron Roenicke to use a new lineup seemingly every day. The biggest hole has been at first base, where Alex Gonzalez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Martin Maldonado and Blake Lalli have all spent time.
Ramirez is expected to return towards the end of this week, which gives Milwaukee its clean-up hitter back and also a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman. Hart isn’t expected back for a while, but Ramirez’s return will certainly help.
Chicago Cubs – Will the offense produce at a consistent level?
The Cubs are the only team in the division with a record under .record, and are second-to-last in the National League with a .229 batting average. That has been mirrored by first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who does have 19 RBIs but is hitting just .211 on the season. Rizzo does have eight home runs and the Cubs’ 29 round-trippers are third-most in the National League, but the spurts of power have not translated to wins for Chicago so far.