The Cincinnati Reds just swept the St. Louis Cardinals in what is currently the best rivalry in the major leagues. The Reds then won their first game against the Cubs. The Cardinals are dealing with defensive issues and their ability to close out games. The Milwaukee Brewers dug themselves a hole but have won seven of their last ten games. With the Pirates, Astros and Cubs seemingly in no-man's land, the National League Central appears to have three contenders in what could be a serious competition for the top spot all season long. Who will win this thing?
Let's take a look at all three teams and try to appear into the future:
The Cardinals very well could have four or five more wins in the win column if they could finish out a game. Their bullpen is their biggest problem and they are next to last in the National League in bullpen ERA. Chris Carpenter has looked a lot like A. J. Burnett of late and is losing emotionally as well as physically. The defense behind him is part of the problem. They are 15th of 16 teams in fielding percentage and 14th in fielding efficiency. With off season moves that weakened their defense in right field and at shortstop, guys like Carpenter are just going to have to live with suspect defense and not let that get to their heads.
The good news is that bullpens are the easiest things to fix on any team. Yeah, you need the arms to get the job done, but a trade or two for the right arm or a dip into the minors could turn things around there in a hurry. One of the things observed from this distance is that there are no defined roles going on over there. Closers are flopping around and so are the set up innings. Tony LaRussa needs to set roles and stick with them for a while. Unfortunately, at the age of 38, Ryan Franklin looks finished and should be released.
The other good news is that the Cardinals can rake offensively. Yes, they have holes in the line up, but they are second in the National League in runs scored per game and that's without Albert Pujols yet to be Albert Pujols. You know he'll get going sooner or later. Berkman has been an on base machine. Matt Holliday is terrific offensively and Colby Rasmus has a .393 on base percentage. Yadier Molina is batting above .290 which is a nice bonus. They also have nice bench players in Allen Craig, John Jay and Daniel Descalso. The offense will be fine.
The Cardinals' starting rotation is solid from one to five. Jaime Garcia is an ace and everybody falls in line pretty well after him. Carpenter will have to get better. Kyle McClellan has been a nice surprise and Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook will keep you in the game more times than not.
A suggestion: The Cardinals should flip Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto. Punto is a proven shortstop who has shown himself to be one of the better defensive infielders in the league. Theriot simply isn't a good shorstop. He's adequate at second and that's where he should be playing. This Fan has never been a big believer in either player's offensive ability, but if you're going to have two weak-hitting infielders, at least put them in positions to best perform on the field.
The Reds have overtaken the Cardinals as the most prolific offense in the National League. They lead the National League in runs per game. Joey Votto is a superstar with the top WAR in the league and he hasn't even started hitting homers yet. Drew Stubbs has arrived and has hit seven homers and has stolen thirteen bases in fourteen attempts. Brandon Phillips is simply terrific on offense and very good on defense. This Fan doesn't know if Jay Bruce will ever be a superstar, but he's a good offensive player who will win you some games with his bat. Scott Rolen can still contribute offensively if you can keep him on the field. And, the Reds have the best offensive catching tandem in the league for the second year in a row. They will need to figure out if Jonny Gomes or Chris Heisey is the best option in left field. Gomes has huge holes in his offensive game but is scary when he gets on a roll. Heisey is more consistent offensively. Both are liabilities defensively.
Defense is one of the Reds' strong suits. They are currently fourth in the NL in defensive efficiency and fielding percentage. It all starts at shortstop. This Fan doesn't care if Paul Janish ever hits. He currently has an OPS+ of 60. But they won the division last year with a shortstop who hit just as poorly and Janish is a wonder with the glove. If this Fan was the manager, Janish would play every day for the rest of the year.
The one worry with the Reds is pitching. They are 14th of 16 National League teams in earned runs allowed and 14th in walks allowed. Their starting rotation can be very good if they get them all lined up and performing solidly. Getting Johnny Cueto back and pitching well has been a bonus but he and Edinson Volquez will always be question marks for this writer. They always teeter between stardom, injury and lack of consistency. Homer Bailey has won all three of his starts since coming off the DL. Bronson Arroyo is a warrior. Travis Wood has pitched better than his 5.01 ERA suggests. He'll be fine.
The bullpen is effective at the back end but thin. It's even thinner now that Aroldis Chapman has lost it and is now listed as among the hurt. A lot will depend on if Francisco Cordero can stay this good as a closer and if Nick Masset and Logan Ondrusek continue to be run into the ground with so many appearances. They need help. Bill Bray has been a nice LOOGY thus far.
This Fan has no suggestions for the Reds. They seem to have their pieces in place and just need to stay healthy.
The Brewers dug a deep hole with a bad start to the season by Yovani Gallardo and the loss of Zack Greinke to injury. But as mentioned, they have won seven of their last ten and things are starting to fall in place. All Greinke has done since returning is strike out twenty batters in fifteen innings with only two walks. Woot! His return will solidify the starting rotation. Randy Wolf should be the only weakness of the group from here on out. Gallardo will get it going and Shaun Marcum has been everything they hoped he would be.
The offense hasn't really shown a lot to this point outside of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Richie Weeks. But Casey McGehee has started to hit of late and Jonathan Lucroy has been a nice surprise behind the plate. Mark Kotsay is getting way too many at bats and that points out how thin the offense is outside the five guys mentioned earlier in this paragraph. Center field has not produced, especially since Nyger Morgan can't get out of the trainer's room and shortstop is a disaster. Enough said there. Taylor Green down in Nashville might be a better shortstop option. He's not much better offensively, but at least he'd walk once in a while and can't be any worse defensively. There's not much help available otherwise in the minors unless you give Matt Gamel one more shot or give Brendan Katin a chance.
The bullpen is a big worry on this team. When LeTroy Hawkins and Sergio Mitre lead your bullpen in ERA, that's pretty scary. John Axford's 1.442 WHIP isn't what you'd want from a closer, but perhaps he'll settle down. The bullpen lacks power beyond Brandon Kintzler. They need to get Zach Braddock back. Kameron Loe his getting way too many appearances and that's not a good thing.
The Brewers could come on if their rotation gets hot behind Greinke. Braun and Fielder are one of the best three-four punches in the league and their line up is potent from two to five. They are too thin though and would appear to be a long-shot to win the division. The Cardinals have a clear edge in Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. Their starting rotation has to hold up and they need to keep Lance Berkman healthy. The Reds have questions in their bullpen and rotation but will hit the ball consistently. If the Fan had to call it, the edge would go to the Cardinals if they can get their bullpen settled down. They are just as good as the Reds in offense and both of their starting rotations should offset. The Reds have the edge on defense, but the Cardinals are going to win this thing.