Now that the dust has settled a bit from the whirlwind of trade activity over the past week, let’s see where this division stands in regard to the three main contenders. Yes, I say three because you can’t count out the Cardinals just because they haven’t (and most likely will not) answer the moves of the Cubs and Brewers.
The NL Central has undergone quite a transformation over the past year. In 2007, it was considered the weakest division in baseball. Now it is probably the strongest in the National League. Amongst both leagues, I’d rank the NL Central second behind the AL East in terms of strength. That’s a credit to how well all three contenders have played this year, as well as recognizing the improvements made in the offseason and during the season.
I’ll analyze each of the three rivals and come up with my prediction of a division winner (I’ll give you a hint, they wear blue and sing a happy little song called “Go Cubs Go” after every home win. Other than that, I can’t tell you because then I’d have to kill you).
St. Louis Cardinals
Everyone is asking, what will the Cards do in response to the Brewers and Cubs recent trade activity? Well, heck, I’m asking how in the world are they still in this race and doing so well with all of the injuries they’ve had? If they haven’t made any trade splashes thus far, in response to injuries, then I hardly would expect anything major to occur just in response to what the Cubs & Brewers have done.
I mean, they lost their best hitter, Albert Pujols, yet kept right on truckin’ along. They still don’t know when their ace pitcher, Chris Carpenter, is coming back. Those two things alone would force most teams to make some desperate moves. But that just isn’t the Cards style.
They did make a very smart and cost efficient acquisition in the offseason of pitcher Kyle Lohse, and it has paid off handsomely thus far. But Wellemyre’s phenomenal May appears over, and they don’t know how much they can count on him going forward. Mark Mulder came off the DL then went right back on it again and his career may be over. Adam Wainwright will not return until August.
But offensively, All-star Ryan Ludwig has been a pleasant surprise and Ankiel and Pujols continue to rake. Aaron Miles and Yadier Molina are both hitting over .300.
St. Louis currently sits in third place, 4.5 games in back of the Cubs, and just .5 in back of Milwaukee. Despite its likely inactivity at the trading deadline, Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan & Co. are too good to dismiss. They will be a factor most of the season, until fading in September, finishing third.
Of course, the big news exciting Brewers fans has been the acquisition of star pitcher CC Sabathia. And with good reason, for Sabathia is the reigning Cy Young award winner in the AL, and had been pitching very well of late for the Indians. But the question always comes down to the health of Ben Sheets. There has never been any doubt about the talent of Sheets. It’s just that he’s had difficulty staying on the field. So far, so good as Sheets is 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA and might be the starting pitcher in the All-star game.
But as soon as the news of Sabathia came about, the Brewers had to put Jeff Suppan on the DL. Though he is scheduled to return the fifth day following the break, he has not been pitching well this season, sporting a 5-6 record with a 4.76 ERA. Dave Bush struck out a career high 13 batters on Thursday, and has been pitching well of late. Manny Para has been a pleasant surprise, going 8-2 with a 3.65 ERA so far. Overall, however, Brewer pitchers rank 7th in ERA and 9th in BAA. Expect Sheets to miss time in the second half.
Offensively, All-star Ryan Braun leads the attack, but shortstop JJ Hardy has been on fire recently. Fellow All-star Corey Hart is hitting well. And though his numbers are down across the board, Prince Fielder is always dangerous. But they are very much an “all of nothing” offense. Overall, they rank 6th in runs scored and only 9th in OBP.
The Brewers currently sit in second place, four games behind the Cubs. While there’s no question that the Sabathia deal has energized the club, and has sent a strong message that they want to win now, their bullpen struggles and they will come up just short again, shades of 2007.
The Cubs have missed Alfonso Soriano, and if his hand is strong when he comes back, they will receive a boost offensively when he returns after the All-star break.
Theriot continues to bat above .300 and the Cubs hope to prevent him from enduring the same kind of second half slump that occurred last season. Another possible concern is the continued struggles of Fukudome. His average is down to .282 and he has struck out 72 times already. He looks weak at the plate. Perhaps some time off will re-energize him, because the Cubs certainly need his left-handed bat in the lineup. In addition to the mainstays, Lee, Ramirez and De Rosa, Geo Soto has also improved the lineup considerably this year.
On the mound, the Cubs now have a very strong 1-4 rotation, with Zambrano again healthy and looking dominant. He is joined by fellow All-star Ryan Dempster, who has been a very pleasant surprise, newcomer Rich Harden and Ted Lilly. Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall will battle it out for the 5th spot the rest of the season. The key here is keeping Harden healthy. If they can, there will be no stopping the Cubs.
The Cubs currently sit in first place and expect them to remain there. Sure, there may be periods of inconsistency, especially if they don’t improve their play on the road. But they have the most depth and the experience of winning the division last year, so it’s on to the playoffs for our Cubbies again in 2008.
Come to think of it, the winner is…the Cubs!