NL Central Roundup: Cubs Back to Winning Ways, Cardinals Starting to Surge

In the seven days since play resumed after baseball’s All-Star Break, it appears the NL Central has righted itself. The Cubs are playing more like the team we saw in April and May, and the rest of the division, well….is still there. Albeit a very small sample size, the division now looks more like how it did early in the season than how it looked in the days and weeks leading up to the break. Let’s take a look.

Chicago Cubs (58-37)

The Cubs needed the break more than any other team in the majors. Stumbling into mid-July having lost 15 of 21 games along with the concerns over the pitching staff – namely all-stars Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. The Cubs have taken their first two series, post-All-Star Break, from the AL West leading Texas Rangers and the defending NL Champion New York Mets and have securely positioned themselves, once again, as the team to beat in the Central.

While climbing back to 21 games over .500, the Cubs best news may have come in one of the team’s 2 losses this past week. Despite losing 2-1 to the Mets on Tuesday night, there was reassurance that reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta is back to elite form on the mound. After struggling for a couple months, the Cubs ace pitched a beauty – 7 innings, 1 run, 5 hits. In addition, starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks is showing real signs of being a major contributor to this rotation, pitching at an “ace-level.” Hendricks is 5-0 with an ERA of 0.72 in his last 6 starts.

Right as the starting pitching looks like it may be getting over their struggles, General Manager Theo Epstein went out out and got some help for the bullpen. The Yankees may have too high a price tag for relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller so Epstein looked to the Pacific Northwest and Seattle for his lefty reliever, Mike Montgomery. With the trade deadline still over a week away, Epstein may also try to solidify an already strong starting staff. Chris Archer and Sonny Gray may be too pricey, but perhaps another deal could be in the works with the Mariners for one of their two talented young starters, Taijuan Walker or James Paxton. We’ll see.

St. Louis Cardinals (52-44)

This Cardinals team cannot be truly counted out of the divisional race – not with their history nor with the things that have, almost flukishly, gone wrong for them this season. A strong starting rotation coupled with a core of young talent should have had the Cardinals competing at a much higher level. But they’re haven’t been. So what do they do?

After dropping 2 of 3 at home (where they cannot seem to get on track) to the Marlins, the Redbirds swept the lowly Padres in a 4-game set and have now won five games in a row. The next week will be very telling for St. Louis – they play host to the Dodgers and the Mets, who are both serious playoff contenders. Depending on what happens in those two critical series, the Cardinals may look to add depth to their bullpen before the trade deadline. Hard to imagine the team selling when they sit only 6.5 games back of the Cubs.

Pittsburgh Pirates (49-47)

I said in my column last week that the Pirates may be cursing the timing of the midseason break due to their winning streak leading up to the All-Star Game. While they haven’t totally tanked since games resumed, the hot streak certainly cooled a bit (3-4). And the offense is the primary culprit — managing only 5 runs in their first four games after the break while getting shut out on in Friday’s game.

The team is hoping ace Gerrit Cole returns to form soon after getting roughed up by the Nationals this week in his first start since coming off the 15-day DL. To further add anxiety to a very unstable starting rotation, rookie hurler Jameson Taillon was drilled by a liner off the bat of Milwaukee’s Hernan Perez Tuesday night. Although a complete recovery is expected, the Pittsburgh pitching staff has seen better days.

If the next week does not include some big wins over the Phillies, Mariners, and Brewers, Pittsburgh may be looking to sell before the deadline.

Milwaukee Brewers (40-54)

As the losing continued (2-5) this past week for the Brewers, the excitement builds as contending teams positions themselves to get in the “Jonathan Lucroy Sweepstakes”. The 30-year old all-star catcher may be waiting until the 11th hour to learn his fate, as teams scramble to fill other needs. While the Dodgers seemed to be in the running (and who’s to say they still aren’t), the lingering and growing concern that Clayton Kershaw may not pitch again this year has many thinking L.A. goes in search of a starting pitcher instead of pursuing Lucroy. The only other National League team with interest in the Brewers catcher being mentioned is the Mets.

Milwaukee is also dangling relievers Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress as trade bait to the many teams attempting to tighten up their bullpens. If there is league interest in outfielder Ryan Braun, he could be a bit of a wildcard. He’s owed $85 million and is 32 years old – but if a team thinks he can get them over the hump this year (or maybe next) things could get interesting.

Cincinnati Reds (37-59)

Here come the Reds!! After winning 5 of their last 7, Cincinnati is…..oh….still in last place and on pace to lose 100 games. But to say they will not impact the rest of this baseball season would be, I’m assuming, an incorrect guess. After shipping away Johnny Cueto last year at the deadline and clearly having no issue with playing their young talent, the Reds expect to be big-time sellers before July ends.

Outfielder Jay Bruce’s $13 million contract is very affordable for a team wanting to add some left-handed thump to the middle of their lineup. I’m not sure, for whatever reason, another NL team is racing to get Bruce, but AL teams like the Indians and Blue Jays appear to be the leading candidates to land the slugger.


Feedback is always welcome through the website or my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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