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WHEELER: Sprint To The Finish in NL Central Has Begun

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Before the season started most experts had the Reds and the Cardinals ranked 1-2 in the NL Central and generally in that order. The Pirates were seen as being on the next level down, perhaps along with Milwaukee (oops).

For much of the season the Reds have languished in 3rd place, failing to meet expectations and most certainly raising the blood pressure of their fan base. The Cardinals spent much of the season comfortably in first place until they hit their first extended rough patch coming out of the All-Star break. The Pirates peaked around the time the Cardinals began to slip and now they’ve hit their own skid.

So what happens now?

Cardinals

Coming out of a 3-game sweep of the Phillies on July 26th the Cardinals entered play with a 62-37 record, on pace for a 101 win season. Since then they’re 9-15 and are now on pace for 93 wins. That’s still pretty good and it’s also right around where most people had them pegged coming into the season.

There are signs of a turnaround, too. The Cards are just 5-5 in their last 10 but they’ve won 5 of their last 7 games heading into tonight’s series opener in Milwaukee so it will be interesting to see if they can keep going in the right direction. They need wins in Milwaukee because after that series they face the Braves (4 at home), Reds (3 at home), Pirates (3 in Pittsburgh), Reds (4 in Cincinnati) and Pirates (3 at home) in a brutal 17-game stretch that ends on September 8th.

If they can at least stay within a couple of games of 1st place coming out of that stretch they’ll be in excellent position because their final 19 games come against teams who currently have losing records (Milwaukee, Seattle, Colorado, Washington and Chicago) and the only one of those teams that has even a remote chance of possessing a winning record when the meet the Cards is Washington.

If they can at least play .500 ball against Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati they’ll be in prime position to have a shot at winning the division and avoiding the Wild Card game.

The bullpen has been strong and they have another late-inning weapon in Michael Wacha now. The lineup is still inconsistent so that is a concern, as is the starting pitching with Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller all needing to be more efficient and consistent.

As bad as things have been, and they’ve been bad, the Cardinals are still in a position where they control their own destiny.

Pirates

The Pirates went on a 14-7 run coming out of the All-Star break and took 4-of-5 head-to-head against the Cardinals in Pittsburgh at the end of July. They were smoking hot and jumped out to the division lead at that time.

Since finishing a sweep of the Marlins on August 8th, however, the Pirates have lost 7 of 9 games and they have renewed concerns about a possibly collapse back in Pittsburgh.

The starting pitching, outside of Francisco Liriano, has become more unpredictable and they’re just not hitting. The bullpen hasn’t lost a ton of ground since Jason Grilli went down but they’re still a big-time arm short compared to where they were coming out of the All-Star game.

The fact that a guy like Pedro Alvarez is their cleanup hitter tells you what you need to know about their ability to sustain a consistently productive offense.  Oh, Alvarez has power. He’s on pace for 40 HR and over 100 RBI. He’s also hitting just .232 and is on pace to strike out 200 times.

Even with all of those home runs his OPS is just .768, which is 3rd best on the team behind Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte and is 31st in the National League. A .768 OPS would rank 7th on the Cardinals right now and only McCutchen would rank among the Cardinals’ best hitters (he would be 1st, by the way).

If that’s a guy you’re counting on to hit cleanup, you’re going to have problems remaining consistent. They won’t collapse like they did the past couple of seasons but I see them finishing with the 2nd wild card spot, falling behind both the Cardinals and the Reds.

Reds

As the Cardinals and Pirates try to right themselves, the Reds are starting to pick up steam. They’ve climbed to within 2.5 games of 1st place and 1.5 games of the Cardinals for 2nd place in the division. They’ve won 8 of their last 11 games and that’s been with their hitters batting just .217 in the month of August.

What happens if they start to hit?

They were most people’s pick to win the division pre-season. I had them and the Cardinals as easy 1-2 options in a race that could go either way. Ultimately, that’s what I expect to be the case. It won’t happen the way I envisioned it, with the two of them running away from the pack in the NL Central, but I do think they’ll be 1-2 in the division when all is said and done.

Even if they’re not hitting right now, they have a talented and balanced lineup. They have starting pitching depth and the bullpen has gotten stronger as the season goes along, plus they now have Jonathan Broxton back as a setup man.

The bad news is that their projected ace, Johnny Cueto, still isn’t close to returning. He’s got a ways to go if he’s going to come back from a lat strain but there is a chance he could be back in September.

The Reds have 7 games left against the Cardinals and 6 games against the Pirates (those 6 come in the final 9 games of the season), plus they face the Diamondbacks (4 games beginning tonight) and Dodgers (3 games in early September), but aside from that they’ve got a schedule similar to what the Cardinals and Pirates have. Plenty of losing teams.

Conclusion

This division will come down to head-to-head play. The Cardinals, Reds and Pirates all play one another and they all have plenty of games against losing teams.

Looking at the rosters, the Cardinals still have the deepest and most balanced rosters.

If their hitters can just get back to a normal, consistent level of production they should win the division. The Reds and Pirates have more holes in their lineups so they need a few guys to exceed their normal production.

All three rotations have questions to answer and all three bullpens are pretty solid at the moment.

The Cardinals and Reds have been through this stuff before, many times recently, so in the end I expect that experience to be the difference.

As Adam Wainwright told me last week, “The teams who say it (experience) doesn’t matter are the teams who haven’t been there.”

Game on.

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