After the Pittsburgh Pirates have rattled off three straight wins over the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds have won two straight over the Milwaukee Brewers, the NL Central is painfully tight. The last-place Reds are just four-and-a-half games out of first place; for reference, every other division leader in baseball has at least a five-game lead on second place.
Every team has pretty obvious flaws, and every team could stand to improve their pitching. The Cubs added Craig Kimbrel in June but he’s been drilled for five runs over his last two outings. The Brewers’ flamethrowing closer Josh Hader coughed up a two-run shot in his last outing. The St. Louis Cardinals lost closer Jordan Hicks to a torn UCL. What’s going on with this division?
To make things more confusing, the first-place Brewers own a minus-2 run differential while the last-place Reds are a ridiculous plus-41 this season. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is minus-38 despite winning seven of their last 10 and outscoring the Cubs 29-11 over the last three contests.
On top of the overall excitement, the NL Central is also home to a couple of MVP candidates, Christian Yelich and Josh Bell, who will both appear in the 2019 MLB Home Run Derby next week. Yelich has been insane with a 1.137 OPS, 31 homers, and 18 stolen bases. He’s on pace for 60 homers and 35 stolen bases. How ridiculous is that? No player has even swiped 30 bases and hit 50 bombs in the same season.
Meanwhile, Bell leads the league in extra-base hits (breaking the NL record for most before the All-Star break) and RBI. His 80 RBI puts him on pace for the first 150-RBI season since Alex Rodriguez in 2007; no player has even hit 140 since 2009.
The entire division really is just average. Milwaukee is roughly league average in both runs scored and allowed. Cincinnati allows the third-fewest runs per game but ranks just 23rd in per-game scoring. Each NL Central squad has a winning record at home, a losing record on the road, and a losing record against teams over .500. Seriously, no team is really separating themselves here.
At this point, any team has a chance at winning the division, though the Cubs and Brewers are still the heavy favorites. In fact, all five teams could realistically be buyers at the deadline. However, over the next few weeks leading up to the trade deadline, things should begin to sort out a bit.
The most likely scenario would be the Pirates and Cardinals dipping a bit in the standings while the Reds’ unlucky stretch begins to turn around. The Brewers and Cubs will most likely look to improve their roster by the end of the month while the others could look to build for the future. Still, this could be a historic division race, as no last-place team in any MLB division has finished within 10 games of first place since the 2005 Washington Nationals.