Here are the NL Central standings so far, along with a note about what each team's start may mean in the long term.
1. St Louis Cardinals, 9-4: The Cards' offense, highlighted by Albert Pujols, Skip Schmaker, and an outstanding part-time performance by Rule 5 pick Brian Barton, has only been a bit better than expected, but their sketchy pitching staff had a 2.94 ERA before today's games; none of their starters have ERAs above 4.00. Don't expect that to continue, but Cards fans have reason to be encouraged - Todd Wellemeyer is striking out more than a batter an inning, and Kyle Lohse and Adam Wainwright have both been terrific so far. This team is still too patchy to be in the race in August, but maybe they're a little bit better than we think.
2. Milwaukee Brewers, 8-4: Ben Sheets is already in midseason form, but there are a number of pitchers in key roles whose performances have been suspect so far, including Eric Gagne, Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan. The sooner this team gets away from Suppan, the better; his pitch-to-contact ways and increasingly tiny strikeout rate just aren't going to work with the Brewers' defense. Jason Kendall's OPS so far is 1.035 and Ryan Braun's is .688; expect those two guys to trade stat lines by June. With nine games against the poor pitching staffs in Florida and Houston in the next few weeks, the slow-starting Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, and J.J. Hardy should get back on track.
3. Chicago Cubs, 7-5: Newcomers Kosuke Fukudome and Geovany Soto have been as good as advertised so far, and Carlos Zambrano has been superb, but a meddlesome manager could jeopardize the Cubs' chances by bumping Rich Hill from the starting rotation.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-6: If this is a .500 team, then I'm a potted plant, but the Pirates have at least played a lot of interesting games so far. The team's outfielders have been excellent, much to the relief of fans who've spent the past ten months worrying about Jason Bay. The Bucs stand to gain quite a lot as middle infielders Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson get healthy. Pitching depth remains a problem - Matt Morris in particular just isn't doing anything out there - but this has mostly been an encouraging start.
5. Cincinnati Reds, 6-7: There's a lot to like here, beginning with the emergence of Johnny Cueto, but Wayne Krivsky and Dusty Baker simply can't be trusted to put the right players on the field. One wonders what they continue to see in non-hitters like Juan Castro and Norris Hopper, and the Reds usually have three or four such non-hitters in their lineup. In time, players like this will completely undo the good work done by folks like Cueto, Aaron Harang and Brandon Phillips.
6. Houston Astros, 5-8: The Astros' offense has been poor so far and should improve, but by how much? When you play guys like Darin Erstad, Brad Ausmus, and Michael Bourn as much as the Astros have, you deserve to get shut out sometimes. And while it's rarely a good idea to read too much into 13-game sample sizes, anytime a player with Carlos Lee's physique and contract size gets off to a slow start, his team should be concerned. On the positive side, Wandy Rodriguez has been terrific so far and may be emerging as a good #2 starter. I've been skeptical about him for too long; the guy can pitch.