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National League Central Roundup

Brett Barnett

Detroit Tigers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The parity within the National League Central has been palpable, as expected, except at the two extremes. The Cubs have gotten off to the best start, while the Pirates have lagged behind everyone else. Let’s dig into what’s going on around the central.

Chicago Cubs (10-3)

Many had the Cubs falling down in the divisional standings this season, but early on, that hasn’t been the case. They’ve jumped out to a four-game advantage over the second place Reds. The Cubs hold the only positive run differential in the division, coming in at +7. Although Chicago has gotten off to a strong start, the team’s xW/L is 7-6. We’ll see if the team regresses in terms of record output over the rest of the season.

The Cubs have been a lot of their damage on the strength of the long ball this season, hitting nearly 1.5 home runs per game, with players like Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Ian Happ leading the way with three apiece.

Relief pitcher Jeremy Jeffress is yet to give up a run through his six innings of work, but there’s more to the story than his 0.00 ERA. Although he does command a 0.3 fWAR, his xFIP is at 4.76, which should lead Cubs’ fans to believe that he’ll regress as the season goes on. Additionally, his strikeout percentage is down nearly 10 percentage points from his strong 2018 campaign with the Brewers.

Cincinnati Reds (7-8)

The Reds are the dark horse of pundits and fans alike. This is due to the strength of the offense in the glorified softball field that is Great American Ballpark, in addition to the starting rotation. The offense has scored 64 runs, second in the central, but the pitching staff has also surrendered 68 runs, second worst in the division.

Nicholas Castellanos came over to the Reds this offseason and he’s been far and away the biggest offensive contributor on the campaign. A sky high 233 wRC+ is significantly higher than anyone else on the roster, while his seven home runs leads the Reds.

Milwaukee Brewers (5-7)

The Brewers are another team that was expected to fall down in the standings, with many projecting the team to drop to fourth, ahead of only the Pirates. Like the rest of the teams in the NL Central (except the Cubs), Milwaukee commands a negative run differential, clocking in at -9. Their xW/L is in line with their actual record.

Christian Yelich is trying to regain his form and he’s improved a bit since the entry last week. His wRC+ is still well below average at 77, but he’s logged three home runs, which leads the Brewers. His strikeout percentage is hovering around 40 percent. He won’t reach the same heights this year as in years past, but expect Yelich to be one of the primary contributors to the team’s offense this season.

St. Louis Cardinals (2-3)

Thanks to COVID-19 issues, the Cardinals have played the fewest games in the division, most recently manifesting in the postponement of the team’s series against the Cubs. But after winning the first two games of the season against the Pirates, the Cardinals dropped their next three, falling to 2-3 on the season, a record they still maintain.

Pittsburgh Pirates (3-12)

This season is going to be a tough one to get through. Fans should be keeping an eye on player development and potentially player acquisition if the market is right for it. There’s been a host of injuries to the pitching staff through the first 15 games, which is why we’ve seen pitchers like Miguel Del Pozo and Yacksel Rios in important spots in games that are hanging in the balance. It seems like all the positivity surrounding the potential of this season has been eroded away, making way for a team that has performed worse than many people projected they would to this point.

A bit surprisingly, Phillip Evans leads the team in certain offensive categories, like wRC+ (176), average (.378), and fWAR (0.5). Unfortunately, Evans was injured during Saturday afternoon’s game when he collided with Gregory Polanco on an attempt to play the ball in foul ground down the right field line.

I made a prediction that Mitch Keller would come into form this season. That is yet to be the case. The young righty has made two starts and commands a FIP of 7.17. Meanwhile, his ERA is an acceptable 3.52. But those numbers are virtually the inverse of what they were a year ago, which suggests Keller has actually regressed instead of improved – another bad sign in a season full of lows thus far.