A small shakeup at the top of the division sees the Brewers reclaim the top spot, while the Pittsburgh Pirates fall to second. Really, the division is still up for grabs. Can Milwaukee hold onto its spot? Can the Pirates slide out of their funk and play some semblance of Major League caliber baseball again? Will the Cubs record come to represent their run differential more closely? Can the Reds keep from finishing last? Can the Cardinals rebound in any meaningful way after their dreadful start?
1: Milwaukee Brewers (22-17, - GB)
The Brewers, who had been sliding in step with the Pirates, have found a way to reel off a couple wins, but who are still 4-6 in their last 10 games. Milwaukee’s recapturing of the top spot is perhaps less to do with their style of play and more to do with the Pirates’ anemic offense the last two weeks.
What to watch: Christian Yelich accumulated 0.5 fWAR over the last week of play. The cheese-wearing lefty has mostly fallen from the general baseball eye since his MVP season in 2018. He’s been a serviceable big leaguer since then, but “serviceable” isn’t what the Brew Crew had in mind in retaining the outfielder long term.
Two home runs and a 200 wRC+ has Yelich as the top-performing Brewer since last Sunday. Each year, it seems like the Brewers are good — but not good enough. If they’re going to buck that trend, they’ll need more from Yelich than to be a 2.2-win player, his highest output since his MVP year.
2: Pittsburgh Pirates (21-19, 1.5 GB)
Yeesh, where to begin? Sure, we somewhat dismissed the woeful week that was against Tampa Bay and Toronto. After all, those were teams that had playoff aspirations before the year began. Then this week came along. At the onset, the optimism returned — at least for me. The Pirates started by picking up a much-needed win against the Rockies, 2-0, finally ending the long skid of losses — but that was the end of it.
After losing two consecutive to a middling-or-worse Colorado club, the Pirates embarked on a road trip to Baltimore to play a strong Orioles team. Up until the late innings — and because of Cedric Mullins — Pirate pitching was up for the task in games one and two of the series, but the bats couldn’t do anything. That line has become a common refrain of late with Pittsburgh. A team that started the year scorched earth hot has cooled precipitously.
What to watch: Regression to the mean will eventually take hold, right? Our first sample was an outlier. There was hope that the team would settle in to what its identity will likely be for the year, but it seems as though the club fell into a second severe outlier sample.
That second sample, in theory, shouldn’t have been such a severe swing — but it was. Now we’re left to watch if the club can turn its good-luck-gone-bad into an average Major League club. That’d be a pretty good start. Where it’s been feast or famine for the first month-and-a-half of the season, we’re eyeing a nice, healthy middle-class portion for the foreseeable future... hopefully.
3: Chicago Cubs (19-20, 3.0 GB)
The Cubs, in third place, were kind of the middle darlings of the division, if there is such a thing. Everybody was pretty sure of this: the Cardinals and Brewers, in that order, would battle for the division; the Pirates and Reds, in that order, would battle for the cellar; the Cubs would finish third. Early on, that’s precisely where Chicago finds themselves, but it doesn’t come without a run differential discrepancy.
I used to write this exact column for SB Nation’s Federal Baseball page. I was the run differential king. The Miami Marlins were my run differential darlings. Their differential was consistently the worst in the division, yet they vacillated between first and second place. Their case was a conundrum. Now, the Cubs are becoming my new run differential darlings, only for a different reason.
Run differential is best indicative of on-field performance the bigger the sample. So it’s not foolproof useful at this stage in the season, but it’s certainly not irrelevant either. The Cubs, who are sub-.500, hold a run differential of +42, far and away the highest in the division (2nd, Brewers, +17). Despite that, the Cubs are one game below .500, even though the team’s expected won-loss record resides at a hearty 24-15 — a mark that would be good enough to put them in first place.
What to watch: The Cubs are a top-10 team in wRC+ (6th, 112). They are also top-10 in staff ERA (6th, 3.59). Being top-10 in major offense and pitching categories does not a .500 team make. But those metrics will be tested over the coming weeks. The Cubs have dates on the road with the Astros and Phillies, and home meetings with the Mets and Rays. Even if Chicago’s record doesn’t align with its run differential, if the Cubs come out of May with a strong showing, they may present themselves as legitimate contenders for a struggling Central Division.
4: Cincinnati Reds (18-21, 4.0 GB)
The Reds may be the hottest team in the division right now. That’s not exactly hard to do — around one-third of the league could make that claim if they found themselves in the NL Central. But Cincinnati is 6-4 over their last 10 contests, winners of three straight.
What to watch: The Reds fall apart on the road. Luckily for them, they’re about to embark on a seven game homestand after next week’s early week Rockies series. 12-9 at home and 6-12 on the road, Cincinnati borders on a home/away super splitter, meaning they win/lose a disproportionate amount of games at home or on the road versus the other.
The Reds probably aren’t divisionally competitive, but if they can keep up the good work at Great American, then results might be much more promising this season than initially anticipated. With a home series against the Yankees and Cardinals over the course of next week, the Reds will look to keep their home field advantage cooking. If they can, they might be a problem for road teams vying for a playoff spot down the stretch.
5: St. Louis Cardinals (15-25, 7.5 GB)
It still warms my biased heart to see the Cardinals so far down the scrapheap of the central. Although the Redbirds did make up some ground in the division, slicing its total games under .500 by four, the club still finds themselves a far cry from the division-leading Brewers and still 3.5 back of the fourth-place Reds.
What to watch: Fangraphs thinks the Cardinals will finish below .500 (79-83) for the first time since 2007. St. Louis is 5-5 over their last 10, but their ability to remain playing .500-level baseball will be challenged in the coming weeks. Tackling the Brewers for three, then the Dodgers for four will be tough, even though those games are at home. Then it’s off to Cincinnati for four at a place where the Reds look like a different team.