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National League Central roundup - 5/21

Here’s the haps across Pittsburgh’s division.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The top of the division stays fairly pat, while there’s a switch at the bottom. No team has truly cemented itself as clear frontrunners in a division that probably lacks the talent to make major noise in the postseason. Let’s get into it.

1: Milwaukee Brewers (24-21, - GB)

The Brewers are on a three game skid, which means that their slight top-of-the-division advantage has disappeared, leading them to a tie with the Pirates. Milwaukee’s run differential sits at -4 at the moment. Though slim, that number joins the Reds as the only two in the division with negative differentials.

The Brewers will finish up their series in Tampa Bay, looking to avoid being swept. Next up, the Crew has three on the docket against the Astros.

What to watch: By and large, Milwaukee has been an average team by almost any metric you choose: Run differential, home runs, wRC+, ERA, and even attendance. Greeting a solid Astros team during the first half of their homestand, then crossing the border to Toronto to round out May, it’ll be an interesting time to see if the Brewers can break these shackles of mediocrity.

2: Pittsburgh Pirates (24-21, - GB)

The Pirates entered an inevitable tailspin in the weeks leading up to the present one. While the falloff was harder than many had anticipated, Pittsburgh is hopefully coming out the other end, still managing to be tied in the division for first place.

The Pirates are 4-6 over their last 10 and are trying to push closer to playing .500 baseball over that same span. A rubbermatch with the Diamondbacks kicks off at 1:35 ET, then it’ll be another home series against the AL West-leading Texas Rangers.

What to watch: According to Joe Block’s May 20th tweet, the Pirates’ starting pitchers have maintained a 3.00 ERA since April 11 — the best in baseball.

But starting pitching isn’t where fans’ concerns have been lately. Between May 1 and May 14, Pirate bats were starved for legitimate action. The anemic output can be punctuated by the following numbers: 54 wRC+ (last in NL), six home runs (last in NL), and .270 OBP (last in NL).

But there might be reason for optimism. While the power numbers have still been lacking over the last week, the team’s wRC+ has increased to 111 (7th, NL); meanwhile, the OBP has skyrocketed to .350 (2nd, NL). What’s worth watching for is whether or not the Pirates offense can continue this increased production after a tremendous letdown to begin May.

3: Chicago Cubs (20-25, 4.0 GB)

The Cubs are 3-7 over their last 10, while at one point dropping five consecutive games. Chicago may not have lost ground in the division yet, they did swap places with the Pirates for the team floundering the most. The team DFA’d Eric Hosmer after an abysmal start and while the Cubs have a +22 run differential, they can’t manage to claw themselves to .500, much less over.

What to watch: The Cubs need some positivity in their lives at the moment. It’s a good thing Christopher Morel is around. Five home runs and a 278 wRC+ since Sunday, Morel’s accumulated 0.6 fWAR in the last week. Only 23 and only having played 10 games for Chicago this season, Morel is exploding early on in ways that were only hinted at last year.

Cubs fans might even be willing to overlook his paltry walk rate (4.5%) and skyrocketing strikeout rate (36.4%) through his first 44 plate appearances this season.

4: St. Louis Cardinals (20-27, 5.0 GB)

7-3 over their last 10, the sputtering Cardinals seem to have turned a corner. Whether or not it’s sustainable will remain to be seen; and whether or not they can become competitive enough to challenge for a playoff spot is a completely different question.

Taking two out of three at this point against a strong Dodgers team, St. Louis will look for the series win this afternoon. For the next week, the Redbirds will spend their time on the road, making stops with both Ohio-based teams, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

What to watch: Nolan Gorman. Sure, the other Nolan in St. Louis — Arenado — hit a home run in five straight games, but it’s the young Gorman that’s been raking. His 296 wRC+ over seven games is tops in the NL since last Sunday, and is 90 points higher than the other Nolan. His home run totals over that time trails only the Cubs’ Christopher Morel.

5: Cincinnati Reds (19-26, 5.0 GB)

The Reds have dropped three straight and five of their last six. With a -40 run differential, Cincinnati is worst in the division in that department. Along with the Brewers (187), the Reds are the only team in the division yet to crack 200 runs scored (194).

Meanwhile the club’s 234 runs allowed is tops in the division, suggesting a problem in the pitching department. That’s nothing new, though, as it’s seemed Cincinnati has put together a fairly adept offense in recent years and completely drowned on the mound.

What to watch: Dig into the numbers and you’ll find that the Reds’ offense has actually struggled quite a bit, posting the second-lowest home run totals and wRC+ in the NL (35 HR, 86 wRC+). That said, the team’s pitching has been worse, what with a 5.10 staff ERA, which is not only the worst in the NL, but also the only NL club to reach five. At this point, it looks like the Reds are trying to stave off being the worst team in the league. The only way that happens is if the club can control opposition output in the launching pad that is Great American.