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National League Central roundup - 5/28

The haps in the division.

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Seattle Mariners Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

What is the National League Central, really? And why can it not field a formidable contender? Sure, teams can be streaky in any sport, but baseball seems especially prone to it. And perhaps no division falls under these streaky patterns to a greater extent than the NL Central. Here we go.

1: Milwaukee Brewers (27-25, - GB)

The Brewers’ run differential is nearly the worst in the division at -23, and besides the Reds, Milwaukee is the only club sporting a negative differential. As an anecdotal example for Brewer futility (3-7 over their L10), a colleague of mine asked, “How are they in first place? Every time I see their score, they lost.” I have wondered the same thing and, as expected, the team’s negative differential puts their xW/L in the red (24-28). But baseball isn’t theoretical and the Brewers still somehow hold first place.

(Fanrgraphs does have Milwaukee winning the division, but only by one game. Their projected record? 82-80. That would be tied for the worst division winner in MLB history. The 2005 Padres went 82-80 with Jake Peavy captaining the club; the 1973 New York Mets went 82-79).

Milwaukee looks to avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of a surging Giants club. They get the Blue Jays and Reds for their upcoming roadtrip.

What to watch: This isn’t exactly in the typical spirit of things in this column, but while the Brewers have been middling on the field, the field on which they are middling has been... worse. It’s been reported that American Family Field apparently needs something in the realm of $448 million in renovations. While at least two proposals have been made, it looks as though taxpayers in Milwaukee may be on the hook for the rejuvenation of the park, something that local officials aren’t pleased with, saying, “(officials are) facing difficulties paying for such public services as police, sanitation and parks.”

2: Pittsburgh Pirates (26-25, 0.5 GB)

We’ve seen worse weeklong stretches from the Pirates this season. 4-6 over their last 10, Pittsburgh is still trying to even itself out to somewhere in between its blistering beginning and the club’s complete shutdown heading into the Tampa Bay and Toronto week.

Though the Buccos still sit marginally above .500, the team is yet to win a series in the month of May, two series of which were sweeps. Coming off a franchise record tying seven home run game in Seattle Friday night, the offense laid a dud in a two-hit clunker against the Mariners’ Luis Castillo. Still, the Pirates will attempt to win the series Sunday afternoon.

What to watch: After the home run barrage Friday night, expectations for the bats were once again tempered Saturday afternoon. Just how can this club getting rolling again? The 20-8 Buccos we saw a few weeks ago may be gone for good, but this team shouldn’t collapse to the floor all season long (6-17 since that high mark on April 29).

The Pirates are 7-4 in an admittedly small sample against the division. But after traveling to San Francisco, Pittsburgh will once again meet St. Louis for the first time since they split a four-game set at Busch Stadium. A strong showing against the surging Cardinals would take the team confidently into a three game series against the A’s.

3: St. Louis Cardinals (24-30, 4.0 GB)

The Cardinals were 10-18 in April and had their fans reeling right along with them. The team is 14-11 in May — a respectable mark, to be sure, but the media seems to have painted them as resurrected from the ashes. Still, St. Louis finds themselves four games back of the struggling Brewers. But it looks as though the Cardinals will be able to rebound from their dreadful start if for no other reason than the NL Central’s ineptitude to win games. As it stands, Fangraphs projects St. Louis to finish the season 81-81, only one game back of the Brewers projected 82-80.

The Redbirds look to win the rubber match against the Cleveland Guardians before a short trip home presents them with a two-game set against Kansas City. After that, it’s on the road to Pittsburgh and Texas.

What to watch: Brendan Donovan has been the on-base king for St. Louis over the last week (.538). Thanks to Donovan’s on-base abilities, he was able to get on, steal third, then score in the 10th inning last night, enabling St. Louis to beat Cleveland — a game in which the Cardinals had two hits. We here at Bucs Dugout know that it’s the little things that often win games — in April, we knew because the Pirates were doing the little things; in May, because they weren’t — but the Cardinals are. Lo and behold, they’re winning games because of it.

4: Cincinnati Reds (23-29, 4.0 GB)

Well, alright then. The Reds are not in last place. That doesn’t necessarily track, given some of the metrics I presented last Sunday. Nonetheless, not last is not last, even in arguably the worst division in the league. That said, the team’s -27 run differential is worst in the division, and a full 34 runs worse than the current last place club, the Cubs.

The Reds will try to sweep those same Cubs Sunday afternoon before finishing up their roadtrip in Boston. After that, it’s seven games against the 1st place Brewers and Dodgers.

What to watch: Who is Matt McLain, you might ask? Only the Reds home run, RBI, runs scored and fWAR leader (over the last seven days). McLain made his debut just under two weeks ago — he got a hit and scored a run. Since his call-up, he’s helped to make a difference in the Reds lineup. Over 34 plate appearances since last Sunday, McLain has two homers, six RBIs, a 185 wRC+, and a 0.6 fWAR. Speaking from experience, you take what you can get in a season that probably won’t yield postseason glory.

5: Chicago Cubs (22-29, 4.5 GB)

Hey Chicago, whaddya say? The Cubs cannot find a way to win today, or yesterday, or the day before that, or... you get the point. Chicago is seven games under .500 as we approach the first week of June. The team has lost three straight and seven of its last 10. A 13-13 April has given way to a terrible 8-16 May. The specter of a losing season looms more brightly as the calendar prepares to turn over once again. You have to wonder, how far is too far behind to make meaningful progress during the summer months?

The Cubs get Tampa Bay before an extended roadtrip, landing them in San Diego, Anaheim, and San Francisco.

What to watch: Justin Steele had an up and down week. Steele began his ascent last season en route to a 3.18 ERA over 24 starts. Steele is a guy who, to start the year, gave up two or fewer runs per start in his first six starts. A blowup in Houston for five earned over six innings was the first dustup we’d seen.

But in his next start — last Sunday in Philadelphia — Steele went six innings and didn’t give up a run. But pesky bats came calling once again against the Reds on May 26, going 3.2 innings and allowing six runs — five earned — on 10 hits. Steele is probably not a Cy Young contender, but he is turning himself into a reliable frontend starter at age 27. He may be a key contributor in whatever success the Cubs have not just this season, but for the next several years.