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National League Central weekly roundup

Here’s the happs in Pittsburgh’s division.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Pittsburgh Pirates Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The whole of the National League Central has sputtered as of late, which is good news for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In early May, the central has offered the most unexpected results of any division in baseball. Let’s jump into it.

1: Pittsburgh Pirates (20-14, - GB)

Well, how about that? The month of April was a lot of fun on the North Shore. The first month of the season saw the return of Andrew McCutchen, excellent pitching, and a team that was doing all of the little things correctly en route to being one of the hottest teams in baseball.

Things have decisively cooled off in May. The Battlin’ Bucs are 0-fer in their May matchups so far, dropping five consecutive contests to the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, while being outscored by 21 runs during that 0-5 stretch of games.

Still, even though the ship has been grounded for the time being, the Pirates got off to such a promising start that, excluding a team-wide implosion, the club may have given themselves a nice cushion to eliminate talk of the cellar this year.

What to watch: The Pirates get a much needed respite by taking on the Colorado Rockies for three games to begin the week, but it’s right back to the grindstone for three games in Baltimore against a streaking Orioles team. Never mind playing winning baseball after getting shelled by Tampa Bay and Toronto, we need to see if the Pirates can get back to .500 baseball.

2: Milwaukee Brewers (18-15, 1.5 GB)

The Brewers are about where everyone expected them to be at the beginning of the season. They’re keeping pace with the division, hanging to second place for the time being. The club’s six game losing streak matches the Pirates over the same amount of games, meaning the two teams haven’t swapped placed like a six game losing streak usually means for a first place club.

3-7 over their last 10 doesn’t bode well for a team that has divisional aspirations. However, in the central, the Brewers need to tread water during down times and, with the state of the Cardinals, may be a lock to secure the division.

What to watch: The Brewers are solid; the Brewers are good. But they aren’t great. Mostly, they seem to be a club made up of a bunch of guys who perform fairly well. Put them into any other division and they probably aren’t expected to take the division crown — but that might speak more to the quality of the National League’s central division than anything else. Can Christian Yelich return to MVP form? (Probably not.) Can Adrian Houser be serviceable after returning from injury? (That depends how you interpret serviceable.) Can they survive without Brandon Woodruff? (In the division, perhaps. In the playoffs? No shot.)

3: Chicago Cubs (17-16, 2.5 GB)

Almost as surprising as the Pirates have been the Cubs, if you dig into it a little bit. Sure, the team is hovering around .500 as of this writing, but their run differential far surpasses their competitors in the central (+47). If you look at the other two teams who are +/- 8 in relation to the Cubs, you’d see the 20-14 Los Angeles Dodgers (+40) and the 23-11 Atlanta Braves (+55). Run differential isn’t the end-all, be-all — no such thing exists in baseball — but it’s a promising sign for a team projected to finish with a mediocre record in a mediocre division.

What to watch: Who is this Cody Bellinger and what has he done with the one the Dodgers didn’t want? Towards the end of his Los Angeles tenure, Bellinger was beginning to look like his peak productivity years were behind him. He put up -1.0 fWAR in 2021, then followed up with 1.8 fWAR in 2022. Okay, that second year is... fine. But for a guy who put up 7.8 fWAR prior to the pandemic-shortened 2020, 1.8 wins is far from expectation. At 1.8, we’re talking players like Jean Segura, Eloy Jimenez, and Jorge Polanco. Fine players, to be sure, but far from MVP consideration.

Now Bellinger has accumulated 1.5 fWAR through 30 games, bolstered by seven home runs and a 148 wRC+.

4: Cincinnati Reds (14-19, 5.5 GB)

Well, some of the heat has been taken off Reds’ ownership because of the sideshow in Oakland. The situation in Cincinnati isn’t exactly sterling, but at least it’s not “we’re moving to Vegas” bad? They are 6-4 over their last 10, and 10-7 at home, but Fangraphs has them finishing at 70-92, last in the division. The team’s incompetence on the road (4-12) likely factors in.

What to watch: If you want a positive storyline, TJ Friedl has been really good early on. If you had that on your bingo card, then good on ya — either you are a talented scout or know a ton about the Reds. Friedl’s accumulated 1.3 fWAR through May 6, with three home runs, which is tied for first on his club. His 125 wRC+ is tops on the team. Friedl’s 27 years old, so some fairly productive years may be in the offing; he’ll enter his first arbitration year in 2026.

5: St. Louis Cardinals (10-24, 10 GB)

Central teams, rejoice! Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects to 2023 so far has been the inability of the team who plays beneath the arch. Riding a rough eight game losing streak, the Cardinals find themselves 4.5 games behind the Reds for fourth in the division. While it may be impossible to play yourself into a division winner in April, it might be possible to play yourself out of it. This club, who was widely expected to take the central, has perhaps hamstrung itself to such a severe degree that any hope of the playoffs or winning the central has taken off to another city.

Fangraphs has St. Louis finishing 77-85 with a 19% percent chance to make the playoffs, lower than each team in the division except the Reds.

What to watch: Can this starting rotation do anything? The Cardinals starting five has the third-worst ERA in the National League (5.44), trailing only the Reds and Rockies. With a worse-than-average HR/9 (1.37), teams should expect to experience long ball success. The ship may have sailed to be competitive for a playoff spot this season, but if the Cardinals want to salvage the year in any form, it starts with the rotation.