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National League Central roundup - 6/18

Here’s your weekly haps in the division!

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers are back atop of the division; the Reds winning streak has propelled them to second; the Pirates are rivaling the Cardinals for the coldest team in the division; and the Cubs are heating up.

1: Milwaukee Brewers (36-34, - GB)

Well, they’ve done enough — and that includes beating Pittsburgh. The Brewers are up, narrowly, in the division, with the Redlegs amazingly breathing down their necks. Just last week, manager Craig Counsell said his club wasn’t doing enough. 4-6 over their last 10 isn’t sterling, but taking the first two games against the club who was previously threatening your standing in the division is a pretty good way to get the ‘ole ball coach back on your good side.

Brewers get the Diamondbacks for three at home before moving to Cleveland for three with the Guardians.

What to watch: It’s nice for the Brewers that they’re leading the division. It really is. But you’ve got to think expectations were higher than this for those in Milwaukee. The narrative was that the Brewers were the underdog to the mighty Cardinals. Well, St. Louis tailed off early and Milwaukee was left scrounging for competitors with teams expected to finish fourth and last (hello, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati).

Wherever the Brewers go from here, “up” isn’t exactly on the radar. The Brewers aren’t bad! They’re not — at least, I don’t think so. And yet... and yet. The team has an 87 wRC+, which is 26th in baseball and trails everyone in the division. The club’s .306 on-base percentage is 25th in baseball, which, again, is worst in the division.

The pitching’s actual production metrics are a bit better. For example, their 4.07 ERA is 12th in baseball. That said, the staff’s FIP is 4.62, which is 25th in baseball.

This year, the division winner doesn’t necessarily have to be “good,” but they probably have to be average. In many major regards, the Brewers are struggling to embody even average. All that to say, to all the teams hovering just below Milwaukee: take solace in the fact that they can certainly be overtaken.

2: Cincinnati Reds (36-35, 0.5 GB)

The Reds have been one of the hottest teams in baseball as of late. Winners of their last seven and eight of their last 10, this team has catapulted itself to the near top of the division. Beginning with Elly De La Cruz’s first appearance against the Dodgers, it’s been full steam ahead in Cincinnati. And now, the club is perhaps the talk of the central — America’s team? — and are vying for the top spot in the division.

Reds will go for a sweep in Houston against the Astros before heading back to Great American Ballpark for three with Colorado and Atlanta.

What to watch: Of course a lot of attention was given to De La Cruz’s first foray in Major League Baseball, but the Reds have had plenty of other youthful contributors to their winning causes lately. Andrew Abbott posted a 0.00 ERA through his first three starts (17.2 scoreless innings). You read that correctly. The young lefty hasn’t given up much — and nothing in the way of runs.

3: Pittsburgh Pirates (34-35, 1.5 GB)

I’m not sure I would’ve called the Pirates “good” prior to the last 10 games. They were streaky and inconsistent, but they were also promising and could be fun. It’s funny how perceptions change based on expectations.

The expectations for the Pirates was for them to be interesting, growing, and perhaps a division pest. Now that the Central is showing itself to be a lackluster division, Pittsburgh has routinely been at or near the top. Because of this, fans are starting to expect some type of attempt at a division title — and rightfully so. It is mid-June, after all.

But now the Pirates are below .500 and are playing some awful baseball. 2-8 over their last 10, and if it’s not one thing, it’s something else. If it’s not injuries, it’s cold bats. If it’s not cold bats, it’s faulty starting pitching. If it’s not faulty starting pitching, it’s a miserable bullpen.

Pirates will want to avoid the sweep this afternoon. The club will head home for three against the Cubs, then it’s down to south beach for four against the talented Miami Marlins.

What to watch: Call-ups? This is wishful thinking. Fans are dying for some inner-organizational help, but not from the guys we actually expect them to call up. Instead, fans are itching for Endy Rodriguez, for Henry Davis, and for Quinn Priester. Whether or not we’ll get that before it’s too late remains to be seen. But with a worse-than-scuffling team over the last week and a half, our collective attention must turn to the idea that help might soon be on the way.

4: Chicago Cubs (33-37, 3.0 GB)

The Cubs are the only team in the division with a positive run differential, and they’re beginning to play like it. For a time in the middle of last week, no team in the central posted a positive differential. Now, after sweeping the Pirates and taking their first two contests against a strong Baltimore Orioles club, Chicago is rolling. Winners of five straight and seven of their last 10, the Cubs are climbing back up in the Central.

Cubs will head to Pittsburgh for three, then it’s off across the Atlantic to play the Cardinals for two games in London.

What to watch: I’m just not sure about the Cubs. I’ve got a friend who’s been a Cubs fan since his childhood. Earlier in the year, I told him I thought the Cubs would be fine. A few months later, they’re still searching for their identity. 13th in wRC+ (100), 11th in team fWAR (8.9); 13th in staff ERA (4.12), 11th in FIP (4.07). They’re just a club without a “thing,” so to speak. That in and of itself should be concerning, given the year being put together by players like Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ, and Marcus Stroman.

Maybe it’s just true that Theo Epstein was a miracle worker.

5: St. Louis Cardinals (28-43, 8.5 GB)

Look, the Central isn’t good. There’s the Pirates, who’ve scuffled, but then there’s the Cardinals. I remember a couple weeks ago the rounds were being made on Twitter that maybe — just maybe — St. Louis was climbing back into contention. Apparently that wasn’t the case. Prior to winning last night against the Mets, the Cardinals had dropped six consecutive games.

Cardinals get the Nationals for three in the nation’s capital before two against the Cubs in the London Series.

What to watch: The fight for .500 is on. Fangraphs currently projects the Cardinals to go 76-86 in 2023, a far cry from expectations over the last couple decades. They’ve struggled greatly through nearly half the season, and we shouldn’t expect that to change in any meaningful way.

Now fans are left wondering what kinds of personnel changes will be made in St. Louis. In 2019, the Cardinals had Mike Shildt as their manager — he won the National League’s Manager of the Year Award. In 2021, Shildt was let go. He was then named a finalist for the award once again. While the optics of such a decision are strange, there may have been some sound logic behind the decision-making progress.

In their second year under Oli Marmol, the Cardinals are floundering. Could his name hit the chopping block next? What about John Mozeliak? Time will tell, but a big shakeup seems in the offing.