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National League Central roundup - 6/26

Here’s the divisonal sitch!

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Miami Marlins Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

For the Reds, après nous, le déluge, for whatever ruin the NL Central takes on in their wake, the Reds do not care. The Brewers’ assault on being average continues. The Cubs’ persistence to post a positive run differential be damned, their record is still middling. There’s the Pirates, or the Anti-Reds, for when Cincinnati reeled off 12 consecutive wins, Pittsburgh dawdled and tripped and sank to 10 straight losses. And the Cardinals, for whom the season is in tatters — so much hope, so much expectation, quashed by the heavy-handed nature of the sport known as baseball.

1: Cincinnati Reds (41-37, - GB)

The Reds have cast the Ohio River as a Lake of Fire, of sorts. Abandon hope all ye who enter here — at least for the time being. It’s been a torrent of wins for Cincinnati as we prepare to enter July.

With the club preparing for games against the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves, attention was squarely on Great American Ballpark — perhaps not just around southern Ohio, but the greater Major League Baseball world, a phrase that, in relation to the Reds, would’ve been laughable two months ago.

Cincinnati and Atlanta played perhaps the best game of the season on Friday night before another good one Saturday afternoon.

Reds wrap up their June with three in Baltimore before coming back home to get San Diego for three.

What to watch: Streaks come and go in baseball. In a downed NL Central division, only time will tell whether or not the Reds can be legitimate contenders for a division crown. Approaching July, the young and exciting offense has shown us what the future has in store. But what about the pitching?

Over the last two weeks, Cincinnati’s staff has been average, posting a 4.39 ERA over that time, and a 5.45 FIP, which is 14th in the National League. Prior to and including this string of wins, the team’s ERA swells by half a run to 4.96, 14th in the NL. Maybe you can hammer your opponents into submission, maybe not.

Over a 12-game bender, Cincinnati has a run differential of +26, and five of those 12 wins were by one run. In order for the Reds to stave off the competition, they’ll have to figure out some pitching.

2: Milwaukee Brewers (40-37, 0.5 GB)

Something, something, something, Brewers aren’t that good. While Milwaukee continues to patter just to let everyone know that they’re still alive, they’re perhaps the second-least interesting team in the Central right now.

It’s true that “boring” teams are often good enough to win championships (like the San Antonio Spurs during Tim Duncan’s reign), but boring teams who are pretty average don’t tend to get very far. That’s the Brewers.

It’s a seven-game road trip on the docket for the Brew Crew, starting with four in Flushing, Queens, New York, against the New York Mets before heading to Pittsburgh for three.

What to watch: The Crew have been average over their last 10, going 6-5 over that stretch of games. With a -21 run differential, they’re still playing a little above their means. We’ve seen teams find success despite negative differentials in the past, and the 1987 Minnesota Twins even won a World Series.

Average can get you where you want to go in the division this year, as Fangraphs projects the Brewers to win the division with an 82-80 record, almost the perfect example of average. With a 4.06 team ERA and 85 wRC+, Milwaukee is average to well-below average in overall production, ranging from pitching to hitting. Is that enough to keep teams like Cincinnati and Chicago away? I wouldn’t count on it.

3: Chicago Cubs (37-39, 3.0 GB)

By a fairly significant margin, the Cubs have the best run differential in the division (+32) but still find themselves looking up at teams they likely feel they’re better than.

The Brewers, as we all know, are tame; and the Reds, the Cubs might say, are simply the beneficiaries of luck in a sport that seems to dole it out from time to time. But Chicago is very much still in this race, coming off two consecutive sweeps against the Pirates, and after taking two out of three from the Baltimore Orioles.

After finishing their short, two-game set against the Cardinals in London, their first trip to the UK since 1888, they’ll make the arduous flight back to Chicago to face Philadelphia and Cleveland for six total games.

What to watch: I like the Cubs — not in the “they’re my team!” kinda way, but in the “I think they might be better than the other teams in the division” kinda way. They’ve had solid contributors that some may not have expected, like Marcus Stroman or Dansby Swanson. The former had been carving himself out a solid niche of “guy who everyone thinks is good but is actually average” while the latter was cementing himself as a solid yet underwhelming everyday presence.

Now, relatively on the heels of the division-leaders, the Cubs strength of schedule the rest of the way is lowest in the division (.489). Because baseball schedules are fairly balanced, especially now, this might not mean all that much, but it does bode well for a team whose win-loss results seem out of whack with not just their run differential, but also with the eye test.

4: Pittsburgh Pirates (35-42, 5.5 GB)

When the Pirates are good, like in 2013, ‘14, and ‘15, or when they’re perhaps good but definitely interesting, like in April, the team is appointment viewing. When they’re bad, like they were for all of May and now a sizable chunk of June, the team is worth forgetting.

Everyone got swept up in the frenzy of April, and rightfully so, as the team was rampaging seemingly all those in its path. But with wins like 2-1 and 3-2, it felt like the calliope would soon come crashing to the ground. And it has. Now with the seventh-worst run differential in baseball, the Pirates are rushing towards another losing season. Fangraphs projects them to finish 75-87, last in the division.

As the Pirates wrapped up their series in Miami, things don’t get easier for the Battlin’ Buccos. Recipients of six consecutive home games to span the bridge between June and July, they will face San Diego and Milwaukee.

What to watch: This team is in desperate and dire need of a rekindling; of some sort of fire — or firing. 19-9 in in April was quickly stripped away by 8-18 in May and 7-15 in June. With so many entertainment options, why subject myself to the pain of this magnitude of losing? This team went from winning and being young and interesting to neither.

As I stated last week, the call-ups came rushing in this week. Perhaps it’s too little, too late, and perhaps the young guys will need more time to coalesce into decent major league players anyway, but the prospects for the season are beginning to feel decidedly more dire.

So what to watch for? The Pirates are in the bottom of the league in virtually every major offensive category (wRC+, OBP, HRs). Can that ship be turned around halfway through the year? Probably not, but that’s what might keep me plugging away.

5: St. Louis Cardinals (32-45, 8.5 GB)

Lost in the shuffling of the division, the last place Cardinals had actually played decent baseball for a short stretch of games, albeit against admittedly questionably talented squads. Winners of two against the Mets and two against the Nationals, the Cardinals wanted to move into their two-game set in London against the Cubs with some semblance of momentum.

Maybe St. Louis isn’t as bad as their record indicates, but they also haven’t done anything to inspire confidence. Count me as dubious that the four-game winning streak was anything more than a blip on the radar — one that might be repeated, sure, but a blip, nonetheless.

The Cardinals will head into July with three against Houston and three against the New York Yankees, all six of which will be played at Busch Stadium.

What to watch: The Cardinals are 14-22 at Busch Stadium this season, a mark on par with the Washington Nationals. They are 18-23 away from home. At this point, what we should be watching for is whether or not the Cards clean house.