At this time last year, there were four different NL Central teams in the hunt for a division title or wild card berth.
From that division, the St. Louis Cardinals have been the most successful team recently with two World Series wins in a five-year stretch, but the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds have been dangerous in recent years as well.
Even the Pittsburgh Pirates are beginning to make some noise.
There are multiple teams within the division that possess enough talent to win a late-September playoff battle, which makes this season's outcome extremely unpredictable.
Between the top three teams—the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals—there's over two full months of baseball remaining, which is more than enough time for either team to go on a run and establish themselves at the top.
And with the July 31 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the top NL Central teams are exploring every option in attempt to make their playoff aspirations a possibility.
So, between the top three teams in the division, which move would be most beneficial for each team?
Cincinnati Reds: Hunter Pence, OF
Between Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick, Brandon Phillips and former MVP Joey Votto, the Cincinnati Reds have a batting order that's undesirable even for some of the best pitchers in the league.
On the mound, Johnny Cueto is leading the way with a 13-5 record and a 2.39 ERA, while Homer Bailey and Mat Latos have both maintained winning records.
What the Reds have struggled with, however, is help off the bench.
Hunter Pence of the Philadelphia Phillies has 17 home runs and 59 RBIs on the season and would make the already dangerous Reds lineup even scarier. Whether Pence is a starter and moves a current outfield to the bench, or whether he's a backup, the Reds would greatly improve their depth.
According to MLB Trade Rumors, teams are showing interest in Pence.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Shane Victorino, OF
James McDonald and A.J. Burnett have provided the Pittsburgh Pirates with capable starting pitching, but they could still use another bat.
Andrew McCutchen has been phenomenal with 22 home runs and a .369 batting average, while Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones provide some support; but there's room for improvement in the back end of the lineup.
Jayson Stark of ESPN announced on Twitter that the Philadelphia Phillies are fielding offers for outfield Shane Victorino and that the Pirates are among several teams that are interested.
Victorino, a three-time gold glove winner, will greatly improve their defense while adding a solid bat to the lineup.
If the Pirates want to compete with the Reds and Cardinals down the stretch, they'll need some additional help.
St. Louis Cardinals: James Shields, SP
The St. Louis Cardinals have enough hitters in their lineup, but they're in desperate need of a solid starting pitcher.
Lance Lynn was a key part of their bullpen during their 2011 World Series run and has been effective enough as a starter to earn an All-Star bid, while Kyle Lohse is sitting with a 10-2 record and a 2.71 ERA.
But Lynn and Lohse are the exception.
At times, Adam Wainwright has moments that remind us why he was a Cy Young candidate in back-to-back seasons, but his recovery from Tommy John surgery has prevented him from fully regaining his dominance.
Meanwhile, Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia have been wildly inconsistent.
The Cardinals must improve the back end of their rotation, and acquiring James Shield from the Tampa Bay Rays would do just that.
Shields finished third in Cy Young voting just a year ago, but he has struggles this season with a record of 8-7 and a 4.52 ERA.
Though the decline cannot be ignored, there's a good chance that Shields can improve his numbers once he leaves the grueling AL East.
A report by Scott Miller of CBS Sports reveals that the Cardinals may be willing to pull off a deal before the deadline.
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