Last night saw one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Gerrit Cole make his big league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The big right-hander allowed just four hits in six scoreless innings before running into some trouble in the seventh. All told, he finished with a final stat line of 6.1 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 2 K and came away with the win against the Giants.
The division has been good enough that all three teams would make the playoffs if the season ended today. As long as the Pirates can avoid another late-season collapse, this should be a compelling three-horse race for the duration this season.
So the question becomes, could the performance of Cole in the days and weeks ahead be the biggest deciding factor in the NL Central title race?
First off, let's take a little closer look at who Gerrit Cole is:
Gerrit Cole Background
Originally drafted in the first round, No. 28 overall by the New York Yankees out of high school, Cole opted to instead go to UCLA, where he teamed with fellow top prospect Trevor Bauer for a formidable one-two punch.
Despite going a relatively unimpressive 6-8 with a 3.31 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 114.1 inning as a junior, the Pirates still opted to take him with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Thanks to a fastball that reaches triple digits and a workhorse frame, he profiled as a future staff ace.
In his pro debut last season, he went 9-7 with a 2.80 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 132 innings, opening the season in High-A and finishing it with a start in Triple-A.
He opened this season in Triple-A once again, going 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA, though he struck out just 47 batters in 68 innings.
With Wandy Rodriguez hitting the DL with a strained forearm, the club opted to give the 22-year-old the call on Tuesday, and he didn't disappoint.
His stuff is overpowering, but he pitches to contact. As a result, his strikeout numbers aren't eye-popping, but he manages to keep his pitch counts down and should be a workhorse as a result.
If he keeps pitching like he did on Tuesday night, he'll give the Pirates a huge boost moving forward and would project as the team's No. 3 starter behind A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez once he returns.
Is that enough to call him the X-factor? Let's take a look at some other potential X-factors on the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals to find out.
The Pirates will no doubt keep Cole around as long as he keeps pitching well, as he would ideally join A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano for the rest of the way.
As good as Cole was in his big league debut, it would be just as easy to point to fellow starter Francisco Liriano as the biggest potential X-factor for the team and the division as a whole.
Signed to a one-year, $1 million deal after an up-and-down last several seasons, Liriano was once one of the most overpowering young pitchers in the game before injuries set in.
A broken non-throwing arm delayed his Pirates debut until May 11, but he has gone 4-2 with a 1.75 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 36 innings in his six starts so far. Those are elite-level numbers, and if he can keep pitching at anywhere near that level, he'd be a bigger factor than Cole.
With as complete a roster top to bottom entering the season as any team in baseball, the Reds don't have many areas where they can shake up the roster and as a result don't have many options for an X-factor.
Tony Cingrani has served as the team's No. 6 starter of sorts, replacing Johnny Cueto on two different occasions now, and he's gone 3-0 with a 3.15 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 40 innings over seven starts this season.
However, with six plus starters when everyone is healthy, Cingrani is more of a super valuable insurance policy than he is an X-factor.
For now, it looks like the biggest X-factor for the Reds will be Ryan Ludwick, who suffered a shoulder injury on Opening Day and has not played since. Xavier Paul has been great replacing him, but he's not the middle-of-the-order bat that Ludwick is, and adding his bat back to the lineup will be a welcome boost.
Big picture though, what you see is what you're going to get with the Reds. They have the horses to contend for a title right now, and they aren't likely to have much in the way of an impact X-factor.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have already had a good deal to overcome this season, with Shelby Miller stepping up to fill a void in the rotation, and Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica emerging as a dynamic one-two punch at the back of what was an incredibly shaky bullpen.
They currently have the best record in all of baseball, and with unexpected contributions coming up and down the roster, it's hard to guess who will emerge as the team's X-factor down the stretch.
As a result I'll take the easy route here and say top prospect Oscar Taveras is their biggest potential X-factor down the stretch.
Ranked as the No. 3 prospect in all of baseball entering the season by Baseball America, Taveras is currently playing for Triple-A Memphis where he is hitting .316/.352/.478 with 22 RBI.
The outfield scene is crowded with Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran locked into starting jobs, but given the injury history of Holliday and Beltran it is safe to assume one of them will mass at least some time in the second half.
The 20-year-old Taveras has as big an offensive upside as any positional prospect in all of baseball, and if he were forced into everyday action by an injury, he could make a significant impact.
There is no question that Gerrit Cole will play a huge role in the Pirates' future, and if his debut was any indication, the future is now.
Is Gerrit Cole the Biggest X-Factor in the NL Central Race?
While A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have both been great and should be reliable for the duration, the rest of the Pirates' rotation is far from a sure thing.
Jeff Locke has been great but is still just a rookie and one who may be over-performing. Francisco Liriano has been spectacular, but we've seen him pitch well for short stretches only to fall off again before.
So if Cole can give the Pirates a third reliable starter for the rest of the season, that would be a huge addition to the team and one that would go a long way toward helping avoid another late-season collapse.
Granted the season is still young, and there is plenty of time for someone else to step up, but for now it is certainly not far fetched to call Cole the X-factor of the NL Central race.