NL Central: The Second-Half Sprint Between the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds

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NL Central: The Second-Half Sprint Between the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds
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Chris Carpenter's impending return may be the spark St. Louis needs to recapture greatness and run away with the division.

While the St. Louis Cardinals are the favorites to win the National League Central as we near the All-Star break, they have a long and arduous road ahead of them. Remember their World Series win just two years ago? But remember how they got into the playoffs that year to begin with? Just as a postseason berth was Atlanta’s to lose in 2011, so is the division for the Cards now.

St. Louis currently sits atop the Central, however it holds a fragile one-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates with the Cincinnati Reds a respectable five games back.

Lets see how these three division rivals stack up.

Superior pitching is often the best predictor of long-term success, so it’s not surprising that these three teams boast impressive numbers in that regard— they occupy three of the top four spots for team ERA in baseball. The Pirates lead the league with 3.09, the Braves are runners up with 3.23, and the Cardinals and Reds are right behind them with 3.34 and 3.42, respectively.

Two weeks ago, Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that the Cardinals should be most wary of Pittsburgh due to its stellar rotation and even more lights-out back end of the bullpen.

Here’s a recent tweet showcasing how dominant Pittsburgh’s arms have been:

Something equally surprising as the fact that Pittsburgh’s staff is the best in baseball is which starter is heading the bunch. The once Mr. Unpredictable has morphed into Mr. Consistency before our very eyes:

In the five seasons prior to 2013, Liriano couldn't manage to post an ERA under 5.00. 

Unfortunately for the Pirates, however, there’s that whole you-can’t win-if-you-don’t-score thing—they’ve crossed the plate the fifth-fewest times in baseball.

This week, Dejan Kovacevic of Triblive.com noted that while the Pirates should look for a bat to bolster their bench before the trade deadline, their current pieces need to step it up at the plate in order for the team to rebound and stay competitive.

No one can touch the Cardinals offensively due to their sizable crop of torrid hitters—they’re third in the majors and first in the NL in team batting average with .274. The Reds are middling (17th) with .250 while the Pirates are downright mediocre (tied for 23rd in the majors) as they sit at .243. The Cardinals also lead the NL in runs scored by a long shot (the next most have crossed the plate 72 fewer times). Not to mention they heat up when it counts:            `

According to coolstandings.com, there’s virtually no doubt that the Cardinals make it to the postseason. They’ve got a 65.4 percent chance of winning the Central, a 31.6 percent chance of grabbing a wild card spot and a 97 percent chance of making the playoffs—the highest probability of any team in the majors by quite a significant margin. Three teams from the division could easily play into October, though—Pittsburgh has an 85.5 percent chance of making the playoffs while Cincy has a 69.6 percent chance.

In the second half of the 2013 season, the Cardinals and Pirates will play each other 14 times (three series, one is a five-gamer with a doubleheader wedged in there), the Cardinals and Reds will face off ten times (three series) and the Reds and Pirates will see nine games against each other.

So far this season, the Pirates are the only team out of these three that currently have winning records against the other two—they are 6-4 against the Reds and 3-2 against the Cardinals to date.

St. Louis, however, hasn’t had much trouble with Cincinnati, as the Cardinals hold the 6-3 advantage against the Reds in 2013. Just look at what happened when these two teams faced each other in April:

Did I mention this team can hit?

Although Pittsburgh’s bats have been pretty silent of late, they showed St. Louis how it felt to be on the other end of a demolition derby when these rivals played each other just a couple weeks after the preceding match-up:

But fast forward a couple of months and here’s a pretty self-explanatory example of how the Pirates are faring at the plate recently:

While Homer Bailey has been sporadically great, the Reds have been underwhelming this year. Picked to finish first by a hefty margin by Sports Illustrated in its preseason issue, the Reds have been quietly above average but oddly cold.

Part of the disappointing performance is a result of Cincinnati's onslaught of injuries, a suffering that hasn't really been shared by St. Louis and Pittsburgh. While St. Louis has the invincible Yadier Molina and Pittsburgh has both Russell Martin and promising prospect Tony Sanchez, Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News reports that the Reds have been forced to play ailing backstops to the detriment of the team. Not to mention that stars Johnny Cueto, Ryan Ludwick and Brandon Phillips have seen time on the DL as well.

I wouldn't be doing Joey Votto justice by omitting him, so I'll say he's having yet another standout year (he boasts an outstanding slash line of .319/.431/.506), but when it comes down to it, he isn't LeBron and this isn't basketball.

Apart from the games against each other, the three teams’ schedules the rest of the way are fairly equal as far as the caliber of opponents go with the Reds at a slight disadvantage. While the Cards and Pirates will face three teams with winning records in the remainder of the season, Cincy will face four.

So barring some cataclysmic event, the Reds aren't taking the Central. That's not to say they won't take a wild card spot—I wouldn't call the states of the other two NL divisions noteworthy—at least not in a good way.

The Pirates may have a better shot, but they'll need to pick up at least one bat to remain competitive for the division title. According to Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated, Kendrys Morales of the Seattle Mariners is one of a few hitters that could be a great fit for Pittsburgh.

What St. Louis needs more than anything is a wake-up call. Maybe they decided to take their All-Star break a few weeks early. Getting Chris Carpenter back in the rotation will provide some veteran leadership to a younger staff if nothing else, and Matt Holliday (who hasn't had his best season anyway) will likely benefit from the rest that the All-Star break provides.

The baseball season may be a marathon, but this division will likely come down to a sprint.

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