Mediocre In The Middle: First Half Impressions Of The NL Central
So NL Central fans, here we sit at the All-Star break, wondering whether or not our team is gonna make a run in the second half, hoping that we are a buyer and not a seller at the trade deadline. But before we can look ahead at the second half, we must first look back at the first half.
So far it looks like mediocre is the word of the day. The Cardinals looked dominant at times, but then would find a way to lose a chunk of games, as did the Cubs and Brewers. At times the Crew looked like they would break through this season, then would hit the road and lose. Then the Cubs.... Well, as a Cubs fan it pains me to say, the pic of Big Z celebrating will not be a snapshot taken in 2009.
The easiest way to look at the Central is to start at the bottom.
The Pirates bring up the rear at 38-50, 9.5 games out of first. It seems the Buccos have been insignificant in division races since the days of Doug Drabek and Bobby Bo. The team certainly has some young talent.
The LaRoche brothers are a solid duo at the plate, and Zach Duke is having an All-Star year. But, they tend to trade everyone away. What is up with that? In fact looking at their roster, outside of the names I mentioned, how many other Pirates could you name? I feel sorry for Pirates fans. It just looks like an organization that is never gonna committ to putting a solid team on the field.
In 5th place are the Reds at 42-45, five games out. A few weeks ago the Reds looked as if they could make a run at the title. Now with the injury to Bruce, who knows who will step up at the plate. The starting pitching, if healthy and on, rivals the best in the division even without Volquez. They include Arroyo, Owings, Harang, and Cueto. Plus they also have a solid bullpen. In my opinion Dusty just needs something to pull it all together, and they could make a run and at least make things interesting in Cincinnati.
In one half of our third place tie, are the Cubs at 43-43, 3.5 games out. The North siders are easily the vote for most disapointing team in the first half, many had them going to the World Series this year.
The main problem has been with injuries. Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Dempster, Derek Lee, Reed Johnson, and a cast of hundreds have spent time on the DL. On the bright side, they seem to be healthy again. The rotation in the second half will have Zambrano, Lilly, Dempster, Harden, and surprise rookie Randy Wells. The big question is whether the bats will ever wake up. But, even if that happens, will they be able to play consistent enough to keep pace with the rest of the pack?
The other half of our dynamic duo in thrid are the Astros at 44-44, 3.5 games off the pace. This is a team on paper that has one of the better lineups in the league. With big bats like Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Miguel Tejada, it's not hard to see why. But, the big question in Houston is with their pitching. Wandy Rodrigues has been the best pitcher, not Roy Oswalt, and any team using LaTroy Hawkins as either a set up guy or closer, is gonna get burned sooner or later. If the 'Stros are gonna get back to the post season it all depends on the Oswalts, and the Hamptons getting back to form.
In second place are the Brewers at 45-43, 2.5 games out. As I mentioned before, most people expected big things for the Crew after last year's post season run. Inconsistent just seems to be the word that follows this team around. At times they have looked great, and other times not good at all.
At the plate, Fielder is murdering the ball. Several young prospects have made names for themselves, including Casey McGehee. But the problem remains what is standing out there 60 feet 6 inches away. Yovani Gallardo has without a question been the best pitcher, leading the team in wins, ERA, and Strike outs. Trevor Hoffman remains a shut down closer in the bullpen closing 20 of 22 attempts. But unless the Brewers can get someone other than the Loopers, Suppans, and Dave Bush's of the world to pitch, it looks like last year will have to hold Brewers fans over until 2010.
The best of the mediocre are the Cardinals at 49-42. The big question for them in the second half will be whether teams still pitch to Albert Pujols. Many of the experts seem to think walking him will completely stop their offense. What they are forgetting is that there are solid table setters in front of him, that make it impossible to walk him. Guys like the Skip Schumakers and Colby Rasmus's of the world.
On the mound, Adam Wainwright has established himself as the ace. What remains to be seen is if Cris Carpenter can continue pitching strong, and whether Joel Piniero and Kyle Lohse can have some strong outings. The only concern Cardinals fans should have are about the young players being able to continue grinding it out over the last half of the season, because we all know it is a long one.
Bottom line, the Cardinals look to be the best team. If anyone challenges them in the second half, I think it will be the Houston Astros, not the Cubs or Brewers. Plus, watch out for Dusty's boys in Cincinnati, they could be a major spoiler. Pirates fans, well, maybe you should call Jackie Moon over in Flint. I heard he has a washing machine he'll trade you for both LaRoche's.
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