NL Central: Cubs Starting To Break Away From Brewers and Cards

Scott MaloneAnalyst IAugust 6, 2008

The North Side of Chicago is rejoicing. Wrigleyville is packed with fans, ready to see their Cubs better their already impressive 42-16 home record.

Entering action Tuesday August 6, the Cubs were five games up on the Milwaukee Brewers, six ahead of the rival St. Louis Cardinals, and 13+ ahead of the Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds, and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

These Cubs know how to play at home, averaging over six runs per game, as well as hitting .303, sporting a team ERA of 3.65, and have held opposing hitters to just a .239 AVG.

On the road the Cubs have struggled, averaging just under 4.5 runs per game, and hitting just .259 as a team. The pitching staff has slightly worse road numbers, posting a 3.95 road ERA, and a .248 opponent AVG.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of optimism surrounding these Cubs, as they have a great offensive attack, and can shut down opposing lineups with their pitching.

With a lineup that contains so many weapons, the Cubs were expected to score runs. They got off to a good start offensively and have picked up their hitting with the return of leadoff man Alfonso Soriano.

The pitching for the Cubs has been the real surprise. Carlos Zambrano has continued to prove he is the ace of the staff, and the front office went out and got a 1b starter in Rich Harden from the Oakland A's, giving the Cubs a formidable one-two punch.

In addition, Ryan Dempster has been phenomenal, posting 12 wins, 150 IP, 133 SO, a 2.93 ERA, and a .209 BAA.

The bullpen has also been good to the Cubs, receiving key contributions from Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Jeff Samardzija, Chad Gaudin, and Neal Cotts.

The Cubs are getting set for a three game set at home against the Cardinals before they play 12 of their next 15 games against sub .500 teams.

However, down the stretch in September, the Cubs play their final 13 games against the Brewers, Cardinals, and Mets, with seven of those games on the road, and six against the Brew Crew.

If the Cubs can stay healthy, and take advantage of their upcoming series, I believe we will see them in October.

The Brewers have been working on recovering from the beating that the Cubs gave them at Miller Park for four games.

They have won four of the past six, and are also heading into an easy stretch to finish up the month of August, as they play just five of their next 21 games against opponents with above .500 records, and are currently getting set to host the Washington Nationals for four games in Milwaukee.

Make no mistake: this Brewers team is good. They are also young, and relatively inexperienced as evidenced by their second half collapse last season.

Still, with the addition of CC Sabathia to help solidify their rotation, they have a shot of matching up with the Cubs in another head-to-head series, which they will have two of in September.

Until that time, the Brewers are poised to try and make up some ground that they lost courtesy of the Cubs.

However, the Brewers seem to be an all or nothing offensive team.

They hit just .254, and average over seven strikeouts per game. They also average just over one home run per game, and average 4.6 runs per game.

The starting pitching has been average, but most likely would have been better if not for the injury to Yovani Gallardo early in the season.

The bullpen is the true weakness for this ball club. They have three arms in Solomon Torres, Brian Shouse, and Mitch Stetter that have all been reliable this season. However, they lack a reliever with over 40 IP aside from Torres—their closer. They still have Eric Gagne and have no immediate move for him in sight.

If the Brewers want a shot at the division, and especially the playoffs, they will need to beat these weak teams ahead on their schedule, because if they do not, they leave the door to the wild card wide open for the Cardinals, as well as the NL East, as they have only a one game lead on St. Louis, three on Florida, and three and half on New York.

The bullpen needs to improve, as does the team's offensive consistency, if they want to make any sort of run in October.

The St. Louis Cardinals have shocked a lot of people with how well they have played this season.

The Cards sit just a game behind the Brewers for the wild card, and six back of the Cubs for the division.

Offensively, they score just under five runs per game, have five starters hitting .300 or better, and as a team hit a respectable .276. They have gotten key contributions from Ryan Ludwick, Troy Glaus, and Rick Ankiel to help Albert Pujols carry the offensive load.

Their pitching staff has held the ship together, allowing ace Chris Carpenter to come back healthy, and now await the return of Adam Wainwright, who is expected to be back some time this month.

The problem for the Cards has been their closer. Jason Isringhausen has not been able to effectively shut the door as he has in past years, and neither have Ryan Franklin or prospect Chris Perez.

While Tony La Russa has been able to keep this ship afloat, he might consider putting Adam Wainwright into the closer role to give this team some sort of bullpen stability. By doing that, it bumps Isringhausen and Franklin up to set-up or middle relief, possibly resulting in better performances on both parts.

The Cards lack the easy schedule that division rivals Chicago and Milwaukee have to finish out August, and for the rest of the season. They do have a slightly easier month of September, where they play the Cincinnati Reds six times, the Pirates three, the Diamondbacks seven, and the Cubs six.

The Cards have done well to this point, but I just do not see them making the playoffs. I do not believe they have the starting pitching depth of the Cubs or Brewers that they will need to compete for the division or wild card.

As for the Astros, Reds, and Pirates: the Astros' management still believes that they could make a run, but they wont because they too lack starting pitching depth.

Both the Reds and Pirates have been thinking about the future for the past couple seasons, and that trend continued this year, with each team selling off veteran parts (Junior, Jason Bay, Damaso Marte, Xavier Nady) in return for prospects to help build for the future.

The division crown will be fought for by the Cubs and Brewers, with the Cubbies ultimately winning out over the Brew Crew.

The Cubs are geared up for a playoff run, and have a real shot at the World Series, provided nobody pulls a Bartman, or they do not let a goat into the stadium.


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