Think It Over: Will Anyone Catch the Redbirds in the NL Central?

Corey JenkinsContributor IMay 6, 2009

PHOENIX - APRIL 15:  Infielder lbert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals in action during the game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on April 15, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Diamondbacks 12-7.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

I know. It's May 6. We're five months from playoff time. Does that mean it's too early to talk playoff predictions? Probably.

I'm doing it anyways.

As a long time follower of NL Central baseball, I say with complete bias that it is the best division in the MLB. This year looks to reinforce my unprovable statement, as the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that many wrote off before the year as a third-place finisher at best, have stormed to a 17-10 record to lead the division.

Two games behind them are the equally surprising Milwaukee Brewers, seemingly unfazed by losing it's two best pitchers. And in third are the Chicago Cubs. Is anyone really surprised by them not living up to expectations thus far?

The Cincinnati Reds are tied with the Cubs for third at two-and-a-half games back, which is respectable, especially when you look at their solid pitching staff and their ability to put up a lot of runs...a lot.

I heard there were more teams in the division, but that's probably just a rumor. Anyways, here is my prediction for the NL Central winner. Once again, I know it's early, but I'm also probably right.

Standings on Oct. 4, 2009:

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1. St. Louis Cardinals, 94-68

I'm sorry, but this just doesn't look like a fluke to me. The Rotation has proven solid thus far, with Adam Wainwright throwing like an ace, Kyle Lohse throwing like he did last season (like an ace), and Joel Pineiro going deep into ball games.

Todd Wellemeyer and Mitchell Boggs make up the rest of the rotation, but one of them is only keeping Chris Carpenter's spot warm until the perennial Cy Young Candidate returns from a torn oblique.

Despite many questions coming into the year about how he would return from major arm injuries the last two years, Carpenter pitched lights out in 2009 in his brief encounter with the mound. He should make a full recovery from the tear in his side, and make the Redbirds pitching staff downright scary.

What about the offense? Well, Mondays 6-1 loss to the Phillies marked only the third time all year the Cards had been held to one or fewer runs. The team knows how to put runs up on the board, and it's no surprise that Albert Pujols is leading the way.

He's hitting .337 with 10 Hrs and 30 RBI, and has many fans thinking Triple Crown already (although I think that's even more premature than, well, playoff predictions).

Around him are sluggers Ryan Ludwick (.292/7 HR/23 RBI), Chris Duncan (.282/3 HR, 16 RBI), and Rick Ankiel, who seems to be alright after a scary collision with Busch Stadium's center field wall on Monday night. Throw in Skip Schumaker, Yadier Molina, and youngsters Colby Rasmus and Joe Thurston, and that's a playoff-caliber lineup.

While I'm aware that the Cubs slow start is unlikely to continue, I don't think they can contend this year with the Cards.

Zambrano/Dempster/Harden/Lilly on top of their rotation hasn't shown they can pitch at the same level as Carpenter/Wainwright/Lohse/Pineiro thus far, and slow starts from perennial sluggers Derrek Lee (.209/3 HR/15 RBI) and Milton Bradley (.128/2 HR/2 RBI) could have more to do with age than early season slumping.

As for the Brewers and the Reds, inconsistency will be their downfall. Yovani Gallardo has shown us that he is, in fact, good, but beyond him, the Brewers pitching staff is barren. With the Reds, Volquez/Cueto/Harang/Arroyo has been solid thus far, and I can actually see them making a run this year.

I don't, however, think the middle of their lineup is capable of providing them with enough run support to be a divisional contender this year (despite the emergence of Brandon Phillips).

So go ahead, Cardinals fans. Celebrate now. Pray for the oblique of Chris Carpenter, the face of Rick Ankiel, and the actual age of Albert Pujols. We'll need them all.

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