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Breaking Down the NL Central: It's a Two Horse Race

Jacob NitzbergAnalyst IAugust 7, 2009

Since the beginning of the season, the NL Central has been the tightest overall division race in all of baseball. Currently, four teams are within five games of first place, and as recently as June 28, all six teams were within that same striking distance of the division title.

With approximately two months to go in the regular season, we are not much closer now to determining the division winner than we were back in April.  As a Cubs fan, I want to know whether I should be setting myself up for a September or October disappointment this season.  Thus, I decided to take a closer look at the past performances and remaining schedules of each team in the NL Central to try and predict a winner.

Below is a quick snapshot of each team in order of current standings:

Chicago Cubs (57-49)

56 Games Remaining (29 Home, 27 Road)

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.485 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

The first advantage the Cubs have is the lead in the loss column.  With the most games remaining of anyone in the division (thanks to rain-outs), the Cubs’ destiny is in their own hands.

The Cubs will play more than half of their remaining games against teams under the .500 mark, with 30 games coming against teams currently with losing records.  Half of those games are against divisional opponents, as the Cubs face Houston and Cincinnati for one more series apiece, and three more series against last place Pittsburgh.  These are the games the Cubs must win to have a chance.

Divisional games will play an important part in the Cubs’ quest to win the Central, as they play 16 of their 25 remaining divisional games in a row from September 7 to September 23, including six straight road games against St. Louis and Milwaukee to close out the stretch.

Based on their current home and road winning percentages, the Cubs are predicted to finish the year at 87-75.  In order to reach this number or improve on it, the Cubs will need to win some series on the road, as they are just 24-30 away from Wrigley Field this year.  Road match-ups against Colorado, LA Dodgers, NY Mets, and San Francisco will be crucial in the Cubs’ quest for the crown.

St. Louis Cardinals (59-51)

52 Games Remaining (27 Home, 25 Road)

.472 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

While the Cubs may have more games remaining, the Cardinals have a more favorable schedule down the stretch.  The Cards have 30 of their final 52 games against divisional opponents, with six games each against Houston, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.  Combine these with seven games against San Diego and three against bottom-of-the-barrel Washington, and that makes for a division-low .472 opponent winning percentage.

The Cardinals’ additions in June and July of Mark DeRosa, Julio Lugo, and Matt Holliday have made their offense a formidable foe to go along with their strong starting pitching.  The Cards have a run differential of plus 31 so far this year, which should only improve as a result of their additions. Look for this to come into play against strong pitching teams like the Dodgers, Cubs, Braves, Rockies, and Marlins.

The final factor that could propel the Cards above their current pace of 87-75 is their .500 record on the road.  St. Louis is the only team in the NL Central with a .500 or better record away from home this season, and they will need to maintain this in the final weeks of the season as they embark on a nine-game trip to Houston, Colorado, and Cincinnati.

Milwaukee Brewers (54-54) – 4.0 GB

54 Games Remaining (28 Home, 26 Road)

.488 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

The Brewers likely had higher expectations than .500 at this point in the season, but there is still plenty of time to make a run at the postseason.  The Brewers can be in control of their own destiny as a result of their remaining schedule against the division.

The Brewers face NL Central opponents 34 more times, but more importantly 16 of those games are against the first-place Cubs and Cardinals (seven and nine remaining respectively).  These 16 games come in the Brewers’ final 32 of the season in September and October, culminating with a three-game series in St. Louis over the final weekend of the season

In order for these games to matter, however, the Brewers need to improve upon their current position of four games back during the month of August.  The Brew Crew have 22 straight games against sub-.500 teams between now and August 30, including 12 of those at Miller Park.

While all these schedule advantages are helpful to Milwaukee, none of it will matter if they don’t get their pitching in order. The Brewers lead the Central with 536 runs allowed, and are second to last in the NL with a 4.82 team ERA.  Without an improvement in their pitching staff, the Brewers might be sitting at home in October.

Houston Astros (53-55) – 5.0 GB

54 Games Remaining (25 Home, 29 Road)

.500 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

The Astros, despite a rash of recent injuries to their club, are just five games out of first place and two games under .500.  Unfortunately for Houston fans, their remaining schedule doesn’t do them many favors.

The 'Stros will play just one-third (18) of their remaining 54 games against sub-.500 teams, half of those being Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.  In addition, of their 27 remaining divisional games, only nine come against first-place Chicago and St. Louis combined, meaning Houston will need some help to gain ground in the Central.

The other obstacle the Astros face is having more road games left than home games, something none of the top three teams in the division need to deal with.  The Astros are just 24-28 away from Minute Maid Park, and spend their final seven games of the season on the road in Philadelphia and New York.

While the Astros have been a notorious second-half team this decade, it doesn’t seem likely they will be able to make another impressive run to the postseason in 2009.

Cincinnati Reds (46-61) – 11.5 GB

55 Games Remaining (27 Home, 28 Road)

.490 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

This is where we reach the teams without much of a playoff chance. The Reds looked like they might be for real this year, as they were just 1.5 games out of first place as late as June 10. Then injuries struck, the most brutal to starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, who will miss 12 months with Tommy John surgery.

The Reds would need a very favorable schedule to have a chance at the postseason, and it just isn’t there.  Only 23 of their remaining 55 games are against sub-.500 teams, and more than half of their remaining games are on the road.  Cincy will have a chance to play spoiler, as they have at least one series left with each of the top four teams in the division.

Pittsburgh Pirates (45-63) – 13.0 GB

54 Games Remaining (29 Home, 25 Road)

.508 Remaining Opponent Win Pct

Another season, another losing record for the Pirates.  The Bucs appear to be rebuilding yet again after gutting their team at the trade deadline.  With 30 of their remaining 54 games against teams above .500, it would appear that a 13 game deficit is too much for the Pirates to overcome.

The Pirates too can play spoiler in the final two months, with a whopping 37 games remaining against NL Central opponents.  The Pirates face the Cubs nine times, Cardinals and Brewers six times apiece, and the Astros twice.  Those 13 games remaining versus Cincinnati will be unlikely to draw large crowds.


Prediction

So when it comes down to it, in this writer’s opinion the NL Central is a two-horse race, with the Cubs and the Cardinals battling it out neck and neck down the stretch.  Milwaukee and Houston are both solid teams, but the Brewers’ lack of pitching and the Astros’ difficult schedule will likely be too much to overcome.

The Cardinals have given themselves a big boost with the addition of Matt Holliday to protect slugger Albert Pujols, and solidified their lineup with Julio Lugo and Mark DeRosa.  The Cubs added much needed lefty bullpen help with John Grabow and may have picked up a steal with Tom Gorzelanny if he can continue to pitch like he did in Cincinnati on Tuesday.

The two teams have very similar schedules down the stretch, so the division might come down to a three-game series in St. Louis from September 18-20.  Whichever team comes through that enormous arch in first place will have the upper hand and likely take the division crown.

For now, I’m going to give my biased edge to the Cubs, as there is a good chance they could sweep their final six home games against Pittsburgh and Arizona, while the Cards are on the road in Cincinnati and then host Milwaukee on the final weekend of the season.

This article originally posted on Cubicle GM.

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