The dog days of August are upon us and contending teams are positioning themselves for the stretch run that, typically, begins around Labor Day. What the NL Central has experienced in the last 10 days harkens back to how this division was playing out back in the cool (sometimes downright cold) days in April. And that’s something Cubs fans are glad to hear. Here’s a recap of how we got to where we’re at.
Cubs (69-41) 1st place
The best record in MLB resides, once again, on the North Side of Chicago. With 110 games in the books, the Cubs look like the team many predicted to win the division when the season started — and perhaps more….much more. Everything looks to be going the Cubs way since the All-Star Break. It seems forever ago that we were discussing the team’s June-July slump and wondering if they’d even hang on to the division. Now, what’s not to like about the Cubs situation?
Tell me when you’ve heard enough — 7 straight wins, winners of 10 of their last 11, Jake Arrieta threw his best outing in over a month just days ago, Cardinals and Pirates sit double-digit games back, Aroldis Chapman is in the bullpen. Can I stop? Cubs fans should be giddy.
If one question mark about this team lingers over them, it centers around their offense. Theo Epstein added to the bullpen and the pitching looks to be as good as any in the game right now. But the Cubs have a history of watching their offense go into hibernation when the weather gets colder — look no further than last October against the Mets.
At the trade deadline Epstein didn’t add any parts to the lineup — he’s banking on what’s there being plenty for a deep run in the postseason. It is a bit concerning to know the team ranks 2oth in the league with a .247 batting average with RISP. Aside from MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo and the uber-talented Addison Russell, no one else is batting above .260 in such situations.
That said, the Cubs still have extended their division lead to 11.5 games on the Cardinals, and the Giants have been mired in a tremendous slump, going 6-15 since the All-Star Break. And while the Nationals are still playing great, the most dominant baseball in the league is, without question, being played at Wrigley.
Cardinals (58-53) 11.5 GB
This is probably not where the Cardinals hoped they’d be at this stage of the season. With the division looking less and less within reach with each passing day, the Cards can find solace in the fact that they are right in the middle of the Wild Card chase — 1 game behind the Marlins.
After a quiet trade deadline for St. Louis that saw them acquire only pitcher Zach Duke, the team is relying on getting it’s own players back from injury — they activated Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Moss this past week. But 11.5 games behind the first-place Cubs will not be an easy gap to bridge over the final 2 months of the season.
The Cardinals’ focus will be on the Wild Card and getting healthy for the stretch run. Best case scenario — they catch a good break with match-ups in their opening round game against likely the Dodgers, Mets, or Marlins. Then anything can happen from there. Again, that’s best case scenario. Worst case — no playoffs at all. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Chances are this team, when healthy, is good enough to give those other Wild Card hopefuls a run down to the wire.
Pirates (55-54) 13.5 GB
What a difference a few weeks makes. Before the All-Star Break, the Pirates were mincing up the Cubs and heading into the break playing their best baseball of the season. Now, they sit just 1 game over .500 and 13.5 back of the Cubs. While the Wild Card appears to still be in play on paper — 3 games behind the second spot, the Pirates are not exactly trending up.
After a handful of trade deadline moves that saw them move their closer and sell off other parts to clear some salary cap room, the Pirates have the look of a team that is trying out their young talent to see what they have for the future. If I’m a Pirates fan, I’m not sure I’m all that thrilled. Take note of their record — not sure Pittsburgh will finish above .500 this season; and their shot at a franchise-best 4th straight postseason is in serious jeopardy as well.
Brewers (49-60) 19.5 GB
The Brewers did what was expected at the trade deadline: Jonathan Lucroy to the Rangers, Jeremy Jeffress to the Rangers, Will Smith to the Giants. So, yes, this season is for all intents and purposes over for most Brewer fans. Although the team’s won 6 of 10, management understood the circumstances they were in when those deals were done and they understood what the future could hold.
Many MLB experts are saying that Milwaukee really set themselves up nicely for a fairly quick and productive rebuild. Prospects Lewis Brinson (OF), Luis Ortiz (P), and Phil Bickford (P) are three of the highest rated prospects in baseball according to MLB insiders. The future may look bright after all in Milwaukee. And it might be faster than many thought.
Reds (45-65) 24 GB
There’s not much to say about the Reds. The Jay Bruce saga finally — and thankfully — ended August 1 when the team shipped the outfielder to the Mets. Cincinnati sits 20 games under the .500 mark and is in contention for the worst record in the National League — a far cry from the team that just a few years ago was vying for a playoff berth and making the case as one of the NL’s best teams. Not the case in 2016. The Reds are resigned to another rebuild and an offseason that isn’t likely to inspire high hopes from many of their fans.