Players are back from San Diego and the All-Star Break is becoming a distant memory as teams and fans, alike, start to visualize how the road to the postseason will look. The usually-exciting trade deadline looms only a couple weeks away – August 1 at 4pm – and teams will be buying, selling, and in one way or another sending their fan bases into a frenzy.
As the MLB schedule ramps back up in full swing, we look ahead to what lies in wait for the teams in the National League Central.
Chicago Cubs (53-15)
Cubs fans all realize that the 53-35 record the team currently touts is slightly misleading. Since an impressive 35-15 start to the year, the Cubs have played mediocre baseball, going 18-20 and dropping 15 of their last 21 heading into the much needed All-Star Break.
All hope shall not be lost, however, for Cubs fans. While reigning CY Young Award winner Jake Arrieta has struggled with command issues and posted a 4.38 ERA in his last 9 starts, manager Joe Maddon views these midseason woes as part of a long baseball season. “Our guys are going to pitch like you saw earlier in the year.” The starting pitching staff is still a scary sight for opposing hitters to see – 3.09 ERA leads all starting rotations in baseball.
General Manager Theo Epstein has never been one to shy away from “wheeling and dealing” at the trade deadline, and no one should expect that to change in the coming weeks. The Cubs have many young pieces to package up and send to a non-contender for some pitching help – starting staff or bullpen. Expect to hear names like Rich Hill, Andrew Miller, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jake Odorizzi mentioned more in the next 15 days as the August 1 deadline draws nearer.
St. Louis Cardinals (46-42)
In order for this Cardinals to get themselves into serious contention for the NL Wildcard, let alone the division, they will need to improve upon two glaring weaknesses that plagued their first 88 games: (1) play better at home and (2) play better against teams with winning records. It seems logical and elementary that if you cannot do those two things, you’re not likely much more than a .500 ball club.
The Cardinals went 19-26 at Busch in the season’s first half. The last time the franchise finished a season with a losing record at home was 17 years ago in 1999. What may be more concerning for the Redbirds and their fans is the team’s inability to beat baseball’s above average teams. They’ve lost 28 of the 45 games played against teams at .500 or better; and the journey gets no easier out of the gate in the second half. Thirteen of their next 17 games come against teams vying for the wildcard spots – Dodgers, Marlins, and Mets. All happen to sit above the .500 mark as well.
Pittsburgh Pirates (46-43)
The Pirates either picked a great time to get hot – if the winning continues – or they picked the most inopportune time – if the 4-day break brings a halt to the Bucs’ winning ways.
Clint Hurdle’s boys have closed the gap on the Cubs and sit within shouting distance at 7.5 games of first place in the Central. Despite injuries in the starting rotation, the Pirates reeled off 11 of 13 wins heading into the break and are feeling as confident as they have all year. The question remains, how long can they ride a starting rotation led by Francisco Liriano, Jonathon Niese, and Jeff Locke, who combine for a 5.18 ERA?
The club expects ace Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to return to the rotation soon. But will it be enough for a team who has had difficulty staying above the .500 mark this season?
Milwaukee Brewers (38-49)
Brewers fans have little reason for hope this season; and therefore, Cubs fans have little reason for concern with their rival to the north.
The greatest impact the Brewers will have on the remaining baseball season will be when they decide where to send All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy. The 30-year old Lucroy is having a sensational season with numbers ranking him in the top 3 at his position in batting average, runs scored, RBI, hits, slugging percentage, and OBP. Where he winds up by the end of the month could have major playoff ramifications for the teams impacted.
Worst case scenario for the Cubs would be Lucroy goes to the Dodgers – making them more of a threat come October, if the two meet up. However, the most sensible landing spot (and the one that seems to be gaining the most traction) for the All-Star is with the Texas Rangers.
Cincinnati Reds (32-57)
If the Brewers are no threat to the Cubs, I’m not sure what respectable words can be used to describe what the Reds are, then. Irrelevant? Nonexistent? Too harsh? Let’s just agree, the Reds can start looking forward to 2016-17. Pitchers and catchers report when?
While the Brewers hold a nice trade chip in Jonathan Lucroy, the Reds have a little carrot to dangle out there themselves in right fielder Jay Bruce. The Cubs may be slightly more concerned where Bruce eventually ends up than they are with Lucroy. Teams reported to be in the mix for the 29-year old big swinging lefty include some NL contenders – Giants, Nationals, and Marlins. Although, many believe Bruce will head north to either Toronto or stay in state with Cleveland.
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