As of today, the National League Central is the closest division in all of baseball as all six teams are within four and a half games of first place. Leading the way are the Milwaukee Brewers with a 35-29 record followed by the Cardinals, Reds, Cubs, Pirates, and finally the Astros. As we are about a third of the way into the season, each team in the division has a flaw that will need to be fixed if they are to have a shot at winning the division.
Milwaukee Brewers, 35-29, First Place
Flaw: Starting Pitching
What’s Wrong: Yovani Gallardo has pitched very well this year and has picked up the slack that the rest of the rotation has failed to do. With a 6-3 record, the 24-year-old has the best record on the staff and has been dubbed the team’s ace.
However, after Gallardo things become extremely foggy as to who will step up for the Brewers. The rest of the rotation (including the recently demoted Manny Parra) has a 16-18 record with a 5.42 ERA. As a whole, the rotation ranks 22nd in innings pitched and 23rd in ERA. While some of the blame for the fluctuated stats can be blamed on Parra, the starters have not been good at all as of late.
Dave Bush started the year off very well and looked like a number two pitcher the Brewers could rely on, but recently has struggled mightily and not given the innings expected of him.
The Brewers’ bullpen ranks third in ERA and if it were not for their lights out performance this year, the Brewers would be a .500 team at best. Also, their offense continues to be led by Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, who leads the National League in RBI.
How To Fix It: The Brewers sent Parra to AAA Nashville last week and, with two off days in the near future, will not need a fifth starter until June 27th. It is not clear whether or not he will rejoin the team when his turn in the rotation comes around, but he is just the beginning of the problem.
Trade rumors have been swirling all over the place involving J.J. Hardy or Corey Hart going to the American League for pitching, but that is more than likely not going to be the case. As for the starters on the team, they need to start throwing strikes and pitching longer. Their starters rank fourth in the league in walks allowed and, as said above, are not pitching late into ballgames.
Jeff Suppan has settled down after a rough start and Braden Looper is slowly becoming more consistent. It is almost a matter of time before the bullpen can not keep covering up the below-average starting pitching.
Seth McClung might be asked to move to the rotation when a fifth starter is needed, and last year he fared decently in his new role. With no option in the minors (other than Parra), it will be very interesting to see which route general manager Doug Melvin takes to fixing the fifth spot in the rotation.
Can It Be Fixed?: Fortunately, the woes of the starting rotation look like they can be fixed. Gallardo continues to impress and give the Brewers a great chance of winning every five days.
The rest of the rotation will need to continue to throw strikes and not give up free passes, something that every starter (OK, maybe not Parra) is capable of doing. If a trade were to occur, it would almost certainly fix the problems for the rotation, but Milwaukee’s top offense might suffer.
St. Louis Cardinals, 34-30, Second Place
Flaw: Offense outside of Albert Pujols
What’s Wrong: For as many years as slugger Albert Pujols has been in the majors, he has been one of the top hitters in the game. Many argue he is the best and I would be one in his corner on that argument. This year has been no different, as the 29-year-old has a .324 batting average, 22 home runs, 57 RBI, 50 runs scored, and an OPS of 1.131, all leading the team.
Manager Tony LaRussa has never had to worry about the third spot in his lineup, but the rest of the order has been an issue this year. As a team, the Cardinals rank 22nd in batting average with a .254 mark. Not counting Pujols, they have one everyday player hitting over .280 and just two players that have hit more than four home runs.
Even with Pujols in the lineup, the Cardinals’ offense has been average at best this year.
How To Fix It: From an offensive standpoint, no team in the league has been hit harder with injury than the Cardinals. Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel, two of St. Louis’ best hitters, have both missed significant time with injuries and the offense has clearly struggled because of it. Both have since returned to action but still do not seem fully comfortable in the lineup just yet.
In other spots, Troy Glaus has yet to play this year recovering from shoulder surgery and Khalil Greene has done nothing while battling anxiety-related problems. The Cardinals need to fix this problem by getting and staying healthy because, as good as their rookies have been filling in, the offense (and no offense for that matter) can not survive with all these injuries.
Pujols will continue to hit like he always has but the rest of the lineup will need to step up. This also means being more selective at the plate, as the Cardinals rank 22nd in walks and 21st in on-base percentage.
Can It Be Fixed?: Last year’s Cardinals team was pretty much the same and ranked 12th in runs scored, so the ability to score runs is there. Ankiel and Ludwick need to start hitting and get the Cardinals back to last year’s form.
As good as the Cards’ pitching has been, the lack of support from the offense has kept them from pulling away in the division. Glaus, who hit 27 home runs and drove in 99 runs last year, could be the X-factor in the lineup when he eventually comes back.
Cincinnati Reds, 31-31, Third Place
Flaw: Hitting for average
What’s Wrong: On paper, the Reds have a very good ballclub and were the darkhorse to contend for the NL Central this year. However, very little of that potential has carried over and the Reds stand at .500, a place that they should be very happy to be at. Their pitching has been outstanding this year as they hold a 3.89 team ERA, but the offense has struggled mightily.
As a rookie, Jay Bruce enjoyed a fantastic season hitting 21 home runs and driving in 52 in just 108 games last year. This year, the story has been much different as Bruce is batting just .213 with an on-base percentage of .298. While he has 15 home runs already, the Reds were expecting him to be more than an Adam Dunn replica (Bruce has 49 strikeouts in 60 games).
Paul Janish and Ryan Hanigan are the only position players batting above .275, but neither have an on-base percentage over .400. If the pitching falters even just a hair in games, the Reds have a tough time staying in ballgames.
How To Fix It: The main problem for the Reds has been the loss of second-year first baseman Joey Votto. On the year, Votto is hitting .357 with 45 hits in just 32 games. However, he has missed the last 15 games for the Reds while he battles stress-related problems.
Because of the seriousness of his condition, there is no timetable for his return and the Reds have moved on without him for now. At the time of his injury, he led the National League in hitting and was a huge key to the Reds’ success. Without him, their offense has struggled mightily and will continue to do so until he comes back.
The Reds have to hope that Jay Bruce can turn things around and that leadoff man Willy Taveras, who is mired in an 0-32 slump, can begin to hit again and help a pitching staff that has carried the team thus far.
Once Votto comes back, the lineup should be manageable and the number in the hit column should increase.
Can It Be Fixed?: Unlike the first two teams, it doesn’t seem like the Reds are ever going to hit for average. They place in a big-time hitter’s ballpark, so power numbers will always be up.
Unfortunately, for a team batting .243 on the year, it doesn’t matter how many home runs they hit. If the pitching continues to be stellar, they might be able to stay in the NL Central race, but I am not counting on it.
Chicago Cubs, 30-30, Fourth Place
What’s Wrong: Heading into the year, the Cubs were the sure-fire frontrunners to win the NL Central. Not only did they score more runs than anyone in the National League, but they were also bringing in a big bat in Milton Bradley that was only going to add to the offense.
Fast forward two and a half months and the Cubs’ hitting coach has been fired, the Cubs rank 26th in batting average, 28th in runs scored, 21st in slugging, and 8th in strikeouts. Not exactly what fans pictured entering the year to say the least. The Cubs’ starting pitching has been as good as anyone’s over the last month but the offense has failed to give them any help.
The Cubs have a 2.08 team ERA in the month of June and their record is 5-6…something is wrong with that. No starter on the Cubs has a batting average over .285 and Derrek Lee leads the team with 27 RBI.
To put that in perspective, Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder had 31 RBI in the month of May. Simply put, the team is not hitting and until they do, they will struggle as a team.
How To Fix It: Like Cincinnati, the Cubs are also missing their best hitter in Aramis Ramirez. When he was injured May 8th against the Brewers, he had a team-high .364 batting average with four home runs and 16 RBI’s in 18 games. He is expected to miss time up until the All-Star Break and a week or two after that, but the Cubs desperately need him back.
Leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano has seen his batting average drop to .229, Kosuke Fukudome’s is down to .266, and Geovany Soto, last year’s Rookie of the Year, is batting just .223.
There really is no remedy or something that the Cubs can be doing to improve their hitting other than putting the ball in play. Soriano will come around soon enough and Lee has heated up in a big way to keep the offense alive.
Fukudome should see his numbers stay around where they are right now and as for Soto, the sophomore slump has hit him extremely hard.
The Cubs proved that they are not deep enough to survive an injury like Ramirez’s and until he comes back, the offense will struggle. When he comes back, hopefully the protection he gives to hitters in front of him will pay off.
Can They Fix It?: The Cubs offense is not getting any younger and it seems like their offense’s window of opportunity is closing faster than general manager Jim Hendry expected it to. Slumps will happen over the course of a 162 game season but there might be reason to worry in Chicago if this constant struggle continues.
A re-evaluation will be necessary when Ramirez comes back, because the offense is completely different with him in it.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 30-33, Fifth Place
Flaw: Batting for Power
What’s Wrong: Most of the time, a team that whose main problem is hitting for power would not seem like a huge deal. However, with the Pirates it is a definite problem and one that needs to be addressed.
On the year, the Pirates have hit just 36 home runs as a team and are slugging .392 as a team. They actually rank 15th in the league in extra-base hits, but power is still an issue. Adam LaRoche leads the team with eight home runs and only one other player, Freddy Sanchez, has hit more than five homers.
The Pirates also recently traded away their best power hitter in Nate McLouth who has nine home runs on the year. While it seems that the Pirates are below average in just about every category, their inability to hit the long ball makes it very hard for them to come back in games when they trail.
They rank 11th in the majors in batting average but just 18th in runs scored.
How To Fix It: For a team that is having trouble hitting for power, trading away your team leader in home runs was an interesting start. As always, the Pittsburgh front office explained how they were trying to build a championship team and not a .500 team.
After a while, fans get tired of hearing this because nothing ever pans out for the Pirates. A way to fix this power outage would be to make a trade at the deadline that would provide a big bat in the middle of the lineup, but it seems like there is no way that happens.
It’s hard to think of the last time the Pirates were buyers, not sellers, at the trade deadline.
Can They Fix It?: Pittsburgh ranked 21st in home runs last year with 153 round trippers, but that was also including McClouth’s 26 homers.
Last year’s rank does indicate that there is room to believe this team can start hitting for more power, but the question is whether or not that will be enough to compete in the NL Central. There are more flaws here than just power that also need to addressed.
Houston Astros, 29-32, Sixth Place
What’s Wrong: The Houston Astros, at 30.4 years old, have the oldest team in the major league. While it might be confusing to see this as a flaw, it’s more of a problem than a flaw.
Year in and year out, the Astros have a great team on paper with a lineup that includes Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Miguel Tejada, and Hunter Pence. Even Michael Bourn has done an excellent job this year and stepped up into a lineup that should produce. In the rotation, Roy Oswalt is always a reliable starter and Wandy Rodriguez has finally broken through as a top lefty in the game.
However, the pitching staff ranks 23rd in innings pitched and, outside of Michael Bourn, they have stolen just 21 bases.
How Do They Fix It: It’s impossible to fix being the oldest team in the league without trading for younger players, but that is what the Astros have been rumored to be doing. Tejada has been rumored to a few teams including the Cardinals, who have some of the best young players with a ton of potential.
The ‘Stros need some youth and rejuvenation to their team that they clearly are not getting with their current lineup. Until they do that, they will always be in the mix but run out of gas at the end of the year.
An old team will do that to you and that is exactly where the Astros stand.
Can They Fix It?: The Astros realize that, despite being just 4.5 games out of first place, they probably are not contenders in the NL Central this year.
Because of that, they are looking to get younger by putting Tejada on the trading block in return for some youngsters. If they can hit on a few draft picks and develop some young pitchers, the outlook is bright for them.
As for this year, Tejada has been their best hitter so getting younger will come with a price in that sense. Still, depending on who they get back it might give them that energy that they need to make a push.