9 Keys That Will Settle The NL Central Race

The NL Central race is the best storyline major league baseball has going as we head into Labor Day weekend. The Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates are all stacked within four games of each other.

There’s no guarantee the NL Central will sweep the wild-cards, nor is there even a guarantee they will get one, with both the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves in the pictures. So the stakes are high for the NL Central’s power trio. The Notebook Nine will focus on the Brewers, Cards and Pirates, with three pertinent thoughts for each team as we head into the homestretch…

*The two key under-the-radar players for Milwaukee are Khris Davis in left field and starting pitcher Mike Fiers. Davis has quietly hit 20 home runs, while Fiers has made four starts and four relief appearances and posted a 1.54 ERA in the process. With Matt Garza on the disabled list and Ryan Braun now hitting like he’s not on PEDs, the bat of Davis and the arm of Fiers will continue to be critical.

*Speaking of Braun, a common theory held at the start of the season was that, if clean, he might prove to be the kind of hitter who would hit .280, hit 20 home runs and finish with 85 RBIs. In other words, still pretty good, but no longer an elite player. Braun’s numbers to date—he’s hitting .277 with 17 home runs and 74 RBIs. Let’s never again here the “he would have been good anyway” argument that gets thrown up the enablers of PED-using players. Clearly, the drugs are the difference between being good and great.

*Braun’s failure to play up to his $10 million per year contract would normally kill a small-market franchise, but the Brewers have gotten big-time production all year from Carlos Gomez in centerfield (.347 OBP/.483 slugging percentage) and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (.367/.481). Both players are showing a little bit of slippage though, and they need to find way to keep producing for one more month.

*The training staff in St. Louis is either the greatest in the world, or they notoriously overstate how bad injuries are. Yadier Molina is the latest to make a faster-than-expected recovery. The catcher, one expected to be out to mid-September at least, and possibly gone for the year, will make his return to the lineup tonight. This comes with the Cardinal offense already improving—they still rank 12th in the NL in runs scored, but that’s after a season mostly spent at 14th.

*Two big keys behind the pickup of the St. Louis offense are shortstop Jhonny Peralta and left fielder Matt Holliday. Peralta began to gain steam prior to the All-Star break after a terrible start, and now has a stat line of .339/.455. Holliday has been effective getting on base all year (.364 OBP), but has finally elevated his slugging percentage past the .400 mark. The Cardinal offense is still far from the force it’s been in recent years, but at least the lineup is no longer doing a fair imitation of the San Diego Padres.

*The trades to bolster the starting rotation have not worked. John Lackey has been disappointing, with five starts and a 4.50 ERA. Justin Masterson has been an absolute disaster, with a 7.43 ERA in his five times to the post. In fact, the Cleveland Indians, who dealt Masterson, appear to be the real beneficiary, as they’ve nudged back into the American League wild-card race since the deal. With Michael Wacha still rehabbing his shoulder, and Adam Wainwright struggling since the break. St. Louis’ starting pitching is in bad shape at a bad time.

*Your key under-the-radar contributor in Pittsburgh is third baseman Josh Harrison, at .338/.494. We’ve also seen a good year from Starling Marte in left, with a .349 OBP and Neil Walker continues to be a steady offensive producer at second base.

*Pittsburgh has had pitching problems all year, but perhaps their rotation is coming together while St. Louis’ falls apart. Gerrit Cole is back off the disabled list. Francisco Liriano has been better of late, and Vance Worley seems to have again found the form that made him a rising star in Philadelphia. In fact, every single Pirate starter has an ERA in the 3s. There’s no real ace, but Pittsburgh can expect to be in the game each night.

*Could Andrew McCutchen steal another MVP award? He’s not gotten a lot of media attention, with the focus going on Giancarlo Stanton in Miami and Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles. But what if the writers take their usual route of deciding they don’t want to vote for a player on a non-playoff team (presuming Stanton’s Marlins can’t make up the 5 ½ games separating them from the postseason) and they don’t want to vote for a pitcher? McCutchen, with shiny numbers of .402/.537, stands ready to win the award again if the Pirates at least get a wild-card.

At the start of the season, I picked St. Louis to win this division, Milwaukee to make the playoffs and Pittsburgh to be strong enough to get into the playoffs, but knocked out by the strength of the division’s schedule. If the Brewers and Cardinals just flip and the Pirates stay where they’re at, we’ll have an unprecedented situation—I’ll have been right. Just for that alone, I’ll stay with my preseason picks and call that as the final outcome, with Atlanta riding the weak NL East into the second wild-card slot.