Posted in: MLB
It’s crunch time.
There are some serious playoff races in full force across the big leagues right now. While the postseason teams in the American League are essentially set in stone at this point, positioning is not. Adding intrigue here is the fact the slumping Yankees are losing ground to the constantly-surging A’s out west, so these two clubs will continue to duke it out for home field advantage in the AL Wild Card Game.
Things are much tighter in the National League. In the NL East, the Braves now hold a 6.5-game lead over the Phillies for the division lead, but the two clubs still have six head-to-head matchups left, so this one is not quite over yet.
In the NL West, it’s a three-team dogfight between the Rockies, Dodgers and Diamondbacks, albeit Arizona is now in tough at 4.5 games back. With plenty of head-to-head matchups remaining in this race, it’s fair to say this one is going down to the wire.
And then there’s the Central. The Cubs lead the Brewers by 2.5 games at this point, and they concluded their final series of the season with Milwaukee taking two of three to gain ground. However, a third team remains on the outskirts in the division race as the pesky Cardinals sit 5.5 games back of the division lead, and they get a three-game crack at the Cubs in the final weekend of the regular season.
This division is still very much up for grabs, so let’s go ahead and break down each team’s chances with their current division odds and predict who will come out on top.
*Odds courtesy of TopBet
The Cubs have long been in the driver’s seat in this division, and even held a five-game lead over the Brewers at the beginning of September with the Cardinals in between the two, 4.5 games back of the Cubs.
Chicago is just 7-7 in the month of September so far while the Brewers are 9-5 for the month, including winning four of their last six against Chicago.
Chicago certainly has the pieces to be a dangerous postseason club with a solid starting pitching group that was bolstered by the much-needed acquisition of Cole Hamels at the deadline. They have baseball’s fourth-best bullpen this season with a ‘pen ERA of 3.30, however closer Brandon Morrow remains on the DL and Pedro Strop is now also sidelined at the back end of that group.
What has been the real Achilles heel for this club this season has been the inconsistency of their offense, mostly in the season’s second half. Kris Bryant has missed notable time with a shoulder injury, which hasn’t helped. Willson Contreras as taken a big step back at the plate this season with just nine homers and a .144 ISO after 21 homers with a .223 ISO in 2017.
In the first half of the season, the Cubs ranked 3rd in OPS (.771) and tied for 3rd in wOBA (.332). In the second half, they rank 25th in OPS (.710) and 25th in wOBA (.307). They have also been zapped of power in the second half with a .143 ISO, good for 27th league-wide.
The second half drop in offense has also coincided with a middle of the pack rotation and bullpen in the second half as well.
Still, this team has plenty of postseason experience up and down their roster as well as a trio of veterans in Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester atop their rotation who have gotten the job done in October and November before.
They just better pick it up before they find themselves in a do-or-die Wild Card game.
The Brewers looked like they were going to fade out of the postseason picture as recently as a couple of weeks ago, but they have dragged themselves back into a position where they can win the division pennant.
What Milwaukee has at the moment are a couple of MVP candidates who are willing this team into the playoffs in Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain.
Yelich is enjoying a career year in just about every offensive category right now as he has already posted a career high in home runs, by far, with 30. He also is two steals away from his career high of 21. On top of that, he’s posted career highs in ISO (.243), OPS (.937), SLG (.556) and WAR (5.7). In fact, that 5.7 WAR has him in first place in the NL, just ahead of… Cain.
Cain isn’t nearly hitting for as much power as Yelich with just a .116 ISO, but he’s stealing plenty of bases (28) and is catching everything hit into center field. His .401 OBP is tied for second in the NL and his 20 defensive runs saved sits in a three-way tie for first place in the NL with Nick Ahmed (ARI) and Kolton Wong (STL).
The Brewers have the best 1-2 punch atop their lineup in the National League, and this duo is carrying them towards a possible division crown.
Despite a top three that includes Chase Anderson, Jhoulys Chacin and Wide Miley (and a fourth in newly-acquired Gio Gonzalez), the Brewers rank 12th with a 3.94 ERA from their rotation this season, just two spots behind the Cubs and their 3.88 mark.
Their rotation has been quietly solid, as has their bullpen. A breakout season from Josh Hader has Milwaukee sitting 12th with a 3. ERA on the season, a number that looked a lot better before a 5.99 ERA in August. The ‘pen is back on track, however, with an NL-leading 2.25 ERA so far in September.
They have the bats led by a couple of MVP-type players, they have a sneaky-good rotation and they have a shutdown bullpen. Add it all up and we could have our NL Central champs.
Remember when the Pirates made a huge run in the NL Central around the All-Star break and the Cardinals slipped to fourth in the division? Me neither.
St. Louis has been one of the baseball’s best clubs in the second half of the season as they are 33-21 since the All-Star break. They are currently tied for the second Wild Card spot in the NL right now with the Dodgers while they also have a long-shot chance in the division at 5.5 games back, with three games against the Cubs to finish the season.
While the Cardinals rotation hasn’t had Michael Wacha or Adam Wainwright for the majority of the season and has received just 18 starts from staff ace Carlos Martinez, this is a team that is tied for third in all of baseball with a tidy 3.44 rotation ERA alongside the elite group in Cleveland.
Led by a resurgent return to North American from Miles Mikolas, who spent the last three years pitching in Japan, the Cardinals’ rotation has been the second best group in the National League. Check out the numbers some of the Cardinals’ starters have produced this season:
As you can see, almost every starter that has taken the ball for the Cards this season has simply dealt.
Offensively, Matt Carpenter has rebounded from an extremely rough start to the season to throw his name into the MVP hat. Carpenter owns a .925 OPS and a 5.0 WAR while hitting atop the Cardinals’ lineup. Harrison Bader has thrown his name into the NL Rookie of the Year discussion with a .748 OPS, 15 steals and a 3.2 WAR.
Jose Martinez, Yadier Molina, Marcell Ozuna and Paul DeJong are an excellent supporting cast that helps St. Louis field one of the surprisingly deep lineups in the National League.
One area where the Cardinals don’t stack up well is the bullpen. Their 4.37 bullpen ERA this season ranks 20th, and the second half improvement has been slight to the tune of a 4.19 ERA. Overall, this group has been worth 0.5 WAR for the season, good for 25th league-wide.
Still, the Cardinals are rolling and with three games left against the Cubs, a division crown is still not out of reach.
As good as I know the Cubs can be and good as the Cardinals have been for the last couple of months, I really think the Brewers come and steal a National League Central Pennant away from the Cubs this season.
First, the top of that lineup is too good to contain right now. If you believe in WAR as the most accurate stat for a player’s worth, then the Brewers have the two best position players in the NL atop their lineup.
Second, let’s turn our attention to the schedule. Milwaukee has just one series remaining against a team with a record above .500, and that’s the Cardinals. Aside from that, they have three games against the Pirates, three against the Reds and they finish the season with three super-winnable home games against the lowly Detroit Tigers. Pittsburgh is back to .500, however, the Reds are 64-86 and the Tigers are 61-88. Those are six home games in which Milwaukee could and should win all of them.
The Cubs play the Pirates too, but also the Diamondbacks and Cardinals. The Cardinals have the toughest remaining schedule of them all with three very difficult games in Atlanta to start the week, followed by three against Milwaukee and those aforementioned three games at Chicago to end the season.
At the end of the day, the Brewers are a very good team playing some very good baseball when it matters the most. Unlike the Cubs, they have some value at their odds and I think they get the job done to boot.