Midseason TPS report: Nobody knows anything about the NL Central
If you think you know who's going to win the N.L. Central this season, there's a plane for Vegas waiting for you to hijack it.
By Rob Neyer
It’s ugly, but it’s true: Major League Baseball is a zero-sum game. When a player gets hurt, that’s (nearly always) bad for his team ... and good for some other team. You’re not really allowed to ask about this, but of course it’s true.
Which is why Thursday afternoon was a tremendous time for the Milwaukee Brewers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Thursday afternoon, we learned that
• Brandon Phillips, who suffered a wrist injury Wednesday night, is likely to miss around six weeks.
Entering this season, the Cardinals and the Reds looked like the best teams in the National League Central. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the Cardinals and Reds are both close to first place in the division. It’s mildly surprising that they’re trailing the Brewers. But the gap isn’t large. Meanwhile, the Pirates got off to a terrible start but have muscled their way back into the race, too.
Essentially, the Central is the most interesting and competitive division in the majors, with four teams of roughly equal talent and performance. This seemed the case last summer, too. Except with only three good teams. Now there are four! Which is more interesting. And competitive.
So who you got?
Before I tell you who I got, a large dose of humility is in order. Beginning with this: I don’t know who’s going to win. I do know that professional baseball writers aren’t supposed to admit that they don’t know something, but I also know that anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen here is either lying or delusional.
Think about it. These four teams, collectively, have about 275 games left in the season. Thousands of things will happen in those games. The four teams, collectively, will rely on roughly 100 players in the rest of this season. Some of those players will do exactly what you expect of them. But most will do better or worse, and some will just get hurt and not play much at all.
What we assume of course, because we have to, is that everyone’s luck will be exactly the same. That’s the basis for pages like this, which tell us a great deal about talent but somewhat less about the final standings. Because there’s not a projection system, and there never will be, that knows when Yadier Molina is going to hurt his thumb.
For which we’re all grateful, right? Just last week, someone asked me on Twitter how baseball can be any fun if some computer program can tell us exactly what’s going to happen. Which is a question, quite frankly, that betrays a deep misunderstanding of both computers and baseball.
So instead of telling you who’s going to win, which would be little short of a rank guess, let me instead offer a couple of players on each contender who could help a lot in the second half ...
Brewers – Lyle Overbay and/or Mark Reynolds. For the second straight season, the Brewers are getting very little from their first season (although this season’s not nearly as bad as last season). Both Overbay and Reynolds have below-average numbers. Not below average for first basemen. Below average for National League hitters, period. Then again, both are hitting exactly as they hit last season, so it’s really not fair to expect more from them. The Brewers’ most realistic hope might be for Marco Estrada to stop giving up so #@&%$ many home runs.
Cardinals –Allen Craig and/or Oscar Taveras. Craig entered this season with an 850 career OPS, and this season it’s 651. Taveras was the Cardinals’ top prospect and got a shot because of Craig’s struggles, but he hasn’t hit, either. The Cardinals can win without any real production from their right fielders. I just wouldn’t advise trying.
Reds – Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Votto, beset by injuries and poor clutch hitting, ranks seventh on the club in RBI. Bruce currently sports the same OPS+ as Billy Hamilton. None of these things make sense, and yet they are. If they continue for another couple of months, I don’t think the Reds will be in good shape.
Pirates – Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte. These guys were supposed to blossom into stars this season, but Cole’s been good rather than great and Marte’s been just fair rather than good. You might assume that both will improve in the second half, except Cole just went on the DL with a lat injury. So maybe it’s up to Marte. Well, him and All-Star utilityman Joshua Isaiah Harrison.