Surprise! NL Central riding high

The formidable Orioles and Rays are tied for third place, the latest affirmation of a truism that has held for most of the past two decades: The American League East is the best, deepest division in baseball.

It’s true the Red Sox have regressed after their remarkable start. The wounded Yankees may not maintain this pace all year. But with four teams over .500 — amid customary, nine-inning intensity in the coastal bandboxes — the AL East remains the center of the baseball universe.

Yet, an even more compelling story is unfolding in an improbable place.

Who thought the National League Central could be this good?

As the 2013 season begins its second quarter, the oft-overlooked Central boasts the top three winning percentages in the National League: St. Louis (.651), Cincinnati (.591) and Pittsburgh (.591). If the playoffs began today, the wild-card game would feature a rematch of the Reds-Pirates 1990 NLCS — otherwise known as the Cookie-Cutter Stadium Spectacular (Fortunately, ballpark architecture has evolved in the intervening decades).

I realize the Cubs and Brewers — a combined 15 games below .500 — aren’t contributing to the prosperity. But the division is much more competitive overall, now that the doleful Astros have taken up residence in the American League. In fact, the NL Central has the best aggregate run differential of any division in the majors this year.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. The Cardinals won a World Series in 2011 and are the best organization in baseball today, when taking into account their rich farm system. The Reds were one big hit away from sweeping the eventual champion Giants in the first round of the NL playoffs last year.

But it is the Pirates’ emergence that represents the tantalizing possibility of a three-team free-for-all, rather than another installment in the grudge match between Cincinnati and St. Louis.

At this point, many Pittsburgh fans are watching the Stanley Cup playoffs or perusing the Steelers’ two-deep before OTAs. The Pirates have the NL’s second-smallest average attendance this year. That’s what 20 straight losing seasons will do to civic optimism.

The most superstitious/scarred/pessimistic Pirates fans may not be prepared to hear this, but The Streak should end this year — as in, 82 wins. Genuine wild-card buzz will follow the Pirates into September, too.

Yes, I realize the Pirates teased their fans with winning records as late as Aug. 1, 2011, and Sept. 18, 2012. But manager Clint Hurdle has a much better roster now. The rotation includes veterans Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano, neither of whom was on the team at this time last year. The surprising left-hander Jeff Locke — who probably wasn’t a first-rounder in your fantasy draft — won a 1-0 game Sunday over Houston and is 4-1 with a 2.73 ERA in nine starts.

The Jason Grilli-led bullpen has been one of the best in baseball. Left fielder Starling Marte is the sort of dynamic player the Pirates needed to pair with Andrew McCutchen. Catcher Russell Martin has made a noticeable impact on both sides of the ball.

One significant concern: The bullpen has been overworked, placing the onus on general manager Neal Huntington to acquire depth for the late innings at the trade deadline. Pirates relievers have thrown 157 innings already this season, second-most in the majors. That’s not sustainable if the Pirates want to close out crucial wins in August and September — precisely their problem during the last two years.

Pirates players probably would tell you an 82nd victory is significant only because of its necessity in pursuing the 83rd. The fans care about it much more. Whatever the deeper meaning, all of us should be able to assess it in the past tense by the time this season is over. Then the question will be whether the Pirates can channel the ’08 Rays and ’12 Orioles, moving right past “better than expected” and straight to October.

The Reds remain focused on reaching the World Series now, having traded for a free-agent-to-be (Shin-Soo Choo) whose production (1.006 OPS) could price him out of Cincinnati. The Reds had pristine rotation health last year, so naturally ace Johnny Cueto landed on the disabled list in mid-April and has been there ever since. But he’s due to return Monday night, which will make an excellent pitching staff even better.

I know, I know: Aroldis Chapman blew a save Sunday by allowing back-to-back home runs to Philadelphia’s Eric Kratz and Freddy Galvis. But just about everything in that sentence screams, “Outlier!”

I’m willing to give Chapman a pass … unless he surrenders a home run to Ike Davis this week against the Mets. Then it will be time to reassess.

The Cardinals remain the NL Central favorite, thanks largely to the pitching warehouse from whence Rookie of the Year favorite Shelby Miller arrived. St. Louis has used five rookie pitchers already this season: Miller, fellow starter John Gast, and relievers Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal. Tyler Lyons will become the sixth when he replaces injured starter Jaime Garcia this week.

Most organizations couldn’t sustain the loss of three starting pitchers (Garcia, Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook) and a World Series-winning closer (Jason Motte). But the Cardinals aren’t most organizations. They are the best. But that comes with no guarantees, in a division that is much tougher than many of us expected.