MLB Handicapping: NL Central a Three-Horse Race
by Nicholas Tolomeo - 06/26/2009
For as many teams as the National League Central has, six, the amount of contenders to win the division is even more unusual. Even deep into June Las Vegas has pegged three teams, the Cubs (+125), the Cardinals (+175) and the Brewers (+275) as more than capable of winning it.
No other divisional race is as wide open as the three-horse race in the NL Central. Before we focus on just the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers, here is a look at the three other teams in the division.
Division odds are from BetUS.
The Pirates (+7500) have not seen a .500 season in nearly two decades and obviously it will take a winning record to carry the division. You can discard the Pirates immediately no matter how high the odds get.
The Astros (+4000) have a batting order that can compete with anybody in Major League Baseball but when it comes down to pitching any team that trots Brian Moehler out to the mound every fifth day cannot be taken seriously.
The upstart Reds (+1000) will likely stay in the division race well into the summer unlike previous seasons. The news of Edinson Volquez being shutdown indefinitely is not what the Red Legs wanted to hear but the staff and bats are more than capable of hovering around .500 for most of the season. Even if the Reds can stay in striking distance into September they will likely be aiming for the Wild Card, which has gone to an NL Central team in five of the last 11 years.
Now on to the favorites.
The Cardinals have led the division by a game or two for most of the season but it has not been the bats that many thought would propel St. Louis to the top. The pitching staff, with the fourth best ERA in the National League, is a big reason why the Cardinals are six games over .500 after 74 games.
Even with a team ERA of 3.90 through 655 innings pitched it's not the best in the division. That honor goes to the Cubs and their top-of-the-line pitching staff. Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly make up the core of one of the most consistent rotations in the majors.
It has been the offense that has betrayed Cubs fans early on, though. As a team the North Siders are hitting .247, 13th in the NL. The team appears to be in a holding pattern awaiting the return of Aramis Ramirez, who is on the 15-day DL with a dislocated shoulder, and the return of Alfonso Soriano, who is a career-worst hitting slump.
It's common for players, especially of the all-star caliber that dot the Cubs' batting lineup, to snap out of slumps. However, it's extremely difficult to stay in the race without a capable pitching staff. That is what makes the Brewers a tough bargain even at +275. It's a staff that does not feature Ben Sheets or CC Sabathia this year and has the worst ERA (4.49) in the NL Central. Even though the Brewers have beaten up on divisional opponents with a 21-10 record against the NL Central it has come mostly against the Pirates and Astros.
Do not expect a major late-season trade like the one that brought Sabathia aboard last season to occur this year. But late July trades could be the key to this race. The Cubs are unlikely to stand pat if their position in the standings does not improve. There will be plenty of arms and left handed bats out there come July 31 and the Chicago has shown that it wants to spend money to win now rather than later.
Even as the Cubs toil around playing .500 ball the fact that Las Vegas still has Chicago pegged as the favorite says a lot about what oddsmakers think of the Cubs starting pitching. If the Cubs continue to play mediocre baseball the value may get better but anything above +100 is worth taking for the two-time defending NL Central champion Cubs.