The Brewers, Cardinals and Pirates
While the Milwaukee Brewers have held the lead in the National League Central division for nearly every day this season, going into the final month they are in a first place tie with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pittsburgh Pirates sit just two games back of the Brewers and Cardinals entering the final month, as each of these teams has done some things well, and done some other things poorly this season, which has resulted in the race being close. All three teams have more than one star player offensively, and they all typically play solid defense, but each team has had their lapses this season, which has contributed to poor play at times. A season ago the Pirates were so good at protecting leads, but much has changed in 2014 as the Pirates have found it a struggle at times when trying to protect a lead within a ballgame. Both the Brewers and Cardinals have had some struggles along the way when trying to protect leads, but overall they have been above the average in their abilities to close out wins. Going into the final month, it will be interesting to see which team can put on display more of their strengths and less of their weaknesses as each of the three teams tries to deliver their best efforts in crunch time.
The Brewers strength is the depth of their offense, as they have solid power hitting contributors up and down their lineup, which plays very well in their hitter-friendly home ballpark. Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy have been the team’s most consistent hitters this season while alternating different spots in the lineup, either at the top or in run producing roles in the middle of the Brewers’ lineup. While the Brewers do have the starting pitching staff of a true contender, the closest pitcher that they have to being an ace on their roster is veteran Yovani Gallardo. While Gallardo has kept his team in nearly every ballgame, and pitched a large innings load for the Brewers this season, he had to try to overcome a loss in fastball velocity this season as he has taken on a large innings load in the early stages of his career. Youngster Wily Peralta is a 15 game winner for the Brewers this season, but recently he has been hit hard as he experienced some late season inconsistencies. Youngsters Jimmy Nelson and Mike Fiers help to round out the Brewers staff that includes veteran Kyle Lohse, but most of these guys are middle of the rotation starters who need plenty of offensive support in order to win ballgames. The Brewers bullpen has been solid this season as they have not struggled much to close out late inning leads, and the addition of Jonathan Broxton in a waiver trade with the Reds should help to further stabilize the position of their late inning relief staff.
The Cardinals strength this season has been their ability to count on veteran pitchers Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn to earn wins in a high percentage of the games that they start. For a team that has struggled to score runs at times, it is not very surprising that the Cardinals have a negative run differential this season, but it is surprising that they have a negative run differential even though they are currently ten games above .500. Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina have been the most consistent contributors for the Cardinals offense this season, but the shortstop position with Jhonny Peralta leading the Cardinals team in homeruns helps to explain some of their offensive inconsistency. This season the Cardinals have been near the bottom of the National League in runs scored because they do not hit many homeruns, and they do not steal many bases. They have done a nice job of closing out victories though, with an outstanding season from setup man Pat Neshek and another solid season from closer Trevor Rosenthal. If the Cardinals are not able to put together a strong month of September and take a roster spot, the indicators will have been there with the negative run differential and poor offensive effort overall throughout the 2014 season.
The Pirates strength this season has been their ability to get on base as a team, with a National League leading .329 on base percentage going into the final month of the season. Offensively the Pirates are led by young stars in centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and second basemen Neil Walker, but unlike in past seasons they have a strong complement of secondary stars behind them. While corner infielder Pedro Alvarez has had a disappointing season, Josh Harrison has emerged as the Pirates starting third basemen and leadoff man, along with another strong season from left fielder Starling Marte. Former Blue Jays top prospect Travis Snider, has had a breakout season as a power hitting outfielder in Pittsburgh, and he is not alone as the Pirates have five players on the roster to hit 10 or more homeruns so far this season. They also have several others threatening to reach and pass that total in the final month of the season. The Pirates starting pitching staff has suffered from season long inconsistency, but the recent return of the pitching staff’s young star in Gerrit Cole, has seemed to have a stabilizing effect on the pitching staff. Last year’s Pirates team was nearly unbeatable when they had a lead going into the later innings of a ballgame, but this year has been the complete opposite as the Pirates have only completed 38 saves in 61 opportunities to lead the league with 23 blown saves on the season. Not all of these blown saves have resulted in losses for the Pirates, but if the Pirates fall short of their postseason goals in September, the relief pitching issues they have will likely have been a factor.
With three very good baseball teams in the National League Central for a second straight season, the division could once again feature three teams that qualify for the postseason in the final month. However with two second place teams from the other National League divisions, which are right in the middle of the wildcard race, it is less likely that three National League Central teams will make the playoffs this season. With this being a factor, all three teams will be giving it their best effort to win the division title outright rather than having to rely on other teams for help in order to clinch a wildcard berth. This race creates the best level of competitive baseball over one month of the season, and the fans of National League Central teams will get to witness first hand which team has it and which teams will ultimately fall short of the division crown. With less than thirty games to go, the season long marathon now turns into a sprint for the finish line.