Chicago Cubs in race for NL Central

The NL Central division has been shaky all season long. The Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals were expected to dominate the proceedings, but both teams have drastically underperformed. The Milwaukee Brewers, meanwhile, raced off to a terrific and explosive start, yet lost momentum and sputtered. The Pittsburgh Pirates have failed to inspire any enthusiam, hanging around back in fourth place for quite a while. The Cinncinnati Reds have been terrible.

However, as of mid-August, Major League Baseball’s worst division has become its closest and most heavily contended. Chicago entered Saturday’s slate of games with only a single game lead over St Louis. Milwaukee resided just three games back, and Pittsburgh, though there has been little chatter about the team, remained in the running at three and half games behind.

It appears that baseball fans have a tight divisional race to follow as the regular season approaches the concluding month. Most likely, only one team will reach the playoffs out of the Central, as the Arizona Diamondbacks remain three and a half games up on the Cubs for the second wild card spot. Thus, the four teams in the running for the division will be even more desparate.

On paper, the Chicago Cubs continue to be far and away the best team in the division. Though the loss of catcher Willson Contreras to a hamstring injury hurts, Chicago can plug in trade deadline addition Alex Avila for some production. Even without Contreras in the lineup, the Cubs still boast the division’s most intimidating offense from top to bottom, from obvious threats like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, to young players such as Javier Baez and Ian Happ. Slowly but surely the Cubs have rounded into form after a disasterous start that found them at one point over five games back behind the Brewers.  Addison Russell has dragged up his numbers to a .241 batting average and .722 OPS in line with his career numbers. Kyle Schwarber has rebounded after his return from the minors, hitting six home runs with a .938 OPS after the All-Star break.

Yet for all of their improvement, the Cubs have not been able to run away with the division. In the aftermath of ahot start after the break, Chicago has gone only 3-6 in the team’s last nine games. This is the story of the 2017 Cubs: the results have not matched the talent. While the Cubs still hold the division lead, that lead is shrinking fast. Chicago needs to turn things around  in order to outlast St. Louis.

The Cardinals are on absolute fire. After looking old and washed up only two weeks ago, the team has won their last seven games. Dexter Fowler, the free agent signed away from the Cubs last offseason, has gotten hot in August and has provided clutch hitting for St. Louis. Tommy Pham and Kolten Wong have been the team’s offensive leaders with OPS marks of .899 and .830 respectively. Lance Lynn has blossomed into a star pitcher, with a 3.12 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. The Cardinals do not have much starpower, however, and certainly no one to rival Bryant or Rizzo.

It’s the same old story for St. Louis; the Cardinals get better results than their talent would suggest, the opposite of the Cubs. If Chicago underestimates St. Louis because of the team’s lack of big name players (with Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright past their primes), they could be overrun down the stretch. The Cardinals make a threat that cannot be overstated.

The Milwaukee Brewers seemed to have firm control of the division, but completely fell apart after the All-Star break. The Brewers are the team most likely to drop out of the race first. All the good feelings from the first few months of the 2017 season have disappeared. Eric Thames, an early season hero and breakout star, now has only a .247 batting average, with a .239 BA and .702 OPS in the season’s second half. Milwaukee’s pitching is suspect as well with the injury to Chase Anderson; Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies are the only two consistently healthy and moderately productive starters for the Brewers.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have quitely remained in the chase, but could start to make some serious noise soon. Andrew McCutchen has rebounded after his disasterous 2016 season, with 23 home runs, 71 runs batted in, and a .289 average thus far. Josh Bell has proved monumentally important for Pittsburgh’s lineup, hitting 20 home runs with a .816 OPS, and providing production to help protect McCutchen. 2015 star Gerrit Cole is finally pitching like his old self again, accumulating a 2.70 ERA and .232 opponent batting average in the second half of the season. Pittsburgh is not a terrific team by any means, but if McCutchen and Cole continue to play like the stars they once were, the Pirates have an outside chance to steal the division crown.

While the Cubs remain the division’s likely champion, the Cardinals and Pirates are clear threats to Chicago’s playoff hopes. After a magical 2016 season, the Cubs can only end the 2017 season on a positive note with another championship. But that dream is currently running on fumes. Chicago needs to pick up the pace if the team hopes to avoid watching the postseason from home.

Yardbarker: MLB

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