Time for the NL Central's exam. Drop 'em and cough, boys.
1. Milwaukee Brewers, 33-26
2. Cincinnati Reds, 31-27
3. St. Louis Cardinals, 32-28
4. Chicago Cubs, 29-27
5. Pittsburgh Pirates, 27-32
6. Houston Astros, 26-31
Biggest Surprise: The Milwaukee Brewers. They have 2 guys who are producing big numbers at the dish in Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. They have 1, maybe 2 quality starters in Yovani Gallardo and Dave Bush. They're relying on big contributions from pitchers like Seth McClung, Mark DiFelice, and Todd Coffey. Rickie Weeks is out for the year and hasn't played in several weeks, but still ranks as the third most-productive hitter on the team in VORP. And yet...here they are in first place ahead of the near-consensus favorite from Chicago, and dark horses in Cincinnati and St. Louis. We're going to chalk this one up to a nice hot streak for a team that's playing over its head right now.
Biggest Disappointment: We have a trio of winners: Milton Bradley, Alfonso Soriano, and Geovany Soto. Unsurprisingly, the Cubs have been the division's most disappointing team. Also, for those of you who expected a healthy year from Rich Harden: silly yo- ok, silly us, because he's been pretty banged up this year. You've gotta figure they'll get better once Aramis Ramirez comes back from his calf troubles, and once Milton Bradley gets over his, and once Alfonso Soriano stops having a sore knee, and...y'know, the Cubs just need a better training staff. Or a bunch of replacement legs.
Moves That Should Be Made:
- The Brewers should find themselves another hitter. Trade J.J. Hardy for...well, there's not much available. Alberto Callaspo, if they're sick of Craig Counsell's stick. If it's Corey Hart they want to give up on - and he's been trending downward - they could go after Ryan Ludwick. The Cards need a shortstop - they're rumored to be in the market for Miguel Tejada, after all - and the Brewers need to do something about their limited offense.
- The Reds have been playing like the bizarro Reds this year - all pitching, no hitting, when in previous years, they've been hitting and not pitching. Maybe if they hadn't let Adam Dunn go, they wouldn't be in this predicament...and we'd suggest that they try to get him back. But, since neither party appears to enjoy each other's company, that doesn't seem so likely. They don't seem to have much to trade, and their biggest problems, like with many other clubs, are up the middle - Ramon Hernandez is having a bad year, Alex Gonzalez isn't hitting, and center field is a black hole. We say, call up Drew Stubbs and Chris Valaika. Stubbs can take over for Willy Taveras in center, and Valaika can fill in for the injured Edwin Encarnacion. He's a shortstop by trade, but Gonzo's defense is adequate to keep him there for the year.
- The Cardinals are rumored to be in the market for Miguel Tejada, and that seems like the right move to us, as long as they aren't concerned about his salary. We still think Cristian Guzman makes sense, though Tejada's track record may make him more appealing. Regardless, the Cards desperately need to do something to bolster their lineup. It's a one-man show with Albert Pujols; no one else is worth even 1 win over replacement. As for what they can offer, we already covered the Guzman trade. Tejada might cost as much as Brett Wallace, though if we were Cardinals faithful, we'd hope they don't get that desperate.
- The Cubs need to get healthy. They've got the talent to win right now, but injuries to their starting first baseman, third baseman, left fielder, right fielder, and most talented starter and reliever have decimated the team's performance to this point. Just don't panic, Chicago.
- The Pirates are out of the cellar! There's no more moves they need to make, either. They don't have any high-paid veterans, unless you count Jack Wilson, and even if you do, he won't bring a very big return. Their most tradeable asset, Nate McLouth, already got moved, and his return was somewhat less than we expected. Really, unless the Buccos flip Wilson and Freddy Sanchez for any kind of high-ceiling guys, there's no further dealing to be done here - unless teams overvalue their starting pitching, which has been pitching above expectations this year.
- The Astros are in a bad situation. They're saddled with four huge contracts in Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, and Miguel Tejada. Beyond those four, there aren't any real assets on the team besides Jose Valverde, Wandy Rodriguez, and Hunter Pence - and maayyybe Michael Bourn. They need to do whatever they can to shed those deals and improve a mediocre-at-best farm system. Berkman is having a down year, so his value is likely somewhat surpressed. Lee is untradeable beacuse of his contract and weight. Miguel Tejada is expensive and old, and they're gonna have to probably eat some of his deal to get back quality prospects - unless, as we mentioned, a team like the Cardinals gets desperate enough at short to cash in on his big year thusfar. Oswalt is probably their most tradeable player, but he's having a down year, too, and is more or less the face of the franchise. The other big problem here is that Houston has historically overvalued its chances to compete, and has been loath to get rid of guys that can contribute to what will be at best a mediocre season for this club. There are plenty of teams who need pitching, and you can bet that Roy Oswalt has a big enough profile to bring back a top-level prospect from some team in desperate need of one more pitcher to put them over the top. We like the idea of the Astros trading Roy Oswalt to the Rangers for CF Engel Beltre and RHP Michael Main. Both are the sort of high-ceiling players that the Astros need in their system, and Oswalt - along with the possible influx of youngsters like Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland - should provide the Rangers with the sort of pitching help they need to compete in the division.
Prognostication: This is an interesting division that has a lot to sort out over the remainder of the season. The Brewers have likely been playing over their head, the Reds remain intriguing, the Cardinals seem to always be competitive despite a team that looks underwhelming on paper, and the Cubs have been underperformed. Really, the Brewers are the only team that's been firing on all cylinders thusfar, as the Reds should be hitting better, the Cardinals have an utter lineup outage outside of Pujols, and the Cubs have too much talent to play sub-.500 ball for the rest of the year. Unfortunately for Milwaukee fans, it's doubtful they can put it together like this for an entire year. We expect the cream to rise to the top as more games get played - the Cubs should make it to the top, the Reds look well-poised to stay in second, and the Cards look viable at third. We see the Brewers swapping spots with the Cubs as their non-stars start playing like their old selves. The Pirates and Astros are bad enough to make their finish a near-coin flip, but the Pirates just look like they have more talent across the board. Really, the only reason for the 'Stros not to deal Oswalt and/or Tejada is to avoid a last place finish, and that should never be a team's goal.
1. Chicago Cubs
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
6. Houston Astros