With the whirlwind that is the Major League Baseball Trade Deadline approaching, rumors are blowing around like a stiff wind. At least one NL Central team’s fate is heavily dependent on what moves they make in the next 36 hours.
Here is a look at the key players and storylines for the NL Central.
Chicago Cubs (60-44, 1st NL Central)
Key Player: Jason Heyward
Another year, another division lead for the Cubs. After 107 seasons, Cubs fans could get used to this new way of life.
With pressure coming from three other teams in this division, however, the Cubs could use a spark from an unexpected source with the Kris Bryant injury saga putting a damper on everything.
Enter Jason Heyward. He’s been bad with the Cubs, slashing .243/.315/.353 over the last two years, with an OPS fitting of someone swinging a wet pool noodle at the plate. However, he has a talented pedigree, with three seasons of better than a .425 slugging percentage in Atlanta.
If he can recapture his slugging ways and maybe even overachieve down the stretch, he could offset the loss/ineffectiveness of Bryant and the underachieving Anthony Rizzo and be just what the Cubs need to win another division title.
Milwaukee Brewers (61-47, 2nd NL Central, 1st NL Wild Card)
Key Player: David Stearns (GM)
My heart really goes out to the Brewers. They are trying so hard to join the cool kids’ club. Unfortunately, until GM David Stearns trades for a starting pitcher or two, his ball club will remain one of those awkward social climbers caught between statuses.
The bullpen, as good as it is, will not have many leads to protect with the current starting rotation in place. Friday’s performance by Chase Anderson against the Giants notwithstanding, he’s the ugly picture the starters have, er, brewed up.
Their 3.86 cumulative starter’s ERA (3.86) is 10th in the MLB, but their xFIP (4.50) and SIERA (4.51) are 10th and 11th worst, respectively, and those stats’ predictions have come to fruition in the 11 games before Friday.
The starters are 1-5 in that stretch and their 4.07 ERA has still been somewhat lucky.
The main culprit is the 2nd lowest groundball rate in the majors at 39.5%. The line drive rate is the 5th highest (22.5%), and when they give up contact, 38.2% of it is above 95 mph exit velocity, good for 9th worst in the league.
Based on xFIP, the Brewers’ top starters would be Freddy Peralta (3.94 xFIP in 8 career starts) and Wade Miley (3.97 career xFIP, but no seasons below 4.04 since 2014). However, the Brewers are not going to make the playoffs relying solely on a rookie and a washed-up journeyman, and staff ace Jimmy Nelson is not due back until at least September.
Can Stearns land the Orioles’ Kevin Gausman, the Mets’ Zach Wheeler, or the Reds’ Matt Harvey? I won’t remove the ‘pretender’ tag until he does.
Pittsburg Pirates (55-52, 3rd NL Central)
Key Player: Jameson Taillon
Fans in Pittsburgh have become increasingly frustrated with ownership’s frugal ways. The Pirates haven’t been higher than 21st in the Majors in payroll since at least 2011, and Bob Nutting’s latest price-slashing agenda this offseason saw the team sink to 27th.
A recent 11-game winning streak has put the Pirates’ front office in the exact position they did not want to be in this year. Now, just 3 games out of the Wild Card, they are presented with two options — chase the poisonous fruits of an outside shot at the playoffs, or stand pat, keep the farm system intact, and risk their fans spending their hard-earned money investing in one of Pittsburgh’s two other championship-caliber professional teams.
This is bunch of overachievers is led by a sabermetrically-challenged rotation, but their most interesting storyline is Jameson Taillon. Everyone in Pittsburgh is desperately hoping he becomes the ace he’s been heralded as since being drafted nearly a decade ago. There’s hope that the 26-year-old Canadian-American becomes more of a prime Jordan Zimmermann rather than a Dillon Gee.
In his third full big league season, he’s seen his strikeouts uptick to 8.67 K/9, while still inducing the groundballs that the Pirates’ organization covets at a career-average 49.4% clip.
St. Louis Cardinals (53-51, 4th NL Central)
Key Player: Matt Carpenter
The Cardinals have committed the most errors in the majors (84). However, they are middle-of-the-pack in advanced defensive metrics. So their inability (or unwillingness) to land Manny Machado in exchange for some combination of young starters Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes hasn’t been as damning as one would think.
Time will tell whether or not that was the right choice, as those three pitchers have been a mixed-bag in 2018.
But with a glut of options, and over half their remaining games at pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium, the pitching staff is likely to figure itself out.
Matt Carpenter is capable of carrying a team when his bat heats up, and he came out of the All-Star Break scorching hot. Carpenter’s 11 for 21 stretch included a 5-hit, 3-homer game. While his .300 ISO is sure to come down, his BABIP is actually 16 points below his career mark. Every hit he gets seems to ignite his teammates and fans alike.
The more he gets on base, the more it allows Marcell Ozuna to do what he does best, clear off the bases.
Cincinnati Reds (48-58, 5th NL Central)
Status: 2019 Contender
Key Player: Luis Castillo
With giraffe-necked former number one prospect Jesse Winker done for the season after suffering an unfortunate injury, Luis Castillo jumps atop the list of players to watch in the Queen City.
Castillo was lethal through 15 starts last year, combining a 58.8% ground ball rate, a microscopic 12.2% line drive rate, and a 9.87 K/9 to accumulate a 3.12 ERA and dazzle fans and fantasy owners alike.
This year, however, has been a different story. His line drive rate is up to 21.8%, while he’s only inducing groundballs at a 44.5% clip. The strikeouts are down to 8.37 K/9 as well.
His wFB, or fastball runs above average, has been the main culprit, as he’s gone from -0.9 to a disastrous -14.2. In other words, his fastball has been more like a fatball this year. Even his stellar changeup has seen a drastic drop in changeup runs above average, falling from 10.2 to 4.4.
But if he figures it out in the next two months, he could emerge on the other side of these struggles with some very important experience and growth.
Stay tuned for the next installment. Until then, who do you think will win the NL Central? Comment below.
The Underdog Newsletter
A bite-sized rundown of the best underdog stories in sports — yeah, just the good stuff handpicked and delivered every Tuesday.Subscribe