Baseball

Poll: Who’s Going To Win The NL Central?

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With the Cardinals’ surprisingly disappointing season taking them out of contention early, the NL Central has been thrown wide open in 2023.  Even the Pirates looked like they might have a breakout in them after an impressive 19-9 start in April, though their subsequent struggles have shown that the Bucs aren’t yet out of the rebuilding woods.

That has left three teams still in the mix, as the Brewers, Reds, and Cubs enter Sunday’s action battling for not only the NL Central title, but playoff berths of any sort via the wild card.  Milwaukee holds a three-game lead in the division, while the Cubs are just narrowly ahead of Cincinnati by percentage points, which also puts Chicago into the final NL wild card slot.

In something of a topsy-turvy year in the division, the Brewers have been the constant.  Milwaukee has spent the entire season either in first place, or no more than two games behind the NLC lead.  This success has come despite a middling Pythagorean record — the Brewers have outscored opponents by just a single run, yet have a 67-57 record.  With tiebreakers possibly looming as a factor, the Brewers have already won the season series with the Reds (with a dominant 10-3 record) and have a 4-3 edge in games against the Cubs.

As per usual, the Brew Crew has leaned on their pitching to win games, even their usually strong rotation has been more good than great in 2023.  A number of injuries have impacted the pitching mix, most notably a shoulder strain for Brandon Woodruff that cost the former All-Star about four months of action.  Milwaukee’s best pitching performances have come at the back of the bullpen, as closer Devin Williams and setup man Joel Payamps have been arguably baseball’s best one-two endgame combination.  This ability to hold close leads has been the main factor in the Brewers’ 25-11 record in one-run games, though that kind of anomalous success might hint at some regression.

While Milwaukee’s pitching has helped prop up a lackluster offense, the Reds have something of the opposite problem.  The emergence of Cincinnati’s core of top prospects has been one of the top stories of the 2023 season, as rookies Spencer Steer, Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, and Will Benson have all helped carry the Reds out of a rebuild and to a 64-60 record.  Christian Encarnacion-Strand and Noelvi Marte have also made their MLB debuts to add to this position player core, not to mention the contributions of Jonathan India, Jake Fraley, TJ Friedl, and the ageless Joey Votto.

With a 29-35 record on June 9, the Reds suddenly shot into relevance and contention with a 12-game winning streak, and they’ve stayed afloat ever since, despite a rough 1-8 start to the month of August.  Beyond the question of how the rookies can hold up under pennant race pressure, Cincinnati’s bigger issue is a lack of pitching, as Reds starters rank in the bottom three in the league in both ERA and WHIP.  The returns of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Ben Lively from the injured list are being counted on to boost the rotation, as the Reds didn’t acquire any starting pitching at the trade deadline.

Just a month ago, the idea of the Cubs competing for the NL Central title would’ve seemed inconceivable, as the Wrigleyville nine had a 43-50 record.  Just when it looked like Chicago might be one of the key sellers at the trade deadline, however, the team caught fire.  The Cubs went 18-6 over 24 games between July 18 and August 12, finishing second in baseball in runs (160), RBI (151), average (.291), slugging percentage (.508) and wRC+ (135) in that stretch.  Cody Bellinger’s huge run at the plate fueled a lot of that offensive eruption, but unheralded minor league signing Mike Tauchman wasn’t far behind Bellinger’s numbers.  The late success turned the Cubs into deadline buyers, and after coming back to Chicago in a deal with the Nationals, Jeimer Candelario has also been on fire.

Chicago’s rotation has been solid overall, yet it took a big hit with the news that Marcus Stroman will miss the next several weeks recovering from a rib cartilage fracture.  Losing one of their two best starters for an extended period (and maybe even the rest of the season) will test the Cubs’ starting depth, and the lineup might have to keep carrying the load to keep the team in the race.

With apologies to the Cardinals and Pirates, we’re going to assume that a miraculous late-season surge isn’t coming, so we’re going to limit the poll choices to the top three contenders. Who do you think will finish atop the NL Central standings?  (Link to poll for app users)

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