5 NL Central players with something to prove

August 22nd, 2019

It’s getting late for players like Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who has been fighting a slump and the frustration associated with it all season. Now he finds himself running out of regular season to do something about it.

“I've just been struggling,” Cain said last week. “It doesn't even feel the same in the box right now. I'm trying to figure something out because I'm playing some bad baseball right now. I need to find a way to correct it and get it right because this team needs me to get going.”

There’s some good news for Cain and the rest of these National League Central players who have not lived up to expectations, be it because of injury or simply underwhelming performance. More than a fifth of the season still remains. That means there is time to finish strong.

Brewers: Lorenzo Cain, OF

Cain finished seventh in NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting in his return to Milwaukee last year, ranking as high as third on one ballot by virtue of a career-best .395 on-base percentage that maximized his superior baserunning ability. This year he hasn’t reached at nearly the same clip -- his .321 on-base percentage entering Thursday would be Cain’s lowest since 2013 -- while battling a right thumb injury that required treatment and a bevy of other physical ailments. Cain is loath to use any of them as an excuse for his poor season at the plate, and says he is healthy enough to play every day and help be the ignitor Milwaukee needs atop an underperforming lineup. If he does so, it would help ease concerns about the future; Cain is 33 years old and signed for three more years at $16 million in 2020, $17 million in 2021 and $18 million in 2022.

“It takes a lot of pressure off everybody else once I get going,” he said. “Something has to change. I need to keep working, keep grinding, keep swinging and hopefully, the outcomes get a little better as we go along.”

Cardinals: Matt Carpenter, 3B

You don’t have to look far to see how Carpenter getting hot can impact the Cardinals' lineup -- the third baseman is coming off a 2018 campaign in which he recorded a personal-best 36 homers and an .897 OPS while finishing as a top-10 vote-getter in the National League MVP race for a second time in his career. But so far this season, after signing a two-year $39 million contract, Carpenter hasn’t lived up the expectations. He has career lows in batting average (.212), OBP (.321), slugging (.363) and OPS (.684). Even after a rehab assignment where he worked on his swing, Carpenter hasn’t found the production he or the Cardinals need. There is still time for Carpenter to turn things around, and the Cardinals have a better chance of winning the division if he does.

Cubs: Pedro Strop, RHP

Stop entered the 2019 season with a 2.61 ERA across his previous five seasons with the Cubs. He posted some of the most consistently dominant relief numbers year over year in the long history of the franchise. This season, the veteran right-hander has dealt with injuries (both hamstrings) and diminished velocity, and both his IL stints and struggles (5.40 ERA in 36 games) have hindered the back end of the bullpen. Chicago has searched for solutions for the eighth and ninth innings all season -- most notably, signing closer Craig Kimbrel in June -- and Strop's turbulent role has been a driving factor. If the righty can find his rhythm down the stretch, it would help Chicago's improving bullpen become even more formidable as the club tries to punch its ticket to October.

Pirates: Chris Archer, RHP

The Pirates traded potential young stars Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz to the Rays on July 31, 2018, to acquire a controllable, top-of-the-rotation type pitcher in Archer. What they’ve received in return hasn’t lived up to their expectations -- or his. Archer has had his moments in black and gold, sure, but he also has a 4.92 ERA in 33 starts -- a full season’s worth -- for the Pirates. He landed on the 10-day injured list Wednesday with shoulder discomfort and will be shut down for 7-10 days. After that, Archer and the Pirates will decide whether the team’s marquee pick-up at last year’s Trade Deadline will even get a chance to finish his season in a positive way.

The club likely will exercise the 30-year-old right-hander’s $9 million option for next season, rather than buying it out for nearly $2 million, in part because they’ll need proven arms now that they know they’ll be without Opening Day starter Jameson Taillon until 2021. Archer could make it an easier decision by building on some of the improvement he’s shown since the All-Star break, and he would help restore some confidence in the Pirates’ plans if he returns to All-Star form in Pittsburgh’s rotation. His health will play a big role in whether he gets a chance to prove he can be that guy.

Reds: Joey Votto, 1B

Following a 2018 season that saw him have a rare sub-.300 average with only 12 home runs, Votto put all of his offseason and Spring Training efforts to return to the form that propelled him to almost winning an NL MVP award in 2017. But save for a 33-game stretch from the end of May to the beginning of July (.352 with a .943 OPS), the 35-year-old hasn’t been able to click for the second year in a row. Now on the 10-day injured list with a lower back strain, he’s batting a pedestrian .262 with only a .762 OPS with 12 home runs in 113 games. His OPS+, which was 167 two seasons ago and 126 last season, is 95 in 2019. In the few weeks before his IL stint, Votto changed his approach by no longer choking up on the bat while standing more upright to find more power. He collected four homers after the All-Star break. Following the time off to rest his back, there will still be over a month for Votto to put his changed approach to work again and come on strong for Cincinnati.