Heading into this most unusual season, the general understanding was that anything could happen, anything was possible, and that a likely result of this shortened schedule was madness.
But we did all think we could agree on one thing: The National League Central race was going to be riveting.
The other divisions had clear favorites: Yankees, Twins, Astros, Braves, Dodgers. That much was certain. (I feel obliged to point out that only two of these teams are actually in first place right now.)
The National League Central? Well, it was up for grabs. Any team could win it. And just as important, every team was very much incentivized to win it.
The Cardinals were the defending division champions and had just reached the NL Championship Series. The Brewers had made the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. The Cubs had fallen short of the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but they were still the Cubs, with a new-yet-familiar manager and a sense that these guys -- most of whom had already secured their places in Chicago baseball history -- had one last run in them. The Reds were perhaps the most active offseason team, clearly building up their roster to take advantage of a postseason opportunity. And, heck, you could even squint and see everything falling right for the Pirates in a condensed year.
Fangraphs’ preseason projections had the top four NL Central teams within one game of each other -- the Cubs winning 32 games, and the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds all winning 31 --portending a division race of much chaos. Considering the new playoff format … could all four of those teams make the playoffs?
It has not turned out that way. Only two teams in the division are above .500, and the Cubs, after all their 2019 disappointment, are in danger of running away with the division. Their top competitor so far, the Cardinals, missed two weeks of games because of a COVID-19 outbreak, and they have more doubleheaders (five) than days off (two) the rest of this month. The Brewers and Reds are both well under .500, and among the most disappointing teams in baseball to this point. At least the Pirates are as bad as we all expected (maybe a little bit worse, all told).
What happened to the NL Central? The supposedly tight race has the Cubs well ahead and everyone else just trying to keep their heads above water. We’ve already talked about the Cubs. Let’s take a look at those other three teams (sorry, Pittsburgh), what has gone wrong, what hope they have left for 2020, and what they can do to get back on track. Because at least one of them is going to make the playoffs … and maybe even more
St. Louis Cardinals
Playoff Odds: 76.6 percent
What Has Gone Wrong: Well, a COVID outbreak that wiped out a third of the roster certainly got the season off to a rough start. Not only did All-Stars Yadier Molina, Carlos Martinez (who still isn’t back) and Paul DeJong all miss time with COVID, but the roster crunch required the Cardinals to dig deep into their pitching depth just to piece together the required innings to get through it all. (If you had ever heard of Ricardo Sanchez, Ryan Meisinger, Jesus Cruz, Roel Ramirez or Nabil Crismatt before the last two weeks, you are likely related to them all in some way.) The Cardinals have actually rebounded from their outbreak better than you might have expected -- they’re 12-10 since they returned -- but the real schedule crunch is coming. They have 31 games left to play the rest of this month, and it’s possible that could be 33: If either team is required to play the full 60 because of a pennant chase, they’ll have a doubleheader with the Detroit the day after the season is scheduled to end. The Cards are going to need more of that pitching depth. We shall meet again, Nabil Crismatt!
What Has Gone Right: The offense is as streaky as it was last season (remember that feeble NLCS, right on the heels of a game in which they’d scored 10 runs in the first inning?); they just finished scoring 30 runs in three games (all wins) after scoring six in four (all losses). Paul Goldschmidt has been the Paul Goldschmidt the Cardinals were promised, Brad Miller (who didn’t arrive until after the outbreak) has been a godsend as a No. 4 hitter, and the starting pitching has been excellent, let by a resurgent 39-year-old Adam Wainwright, who is 3-0 with a 2.65 ERA in five starts.
What They Need: The Cardinals made no moves at the Trade Deadline -- team president John Mozeliak said the roster crunch from the outbreak made adding players to the 40-man too difficult -- so they’ll have to ride with what they’ve got. The rotation remains the team’s strength, but the offense needs to pick up: Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong and rookie Dylan Carlson, in particular, need to get going.
Takeaway: Even with all their problems, the Cardinals are above .500 and pitching better than anyone in the division. They’ve got five games at Wrigley Field over Labor Day weekend. They could make a run at the Cubs … or fall out of the race entirely.
Playoff Odds: 46.6 percent
What Has Gone Wrong: Christian Yelich has finally gotten his season back on track after a wretched start, but even with that, he’s hitting .207 with a .324 OBP. And that makes him, still, by far, the best hitter on this team. You name a hitter, and the Brewers are watching him underachieve. Keston Hiura, the supposed second star? .230/.309/.422. Justin Smoak, the power bat? .191/.256/.391. Eric Sogard’s hitting .176, Ryan Braun’s hitting .182, Avisail Garcia’s hitting .226. (And Lorenzo Cain isn’t playing at all.) The Brewers rank 28th in the Majors in OPS. Their pitching hasn’t been great either -- they’re 19th in MLB with a 4.76 ERA -- but the offense has been atrocious.
What Has Gone Right: The rotation, which observers have been screaming at the Brewers to improve for years, looks like a team strength now: Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and the immortal Brett Anderson are reliable stalwarts. But, as always, the bullpen -- led by Josh Hader but including Devin Williams and Eric Yardley -- is key to everything the Brewers are trying to do. It has been strong enough that the Brewers felt comfortable trading David Phelps at the Trade Deadline.
What They Need: They need someone, anyone, in that lineup to step forward: Hiura, in particular, has been a major disappointment. But what they could really use is one of those Yelich explosions in which he carries the team for three whole weeks down the stretch. He has done it before. If they’re going to sneak in the playoffs, he’s likely going to need to do it again.
Takeaway: The Brewers have been a mess so far and are sort of fortunate to only be three games under .500. And yet they are obviously still very much in this, only one game behind the Giants for the final NL playoff spot. Almost everything has gone wrong for the Brewers, and they’re still right in the thick of the race. Just a little bit improvement could get them their third playoff appearance in a row.
Playoff Odds:34.2 percent
What Has Gone Wrong: The Reds have had a bad habit of never quite getting in sync. They had a terrific offense for a few years, but wretched pitching. Last year, that flipped. This was the year they tried to fix that problem by being incredibly aggressive in the offseason, bringing in Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas and Shogo Akiyama, supposedly setting up an overpowering offense to go with a solid rotation. But: Surprise! The offense is still struggling! Jesse Winker has been a pleasant surprise, Castellanos has been fine, and even Joey Votto has rebounded. But Moustakas is hitting .221 with only two homers, Akiyama is stuck at .189 with no homers, and Eugenio Suarez -- last year’s lone offensive star -- has struggled, hitting just .190 and getting on base at a .305 clip. The bullpen has sprung a few leaks, too. But this was supposed to be a great offense, and it quite definitively isn’t.
What Has Gone Right: Sonny Gray had a nightmare game on Tuesday night against St. Louis, but up until then, he was 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA. And he was the second-best starter on the team, behind Trevor Bauer, who is having the season everyone who ever dreamed on him had been hoping for. The Reds' rotation actually has four pitchers who are striking out more than 11.9 batters per 9 (Gray and Bauer along with Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle). The Reds have a scary starting pitcher to go against nearly every night. But it doesn’t matter if they can’t hit.
What They Need: Some had thought the Reds, bummed out by their slow start, would maybe trade off some players, including Bauer, who will be a free agent this year after all. Instead, they added, bringing in Archie Bradley from Arizona and Brian Goodwin from the Angels. So they’re still all-in for this year. They just need guys to start hitting. They are running out of time.
Takeaway: It sure feels like the Reds could go on a run here … but it does feel like we’ve been saying that for a couple of years now, yes? Moustakas and Suarez will come around any day now, but will it be too late when they finally do? The good news for them is the same as the good news for every team in this division (save Pittsburgh): They’re only 3 1/2 games out of the last playoff spot. That’s a weekend sweep away from contention. But they best get it in gear fast.