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Making Sense of the Uncertain NL Central

The Cubs sit with a losing record, while the Reds and Brewers have surprised MLB fans

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The NL Central was supposed to be an easy division to project. The Cubs were heavy favorites, a seemingly unsurmountable juggernaut. Now, with about 35 games in the books, Chicago sits in fourth, with St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati above them. On the latest Ringer MLB Show, Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann talked to beat writers covering the Cubs, Brewers, and Reds to gain some perspective about how this division might shake out.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

The Cubs’ Problems: Pitching and Defense

Last season the Cubs had a difficult stretch just before the All-Star Game when their pitching lagged. Now, that same issue has come back to bite them again. The Athletic Chicago’s Sahadev Sharma explained:

"This season, it’s the starting pitching, again," Sharma said. "[They had the] best ERA last season, starting pitching wise. This season, I want to say they’re in the lower 20s. Very few deep starts. Jake Arrieta … is not getting ground balls. He’s missing bats more regularly than he did last year."

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ outfield defense has been disappointing, especially after they shined last season.

"Jason Heyward is now hurt, but even when he was healthy he was playing a lot of center field, which he’s average at," Sharma said. "Maybe slightly above average. That’s putting Ben Zobrist in right field, who is not a good right fielder. Kyle Schwarber, we know, struggles in left field. Maybe he’s not Adam Dunn out there, maybe he’ll get to average, but he’s not there yet. And the numbers have Albert Almora as below average, which, my eyes tell me differently. But I’ve also seen some balls he’s also stopped short on and let someone else kind of dive for when he probably should have just run and made the catch. And Jon Jay struggles in center field."

In some ways, Chicago’s immense depth hurts it, as it’s hard to figure out how to assemble the lineup.

"You’re talking about a lot of guys that deserve playing time but also may be playing out of position, may be playing a position that they’re just not as good at defensively. It’s a little odd. It’s a weird setup," Sharma said. "I wrote the other day that this is a team built on depth, and it’s almost as if when they’re healthy the depth is almost hurting them in a way because you want to play Jon Jay, you want to play Ben Zobrist, because they do have positive attributes, but they’re hurting them defensively when they play in the outfield. So it’s a weird dynamic."

The Brewers’ Depth Has Propelled Them to Second

Meanwhile, the Brewers are just one game behind the Cardinals and have the best run differential in the division. MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy shared his thoughts.

"It’s been balance," he said. "That was a word that came up a lot when they acquired [Eric] Thames and Travis Shaw. [They wanted] to get a little more left-handed. They’ve been a very right-handed team the last couple of years. But I mean balance just in terms of up and down the lineup, they’re getting contributions. I think that’s been kind of the story so far."

Take their catching situation, for example.

"They [had to] replace Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado," McCalvy said. "I think that was a position where people expected kind of a step back in production, and instead they’re still top-five in Major League Baseball in terms of production at that position. So they are a really difficult team, one through nine. And their Mother’s Day win over the Mets, a comeback from down six, was a really good example of that. Really every spot in the lineup, you could point to something good to get that win. And they’ve just had a lot of games like that recently."

The Reds Are Playing the Best Defense in MLB

Cincinnati was supposed to be one of the worst teams in baseball, and the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Zach Buchanan explained how it’s shocked everyone.

"I don’t know if anyone would have expected that they’d be the best [defensive team in MLB], but I expected they’d be pretty good," Buchanan said. "Zack Cozart was a very good shortstop last year when he was still dealing with the after-effects of a major knee surgery, and now he’s completely healthy and is a terrific defender at short. And then their outfield last year was pretty good. Billy Hamilton is phenomenal in center. Adam Duvall is showing that his year [last season] in left wasn’t a fluke, that he’s a pretty good left fielder out there. And then Scott Schebler, I’ve been really impressed with in right. He seems to have very good instincts, he’s super-athletic, and has been better throwing the ball than expected. He used to have a really terrible, terrible arm that they used to joke that when he’d throw to the plate, catchers would lose the ball in the lights. So they’ve been better than expected a little bit out there."

One change stands out above the rest.

"Eugenio Suarez has been the revelation so far," Buchanan said. "He struggled really badly transitioning to third last year from shortstop. And he was a solid shortstop in place of Cozart in the second half of 2015 after Cozart got hurt, but he wasn’t sensational back there and he had some work to do, and he really struggled at third the first half of last season. This year, so far, he’s just been nails. He’s really worked hard with their infield coach to get his footwork down and to maintain his focus. His focus seemed to be a big problem for him last year. Joey Votto has talked about how Geno’s throws are much more accurate to first than they used to be, and Joey a lot of time last year had to leap off the bag and make these crazy swipes to get guys out from some throws that he would get from Suarez. And so that’s probably been the biggest difference from a year ago in terms of their defense."