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The Rolla Daily News - Rolla, MO
by Mike Thomas
Looking Ahead in the NL Central Race
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By Mike Thomas
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July 31, 2014 12:01 a.m.
July 18, 2014 5:20 p.m.
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June 17, 2014 5:20 p.m.
June 29, 2013 5:20 p.m.



Until the past week, the Cardinals have been rolling this season. They were on fire during May and most of June until hitting a 1-5 skid against AL West teams. The Cardinals had the league's best record until yesterday when the Pirates overtook them for sole possession of first place. Even when the Cardinals were on fire, they were unable to put much distance between them and the Pirates and Reds. The Reds sit 4.5 games out of first place as of today, good for third place. At one point recently, these three teams had the three best records in the league. Right now, the Pirates and Cardinals have the two best records in the National League, and these two teams and the Reds have three of the best seven records in all of baseball.

                  Record    GB

Pirates       49-30       -

Cardinals   48-31       1

Reds          45-35       4.5

Cubs          33-45      15.5

Brewers     32-46      16.5

Coming into today, that's how the NL Central race looks. The division is stacked at the top and the NL Central has the second best cumulative winning pct. at .525. Only the AL East ranks better. The Cubs and Brewers have poor records, but some of that's do to getting beat up by division rivals. The Cubs are 11-25 against division opponents and 22-20 against other teams. The Brewers are 20-23 against division opponents and 20-23 against other teams. The Cubs are a good defensive team with a strong tandem of Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija in the rotation. The Brewers have one of the best offensive clubs in the league, but a weak pitching staff.

It's clear that the Reds, Cardinals, and Pirates are not only the most balanced teams in the division, but all of baseball. Each team has strong pitching and play solid defense. I will attempt to rank these three teams by position and see which one looks the strongest from here out. It's very possible that all three of these teams make the postseason this year, with the East and the West being weaker. Should be an exciting race.

Catcher

1) Molina, STL

2) Martin, PIT

3) Hanigan/Mesoraco, CIN

This one's not even close, Yadi's arguably the best catcher in the game and off to an MVP caliber season. Russell Martin has been a key addition for the Bucs and has helped out the Pirates pitchers. The Reds have been getting sub standard production from their catchers this year.

First Baseman

1) Votto, CIN

2) Craig, STL

3) Sanchez/Jones, PIT

Joey Votto is off to another terrific season and Allen Craig looks to make his first All Star team this year. Craig already has 62 RBI's and it's still in June. Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones are average first baseman.

Second Baseman

1) Carpenter, STL

2) Phillips, CIN

3) Walker, PIT

All of these second baseman are solid players and among the best in the National League. Matt Carpenter is clearly having the best offensive season of the three in his first season at second. Brandon Phillips is a Gold Glove defender, but his bat hasn't been nearly as good as Carpenter's this year. Neil Walker has had a solid year so far with Pittsburgh.

Shortstop

1) Cozart, CIN

2) Kozma, STL

3) Barmes, PIT

This is the weakest link of all three teams. None of these guys are anything special, although Clint Barmes is especially bad with the bat this year.

Third Baseman

1) Freese, STL

2) Alvarez, PIT

3) Frazier, CIN

David Freese gives you the highest average of the three and has made a big improvement with the glove this year. Pedro Alvarez has really come on strong lately, hitting 19 home runs and driving in 52 so far. He has raise his average up to .246, so he may yet turn into the player the Pirates expected when they drafted him. If Alvarez keeps it up, I may have to revise my rankings. Todd Frazier is a solid player as well.

Left Fielder

1) Holliday, STL

2) Marte, PIT

3) Robinson/Paul/Heisey, CIN

Matt Holliday has heated up after a slow start to the season. Sterling Marte adds a dimension of power and speed to the Pirates lineup that was lacking last year. Ryan Ludwick was hurt early in the year and the Reds have used a combination of players in his absence.

Center Fielder

1) McCutchen, PIT

2) Choo, CIN

3) Jay, STL

Andrew McCutchen is one of the best center fielders in the league and the leader of the Pirates. Shin-Soo Choo has been an on base machine for the Reds this year, posting an OBP of over .400 so far. Jay has slumped with the bat, but is still good with the glove. Choo is a right fielder miscast as a center fielder.

Right Fielder

1) Beltran, STL

2) Bruce, CIN

3) Snider/Tabata, PIT

Carlos Beltran is off to another good season and likely to make his 8th All Star team next month. Jay Bruce is a good power hitter with a cannon arm, but strikes out a lot. The Pirates right field situation is unsettled and they could look to upgrade at the trading deadline.

Bench

1) Cardinals

2) Reds

3) Pirates

The Cardinals bench has been improved this year with Matt Adams and Daniel Descalso on it. The Reds and Pirates have decent benches.

Starting Pitching

#1 Starter

1) Wainwright, STL

2) Latos, CIN

3) Burnett, PIT

Adam Wainwright is back on top form this year and one of the NL's best pitcher so far. Mat Latos has been the Reds best pitcher this season. AJ Burnett has continued his renaissance in Pittsburgh after struggling in New York.

#2 Starter

1) Cueto, CIN

2) Lynn, STL

3) Rodriguez, PIT

Johnny Cueto has had some injuries that cost him some time this year, but has been sharp when healthy. Lance Lynn is off to a 10-2 start this year. Wandy Rodriguez a solid, yet unspectacular innings eater. In time, Locke and Cole will surpass him in the rotation.

#3 Starter

1) Miller, STL

2) Locke, PIT

3) Bailey, CIN

Shelby Miller has been dominant so far this year, except for last night's hiccup. He strikes out a lot of batters, but his pitch counts have been his biggest enemy. Fellow rookie Jeff Locke of the Pirates leads the NL in ERA. He is a soft tossing lefty, but has given opposing teams fits. Homer Bailey has been solid so far and threw a no hitter last year.

#4 Starter

1) Westbrook, STL

2) Arroyo, CIN

3) Liriano, PIT

Jake Westbrook and Bronson Arroyo are similar types of pitchers, who depend on ground ball outs. Both are finesse sinker ball pitchers and eat up innings. Westbrook has pitched really well this year when healthy. Francisco Liriano has been sharp in his first season with the Pirates.

#5 Starter

1) Cole, PIT

2) Leake/Cingriani, CIN

3)Kelly/Gast, STL

Top prospect Gerrit Cole is off to a 4-0 start in his rookie campaign with the Pirates. Mike Leake and Tony Cingriani have done well with the Reds this season. Joe Kelly has taken over as the Cardinals fifth starter. He did well last year in that role. Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and John Gast could also see some time in the Cardinals rotation in the coming months. Wacha and Martinez have high ceilings as pitchers.

Bullpen

1) Pirates

2) Cardinals

3) Reds

The key to the Pirates success this year has been their bullpen. Mark Melancon and lefty Justin Wilson have pitched well in the setup roles to closer Jason Grilli. The Cardinals have a bunch of young arms like Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness, and Kevin Seigrist, who have pitched really good in their rookie years. The Reds had a great bullpen last year, but lefty Sean Marshall has been hurt and Jonathon Broxton has struggled so far.

Closer

1) Jason Grilli, PIT

2) Edward Mujica, STL

3) Aroldis Chapman, CIN

Never thought I would rank Chapman last of these three coming into the season, but Grilli and Mujica have pitched better so far this year. Chapman still has the best stuff of the three. Grilli has been a journeyman pitcher, but has excelled in his first season as a closer. Mujica is also new to the role, but has filled it admirably. The Cardinals lost Jason Motte for the season and Mitchell Boggs couldn't handle the closer role. Mujica has solved their late inning blues.

Manager

1) Matheny, STL

2) Hurdle, PIT

3) Baker, CIN

I think all three of these guys get the best out of their players. The Cardinals havent' skipped a beat with Mike Matheny taking over for Tony La Russa last year. Clint Hurdle looked forward to the challenge of turning the Pirates around and they might of turned the corner this year. Dusty Baker is a player's manager, but sometimes makes odd decision and is unafraid to start any controversies on the field.

Rankings(lower the better)

Cardinals-26

Pirates-37

Reds-38

It's possible for either of these three teams to win the NL Central. All have really good pitching and have some impact bats. I still think the Cardinals have the most talent of the three and are the class of the division. Some people have written off the Pirates since they faded down the stretch the past two seasons, but I think that would be foolish. They are a deeper, stronger team than in year's past. The Reds are also a strong team with little weaknesses. It should be a good race and all three teams might make the playoffs, but I still expect the Cardinals to win the Central this year.

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