The NL Central has been a surprisingly tough race. The defending champion Cubs, thought to be the division favorites before the season began, have plenty of company. Let’s break down the top four teams in the NL Central race.
Schedule assessment: The Cubs have an extremely soft schedule. Their next five series come against: the Reds (3 games), Phillies (3), Pirates (3), Braves (4) and Pirates again (4). None of those teams currently has a winning record. The Cubs’ strength of schedule rank has varied from easiest to third-easiest the last couple of weeks.
X factor: Catcher Willson Contreras had just found his stroke in the Cubs lineup, but suffered a hamstring strain on Aug. 9 that has kept him out. In 23 games before his injury, 22 of which were starts in the cleanup spot, he hit .311 with a 1.080 OPS, 10 HR and 29 RBI.
Contreras was hitting .305 with 35 RBIs in 31 games in the cleanup spot this season. He was hitting .258 with 35 RBI in 71 games in other spots.
Cubs cleanup hitters continued to struggle in Contreras’ absence until recently. All their other No. 4 batters are hitting .210.
Schedule assessment: The Cardinals’ schedule has ranked as easy or easier than the Cubs one. Their next two series are at home against the Padres and Rays. They then head on a 10-game road trip that begins with two games in Milwaukee, but then features four apiece with the Giants and Padres.
They can count on: The Cardinals think they can count on an offense that has been the best in baseball the last two weeks. Since Aug. 6, they rank first in batting average (.317), slugging percentage (.556) and OPS (.957). Two of their biggest catalysts have been veterans Dexter Fowler (hitting an NL-best .441 since Aug. 6) and Kolten Wong (.419). Rookie shortstop Paul DeJong (.411) has also been a huge surprise. Elias notes that DeJong and Albert Pujols share the Cardinals record for being fastest to 20 career home runs.
X factor Randal Grichuk struggled so much early this season (hitting .222 with a .377 slugging percentage in 46 games) that the Cardinals sent him to the minor leagues. Nearly a month away helped Grichuk out a lot. He’s hitting .274 with 11 home runs in 43 games since his return.
Another for the Cardinals will be how the pitching staff handles the absence of starter Adam Wainwright and closer Trevor Rosenthal. Despite a host of struggles this season, the Cardinals’ 3.95 ERA ranks fourth in the National League, though it’s 4.71 in August (10th in NL).
Schedule assessment: The Brewers have a considerably tougher schedule than the Cubs and Cardinals, with their strength of schedule consistently ranking in the top 10 of late.
They can count on: Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies The Brewers have had their issues at the back of their rotation, but a couple of the pitchers in the middle have been very good. Nelson has had a couple of recent rough starts, but prior to his last two, he had a 3.24 ERA. Davies has been solid recently, pitching to a 2.20 ERA in 41 innings in his last six starts.
The Brewers have also been very good defensively, particularly at shortstop and third base, two positions that have combined for seven defensive runs saved in the second half (third-most in the majors). Utility man Hernan Perez ranks second on the team with 10 defensive runs saved, playing seven different positions this season (including pitcher).
X factor: The Brewers will get their ace, Chase Anderson, back from the disabled list after he missed more than a month with a strained oblique. Anderson ranked 10th in the majors with a 2.89 ERA at the time of his injury. The Brewers could desperately use his return, as their starters have a 5.52 ERA in August, 12th in the NL in that span.
Schedule assessment: The Pirates strength of schedule has ranked among the three toughest in baseball recently and for good reason. The Pirates have yet to clear the Dodgers and Nationals from their schedule (the former is their next series, the latter is their last series of the season)
They can count on: Andrew McCutchen has been the former MVP winner we all know over the last three months or so. McCutchen bottomed out with a .203 batting average and .634 OPS through May 25, but is hitting .341 with an 1.048 OPS since (he ranks fifth and sixth in MLB in those stats respectively).
The change initially coincided with a move from third to sixth in the order, but he’s since returned to batting third and has continued his hot pace. McCutchen has improved considerably in getting his timing down against inside fastballs and hitting just about any type of offspeed pitch.
X factor: Starling Marte was suspended 80 games after testing positive for PEDs just 13 games into his season. Marte has not been close to the player he was in 2016, hitting .271. His only home run in 30 games since returning from the suspension came Saturday against the Cardinals