Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter Celebrate After Craig's Grand Slam
Starting this Monday, the Cardinals started a 13 game, 14 day stretch against division rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The Cardinals will play these two teams at home and on the road. This stretch of games will have a big say in which team wins the division. The division race is tight with 3 games separating the teams as of Monday. It's very likely that the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds will all make the postseason, unless the D-Backs or Nats go on a miracle run. Winning the division is the main goal for all three teams to avoid a one game wild card playoff.
The Cardinals schedule eases up after the run of games vs. the Reds and Pirates. In the remaining 18 games after that, the only team they play above .500 is against Washington(and they are barely). Even better for the club, the Pirates and Reds close the season out against each other, while the Cards play the bottom feeding Cubs. The Cardinals still can't lose ground against the good teams and need to at least split the Pirates/Reds games. They got off to a good start with a win against the Reds on Monday night. They have sole possession of first place for the first time in almost a month.
Standings as of Monday night
St. Louis 77-54 -
Pittsburgh 76-54 0.5
Cincinnati 74-58 3
I did a similar post earlier in the year and ranked the teams position by position, so I won't repeat myself again on that. But, I will discuss each teams chances of winning the division and who will be a factor in it. The NL Central is one of baseball's best divisions this year and this is one of the most exciting races in baseball. Certainly, one of the best division races the NL Central has seen in several years. With all their postseason success the last couple of seasons, the Cardinals haven't won the division since 2009.
Cincinnati won the division last year by a wide margin and is currently 3 games out of first this year. Dusty Baker's club has a strong offense led by Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Shin Soo Choo. Choo has been a terrific leadoff hitter for the team, although he is playing out of position in center field. Choo is second in the NL in walks to his teammate Votto. Phillips and Jay Bruce have been solid run producers this year, but could use some help. Help could arrive from former Cardinal Ryan Ludwick has just returned from an opening day injury that kept him out all year. Todd Frazier took over third base for the retired Scott Rolen, but has had sort of a sophomore slump this year.
Another strength for the Reds is their starting pitching. Even with Johnny Cueto out, the Reds are 4th in the NL in ERA. Rookie lefty Tony Cingrani has done a great job filling in for Cueto. Mat Latos has been the Reds ace this year, but they have a deep rotation. Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake have all had solid years. Bailey threw his second career no-hitter this year. The Reds still have flamethrowing lefty Aroldis Chapman closing games for them. He was the first Reds reliever since Rob Dibble to make consecutive All Star teams. The Reds bullpen has been weakened by injuries to Jonathon Broxton and Sean Marshall.
The Pirates have shown no signs of fading like they had the previous two seasons. One reason why is that they have a deeper team. Another reason is that the team's core has more experience and Pittsburgh has added some veterans like Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, and AJ Burnett in recent years. The Pirates only rank 11th in the NL in runs, but have really good pitching, play good defense, and win close games. Their offense is led by MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. Speedster Sterling Marte has been a good leadoff hitter, and slugger Pedro Alvarez leads the league in home runs. Martin and Neil Walker are solid hitters. They are fast on the bases and are 4th in steals as a team.
One of the reasons the Pirates have been so good is because they lead the NL with a 3.21 ERA. They had several injuries in the starting rotation, but have settled on Burnett, Liriano, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole as their starters. Liriano has been a key pickup and could get Cy Young votes this year. The bullpen has been electric this year. Journeyman Jason Grilli took over as closer and had 30 saves before straining his forearm last month. He will likely come back in September. Mark Melancon has done well closing in his absence and has a 0.91 ERA for the season. Melancon was also a All Star as a setup guy. Lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson have been nasty this year and the Pirates have one of the game's best(and deepest) bullpens.
The team struggled for a few weeks in late July and early August, but are showing signs of breaking out of that. They recently took 3 of 4 against the Braves, a team that swept them a few weeks earlier. The offense has turned it on again, after a team wide slump earlier. Yadier Molina has also came back healthy from knee issues. Yadi is a force on defense and offense, not to mention a team leader. Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig have had great seasons and made their first All Star teams this year. Matt Holliday has been on fire lately after a slow start earlier in the year. The club has a deep bench and few holes outside of shortstop. Daniel Descalso has been taking more of Pete Kozma's playing time at short because of Kozma's struggles at the plate. Descalso doesn't have the range of Kozma, though. There is not a lot of speed on the team, although recent callup Kolten Wong brings that element.
The Cardinals have used 19 rookies this year, the most they have used since 1997. Most of these rookies have been pitchers. Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist, Tyler Lyons, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez are all currently on the pitching staff. That's makes 7 out of the 12 Cardinals current pitchers rookies. Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly are both in their second full seasons in the big leagues. All Star Adam Wainwright has been the leader of the staff and has had a terrific year. He leads the NL with 15 wins and also leads in innings pitched. Edward Mujica, "The Chief", has solidified the closer spot after some early season uncertainty.
It's conceivable that either of these three teams could win the division. One could make a case for the Reds, Pirates, or Cardinals, and have a solid case. I may sound like a homer, but I still think the Cardinals win the division this year. I think the Pirates have a better chance to win it than the Reds. I think the Pirates are the Cardinals biggest threat for the division over the Reds. St. Louis has played well against Cincinnati, going 9-4 so far. They have struggled against Pittsburgh, going 5-8. I would be shocked if either the Reds or Pirates missed the playoffs. I don't expect either team to fade away. I expect them to play in the wild card game.