The Dodgers’ buildup. The Braves’ wheeling and dealing. The Nationals’ improvement. The most interesting story lines were expected to play out in one of the National League’s coastal divisions this season.
But the National League Central is the must-watch division right now.
When the week began, the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds had the three best records in baseball. Three teams in one division finishing that way would be historic. In fact, the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week that, since 1969, the same division has had the TWO best records only seven times.
Since Monday, the Reds have lost a couple of games and no longer have the third-best record. But the powerful NL Central needs to be respected.
The Cardinals were expected to be a factor all season long. First baseman Allen Craig has a higher OPS than the man he replaced at first base, Albert Pujols. Righthander Adam Wainwright is at the peak of his career. Yadier Molina might be the best catcher in baseball this season. Righthander Shelby Miller is a candidate for rookie of the year.
The Reds also were expected to be a factor all season long. Joey Votto is one of the best, and most cerebral, hitters in the game. Shin-Soo Choo was an excellent addition at the leadoff spot. Cincinnati has battled injuries to key relievers and some blowups by closer Aroldis Chapman but should contend to the end.
Then there’s the surprising Pirates, who won’t talk about how well they are playing because they have collapsed the second half of the past two seasons. Pedro Alvarez is hitting home runs. Outfielder Andrew McCutchen is a fine player — and really hasn’t turned it on yet. Jeff Locke is pitching out of his mind. And former Twin Francisco Liriano is pitching like his former team wanted him to. Pittsburgh also entered the weekend with the third-best home record in baseball.
“They are really a different team here,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said when the Cardinals visited Pittsburgh in April. “They’re a good team away, but they are particularly tough to play in this ballpark.’’
Pittsburgh entered the weekend 48-30. They haven’t been that far over .500 since they ended 1992 with a 96-66 record — which is also their last winning season.
What looms in the distance is the possibility that two of these three teams will have to face each other in a one-game playoff to move on in the postseason, putting even more emphasis on winning the division. Prospects could make a difference; the Pirates have called up righthander Gerrit Cole.
As baseball heads toward the All-Star break, and more attention is placed on pennant races, the NL Central race should be the center of attention.
The Twins were interested in righthander Brett Myers during the offseason but decided to take another route in rebuilding their rotation. Myers signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the Indians.
Myers’ stay in the Cleveland rotation has been short.
He made three starts, four appearances in all, going 0-3 with an 8.02 ERA before being shut down with elbow soreness. He’s made minor league rehabilitation appearances and will return to the Indians as a reliever. That’s a lot of cash for a bullpen guy, and a setback for a team with playoff dreams.
What a difference a year makes. The White Sox led the majors in fewest unearned runs last season with 30. This year, they already have allowed 34. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez’s mistakes have been glaring. He has 13 errors, including six in a 13-game stretch earlier this month. Those errors are one of the reasons the White Sox are in last place in the AL Central.
The Tigersrotation has struggled recently, but no one expects that to last long. Still, they could use the return of righthander Anibal Sanchez, who nearly no-hit the Twins last month.
Sanchez has missed his past four starts because of shoulder soreness and will miss a fifth next week against Toronto. The Tigers hope he can return to the mound July 6 against Cleveland.
Jose Alvarez has replaced Sanchez in the rotation lately, going 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA in three starts.
Here are three observations ...
• Fans who wanted the Twins to go after Edwin Jackson during the offseason take note: The Cubs are paying Jackson $52 million over four years, and he’s 3-10 with a 5.84 ERA.
• Everyone is gushing about outfielder Yasiel Puig — and his talent is immense — but a big reason the Dodgers are playing better ball is because Hanley Ramirez has gotten on a roll.
• A-Rod should take A-Walk. He’s concerned the Yankees are trying to avoid paying the rest of his enormous salary. He should worry more about reviving and repairing his career — with another team.
... and two predictions
• Both Matt Garza and Ricky Nolasco will be traded to NL West teams before the July 31 deadline
• July is going to be a rough 11-15 month for the Twins.