By Kenny Ducey
June 29, 2018

Hot damn, the National League Central is loads of fun this season! The top three teams all have shots to make the postseason, the bottom-feeding Reds are surging and the Pirates offense can get hot in an instant. Each team has had flashes of brilliance in the early going, but who can proudly claim they’ve stood out from this group? Here are our midseason grades for the NL Central.

Milwaukee Brewers

One of the beneficiaries of the Marlins’ roster teardown, the Brewers were expected to make a playoff run after acquiring one of the league’s premier young talents in Christian Yelich and signing the ever-consistent Lorenzo Cain. Those two were supposed to provide that extra push needed to carry a team that leaned on Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana and Chase Anderson over the hump.

Well, this ‘Crew ain’t exactly that ‘Crew. Santana has faded into oblivion, ‘Ace’ Anderson needs a new nickname, and Braun is as much a regular as John Cena is in WWE. Aside from Travis Shaw, whose career resurgence continues, the core of this team is very different, but just as fun. Josh Hader has been unhittable in the bullpen, Jesus Aguilar has emerged as perhaps the club’s most dangerous hitter and Brent Suter is junkballing his way through tough start after tough start.

Leading the NL Central is quite the accomplishment, and I will grade accordingly, but beware that a large amount of Milwaukee’s wins came against some not so great teams; 23 of the 29 games the Brewers have won outside of their division were over the Padres, Mets, Marlins, Royals,  Rockies, Twins, White Sox and Phillies. Perhaps it’s a sign that the lead is filled with tanking teams, or maybe it’s a sign there could be a new leader atop the Central a month from now.

Grade: A

Chicago Cubs

It seems Javier Baez is winning the battle against making contact with the baseball. Despite leading the league in swinging strike rate (18.3%), posting a putrid 69.8% contact rate and chasing an alarming 47.5% pitches outside the strike zone, the upstart infielder has emerged as the Cubs’ most important hitter after Kris Bryant. Somehow Baez is hitting .285, a season after finishing with a .273 average, which is amazing, if not downright frustrating, when you think about it. Imagine how good this guy—and the Cubs—could be if he just learned to discipline himself at the plate?

Baez is the essence of the Cubs, however. Perhaps single-handedly dragged down by Javy, they once again find themselves dangerously close to the bottom of the league in contact rate, which doesn’t exactly scream “sustainability.” The peripherals (.248 xBA) for Albert Amora, who leads this team in average, don’t look great, and the bats of Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber have gone cold once again after a quick mid-half renaissance. I’m not sure how this team will win the division if it thinks it can lean on Almora, Baez, Addison Russell and Jason Heyward, but I’m quite confident Joe Maddon’s devil magic will find a way.

Grade: B-

St. Louis Cardinals

After surviving a Marcell Ozuna-induced early-season heart attack (don’t you just hate when you get those?), the Cardinals appear to be well on their way to a playoff push. Their prized offseason acquisition awoke from his early slumber; he has seven home runs and a .347 average over the past 28 days after beginning with two and a .250 mark in his first 25 games. The temperature of that bat is vital when you consider Ozuna’s name appears after Matt Carpenter, Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez’s on the lineup card, and before Yadier Molina’s.

The core of this offense can produce runs just as well as any team in the major leagues, and while Luke Weaver hasn’t carried over his success from year one, Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas (actually a Cy Young candidate, if you can believe it) have picked him up. The Cardinals learned the same lesson as the rest of the league this year, which is apparently don’t pay relievers too much money (I’ll take the Holland Tunnel at three on a Tuesday over Greg Holland), but they also sneakily may have won last offseason with the addition of Ozuna and Mikolas. They good.

Grade: B+

Pittsburgh Pirates

Yes, there was a time this season when the Pirates were tearing the cover off the ball and providing the viewing public with legitimate reasons to be excited. They asked:

How did the Rays just give away Corey Dickerson?

Is Austin Meadows actually an east coast Chris Taylor?

Who’s this Colin Moran guy and which tattoo artists would be willing to exchange my 1997 Topps box set for some ink?

Sadly, the hangover has hit and Pittsburgh will not be participating in the NL Central race. But! They are only four games under .500. That’s pretty cool. And what’s cooler than cool, as OutKast asked? Chad Kuhl.

Grade: C+

Cincinnati Reds

It’s astounding that Scooter Gennett—a baseball player named Scooter, who had an OPS+ of 84 in 2015—is going to fetch Cincinnati nice prospect package. You can’t deny the momentum this team has right now, closing out the first half with some momentous wins, but you also can’t deny that they’re ultimately stuck in a rebuild and will sell at the deadline.

Considering that’s where they are, you’ve got to give this team a lot of credit for performing as well as it is right now. It won’t be long until they’re contending. Eugenio Suarez is a legitimate centerpiece, Scott Schebler and Jesse Winker can flat-out hit, and there are an abundance of of exciting young arms on the roster. It’s been a lot of fun to watch this team when it’s going good, and I think I’m getting ready to position myself for a mid-2019 bandwagon hop.

Grade: B-

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