In the Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers, the National League Central wields three viable contenders for the pennant. Hardly any other division in baseball can say the same. Even the bottom-feeding Pirates and Reds have captured a bit more relevancy a month into 2019. Let's round up where each team stands as the calendar inches closer to May.
St. Louis Cardinals (17-10, First Place)
The Cardinals are the NL’s hottest team after going 8-2 in their last 10. (Somehow the injury-depleted Yankees have a 9-1 record in their last 10.) What's more, St. Louis has baseball’s best record against teams with a winning record.
Like the Cubs, the Cardinals didn’t make a lot of moves this offseason. Unlike the Cubs, the Cardinals got their guy in perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt.
Their greatest contributions have come up the middle. Paul DeJong has been the game’s best shortstop over the first month, and he ranks fourth in fWAR behind Cody Bellinger, Chirstian Yelich and Mike Trout. Meanwhile, Kolten Wong leads all second basemen in WAR. Goldschmidt has tormented the Brewers this year—he has a .436/.511/.949 slashline against Milwaukee and six of his nine homers have come in 10 those games.
Remember Marcell Ozuna’s botched attempt to scale the wall and rob a home run a few weeks ago? MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch reported an incredible turnaround in Ozuna’s production since he face-planted on April 9 against the Dodgers. Also, Yadier Molina is quietly riding a 15-game hitting streak. He’s batting .328 and, amazingly, has not walked and struck out only three times in that span.
Chicago Cubs (14-12, 2 1/2 GB)
The Cubs were overlooked when the 2019 season began. Two-plus years removed from their 2016 World Series win, they appeared closer to the end than the division’s Next Big Thing. That title had been given to the Brewers after coming within a win of the World Series last season.
The Cubs’ passive pursuit of free agents and trades this offseason was even less encouraging. The luxury tax threshold clearly pinned their wallet shut. Chicago’s big moves were adding reliever Brad Brach and utilityman Daniel Descalso while the Cardinals and even the Reds bulked up their rosters.
Yet other than Yu Darvish, Chicago's starting pitching has been superb, and after some early hiccups, their bullpen has been more consistent. Javier Baez remains as thrilling as ever, and Willson Contreras has rebounded after his disappointing offensive campaign in 2018.
Before the year, Jason Heyward’s biggest contribution with Cubs was the rousing rain-delay speech he delivered during Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. A month into his fourth Cubs season, Heyward is producing at a level we haven’t seen from him since his rookie year in 2010. He’s slashing .312/.433/.519 with a 149 wRC+.
And all this comes with minimal contributions from Kris Bryant, who has yet to find his rhythm after a shoulder injury plagued his 2018 season. Once he does (because he definitely will) Chicago’s lineup will be that much more dangerous.
Milwaukee Brewers (15-14, 3 GB)
Yelich left Sunday’s game against the Mets with lower back discomfort, but Brewers manager Craig Counsell doesn’t expect the reigning NL MVP to be out long. If anything, all Yelich’s injury means is that he won’t be able to set a new MLB record for most home runs before May 1.
Regardless of Yelich, though, the Brewers aren’t currently playing like the reigning NL Central champs. Their bullpen has been stretched thin due to injuries and their dreadful starting rotation has been worse than expected. Milwaukee has allowed the second-most runs in the NL.
There is still plenty to be encouraged about, like Cain’s graceful defense in center and Josh Hader’s dominance out of the bullpen, but there are a few maintenance lights on the Brewers’ vehicle that will require more patchwork than just adding Gio Gonzalez.
Pittsburgh Pirates (12-14, 4 1/2 GB)
The Pirates have been a big surprise this season, with their strong starting rotation and throwback, anti-three-true-outcomes style of play. They’ve been much more exciting and could cause some disruption in the division.
However, there are still a few glaring concerns with the Pirates. The first, of course, is that they have lost eight straight games (!), the longest active losing streak in MLB. What’s worse, though, is their 1-11 record against teams with a winning record. If they can’t consistently beat good teams, they’re going to fall fast against the Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers.
Cincinnati Reds (11-16, 6 GB)
The Reds peaked in February. They made a number of high-profile acquisitions that built excitement. For a time before games actually began, the Reds were relevant.
However, what became of their offseason strategy also yielded results opposite of the Cubs. Their two marquee outfield additions from the Dodgers so far have not panned out. Matt Kemp is already on the injured list and Yasiel Puig has been awful (.198 batting average, 43 wRC+).
It hasn’t been all bad for the Reds, though. Their pitching staff has been much better than expected. Their 3.35 ERA is the best in the NL, Luis Castillo has developed into a true ace and Sonny Gray has looked more like the standout righthander he was with the Athletics.
They are an improved club, as evidenced by their +10 run differential. Still, a month into the season, the Reds are 11-16 and are unlikely to contend in the NL Central.