Hello, Dog Days of August. Sure, it's the stretch when a lot of players are understandably worn down, hence the moniker, but it's also an incredibly fun time for baseball fans as the field of playoff contenders has been whittled and we can start to focus on which races will be the most fun to follow the rest of the way.
Somewhere toward the top of that list would be the National League Central. The favorite heading into the season has tanked and sold at the trade deadline. There's a surprise contender and a team that has made a relatively late push. So where do we stand?
Let's examine the gambling odds of each NL Central team along with making a prediction on where things land here. For the large number of non-gamblers out there, ignore the odds and consider this a discussion on the state of the division. It works both ways.
Hard pass: Cardinals +25000
Things never got off the ground for the defending division champ and the favorite to take the crown in 2023. They started 10-24 and were trade deadline sellers. They won six in a row last month, but then the Cubs beat them down and that was that. They are 11 games out and have just about a 0% chance to win this thing.
Pass: Pirates +30000
They really shouldn't have longer odds than the Cardinals, but that's just how it goes with more popular teams and odds (the Yankees' odds are always too high, for example, since more people bet on them).
The Pirates have actually been interesting a few times this season. Remember when they were 20-8 and in first place? They also won six in a row through June 5 to move back into first. A four-game winning streak to close June had them within 4 1/2 games in the division and that's striking range. They've won three of four right now and have hung with strong teams recently, but they also sit nine games back.
They do have six games against the Reds, seven against the Cubs and three against the Brewers, so I suppose the biggest die-hard Pirates fans out there can still cling to hope for a miracle here. It's not happening, though. They've just had too many long strings of losing baseball intertwined with those small gasps of relevance.
Onto the real contenders.
The Favorite: Brewers -105
They have a 1 1/2 game lead over the Reds and 2 1/2 over the Cubs right now. That's a good start.
Brandon Woodruff is back from his injury. Corbin Burnes has a 2.00 ERA since the start of July, looking like his Cy Young self. Freddy Peralta has shown a few flashes of his All-Star prowess, including two of the last three starts. That's potentially three pitchers throwing like aces the rest of the way. Devin Williams remains an elite closer at the back of a bullpen that ranks 10th in ERA in the majors.
Christian Yelich isn't MVP Yelich, but is he really that far off? Since May 11, he's hitting .315/.401/.530 with 23 doubles, a triple, 12 homers, 47 RBI, 52 runs and 16 steals in 74 games. He could use some more help, offensively, but it's nice to have that kind of catalyst.
There's a lot to like here. There's a reason they are the favorites.
The remaining schedule is relatively weak (20th in MLB in remaining strength of schedule). They do, however, have a very tough upcoming trip. It starts with three in Chicago against the White Sox, but then there are three in Dodger Stadium and three against the Rangers in Texas. After that, they'll come home to face the Twins and Padres and those could be tough (or could be easy; who knows with those two teams). Then they've got the Cubs in Wrigley and the Phillies at home.
The upstart: Reds +275
The Reds weren't expected to contend this season. Their gambling win total (or over/under) heading into the season was 66 and they've already won 60 (as well as the under on the Cardinals!).
When the Reds were 7-15, it looked like it might be more of the same after losing 100 games last season. They played better ball for about a month and then won five in a row around Memorial Day weekend. They lost four straight, but then the season-altering run happened (toward the beginning of that, Elly De La Cruz joined the club). They won 23 of 29, including a 12-game winning streak. That put them firmly in the race and they are a bona fide contender.
The Reds won Monday night, but before that had lost six in a row.
Pitching problems remain after the trade deadline, as the front office ended up not addressing the thin and sub-par rotation. Graham Ashcraft looks like he's been fixed and the return of Hunter Greene happens soon. Should he and Nick Lodolo -- who will return a bit after Greene -- hit their upside down the stretch, perhaps it won't matter that the Reds didn't add a starter at the deadline. Brandon Williamson has also been throwing well and, of course, rookie Andrew Abbott has been a godsend.
De La Cruz got a ton of focus, and rightfully so, but it overshadowed the impressive work fellow rookies Matt McLain and Spencer Steer were doing. Veteran Joey Votto doesn't hit for average anymore, but he's a major power threat. There's serious upside in this offense on any given night, but there's an inconsistency here that reared its head in their series losses against the Brewers. They can explode for up to weeks at a time, but they could also fall asleep.
More than anything, though, I think the key is the rotation. If the Reds down the stretch have an Abbott-Greene-Williamson-Lodolo-Ashcraft rotation with everyone performing at their best, there's a real chance to win the division.
There are just so many question marks both there and on offense, which is why the Reds have the longest odds of the three contenders here.
The remaining schedule strength is worse (easier) than the Brewers' at 23rd in the majors. The toughest stretch is coming soon. The Reds host a formidable Blue Jays team for three games before heading out west to take on the Angels for three games, Diamondbacks for four and Giants for three. They then return home to deal with the Cubs and Mariners. Now, there are a lot of inconsistent teams in there and maybe the Reds get them all while they are going bad (it seems likely with the Angels and maybe the Diamondbacks, too, at this point).
Closing the season with the Pirates, Guardians and Cardinals could be a nice boost for the Reds, assuming they remain in the race.
Still, I have them as the third-place finisher at this point, though it's been fluid for a while here and no order of finish among the top three right now would surprise.
The pick: Cubs +200
It was Monday, July 17 when the Cubs lost to the last-place Nationals. They fell to 43-50, 8 1/2 games out of first place. They were going to be sellers, shipping out Cody Bellinger, Marcus Stroman and surely a few others.
Since then, the Cubs have been the best team in baseball. For real. They are 15-5 with a +47 run differential. Instead of selling, they added Jeimer Candelario and he had a big offensive start with the club. They were beating up on weak teams for a part of that, but they also took three of four from the Reds (including a two-game stretch where they scored 36 runs) and two of three from the Braves.
There have been some down stretches, but it's interesting to isolate the injuries to Bellinger and Nico Hoerner. Hoerner, who was out from May 9-18, only has a 94 OPS+, but a 3.3 WAR. He's a valuable member of the offense with the tough at-bats he takes and the contact he makes. He's an exceptional defender and baserunner and gets clutch hits -- he's hitting .314/.379/.431 in late-and-close situations, .328/.380./438 in high-leverage situations and .309/.355/.436 with runners in scoring position. Bellinger, who was out from May 16 to June 14, is hitting .332/.383/.552 (147 OPS+) with 16 homers, 55 RBI, 64 runs and 3.8 WAR in 82 games.
It could be coincidence, but the Cubs' worst stretch of the season came between May 6 and June 8, when they went 9-20. Nearly all of that was without either Hoerner or Bellinger, some of it was without both.
Along with Hoerner up the middle defensively and with Bellinger as a power stick, Dansby Swanson has also been of utmost importance. Christopher Morel's power surge since being summoned from Triple-A has also had a major impact on an offense that looked punchless at times for a while but now is pretty potent.
In fact, it's now the rotation that is a concern. Justin Steele is a Cy Young contender, but Marcus Stroman completely fell apart before his current IL stint. Jameson Taillon has looked better of late, but has a 5.36 ERA on the season. Kyle Hendricks has had a quality season once returning from injury, but he's a mid-rotation starter. Drew Smyly started strong, but he needs to be removed from the rotation ASAP. The problem is their remaining options aren't great. Javier Assad needs to be used in small doses like long relief or spot starts. Are they ready to throw Hayden Wesneski back in the rotation full-time?
The hope here for the Cubs is Stroman is back to himself after the IL stint and Taillon has fixed himself. That gives them Steele-Stroman-Taillon-Hendricks as a top four down the stretch. The bullpen is thin in front of Adbert Alzolay, who is legitimately becoming a stud closer, but there are capable arms.
The biggest advantage for the Cubs is the schedule. The only teams in baseball with a weaker strength of schedule remaining, based on combined winning percentage of opponents, are non-contenders (the Tigers and the White Sox, because LOL AL Central).
The most difficult stretch for the Cubs might be the final six games. It's a road trip to Atlanta and Milwaukee. But won't the Braves be done playing for the regular season by then? And with the Brewers, that's a head-to-head opportunity if the division is still in play with these two teams.
Of the Cubs' remaining 16 series, eight come against teams with winning records, but ...
- Two of those are against the Diamondbacks, who are only one game over .500 and are 7-22 since July 1.
- Two of those are against the Brewers and one is against the Reds and, again, those are opportunities.
- I already mentioned the possibility that the Braves aren't really trying hard, or at least are giving their starters a break.
A lot of things are moving in the Cubs' direction.
They are now, for the first time this season, my pick to win the NL Central.