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NL Central Update

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With Most teams sitting with 40-45 games complete, more than a quarter of the season is in the books. While a lot can certainly change in the coming months, usually the first two months are pretty critical. Here is a quick look at what we know about the National League Central, a division currently boasting the three best records in the NL.
 
Misleading Pitching Numbers: The NL Central boasts three of the top four pitching staffs in baseball with St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati all featuring a team ERA below 3.36. The starting rotations for all three teams have been strong but the numbers have also been boosted by a lot of games against the NL East. St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh sit in the top three spots of the division, separated by just two games but over the course of the season all three teams could come back to the pack to some extent. Those teams are a combined 33-17 against the NL East and the pitching numbers are likely enhanced by facing so many games against a division where all five teams rank in the bottom nine of MLB in terms of team batting average.
 
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For St. Louis the starting rotation could face some problems in the coming weeks with Jaime Garcia likely done for the season and big adjustments potentially coming for Shelby Miller and Jake Westbrook. Miller has an *xFIP that is nearly twice as high as his ERA of 1.74 and Westbrook has an xFIP of 4.44 despite his 1.62 ERA. Both pitchers should regress as the season progresses and with Westbrook currently on the disabled list he is even more of a question mark. Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn look like they can continue to take solid turns in the rotation but the bullpen is counting on Edward Mujica to continue his nearly flawless transition into the closer’s role. This should still be a very good pitching staff but leading the league is something that may not be sustainable especially with two starters on the DL and relying on several young starters that are mostly unproven over the course of a season.
 
Cincinnati’s pitching numbers are likely the most skewed due to the NL East match-ups with 24 games already played against the division and no games played against the powerful NL West yet this season. The Reds have the luxury of being able send Tony Cingrani back down to the minors for seasoning with the return of Johnny Cueto and this is a very solid rotation with Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo capably filling the back of the rotation. Homer Bailey is having a terrific season and with Mat Latos joining Cueto at the top, this staff is as formidable as any in the league. The bullpen has Aroldis Chapman in reserve and while he has been a bit erratic, few have as dominating of a presence on the mound. All four qualified starters for the Reds have a higher xFIP than ERA however so a slight regression is likely and having seven games against Miami already in the books has impacted the numbers.
 
Pittsburgh is perhaps the most surprising team in the mix at the top of the standings. After promising starts the past two seasons this certainly looked like a possibility but for the pitching to be this good has been a bit of a shock. The Pirates are 10-5 against the NL East and just 16-13 against the rest of baseball so this is a team that could face the prospect of a decline in the coming weeks. The most volatile member of the rotation is likely Jeff Locke who had just 10 career starts entering this season. Locke is 4-1 with a 2.73 ERA so far this season but he has just 10 more strikeouts than walks and an xFIP of 4.45 with a .224 BABIP suggest he could face a big adjustment. A. J. Burnett has looked like the ace that everyone has always expected him to be and if the Pirates can continue to get positive results from Wandy Rodriguez, Jeanmar Gomez, and Francisco Liriano this is a team that can stay in the mix. The upcoming schedule and the advanced statistics suggest that may be unlikely however.
 
Disappointment Brewing: Milwaukee was the top scoring team in the National League last season and with some promising young starters on the roster the pitching staff seemed to have a chance to come together this season. Nothing has gone right so far this season for the Brewers who are sitting over 10 games out of first place already this season. Milwaukee has actually hit fairly well for average this season led by Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez who are among the NL league leaders but the scoring has not kept up, a departure from past seasons when Milwaukee was generally a low average but high scoring team. The recent return of Aramis Ramirez could provide a boost and Corey Hart also should be available soon to put more pop into the lineup.
 
Milwaukee had disastrous results in the bullpen early last season and despite efforts to address the issue this year it has been a big problem again this year, led by John Axford’s horrible closing efforts. Overall the bullpen has turned things around however and has a very respectable 3.38 ERA on the season despite the dreadful first few weeks. The starting pitching has been very disappointing in recent weeks and that has been the biggest factor in the mounting losses. Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse have done their jobs for the most part with respectable numbers though both have been a bit unlucky with very high BABIP rates at this point. Milwaukee expected to get more from young starters Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta however who both are sitting with very poor numbers so far this season and may not be options for much longer. Hiram Burgos has been erratic in his five starts and out of the bullpen Mike Fiers has really struggled after a very encouraging 2012 season as a starter. Overall the Brewers are likely to have the worst rotation in this division and the offense is not doing enough to carry the team at this point.
 
Milwaukee could have opportunities ahead however as the Brewers are yet to play a single game against the NL East, arguably the worst division in baseball and clearly the worst hitting division in baseball. While the rest of the division has feasted on those match-ups Milwaukee has already played 16 games against the very tough NL West. The Brewers will need to improve in the division having gone just 9-16 so far but sitting only -32 in run differential seems to indicate that this team is likely not as bad as the record indicates right now. Milwaukee has 14 of the next 20 at home and only six of the next 23 games will be against teams with winning records. In June Milwaukee gets games with Minnesota, Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, and the Cubs so this is a team that could make a leap in the standings.
 
Cubs Ahead of Schedule: 2013 seemed like a severe rebuilding season for the Cubs and a 5-13 start confirmed those notions. The Cubs are 13-12 since however and even with the awful start Chicago is only -3 in run differential this season. The offense is limited but the young prospects are producing with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro both having great starts to the season at the plate. Chicago is towards the bottom of the league in runs scored but this is a team that is competing much better than most expected and may only be a few players away from making a real run again.
 
A bigger surprise than the respectable offense has been perhaps the very capable pitching staff for the Cubs. Jeff Samardzija has just two wins but he has lived up to his billing with very strong strikeout numbers and mostly quality starts. Travis Wood could not find room in the Cincinnati rotation but he has flourished in Chicago with a 2.24 ERA so far this season. His xFIP is more than twice that high so a negative adjustment could be coming but so far Wood has been getting the job done. Cast aside veterans Scott Feldman, Edwin Jackson, and Carlos Villanueva certainly have not been great but they have been delivering average results and keeping Chicago in most games which is all the Cubs really could have asked for. The Cubs are actually fifth in baseball in quality starts this season which certainly is surprising given the lack of proven starting pitching on the roster. Chicago also gets Matt Garza back this week and he could boost this staff even further.
 
The Chicago bullpen has been among the worst in baseball however and the Cubs also have the most errors in baseball. Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney form a dynamic duo in the middle of the infield but the rest of the defense is lacking. Chicago has converted just 10 of 19 save opportunities this season with veteran Kevin Gregg perhaps finally settling that role after the annual Carlos Marmol experiment. Overall the bullpen has had few success stories but the return of Garza and perhaps eventually Scott Baker could strengthen the depth of the staff. Chicago has had the most balanced schedule so far in this division with 13 games against the East and 11 against the West but if the Cubs can continue to play close to .500 ball they will be one of the surprise teams of the season and a team that may be ready to make a free agent splash next season.
 
* xFIP -- Expected Fielding Independent Pitching is a regressed version of FIP, which is Fielding Independent Pitching. The formula converts a pitcher's three true outcomes into an earned run average-like number. The formula is (13*HR+3*BB-2*K)/IP, plus a constant (usually around 3.2) to put it on the same scale as earned run average. xFIP replaces a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed.

  
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