Race to watch? Try the NL Central
The three best teams in the National League, by record if not by popular opinion, resided in the Central division at the All-Star break. It's a race that turned infinitely more interesting in a mega-deal for mega-deal, punch-counterpunch just before the break, when the third-place Brewers added reigning AL Cy Young winner CC Sabathia from the Indians and the first-place Cubs responded by trading for Oakland's Rich Harden. Meanwhile, the surprising Cardinals continue to lurk in second place, just four games back of their archrivals from Chicago.
So who has the upper hand as we barrel into the second half? In order of predicted finish, let's look at ...
"I think that one guy can help," says Kerry Wood, the Cubs' starter-turned-All-Star-closer. "It's tough for one guy to come in and turn a .500 team into a 15-over .500 team. But I think, with little pieces of the puzzle for quality teams, it can help. Absolutely. It can make a huge difference."
When the Cubs landed harden, the former A's ace, they immediately strengthened what was already considered a deep pitching staff, probably the deepest in the majors. If Harden stays healthy -- he's only made 30 starts once in his first five big league seasons -- he could slot between two All-Stars, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster, in the Cubs' rotation. That's pretty formidable. And Cubs' starters already led the NL with a 3.88 first-half ERA.
What makes the Cubs so impressive, though, is that they may not need all that pitching. They score 5.34 runs a game, most in the NL. The combination of stingy pitching and strong hitting accounts for both their run differential of +106 (at the break), the biggest in the majors, and their 57-38 record, tied with the Angels for the best. Remember, too, that all that is with Harden pitching nothing but five innings for the Cubs in the first half.
Even before their new pickup, the Cubs have every reason to believe they can win without Harden. With him, they're just a little more convinced.
"We feel confident with what we have and the way we've been playing this year," says Wood. "We got to play a little better on the road [where they were 20-26 at the break], but we've been really, really good at home [37-12], so it's kind of evened it out."
Getting the huge Sabathia was huge for the Brewers, a franchise that finally broke .500 last year (for the first time since 1992) and is still looking for its first postseason appearance since 1982. The message that general manager Doug Melvin sent to everyone with his acquisition of the former Indians' lefty was that the Brewers were committed to winning right now. With both ace Ben Sheets and Sabathia headed for free agency after the season, this is their best chance to break their playoff drought.
"This is kind of our opportunity to go for it. It's there for the taking," says left fielder Ryan Braun. "We've got to do everything we can to win this year."
Sheets, when healthy, and Sabathia are a potent 1-2, and Dave Bush has been very good, too, lately (3-1, 1.75 over his last five starts). The problem is the bullpen, which has been erratic (its 31 saves top the league, but its 4.18 ERA ranks in the bottom half). And the offense, too, has been underwhelming. Despite the presence of a pair of All-Stars (Braun and Corey Hart) and a 50-home run hitter from just a year ago (Prince Fielder), the Brewers have just a .323 on-base percentage, which ranks 10th in the 16-team league.
Still, the Brewers are convinced that they can make a run at the Cubs. They're convinced that they can catch them, even.
"It's going to be an incredible, incredible second half," says Sheets, who started Tuesday's All-Star Game. "I say let it play out. Do what you need to do."
What makes the Brewers an intriguing story in the second half is how they came from near-dead in the first half to get into this position. They had a lackluster start that had their manager on the verge of getting fired and enraged Braun to the point that, after a particularly galling sweep by the Red Sox in mid May that dropped the team to 20-24, he publicly called out his teammates.
Since then, the Crew has gone 32-19. The Cubs are 29-21 in that stretch.
"It could have very easily gone the other way," says Braun. "I just think there's a really fine line between being a good team and being a great team. I just think we're just too talented to accept mediocrity, to accept being a 'decent' team."
Pity poor St. Louis. The '06 World Series champs strolled into the All-Star break in second place in the Central, with the second-best record in the league, and still no one gives them any chance at the postseason. So can they keep up their surprisingly strong play and avoid missing the postseason in consecutive years for the first time this decade?
Says the Cards' first-year general manager, John Mozeliak. "Under the competitive climate of this division, it's not going to get any easier over the next 2 1/2 months."
The Cardinals have held their spot in the Central -- they were in first place as recently as late May, and have never been more than 5.5 games out -- despite a lineup that most people wouldn't recognize with a scorecard, a bullpen that has seen its longtime closer (Jason Isringhausen) run from his role and a rotation decimated by injuries and led by a 29-year-old right-handed castoff who has been with four different teams in the past 2 1/2 years. (Kyle Lohse, who was 11-2 at the break with a 3.39 ERA.)
The Cardinals hope to get some reinforcements for the rotation when Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright return, possibly in the next couple of weeks. Still, even at full force, there is doubt as to whether the Cards have enough to stick with the newly juiced Brewers and Cubs.
St. Louis could, for example, use a left-handed reliever. The Cards could use another starter, or maybe two. Their lineup needs an upgrade. (Before an extra-innings loss just prior to the All-Star break, they had scored two runs or fewer in seven of their eight previous losses.) The situation in St. Louis has become so stressful that even manager Tony La Russa -- who many feel is doing his best job ever -- already has urged his front office to be aggressive in trying to shore up the team's weaknesses.
But if people are looking for Mozeliak to make a big move to counter the Cubs and Brewers, they could be waiting a while. The Cardinals have come this far by relying on lightly regarded talents, guys like outfielders Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker and pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel, and pitchers Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer, new closer Ryan Franklin and reliever-turned-starter Braden Looper. GM Mozeliak wonders if pursuing someone else, at the expense of some of those players, is the right thing to do.
"We don't look at this as just an overachieving situation. We just gave some players that may not have the same name brand as some other players a chance to play," Mozeliak says. "Are they going to be able to sustain the level of performance that they've already set out? For me to go against that right now, I want to be cautious of that."
And so the Cardinals will slog on, unappreciated. And the Brewers will madly try to catch up. And the Cubs will reach again for that ever-elusive World Series ring. The NL Central, long an afterthought, could end up being the most interesting race in baseball in September.
"At the beginning of the year, I don't think anybody gave it credit for being as good as it is now, that's for sure," says the Brewers' Braun. "I think the Cubs obviously were already one of the best teams in baseball, probably the best team in the National League. And, for us, I think we certainly got better as well."
As for those Cards?
"I would say any team that has Albert Pujols has a chance to win," Braun says. "They'll be all right."