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A look at the Cubs’ NL Central rivals

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How are the Central teams doing, about five weeks into the 2021 season?

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The Cubs stand at .500, 17-17, and 3½ games out of first place in the NL Central as we await Tuesday’s action.

You know, that’s not a terrible place to be at this moment. Each of the teams in the Cubs’ division has had its troubles this year, even the first-place Cardinals, who started 8-10.

I’ll also take this opportunity to note that the defending World Series champion Cubs, in 2017, were almost exactly at this spot after 34 games. They, too, were 17-17 and 2½ games out of first place. That team won 92 games and a division title and got to the NLCS.

Here’s how I see the other four teams in the division.

Cardinals (21-14)

After the aforementioned 8-10 start, the Cardinals are currently on a 13-4 run. It should be noted that six of those wins were against the Pirates and Rockies.

In some ways this record is a mystery. Paul Goldschmidt (.684 OPS) and Paul DeJong (.673 OPS) are off to mediocre starts. That’s been balanced by a great start from Yadier Molina (.997 OPS, five home runs) and good production from Nolan Arenado (.851 OPS, six home runs).

Their starting pitching, after a shaky start, has settled down — the Cubs need to do this! — and they’ve turned oft-injured starting prospect Alex Reyes into a lock-down closer (0.53 ERA, 1.176 WHIP, 10 saves).

I know, I know. Pixie dust, that’s how they do this.

The Cubs will see them for the first time beginning a week from Friday in St. Louis. Two of the three games are getting national TV treatment (Saturday, May 22 on Fox, Sunday, May 23 on ESPN). That will be a good test for the Cubs.

Brewers (19-16)

The Cubs have lost six of nine played against the Brewers so far this year, and the April 24 game, a 4-3 loss, might be the epitome of the Cubs this year — a decent start, not enough offense, and the bullpen putting the team in a hole they couldn’t get out of.

The Brewers have had so many injuries this year it’s hard to keep track of all of them. At one point they had 17 (!) players on the injured list. They still don’t know when Christian Yelich is coming back:

That sounds... non-definitive.

The Brewers lost six in a row to the Dodgers, Phillies and Marlins before taking the last two games of a series in Miami. Despite their record sitting at three games over .500, they are underwater in run differential (-6, 134 runs scored, 140 allowed).

Reds (16-16)

The Cubs lost two of three in Cincinnati a week ago, and since then the Reds have been all over the place. They are 3-2 since then. The two losses were both blowouts — 9-0 to the White Sox, 9-2 to Cleveland. Two of the three wins were by shutout — 1-0 over the White Sox, 3-0 over Cleveland — and the third was a 14-1 thrashing of the Pirates Monday night.

So this team? They’re certainly capable of scoring a lot of runs, currently 171, second in the NL to the Dodgers (174). They are also capable of allowing a lot of runs, currently tied with the Cubs at 162, though the Cubs have played two more games.

They’re being led offensively by Nick Castellanos (.984 OPS) and Jesse Winker (1.052 OPS), and pitching-wise Wade Miley, with a 2.00 ERA and a no-hitter to his credit, is leading the staff.

Pirates (14-20)

Really, the Cubs should be better than 5-4 against the Bucs, though Pittsburgh has outscored them in the nine games 36-30. After edging over .500 with a win over the Royals April 27, the Pirates have lost nine of 11, one of those wins coming Sunday at Wrigley Field.

Two of their starters, JT Brubaker and Tyler Anderson, have been pretty good, but the rest of the rotation — yikes. They had two late-inning relievers, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez, who hadn’t allowed a run this year until the Cubs put three on the board against them in the ninth inning Sunday.

The Pirates are getting some decent hitting out of Jacob Stallings (.811 OPS), Adam Frazier (.805 OPS) and Bryan Reynolds (.851 OPS), but the rest are DFA candidates, which is what happened to Todd Frazier after Sunday’s game at Wrigley. Todd was hitting .086 (3-for-35). Two of those three hits were in that Sunday game, and given his age (35) he very well might be done.

The Cubs can certainly compete with any of these teams and I believe they still have an excellent chance to win the division. This article wasn’t intended to go into any great detail on any of the teams, instead, simply to give an overview of the division and stimulate discussion.

So, have at it.