MLB Analysis: Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Pirates and Reds

The National League Central, like all the other divisions, is turning out exactly as we thought.

Wait, what? It's not? Oh, how embarrassing. Actually, if you just flip-flop the Pirates and Brewers and the Astros and Cubs, the THT staff's predictions were spot on. (Hey, Bud, can you take care of that for us?)

Of course, there's plenty more baseball to be played, so positioning is likely to change between now and the end of the year. For now, let's take a peek at the big stories of the moment in the NL Central.

Cincinnati Reds

Joey Votto is pretty good. There, that ought to cover it, so let's move on.

Oh, you want more? Well how about this: Votto went 1-for-3 Sunday and his batting average suffered for it. Of course, that one hit was a two-run homer, so his slugging percentage benefited, and his season triple-slash marks are now .359/.484/.653.

Everyone knows Votto is a beast, but after a slow start to the season, he's demonstrating why it made sense for the Reds to extend his contract for another decade beyond next year at a cost of $225 million. After a May that saw him hit .355/.483/.677, Votto's June features a .434/.527/.776 line that would make Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and Ted Williams envious.

No, it hasn't been solely Votto who has propelled the Reds to the division lead—Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier are hitting well, and Johnny Cueto and the bullpen have provided the pitching support. However, if the Reds are to maintain their division lead, Votto needs to continue bludgeoning baseballs.

Pittsburgh Pirates

After last year's strong first 100 games, is this a case of "Here we go again..." with the Pirates, where a late fade drops them off the radar as the postseason push heats up? Or is this another indication that management finally is getting things going in the right direction in the Steel City?

Most likely, it's both. The Pirates are no longer the laughingstocks of the league, but they're also not ready to contend for the playoffs. A 38-32 record belies the fact that the Bucs have been outscored on the season, if just barely.

A .500 mark would be the best thing to happen to Pittsburgh's baseball fans since Barry Bonds left town after the 1992 season, but such a feat is hardly notable for any other baseball franchise. Even with two wild card spots now available, it's difficult to see a way for a break-even team to reach October.

However, the incremental gains the Pirates are demonstrating, along with strong drafts and free-agent signings the last few years, show a team on the rise after an excruciating run of pathetic performances. And an end to Pittsburgh's string of 19 consecutive losing seasons would be something close to nirvana for players, management and fans.

St. Louis Cardinals

Who needs Albert Pujols? Well, just about every team, that's who, including the Cardinals. However, Carlos Beltran has done a tremendous job helping to fill the void left by the departure of The Machine.

Beltran is in the neighborhood of a .300/.400/.600 season thus far, and he swatted his 20th homer on Sunday as the Cards moved back within two games of the division lead. He's never going to be the defender of his youth, but Beltran has manned center field occasionally this season with Jon Jay (among many others) having spent time on the disabled list.

Speaking of injuries, the Cardinals have been bitten by the injury bug as hard and often as any team outside San Diego. Jay, Lance Berkman (shifted back to first base when Pujols left), Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker and Matt Carpenter are among the players who have spent some or all of the year on the DL. The loss of that much talent to injury undoubtedly will impact a team's competitiveness, but no one will feel sorry for last year's World Series champs after their highly unlikely run to October glory.

At this point, the Cards are trying to assess their needs and determine what pieces they need to attempt to add to their puzzle as they make a push to return to the playoffs. The uncertainty of Carpenter's, Berkman's and Garcia's return dates complicate their plans, but ownership and fan support typically makes a late-season run likely in St. Louis.

Milwaukee Brewers

Though Milwaukee was last year's division champion, setting a club record for regular-season victories in the process, the team finds itself languishing in fourth place with a losing record and negative run differential. Responsibility for the dropoff from last season can be shared among just about every member of the team—with a few exceptions.

After winning the 2011 NL MVP award, Ryan Braun had a few minor difficulties this past offseason. However, he has shaken off those distractions to again be one of the most valuable players in the league. A .320/.401/.617 line with 20 homers and 13 steals will set both sabermetricians' and fantasy gurus' hearts aflutter. No problems there.

Zack Greinke is setting himself up for a massive free-agent payday this winter with an 8-2 record, 2.81 ERA, and 99 whiffs in his first 96 innings. The Brew Crew has the ace starter every team relishes.

Before a fractured right hand May 27, Jonathan Lucroy put up a .345/.387/.583 triple-slash mark that any player, let alone a catcher, would be quite happy with. (Well, maybe not Joey Votto.) He's unlikely to keep that up when he returns, but the catching position has provided some very nice pop (13 total homers) for Milwaukee.

Shaun Marcum has been very solid for the Brewers, going 5-3 with a 3.39 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 82.1 innings. However, he just went on the DL with elbow discomfort, never an encouraging sign, but particularly this season, which may come to be known as "The Year of the 100 Tommy John Surgeries."

Aramis Ramirez has been about as expected, providing a .270/.345/.488 line with nine homers, 42 RBI and speed and defense your grandmother probably could match.

Aside from those contributions, it's been a sea of mediocrity or worse. Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf have been disappointing in the rotation. Norichika Aoki has been solid but unspectacular, while Corey Hart has provided thump but little else. Nyjer Morgan, Rickie Weeks and Cesar Izturis (filling in for the injured Alex Gonzalez) all have been atrocious.

The core is there for Milwaukee, but the surrounding cast needs to step with some assistance for the Brewers to make some noise in the division this year.

Houston Astros

Just about everyone (and literally everyone among THT voters) expected the Astros to be awful. Anything other than a cellar-dweller finish would have been an upset. Imagine our surprise to see Houston not on pace to challenge the 1962 Mets for the worst record in modern major league history.

No, a 30-42 mark is anything but great, but it doesn't scream, "Look at the hideous beast that is the Houston Astros!" In fact, a few players are shining brightly as the 'Stros look ahead to life in the American League West starting next season.

A middle infield consisting of Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie is a good start for a franchise looking to build toward contention a few years down the road. The diminutive Altuve is hitting over .300, somehow slugging .450 and stealing a few bases a month while manning the keystone. He's the type of player any fan can root for. Lowrie, acquired from Boston for the now-injured Mark Melancon, has 13 long balls and 13 doubles, takes some walks, and holds his own at shortstop.

Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Carlos Lee all are performing well as they audition for other teams, since none of these three is likely to be an Astro after July 31. The haul from these potential deals should help push the Astros back to relevancy some time in the middle of the decade.

Chicago Cubs

Do you think this is what Theo Epstein envisioned when he took over the Cubs front office? He had his work cut out for him ending the Curse of the Bambino on Boston, but the Red Sox weren't nearly as bad then as this year's Cubbies are now. At 24-47, no team has a worse record, and a brighter future looks to be quite a way out in the future.

Dealing Ryan Dempster seemed to be item No. 1 on the agenda before he went on the DL. A trade still should happen, but Dempster's injury and the chunk of the season lost because of it will eat into the return Epstein and crew will garner for their top starting pitcher. Matt Garza could join Dempster on his way out of town, but Garza's middling performance won't yield much bounty.

The annual debate about whether anyone would be crazy enough to assume Alfonso Soriano's pact is heating up again, as is his bat, with 13 homers and a .478 slugging percentage now to Soriano's credit. Even so, Chicago would have to eat a big chunk of this contract to send Soriano packing.

Other than dealing every old and/or expensive player in sight (Carlos Marmol comes to mind, as well), Epstein needs to figure out if Bryan LaHair is for real, and, if so, how to find room for him and Anthony Rizzo in the same lineup—and soon. Aside from that, the plan should be to avoid more free-agent pitfalls, draft well, and be patient.

Cubs fans, it's once again time to wait 'til next year. (Actually, it's more like 2015, but I was trying to be kind.)

Greg Simons continues to hold out hope that some major league team will have need of a past-his-prime left-handed shortstop. If you know of such an opportunity, or want to contact him for any other reason, he can be reached at gregbsimons AT yahoo DOT com.

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