Around the NL Central

Take a look at the NL Central standings and you are likely to do a double-take. The Reds in fourth? Where are the Pirates? First? Quick! Someone check hell! It’s got to be frozen over.

No, it’s very much the way it is. An injury plagued Cardinals team and a solid Brewers team are being topped right now by a very young and very good Pirates team. Nobody expected this from them this year, but most give the credit to their manager Clint Hurdle.

It was Hurdle that brought the 2007 Colorado Rockies to the World Series with a plethora of young talent. Names like Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki. They weren’t well known at the time, but have become household names for baseball fans, and Cardinals fans have gotten very familiar with Mr. Holliday these days.

It was Hurdle that has brought considerable improvement to the Pittsburgh Pirates this year. So much improvement, myself and other UCB writers had them penciled into the cellar of the NL Central once again, contending with the Astros for the honor of bringing up the rear. However, young teams are always tough to predict. On one hand they have talent and could break out, on the other they could just continue in their ways. I was one of the few to say that the Pirates had the ability to go with the division as I labelled them my darkhorse candidate for the playoffs this year. It’s been an amazing story, but not what I’m talking about today.

The point of today’s article is a look at the top teams in the NL Central. Basically, those that still have a chance, and figure what they need to do in order to continue to contend down the stretch. Do they need to make a trade? Should they? That’s what I’m going to look at.

1. Pittsburgh Pirates, 1st place (51-44)

The Pirates currently stand 23rd in hitting, 8th in pitching, and 23rd in fielding. You can see from that why they stand atop the central. Pitching wins. It’s also easy to see where there weakness lies, and that’s on the offensive side of the ball. Everyone inside the Pirates organization has to be asking themselves right now whether they stay the course with what they have or whether they should dip into some of their young talent and try to capitalize on their current success.

The Pirates’ weakest offensive position is right field. The Pirates are getting the worst run production out of their right fielder position of all major league teams. With the Mets virtually offering to pay for Carlos Beltran, the Pirates have to consider that. However, they’ve apparently knocked the door in Oakland asking about relief help and potentially adding Josh Willingham who could solidify that deal.

Overall bullpen help isn’t that pressing, but they could use a solid left handed reliever to bolster the bullpen. I expect the Pirates to make one deal to help solidify their team, the only question is at what price. The future looks bright in Pittsburgh beyond this year, do they really want to trade away from their future for what could become a one year wonder?

2. Milwaukee Brewers, 2nd place (52-46)

The Brewers are currently 9th in hitting, 20th in pitching, and 26th in fielding. It’s a surprising place for the Brewers to be, considering they spent their offseason trying to improve their rotation with the acquisitions of Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke.

The Brewers were also the first team to blink, when they acquired Francisco Rodriguez, otherwise known as “K-Rod,” from the New York Mets over the All Star Break. They paid relatively little and got themselves out of the fear of his $17.5 million option vesting.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Brewers are solid, but they still need some improvement. The left side of the infield are it’s worst two positions. Their third basemen stack up 29th in run production among all the teams in the majors. Casey McGehee has been a disappointment after a solid 2010.

I expect the Brewers to be the most aggressive on the trade block. Part of their problem will be a lack of minor league talent because of their existing trades. Since Prince Fielder is being reported as unlikely to return next year, the Brewers are definitely in a win now mentality. If they can get a deal done to improve the team, they’ll likely pull the trigger on it.
3. St. Louis Cardinals, 3rd place (50-46)

We all know the Cardinals a little too well. They are currently 6th in offense, 17th in pitching, and 22nd in fielding. They might actually be the best all around team right now in the NL Central, but they are in a precarious position because of the contract of Albert Pujols. I know, how does everything come back to Albert Pujols?

The question in St. Louis is how far do you go to improve your team? If Albert Pujols returns to the team next season, you’re fine to make trades right now. If he doesn’t return, anything you trade out of the minor leagues now won’t be able to help you then.

Basically, the Cardinals have been rumored to be in the discussion for every available pitcher in the world. They need a starter or a reliever or both. With a starter, the team can move Kyle McClellan back into his setup role in the bullpen. With a reliever, he can hopefully fill McClellan’s old role. With both, you can move McClellan to the bullpen and a second arm there too, making it just that much better.

Their biggest trade chip is Colby Rasmus, and the Cardinals are in the perfect position with him. He’s a touted five-tool player who has yet to live up to the hype in St. Louis. That leaves many to believe that he could use a change of scenery to unlock his true potential. That has other teams knocking on the door asking what the price tag is. However, the Cardinals aren’t in the position where they have to deal him, that allows them to set the price.

Right now, I don’t see the Cardinals doing much at the deadline. If something does happen, I would expect Rasmus to be involved and I expect it to include a starting pitcher. That would be the best deal the Cardinals could make without mortgaging their future.

4. Cincinnati Reds, 4th place (47-50)

The Reds currently have the major leagues’ 4th best offense, the 22nd best pitching staff, and the 6th best defense. They are the only above average defensive team in the NL Central. The Reds were also the division winners last year and have remained mostly unchanged from that run, so what happened this year? Well, the easiest to see is the pitching staff.

The Reds don’t need a huge upgrade on offense, but are definitely exploring the potential of dealing for a starting pitcher. According to the rumors, Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez looks to be their #1 target, though they’ve talked to Tampa about James Shields as well. They’ve also explored bullpen options with San Diego for Heath Bell, and they’ve kicked the tires on Seattle’s Chone Figgins and Oakland’s Coco Crisp as potential leadoff hitters.

I can see the Reds making moves over the next week and a half. Cardinals’ fans are familiar with Walt Jocketty as he was our GM for many years. Deadline deals that improve the team are what Jocketty does best, and he’s done it without trading away many key pieces. He can get the job done, so the Reds are far from out of the division race. They are fundamentally sound defensively, so they don’t usually beat themselves, and that’s critical for a team trying to overcome a deficit down the stretch.

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