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Handicapping the divisions: NL Central

In the first of our four-part series, we review the divisions contending for the top spot.

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In this series previewing the end of the season, we’re going to take a look at the divisions and their playoff odds, and then handicapping them based on our subjective analysis of these teams’ trajectories. OK, I’ll start with two divisions to kick it off:

That was easy enough. But all kidding aside, I’m going to discuss the possibly wrapped-up NL Central, and discuss the fading Milwaukee Brewers and surging St. Louis Cardinals.

Even though the Brewers had sole possession of first place from May 19th until July 15th, and have been largely neck-and-neck until Chicago gained a few games this past week, the Cubs’ playoff odds never sunk below 55%, and have since surged to 85.7% as of yesterday. Milwaukee’s odds barely eclipsed one-quarter.

Let’s unpack the now-improved St. Louis Cardinals. With Mike Matheny merely a spectator, Mike Shildt has gone 20-11 in the second half. Matt Carpenter has a 181 wRC+ with a homer every other game in that stretch, and Harrison Bader is hitting above .300. The bullpen still has figuring out to do, for sure, but Dakota Hudson with a sub-1.00 ERA, and Jordan Hicks finally getting some good results, have certainly borne fruit. Nonetheless, their exorbitantly low divisional odds make them a very, very long-shot, though let’s not count out Carpenter vaulting them even further.

The Brewers have had the opposite trajectory, playing to a .500 record in the second half. Although they’ve had solid second-half performances from a number of offensive players—Lorenzo Cain (thought to be a possible MVP before Carpenter), Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw, and new acquisition Mike Moustakas have all been above-average contributors this half.

On the pitching side, though, they’ve been decimated. Brent Suter, Jimmy Nelson, and Zach Davies have all been hampered by injury, and the former two will not return this year. Josh Hader has still been phenomenal, but that won’t be enough to stop the still-flawed...

Cubs. The Cubs online fandom would make you think this was a sub-.500 team from the beginning of last year to now, but they are likely going to win their third straight division title. It’s easy to find things that have gone wrong because their ceiling is so high: Yu Darvish has only tossed 40 innings; Addison Russell has an 80 OPS+; Tyler Chatwood has 93 walks in 101 23 innings; and, Kris Bryant has had a nagging shoulder issue all year.

Yet, they have a .577 winning percentage and I would put good money on them winning this division. The issues they have had are overshadowed by Jon Lester’s out-performing his peripherals, Javier Baez putting up NL MVP-esque numbers, and Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist playing to their back of their baseball cards, so to speak.

That latter phrase so often defines perennial contenders, and while you can say that hasn’t been the case with quite a few performers, they have enough to buffer the under-performers. It’s what makes the Cubs such a formidable club despite their early-season lagging the last two years, and it’s why you will see them as a potent force come October.