Three teams occupying playoff spots; four with best records in past seven weeks
By Mike Bauman
Since May 31, the four best records in the National League have all been recorded by teams from the Central division.
Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago, in that order, have led the way for the past seven-plus weeks. No Dodgers. No Nationals. Just clubs from what could be, might be, probably will be the best division in baseball.
The pedigree has already been established at the top. The Cardinals have the best record in baseball this season. But they are also the only team to reach a League Championship Series in each of the past four postseasons.
The Pirates have qualified for the postseason in each of the past two years. This year, they have the NL's second-best record. They are six games behind the Cards, but their record would lead any other NL division.
And this year, there are the Cubs, a work in progress, but still a team with a plethora of legitimate prospects in everyday positions. The future is bright for the Cubs, but they are trying to win in 2015.
If the season were to end today, the NL Central would be represented by three teams in the postseason. The Cardinals would be the division winners, the Bucs would have the No. 1 Wild Card spot, and the Cubs would have the second slot.
This sort of thing was obviously not possible until 2012, when the Wild Card was expanded to two teams in each league. But the NL Central has already put three teams in one postseason in 2013, when the Cards won the division, and the Pirates and Reds claimed Wild Card berths. Pittsburgh ended a 21-year postseason drought in an October festival atmosphere, with a playoff victory over Cincinnati.
The depth of the division was reinforced recently when the Brewers, after an abysmal start, changed managers, regained respectability, and were able, in one stretch, to win 17 of 23 games. Their emergence underscored the basic difficulty facing all of the clubs in the Central. The schedule calls upon them to play each other with a frequency that gives each of these clubs the impression that it is playing one of the toughest schedules in baseball.
"You play the teams in our division, since May 31, the best four records in the National League are all from our division," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "That's pretty hard to do. So this is a good division, and we have a lot of games in our division. The schedule will be challenging, but we believe good baseball will lead to wins for this team."
In this division, you could play good baseball consistently and still finish fourth. The Brewers will still likely be sellers before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. They have already traded veteran third baseman Aramis Ramirez to the Bucs for a Minor League prospect/reliever. The Reds may also be in a selling mode, with ace starter Johnny Cueto coveted by many contending clubs.
But the other three teams in this division should be in the buyer category for many Trade Deadlines to come. The Cardinals and the Pirates have already demonstrated their considerable worth. The Cubs are on the way to establishing their quality.
This is the best division in the NL. And this won't be the last year that statement will pertain to the Central.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.