With summer officially here, baseball is in full swing. So far this season, several players have taken necessary strides in order to take their baseball careers to the next level. Players like Ryan Zimmerman from the Washington Nationals and Eric Thames for the Milwaukee Brewers have contributed so much to their respective teams that their performances thus far have been noticed all around the league. The same can be said about teams as a whole. Prior to this season, the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers had below average expectations. However, both teams are currently leading their own divisions.  This speaks to the large amount of unpredictability present throughout Major League Baseball at the moment. The most glaring piece of evidence to support this claim can be found looking at the NL Central division as a whole.

Chicago Cubs

Record: 34-34

Grade: F

Prior to last season, the Chicago Cubs had not won a World Series since 1908. However, the Cubs led by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez played crucial roles in ending the 108-year curse in Chicago while leading the Cubs to 103 wins in the regular season. This team had everything. It had clutch hitting, tremendous fielders, a phenomenal rotation and a solid bullpen. This team was expected to win somewhere north of 95 games this season on its way to another NL Central division title. However, this season has been a disaster and the Cubs look nothing like last year’s World Series team despite having a virtually identical roster.

The Cubs’ struggles stem primarily from its rotation. This rotation is led by Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. All three “aces” have underachieved this season and are a major reason why this team has a losing record through 68 games. Arrieta, for example, had an ERA of 3.18 last season while also having 18 wins and only eight losses. This season, Arrieta is only 6-5 but his ERA has ballooned up to 4.64. At the same time, Lester went from being 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA last season to being a modest 4-4 with a 3.89 ERA this season.

The Cubs also have struggled heavily with their batting lineup. Led by Rizzo and Bryant, this team was supposed to clobber opposing pitchers and score runs through a plethora of young hitters. However, the whole team has struggled to provide consistent offensive contributions. Bryant and Rizzo got off to extremely slow starts which put a lot of excess pressure on the rest of the lineup to pick up the slack. Unfortunately for the Cubs, no one was able to fill the void and the team began to lose consistently as a result.

Do I expect the Cubs to still win the division? Yes. However, this team has been a huge failure so far this season and will need to drastically improve their play if this team wants to win and potentially win its second straight World Series trophy.

St. Louis Cardinals

Record: 31-37

Grade: D

After going 86-76 last season and missing the playoffs, the Cardinals looked poised in the offseason to make a return to the postseason. The Cardinals even made a splash in free agency after signing Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year contract worth $82 million. As of right now, that signing looks like a bust as Fowler and the rest of the lineup have been absolutely dreadful.

Fowler is currently batting .249 with only 12 home runs and 33 RBIs. Needless to say, there is definitely room for improvement there. As for the rest of the lineup, veteran catcher Yadier Molina and outfielder Stephen Piscotty were expected to carry the offensive load and lead the Cardinals to the playoffs. They’ve both dealt with injuries this season and haven’t been quite the spark-plugs the Cardinals were hoping for.

The only reasons that I did not give them an F is due to their starting pitching and their preseason expectations. The rotation, led by Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, has been really solid so far. The only reason that their records are so average is due to the team’s inability to provide sufficient run support. As for this team’s expectations, the Cardinals were expected to compete for a playoff spot but have a roster that, in no way, contains the amount of talent possessed by the Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals were expected to finish second in the division to the Cubs before the season started and are still in a position to potentially finish second in the division by season’s end.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 31-38

Grade: C+

Going into this season, the Pirates were not expected to compete in the NL Central. After going 78-83 last season, the Pirates were projected by Vegas to miss the playoffs and were given a preseason win projection of 83 wins. Based on that projection, their 31-38 record is not actually as bad as it appears.

The Pirates have also been a victim of the injury bug which has drastically affected their production on the field. The main injury this season for the Pirates involved 25 year-old ace Jameson Taillon who was diagnosed with testicular cancer back in May. Taillon has the ability to be an elite pitcher in this league and has been great for the Pirates since his arrival last season. Taillon returned against the Rockies on June 12 and pitched a five inning shutout which is a great sign moving forward.

The Pirates also had the misfortune of losing star outfielder Starling Marte to an 80-game suspension back in April due to performance-enhancing drugs. The Pirates’ struggles can be epitomized by its franchise player Andrew McCutchen. The 2013 National League MVP is batting a pedestrian .257 with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs this season and has looked like a shell of his 2013 self despite coming on lately. With McCutchen struggling this much, the Pirates should be at least 12 games under .500 and the only reason that they are not is due to its pitching staff. It looks unlikely that the Pirates will be able to compete this season and will likely be a seller by the trade deadline in July.

Cincinnati Reds

Record: 29-39

Grade: B-

The Cincinnati Reds might be the most stubborn franchise in the MLB. Year in and year out, this team consistently scores a ton of runs and ends up losing a ton of games due to its consistently terrible pitching staff. This year is no exception. The Reds started the year extremely well and have since fallen back down to the baseball cellar. The Reds’ offense has been phenomenal and star players like Joey Votto and Zack Cosart have been the catalysts for this intimidating lineup. However, their starting rotation has ruined whatever momentum the team had in the beginning of the season.

Statistically, the Cincinnati Reds have the worst rotation in baseball. Their starters’ earned run average is 6.09 which is over .50 points more than the second-worst rotation in baseball. The fact that this team is only ten games under .500 is a huge positive for this franchise due to the popular consensus that this team would finish last in the division. Vegas had the Reds winning a projected 69.5 games this season and are on pace to finish right above that. Personally, I think that this team will end up with 64 wins by season’s end but this team is overachieving at this point in time despite dealing with an abysmal pitching staff.

Milwaukee Brewers

Record: 38-33

Grade: A+

Going into this season, “experts” predicted the Brewers to be as bad as the Cincinnati Reds. The Brewers, according to Vegas, were also projected to win 69.5 games and finish tied for last in the NL Central. However, Vegas never heard of Eric Thames. Thames, the 2015 Korean Baseball Organization MVP,  has been a revelation at the plate this season with 20 home runs and 38 RBIs. The Brewers have also received solid contributions from third baseman Travis Shaw who is batting .295 with 47 RBIs. However, the Brewers were always known as being a solid hitting team. The main reason for this team’s sudden success has been the emergence of its starting rotation.

The Brewers have been blessed with phenomenal starting pitching from Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and Junior Guerra. Anderson is currently 5-2 with a 2.92 ERA and flirted with a no-hitter a few weeks ago against Arizona. Davies is currently 7-3 but his 4.91 ERA is a bit too high if he plans on maintaining this success throughout the course of the season. Guerra is currently 1-1 with a 2.84 ERA and has pitched nicely after returning from the disabled list on May 26.

However, one huge concern with this squad is its bullpen. The Brewers’ bullpen was actually solid for the first few months but has recently imploded. If you do not believe me, ask the Los Angeles Dodgers who had multiple comeback wins against the Brewers a few weeks ago. If the Brewers fix this issue, they can potentially win the division which would be an absolute shock to the baseball world.

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