After a few weeks and with some surprises, the NL Central has begun to look a lot more as expected, particularly at the very top.
With a lineup containing the best player on the planet, the Cardinals have recently started to pull away and
seem well on their way to their third straight division title. Pujols' numbers are mind-boggling (22 homers and 54 RBI). Barring an injury or a stunning slump, he's practically locked up the MVP Award in May. Underrated David Eckstein has an OBP of .390 and provides the kind of spark few leadoff hitters can match.
While injuries and age have slowed Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen to some degree, they are both still dangerous hitters. Juan Encarcion and Yadier Molina have been disappointments, but the rest of the lineup has picked them up so far. Chris Carpenter has continued to pitch like an ace and starters Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, and Jason Marquis form a solid rotation that always keeps the Cardinals in the game. After a slow start, closer Jason Isringhausen has rounded into form. Only injuries will keep the Cards from playing in October.
Losers of 10 of their last 15, the "Big Red Mirage" are starting to play like their talent level indicates they should. Bronson Arroyo has been an outstanding acquisition and is obviously thrilled not to have to face those tough NL lineups, but you simply can't send out such a mediocre starting rotation and expect to stay in the race. I told you a few weeks back to bet against them and those who listened are a bit richer today.
The Astros got off to a hot start before their starting pitching went through a horrid stretch. Roy Oswalt remains one of the league's top pitchers and Wayne Rodriguez has been a nice surprise, but Andy Pettitte has struggled, Brandon Backe is out for the year, and the rest of the rotation has been inconsistent. Brad Lidge has struggled (mostly with his control), but expect him to turn things around.
Morgan Ensberg hit home runs in six straight games early in the year and Lance Berkman would be an MVP candidate in a league without Pujols. Also, very quietly, Brad Ausmus has put together a very good year (.418 OBP). The Astros could stay in the wildcard race and may soon get the kind of help that could rocket them to the finish line.
The Brewers are fun to watch.
They lead the majors in home runs, and youngsters Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and Bill Hall mix nicely with veterans Geoff Jenkins, Carlos Lee, and Corey Koskie. The only thing is they may be too dependent on getting home runs and they strike out too much. A bit of small ball might help them at times. Getting Ben Sheets healthy would help a rotation that has one underrated star (Chris Capuano) and mostly back-of-the-rotation types. Derrick Turnbow is showing he's no fluke, but the bullpen lacks depth. This year's trendy sleeper pick will stay around a while, but ultimately doesn't have enough for the playoffs.
First the Red Sox, then the White Sox, now the Cu ? stop right there. Derrek Lee's injury has revealed just how impotent the rest of the Cubs lineup is. Juan Pierre has an OBP of .
271. Aramis Ramirez is hitting only .231. It's ugly on the North Side.
Greg Maddux's May has been very different than his April and still no sign of Mark Prior. Dusty Baker must be on edge. No playoffs here, folks.
The Pirates were expected to be an improved team this year, but their starting pitching has failed them. Zach Duke has hit a bit of a tougher time facing teams the second time around, and whatever happened to Oliver Perez, who was thought to be a fast rising star? Not much hope in the Steel City either.
So early on, it looks like it's the Cards division to lose and the Astros waiting for Roger Clemens to make them serious wildcard contenders.
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Jonathan Wachs WagerWeb.com Contributing Writer .