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MLB End-of-April Check-in: NL Central

The red-hot Pirates can’t stop winning and are looking more and more legit with each passing day.

MLB: Game One-Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Every day, Pinstripe Alley offers updates on what the Yankees’ top American League opponents are up to through the Rivalry Roundup. The AL East is well-trodden ground there, but with the month of April coming to a close, we’re going to take a peak around MLB as a whole and check in with each of the other five divisions. Who’s surprising? Who’s underwhelming? Who’s simply mediocre at the moment? Read on and find out.

First Place: Pittsburgh Pirates (20-8)

Top Position Player: Jack Suwinski (1.0 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Roansy Contreras/David Bednar (0.8f WAR)

First, it was Bryan Reynolds. When he cooled off, it was Connor Joe and Jack Suwinski. Throughout the whole first month, it has also been Andrew McCutchen, Johan Oviedo, and David Bednar. It seems the Pirates have a different hero every night, but the fact they have a hero that actually saves them should be applauded and celebrated.

Evidently, the organization’s player development staff took a step forward, and we are now seeing a team with an actual future blossoming before our eyes. Before we discount these Pirates as a total fluke or a mirage, consider that with their 20-8 record, they have a +53 run differential, best in the National League.

In Reynolds (131), Joe (163), Suwinski (165), McCutchen (138), Jason Delay (165), Rodolfo Castro (136), and Carlos Santana (108), their lineup is full of above-average hitters per wRC+, and they haven’t even had their most promising player, Oneil Cruz, for most of the season after he suffered a fracture.

The pitching staff has had Johan Oviedo, Mitch Keller, and former Baby Bomber Roansy Contreras blossom into reliable contributors. They even have Vince Velásquez pitching well! Bednar has been automatic in the ninth inning, and they have a good bullpen.

Pittsburgh has won or split series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Boston Red Sox, and the St. Louis Cardinals, for example. Yes, they have feasted on the Washington Nationals, the Cincinnati Reds, the Colorado Rockies and the like, but those victories count, too. Are they for real? To some degree, yes. Will they make the playoffs for the first time since 2015? It’s too early to tell, but they are competitive at long last.

Second Place: Milwaukee Brewers (18-9)

Top Position Player: William Contreras/Willy Adames (0.9 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Freddy Peralta (0.8 fWAR)

The Milwaukee Brewers will probably be without one of their aces, Brandon Woodruff (0.79 ERA), for a while because of a shoulder injury, but he managed to avoid surgery for now and should eventually return to bolster one of the best pitching staffs in the league (3.40 collective ERA). Freddy Peralta and Wade Miley have both been pillars in the rotation.

They are relatively close to the Pirates even though their real ace, Corbin Burnes, is currently sporting a mediocre 4.55 ERA. It has been a team effort: Willy Adames (five homers, 122 wRC+), Rowdy Téllez (eight homers) and the rejuvenated Brian Anderson (119 wRC+) headline a good offense that also has William Contreras, young hitters such as Joey Wiemer, Brice Turang and Garrett Mitchell and veterans like Christian Yelich.

If Woodruff can return relatively soon, the pitching staff (including a really solid bullpen with the immaculate Devin Williams leading it) will keep carrying this team, potentially to the postseason.

Third Place: Chicago Cubs (14-12)

Top Position Player: Nico Hoerner (1.2 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Drew Smyly (0.8 fWAR)

The recently-extended Nico Hoerner (10 steals, 128 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR) and journeyman Patrick Wisdom (nine home runs) have been the most dangerous hitters in the Cubs’ revamped lineup. They also have quality starters all around, most notably in shortstop (Dansby Swanson) and the outfield, with the rejuvenated Cody Bellinger (five home runs, four stolen bases, .560 slugging), Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki.

The rotation has also been a surprise, with Drew Smyly, Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman all performing at an ace-level. Former Yankees Jameson Taillon and Hayden Wesneski have been less impressive, but are talented enough to turn things around.

This is a sneaky decent team that’s actually second in the National League in run differential at +44. They also have a great slugging prospect waiting in the wings in Matt Mervis. It could be an interesting year in Chicago.

Fourth Place: Cincinnati Reds (12-15)

Top Position Player: Jonathan India (0.8 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Hunter Greene (0.9 fWAR)

Well, 12-15 is definitely better than the 3-22 start they had last year, isn’t it? Maybe the Reds aren’t ready to be contenders, but they have at least been respectable and have been able to showcase some of their young prospects, who have given them some better than expected results.

Flamethrower Hunter Greene has a 3.52 ERA and an even better 2.48 FIP, Graham Ashcraft is breaking out with a 2.10 ERA, Alex Young (0.79 ERA) has blossomed in the bullpen, and we know Nick Lodolo is better than his 6.31 ERA suggests.

On the position players’ side, things haven’t been as promising. Jonathan India has returned to his effective ways (120 wRC+, five steals), but Spencer Steer is cooling off after a fast start. TJ Friedl (112 wRC+) is still performing, though, as is Tyler Stephenson.

In Elly De La Cruz and Christian Encarnacion-Strand the Reds have a couple of game-changing prospects waiting in the wings. The former has looked overmatched in Triple-A, but the latter has had some explosive performances. Their time will come.

Fifth Place: St. Louis Cardinals (10-18)

Top Position Player: Paul Goldschmidt (1.3 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Jordan Montgomery (0.9 fWAR)

The Cardinals have to be competing with the Chicago White Sox and the Seattle Mariners for the “most disappointing team of the first month” title. Division winners last year with a 93-69 record, they are 10-18 and dead last in the NL Central.

Outside of Jordan Montgomery (1.2 fWAR, 3.34 ERA) the Cards’ rotation has been a disaster. Miles Mikolas, at 0.1 fWAR, is the only other starter besides Monty above replacement level. It’s crazy that they have Matthew Liberatore with a 2.60 ERA in Triple-A and they haven’t entertained the possibility of calling him up.

Former stalwarts such as Jack Flahery and Steven Matz have been awful. Thankfully, the offense has been productive, with several above-average performers in reigning MVP Paul Goldschmidt (164 wRC+), Nolan Gorman (six homers, 149 wRC+), Willson Contreras, Paul DeJong, Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan. Surprisingly, Nolan Arenado has been bad (73 wRC+) but so many years of MVP-like play suggest he will get better.

The Cardinals still have time to address their rotation. If they do, they could compete for the top spot in the division. They need to act, though.

All cited statistics outside of team won/loss record were active as of the beginning of play on Saturday, April 29th.