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

Don’t sleep on the kids in Cincy!

Cincinnati Reds v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

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 June 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: Cincinnati Reds (43-38)

Top Position Player: T.J. Friedl (2.3 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Hunter Greene (1.7 fWAR)

Don’t look now but those upstart kids in Cincinnati are in first place. On the back of a recent 12-game winning streak, the Reds are shock leaders of their division at the halfway point. The youth movement is producing results sooner than many expected, none more so than Elly de la Cruz. The phenom rookie shortstop already hits the ball harder, runs faster, and throws harder than just about any position player in baseball and has already hit for the cycle in his first month in the bigs.

He’s not the only one sparking the offense. Matt McLain has exceeded all rookie expectations with a 139 wRC+ since his debut. Sophomores T.J. Friedl and Spencer Steer have taken massive steps in their development. Joey Votto’s got three home runs and a 178 wRC+ in his seven games back from starting the season because of course he does.

The trio of young starters in Hunter Greene, Graham Ashcraft, and Nick Lodolo was expected to form the nucleus of any success for the Reds this season, but only Greene has performed as advertised. After a somewhat disappointing rookie campaign, Greene got in the lab and tweaked his fastball and slider and is among the league leaders in strikeout rate. He’s joined by another unexpected rookie riser in Andrew Abbott, who has a 1.21 ERA in five starts since his debut.

Second Place: Milwaukee Brewers (42-38)

Top Position Player: Christian Yelich (2.4 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Corbin Burnes (1.1 fWAR)

With the three-headed monster of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta headlining perhaps the best rotation on paper in baseball, many expected the Brewers to go neck-and-neck with the Cardinals for the division. All three pitchers have disappointed in one form or another, Burnes and Peralta from ineffectiveness and Woodruff from a lengthy injury layoff.

The real struggle has been on offense, where just Christian Yelich and William Contreras provide above-average production among the regular starters. The Brewers are 28th in OPS and 27th in runs per game. Contreras continues to be one of the trade steals of the century having somehow been poached by Milwaukee from Atlanta in the three-team trade that sent Sean Murphy from the A’s to the Braves and is tied with Adley Rutschman as the third-most valuable catcher in the first half.

Third Place: Chicago Cubs (37-41)

Top Position Player: Dansby Swanson (2.9 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Justin Steele (2.4 fWAR)

The Cubs signaled an intention over the winter, if not to contend then at least to compete with a relative shopping spree by their recent standards. Dansby Swanson was their marquee signing, supplemented by Cody Bellinger and Jameson Taillon, and at least the former pair have impressed. Bellinger looked like he might be out of baseball after the last two seasons with the Dodgers. The former MVP was one of the hottest hitters in April before cooling off significantly since then, but still is above-average for the season.

Depending on how they play from here through the end of July, the Cubs have a pair of intriguing pitchers who could become available at the deadline. Marcus Stroman has the third-lowest ERA among qualified starters and can opt out after this season. Meanwhile, teams looking for a controllable young starter may have to pony up to lure Justin Steele from Wrigley.

Fourth Place: Pittsburgh Pirates (37-42)

Top Position Player: Bryan Reynolds (1.6 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Mitch Keller (2.1 fWAR)

This past offseason was likely the most hopeful Pirates fans have been in nearly a decade. The team finally tied down Bryan Reynolds to a long-term deal and Oneil Cruz was looking like one of the next great shortstops in the game. Then disaster struck as he broke his leg in the second week of the season. With that in mind, it’s hard to believe the Pirates were in first place as recently as June 15th thanks Andrew McCutchen’s triumphant return and to the continued power output from sophomore Jack Suwinski. However, a ten-game losing streak in the middle of the month including nine to divisional opponents have seen the Bucs drop all the way down to fourth place, five games back of first.

Should the Pirates become sellers, you’d have to imagine Mitch Keller becomes their most attractive chip. The flame-throwing righty is in the top-ten of qualified starters by FIP and has two more years of team control after this season. David Bednar also continues to be one of if not the most underrated closers in the game and is tied for the third-most valuable reliever so far.

Last Place: St. Louis Cardinals (33-46)

Top Position Player: Paul Goldschmidt (2.5 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Jordan Montgomery (2.1 fWAR)

In one of the more shocking developments of the halfway point, many people’s pick to win the division instead find themselves in the cellar. Cardinals president John Mozeliak indicated that “some changes” could be coming for the Cardinals, though they will likely fall short of a full-scale teardown. That the Cardinals are one of the surest bet sellers through the first half is nothing short of extraordinary.

How did this happen? For starters, it doesn’t help that reigning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have fallen back to Earth from MVP-level production to somewhere between above-average and borderline All-Star. They’re hardly the only ones to blame as the regression bug has bitten most if not all of their offensive contributors from last season. Tommy Edman, Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, Lars Nootbaar, and Tyler O’Neill have seen their form slip, and now the question marks in the rotation are getting exposed.

Outside of Jordan Montgomery, the Cardinals starters are not limiting runs enough to protect their offense. Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas are struggling to find effectiveness pitching with diminished velocity while Steven Matz and Adam Wainwright have been downright miserable. One also has to wonder how much this pitching staff misses Yadier Molina, and how much the entire Willson Contreras saga — when he was removed from catching duties, told he would play the outfield, then told he wouldn’t, and now mostly DH’s — had on not only the staff but the entire clubhouse.