The National League playoff picture is an interesting one. The NL East is pretty much a runaway for the Washington Nationals and the NL West looks like a sure lock for the L.A. Dodgers. Still holding are the two wild card teams in Colorado and Arizona, the Nl Central is a much tighter race.

Four of the five teams in the NL Central are within four games going into July 27: the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, and Pirates. The Brewers have spent much of the summer months in the first place to the surprise of many, battling with the defending champion Cubs. The Pirates and Cardinals have been very inconsistent, but to their benefit of having the weakest division in the NL in terms of a leading team record, they have been able to stay afloat.

With the trade deadline looming, it will be interesting to see what the four clubs do in terms of contention, some will obviously go for it but others on the border is less known at the moment.

The surprising Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers were picked to win somewhere in the mid-70s by a lot of people this year seeing as they are still in transition mode. However, they were able to hold onto first place from May to late July with the inconsistent play of everyone else, plus winning some key games. From June 13 to July 9 the Brewers went 17-9 and had a 50-41 record at the break in first place. Since the deadline, they have gone four and eight with their pitching letting them down late in several games.

Looking at Milwaukee overall, they are 19th in bullpen ERA at 4.36 and 6th in starters ERA at 4.01 with a team ERA of 4.14 overall which is 10th best. Note their overall FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), an adjusted ERA, is 4.35 which is middle of the road. So their bullpen is not great and their starting pitching is solid but not incredible, but it has kept them in games.

The offense has the eight best OPS (On-Base + Slugging) at .770 with a .325 OBP (On-Base Percentage) which is 17th and 153 home runs (third highest) with the second highest strikeout rate in baseball at 25.5%. The team's offense likes to slug the ball for extra bases and home runs but is not spectacular when it comes to getting on base and plate discipline.

Milwaukee is a young team with a nice future, but Fangraphs only puts them at a 10.8% chance to make the postseason despite their previous success in the first half. What will they do at the deadline? They may go for it and sell future assets to try to win now or stand pat and continue the original plan, we will see.

Champs trying to keep the crown

The Chicago Cubs were heavy favorites to win the division this season. Seeing as the young team won the World Series last year and 103 regular season games with pretty much the same roster minus Dexter Fowler and David Ross. However, the team was mediocre across the board in the first half. The starting pitching took a major dip from its incredible season last year with a 4.66 ERA, 4.51 FIP and 1.37 WHIP (Walks-Hits per Innings Pitched).

It was odd seeing the Cubs starters surrender 80 runs in the first inning in the first half which dug the team into a lot of holes in each game.

The offense had seen its share of ups and downs despite still having a great walk rate at 9.9% and .330 OBP but had trouble manufacturing runs when they got guys on base. There was also a matter of the defense which was, again, historically good last year now with 65 errors which is uncharacteristic for a team that has several gold and platinum glovers in the field. Some attributed the lack of fundamental play to a World Series hangover, but it is hard to know for sure.

The Cubs were able to move into first place on the evening of 7/26 with a victory over the White Sox.

Since the break, the Cubs have gone 10-2 with starters performing much better and with the help of the arrival of Jose Quintana and a more consistent offense that has averaged six runs per game with eight games scoring five plus runs. There is a long way to go and the Cubs have not had consistency all year, but on paper there is no doubt this is the most talented team in the NL Central.

Can't count out the Cards

Going into 7/27, the St. Louis Cardinals are a game below .500 which is extremely unusual for that organization at this point of the season.

A team that is in contention every year has had some rough patches this season with mediocre play and injuries. OF Dexter Fowler and OF Stephen Piscotty have been injured and inconsistent play from Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina have not helped either. The bullpen has a 4.01 ERA and 15 blown saves as a team which has hurt them badly. The defense has also made 63 errors, struggling with fundamentals themselves.

The Cardinals may not have the roster like they did in the early 2010s with Albert Pujols, in-prime Molina, Matt Holiday, young Carpenter, in-prime Adam Wainwright...but they are the Cardinals. Their track record of finding guy no one has ever heard of and turning them into respectable players still continues as SS Paul DeJong is having a nice year with 14 homers in 49 games and a .893 OPS.

Their postseason chances right now according to Fangraphs is 27.2% which is not incredibly high, but if the Cardinals make some moves and get healthy they cannot be ignored.

Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates earlier this season looked doomed for 2017. Starling Marte being suspended for PEDS, Andrew McCutchen not playing well and the pitching staff looking poor made their chances look grim. On July 3 they were 37-46 and now they are 50-52 and four games out of first. During that span, they went 13-6 including a four-game sweep of the Brewers at home. Andrew McCutchen is now slashing .285/.376/.877 with 18 homers with a 1.7 fWAR which was key in the Pirates getting back in the race.

The Pirates pitching staff has been meh so far with a 4.24 ERA and 4.14 FIP and 1.36 FIP.

Ivan Nova has had a good year while ace Gerrit Cole has been inconsistent with a 4.20 FIP. Other starters like Chad Khul, Trevor Williams, and Tyler Glasnow have all struggled especially early on which has hurt them. If the Pirates want to stay in this race, they need more consistency from their pitching because the offense has been swinging well overall. Their chances at the playoffs are small at 10.2%, but they are still talented enough to stick around in the race until September.

Overall...

The Cubs are still the heavy favorites to win this division. But when the race is close at this time of year, it is always good to look out for any teams because baseball can do very unexpected things. The Reds are the only team that basically has zero shot in the NL Central, but others are all close.

The trade deadline can make or break the chances for some of these clubs.

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