NL Central: A tale of two seasons?

Three playoff teams, the National League champion, and the home of some of baseball’s greatest, most active rivalries. With Cincinnati and Pittsburgh on the rise, the NL Central looked poised to dominate baseball for the foreseeable future.

2014 didn’t start too much different either, however. The Milwaukee Brewers emerged as a contender, opening their season 21-9, with a stellar rotation, balanced lineup, and a solid crop of young stars needed for long term success.

The Brewers, as many have expected, have come down to Earth, and are now losers of four of their last five, including a series loss to the last place Chicago Cubs.

Yet even without the Brewers, the NL Central still looks very strong. After all, the Brewers were 74-88 in 2013 and were not meant to contend.

When the defending senior circuit champions only stand at 24-21, questions are asked. Many wonder why the last place Chicago Cubs have a similar run differential as the first place Brewers. Many ponder as to why the Pittsburgh Pirates have not been able to find a groove, especially with no major injuries.

The National League Central, with all of these problems in the mix, looks to be in its’ worst shape since 2007, where the Cubs were able to be crowned division champions after posting a meager 85-77 record, rather sub par for a division champion. While the Brewers remain in first place, regression is almost certain to happen, as the Brew Crew have suffered perhaps the most injuries of all the NL Central teams.

Battling injuries to their stars such as Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, and most recently Yovani Gallardo, who left his May 20 start against the Braves with shoulder fatigue, the Brewers are losing what has gotten them to where they are. Battling these injuries, it is unlikely that Milwaukee will be able to hold on to their division lead.

Even with the Brewers regressing, the St. Louis Cardinals, who entered the season by many as World Series favorites, are not feeling any urgency to make a move to increase their mediocre offensive production. After substantial regression from players who helped carry them to the NL Pennant last year, the Cardinals are deeply struggling to score runs. With Allen Craig‘s batting average going from .315 to .220, and Matt Carpenter‘s average regressing from .318 to .264, timely hits are now seemingly exclusive to Yadier Molina.

If the Cardinals continue to struggle, who’s division is it? It’s almost certain that the Cubs will be ruled out, as they remain non-factors for another rebuilding year, but it’s virtually a tossup between the other four teams. The 2nd NL Wild Card team in 2013, the Cincinnati Reds, are riding off of the hot start by Johnny Cueto. Yet losing the 100+ RBI production from 2B Brandon Phillips and the loss of Jay Bruce to injury is a major blow for the Reds’ chances to compete.

The National League Central remains any team’s game, yet the drastic change in the level of play remains the most surprising. Injuries have degenerated several teams at the start of the season, a problem that has not been NL Central exclusive. Yet even battling past the injury problems and having positive starts, the league’s strongest division in 2013 has surely taken a new identity along with the new season.