We are nearly a third of the way through the Major League Baseball season, and while most teams are starting to move towards their expected place in the standings, the National League Central is still a bit perplexing. The Chicago Cubs were the most overwhelming Vegas favorite to win their division before the season began, and even now nearly two months into the season, they are still pretty massive favorites at -400, and still the slight favorites to win the National League at +225.
However, is gigantic laydown merited? I mean, the Cubs were on a three-game winning streak and finally got into a tie for first place after languishing a few games back in third or even fourth place. But even then, it only pushed them to a scant four games over .500, tied with the Brewers and a half game (and a game back in the loss column) ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. Even the Cincinnati Reds are lurking around three games back and owned a slight positive run differential. And after the last weekend, where the Cubbies scratched four runs total in a series sweep against the Dodgers – AND ALL FOUR runs came off of Clayton Kershaw (odd, right?), I think it is now completely fair to say the Cubs are still obviously a dangerous team, but it is time to take a real look at the value of some of the hopeful challengers.
Is this just a slow start for the Cubs, or is there some value at looking at the St. Louis Cardinals at +450, or even the long-shot Milwaukee Brewers and their potent lineup at +1000?? Cincinnati is a massive longshot, but has outperformed expectations and done so with three-fifths of their starting rotation on the Disabled List, and even the Pirates have climbed back into the mix at just four games trailing and with a roster full of playoff veterans.
Vegas is not too convinced that the road to the World Series doesn’t still run through Wrigley, but is there some value created in that assumption?
Here’s a look at the National League Central at the one-third mark of the season from a wager perspective.
CURRENT ODDS TO WIN NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL:
Chicago Cubs | -400
St. Louis Cardinals | +450
Milwaukee Brewers | +1000
Cincinnati Reds | +3300
Pittsburgh Pirates | +4000
National League Central Wagering Overview – MAY 30th
The Favorite: Chicago Cubs -400
Let’s be honest. This past Holiday Weekend was a disaster. They have dropped four straights, scoring five runs over four games and three of the were complete dominations by a team many foresee if their playoff future, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The starting pitching has struggled outside of Jon Lester (who just got shelled Sunday, allowing six runs in just over three innings in a fizzled showdown against Clayton Kershaw). Jake Arrieta looks like a shell of the guy who was Bob Gibson reincarnated for 18 months in 2015-2016, John Lackey is 37 and looking it, and the fifth starter has been a revolving door this season.
Anthony Rizzo is hitting in the .240’s, Kyle Schwarber is hitting .178, and while Jason Hayward has been better this season than last, he is still a below-average production right fielder. This team is not invulnerable, and through two months we are STILL waiting to see some evidence that the massive lines you’d have to eat to back them as NL Central champs are really worth the plunge.
The Cubs are currently 8th in the NL in runs scored and a distant 13th in team batting average. They are slugging. They have a team OPS of .737, ranking them tenth, behind teams like Atlanta and Miami.
On the pitching side of the equation, things aren’t great there either. Their team ERA is a solid fourth at 4.04, but their starting rotation is ninth at 4.58. Their starters clearly aren’t getting it done, and that can be a more difficult problem to address midseason. There will be a few quality starters on the trade block in August, but it is usually easier to solidify the bullpen. The good news is, with the young depth of the Cubs, they can probably BE the team to grab the marquee starter since they have the assets to pay dearly for the acquisition.
Overall, obviously, this is still the most talented team in the division. And without a real legitimately intimidating challenger (there are flaws in every other team in the Central as well, and with less optimism that “things will just get better” around those flaws), the Cubs are still the team to beat. But at -400 with so many teams still hanging around? I don’t see any reason to rush on to this wager.
The Main Contender: St. Louis Cardinals +450
There is some decent value in the Redbirds. First, they have long time organizational pedigree. Granted, past performance doesn’t ensure future success, but there is something tantalizing about having the Cardinals at a high plus-money number. Like Chicago, their supposed mighty offense has failed to live up to expectations so far in 2017. They are two percentage points behind the Cubs in OPS and 11th in the league. They are batting just .254 (9th) and have a team OBP of .326 (7th) – usually one of the characteristics of the Cardinals patience and offensive “smarts.”
Their starting pitching is strong however. They lead the National League with a 3.21 ERA and they lead the second place Dodgers (3.53) by a wide margin. The bullpen has been awful, ranking 13th with a 4.74 ERA, but if they can plug up that leak and have their offense track back towards the expected norm, you could be looking at a dangerous team. It makes +450 a pretty nice value given the Cubs flaws are so similar and their starting pitching has so many more question marks.
Matt Carpenter, Randall Grichuk and Dexter Fowler are all hitting in the .220’s. Assuming all picks up the pace, there is some easy room for improvement in this offense. The Cardinals have a good lineup all playing poorly and are STILL tied for first place in the crowded NL Central bunched up race.
The Surprising Contender: Milwaukee Brewers +1000
The Brew Crew was an afterthought heading into 2017, but thanks to solid starts from Braun, Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana – and of course, the breakout sensation of Eric Thames, the Brewers fins themselves in the thick of the race. They will REALLY need Jonathan Villar to pick up the pace and set the table – he is hitting just .214 with a .284 OBP if they are going to continue to score enough runs to contend.
It’s a fun start, but it is easy to see Milwaukee fading a bit over the summer. They are relying heavily on their bullpen to make up for some spotty starting pitching and they don’t have the same high-level elite starting pitching to match the Cubs and Cardinals. Eric Thames is pretty mere-mortal when facing anyone OTHER than the Reds this season, so perhaps his MVP dreams were a little overstated.
I like the start in Milwaukee and like the potential of their lineup, especially when Braun is healthy (not always a given, and currently on the 10-day DL), but in the long run, it is really hard to see this team winning the 88-90 games it will take to win the division (at a minimum).
The Very Surprising Lingering Contender: Cincinnati Reds +3300
The Reds are +3300 for a reason. Sure, their offense has been beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. They have five guys in the top twenty in homeruns, including tied for the league-leader, Scott Schebler. Adam Duvall leads the NL in RBI’s in May and is making a run at being a back-to-back All Star and Joey Votto looks more like the MVP guy he was in 2010 and the star from the second half of 2016 than he does the guy who barely hit his weight pre-All Star Break last season. Eugenio Suarez has emerged as a legit big league third baseman, and Zack Cozart is third in the league in hitting with an average that has fluttered near .350 all season.
ALL THAT, and they are STILL two games under .500!
The biggest reason is their dreadful starting pitching. They have had three starters (argueably their three BEST starters) on the DL most of all of the season (Homer Bailey, Anthony DiSclafani and Brandon Finnegan) and in their place, they have 40-year old Bronson Arroyo, and a bunch of minor leagues and journeymen. Scott Feldman is likely the only starter on their current active roster who would even MAKE another contending team, and he hasn’t been great. The staff starting ERA is a whopping 5.96, easily the worst in all the league by close to a full run margin and a run and a half worse than ANYONE else in the NL Central.
You can hit all day, but if your starters are toting an ERA of six, you have some real problems.
The only thing that makes them an interesting flyer is that there could be some help on the way, if and when, Finnegan and DiSclafani return. Put two or three pitchers with that lineup, and +3300 is a fun flyer. Until then, it is a losing wager.
What Happened? Pittsburgh Pirates +4000
What a difference two years make… all the promise and potential of a team that went to three straight postseasons now seems really far in the rear-view mirror. Their best offensive player, Gregory Polanco is suspended for PED use. Andrew McCutchen, the not-so-long-ago MVP is batting .218. John Jaso is often their cleanup hitter, and he is hitting .208 with three homeruns, and Josh Harrison (.303) is their only everyday regular batting over .255.
There are some real depressing stats in Pittsburgh that indicates a once promising window has closed. Even with young, talented pitching (that is also underperforming) it is hard to see the Pirates climbing back out of the hole.
This division is still Chicago’s to lose, but more by default than domination like in 2016. I like a +450 flyer on St. Louis but can’t really see anyone else winning this division 100 games from now.
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