I’ve fielded a lot of questions lately about the National League Central and had yet to formulate a response that I was entirely comfortable with, except to say that none of this really surprises me; PECOTA had pegged the Cubs and the Brewers at the two best teams in the division going in, and that certainly wasn’t going to change once the Cardinals lost Chris Carpenter.
Mostly for my own edification, therefore, and perhaps as a rebuttal of sorts to Joe’s second-half preview (in which he forecasts the Cubs to overtake the Brewers), here is a closer look at the two contenders going-forward.
Catching. Johnny Estrada is pretty much the defintion of a league average catcher, and it’s probably optimistic to put anybody on the Cubs’ roster into that category, although it would be interesting to run an updated PECOTA for Geovany Soto, who was hitting very well at Iowa. Slight Edge: Brewers
Infield. The clearest edge is at shortstop, where J.J. Hardy, having regressed to something resembling a sustainable level of performance, still rates miles ahead of Cesar Izturis or Ryan Theriot; note also that the Cubs’ best shortstop option is currently playing at Triple-A. The infield corners present interesting quandaries about hot first halves against established performances, but even most Cub fans would concede that they’d prefer Prince Fielder to Derrek Lee the rest of the way out, while third base looks like a wash. Edge: Brewers
Outfield. While Alfonso Soriano — I still don’t hate that signing — is much better than Geoff Jenkins, the Brewers at least have stable options in center and right, and if PECOTA is any guide, then Bill Hall and Corey Hart are quite capable of sustaining these performances. Brewer outfielders have out-VORPed the Cubs by a 45.8-25.7 margin thus far on the season, and while that probably overstates the difference, the Brewers still have a slight edge.
Starting Pitching. The difference-maker here appears to be Rich Hill. However I line up the starters from 1 to 5 on each side, Hill rates as having a pretty big edge over his counterpart, while the other races are hard to call. Still, Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall are almost certain to regress — look at Marquis’ very blah strikeout-to-walk numbers — and the Brewers have a literal ace in the hole in the form of Yovani Gallardo. Slight Edge: Cubs
Bullpen. Whatever you think of Carlos Marmol — and some season-ticket holders I know believe in his stuff 100% — the Cubs’ simply can’t match the Brewers’ depth, as literally every reliever on the Brewer roster has an ERA of 3.54 or lower. Even if Joe is correct that this is an area where the Brewers can expect to experience some regression, it’s still one of the stronger groups in the league, whereas the Cubs are just average. Edge: Brewers
Outside the Lines. I’m not going to try and render a decisive verdict on the respective managers. Lou Piniella’s greatest fault is probably the tendancy to stick with the hot hand too long and misunderstand sample size effects; on the other hand, he can occasionally be creative, such as when he used Marmol in a sabermetrically correct way by bringing him into a jam in the seventh inning of Friday’s game. However, the Cubs appear as though they will sacrifice what would ordinarily be a quite material financial advantage because the uncertain disposition of the sale of the club will prevent them from taking on salary in the form of an outfielder or perhaps a set-up man. Edge: None
Overall. Although this sort of point-by-point comparision can inherently be misleading, it’s surprisingly hard to construct an argument that the Cubs have more talent top-to-bottom than the Brewers. Couple that with the three-and-a-half games that the Brewers have in hand, and I would rate them as perhaps 5:2 favorites to hold onto the Central, which is somewhat larger than the 2:1 edge that the playoff odds report implies. On the other hand, the Cubs are probably talented enough to control their own destiny in the watered-down National League; if they play good baseball over the next 11 weeks, a spot in the post-season should be waiting for them.