Sizing up the NL Central challenge facing inconsistent Cubs

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon on the teams in the NL Central this season: "I want to play in what's considered the best division in all of baseball. Hopefully that's what we are considered at some point."

    Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon on the teams in the NL Central this season: "I want to play in what's considered the best division in all of baseball. Hopefully that's what we are considered at some point." Associated Press

 
 
Updated 5/30/2018 8:35 AM

Just three years ago, the National League Central produced three playoff teams.

The third-place Cubs then knocked off the other two in the playoffs and advanced to the 2015 NL championship series. You know what they did the next year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Central wasn't expected to be anything special this season, but as we crossed the traditional Memorial Day milepost, four of the division's teams are above .500.

Even though both wild-card spots are now held by the Nationals and Phillies in the NL East, it's possible four NL Central teams will compete for one, two or three postseason spots this summer.

"I love it," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "I thought that from the beginning. I thought everybody was ascending. Milwaukee's still going to get better. They're doing really well right now. St. Louis has done a lot of nice work. Pittsburgh, they brought up the young kid (pitcher Nick Kingham), and he's doing what he's capable of doing.

"It's wonderful. I love good competition. I want to play in what's considered the best division in all of baseball. Hopefully that's what we are considered at some point. That should bring out the best in you as a group. You play those teams more often than any other teams, and it should draw out the best part of your playing ability."

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The Brewers entered Tuesday with an NL-best record of 35-20, and they held a 4-game lead over the Cubs. At the all-star break last year, the Cubs were 43-45, and they trailed the Brewers by 5 before rallying to win the division by 6 games.

With two-thirds of the season left, here's how the top four in the NL Central stack up.

Milwaukee Brewers:

Milwaukee third baseman Travis Shaw, shown here with manager Craig Counsell at right, has a hitting line of .260/.346/.536 with 13 homers and 36 RBI for the Brewers this season.
Milwaukee third baseman Travis Shaw, shown here with manager Craig Counsell at right, has a hitting line of .260/.346/.536 with 13 homers and 36 RBI for the Brewers this season. - Associated Press

The Brewers weathered the loss of closer Corey Knebel in April, and the Milwaukee bullpen entered the holiday first in the majors in ERA and in strikeouts per 9 innings. They also had a WHIP of 1.12.

Relievers Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress more than held the fort until Knebel returned from the disabled list.

Later this month, the Brewers could get Eric Thames off the DL for thumb surgery. Travis Shaw is proving that the Cubs' Kris Bryant isn't the only top-flight third baseman in the division. Shaw entered Tuesday with a line of .260/.346/.536 with 13 homers and 36 RBI.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Direction of arrow: Up.

Cubs:

Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant ranks third in the National League in wins above replacement at 2.3.
Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant ranks third in the National League in wins above replacement at 2.3. - Associated Press

The Cubs have had their issues, to be sure, especially with an inconsistent starting rotation. That said, their run differential of plus-77 is best in the National League, and it gives them an expected, or Pythagorean, win-loss record of 33-17. Their actual record entering Tuesday was 28-22.

We'll know more this week about the immediate future of pitcher Yu Darvish, who is on the DL for the second time this season. The Cubs need to get both Darvish and No. 5 starter Tyler Chatwood going, and to get more consistency from lefty Jose Quintana.

The bullpen, a question mark at the end of spring training, had a 2.66 ERA entering Tuesday, ranking third in MLB behind Milwaukee and Arizona.

Third baseman Kris Bryant entered Tuesday third in the NL in wins above replacement (WAR) at 2.3 with his line of .290/406/.540 to go with 8 homers and 23 RBI.

Direction of arrow: Sideways.

St. Louis Cardinals:

The St. Louis Cardinals have suffered a lot of injuries this season, and losing catcher Yadier Molina is the biggest.
The St. Louis Cardinals have suffered a lot of injuries this season, and losing catcher Yadier Molina is the biggest. - Associated Press

The Cardinals have been hit by injuries, most notably to catcher Yadier Molina (groin), shortstop Paul DeJong (hand), a graduate of Antioch High School, and pitcher Adam Wainwright (elbow). Former Cub Dexter Fowler is day to day with a sore knee.

As recently as May 20, the Cardinals held a share of first place. They'll have to tread water until they return to full health.

Direction of arrow: Down

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Pittsburgh's Corey Dickerson has been a good acquisition for the Pirates. He is hitting .311 with 5 homers and 31 RBI so far.
Pittsburgh's Corey Dickerson has been a good acquisition for the Pirates. He is hitting .311 with 5 homers and 31 RBI so far. - Associated Press

All the talk during the off-season was how the Pirates' window of opportunity slammed shut on their fingers when the Cubs beat them in the 2015 wild-card game.

The Pirates, who are hosting the Cubs this week, have slumped after a fast start, going 2-8 over their past 10 games entering Tuesday. They still had a plus-10 run differential, but this team could be slipping.

Corey Dickerson has been a nice acquisition, making the loss of Andrew McCutchen seem less hurtful. Dickerson entered Tuesday with a line of .311/.348/.489 with 5 homers and 31 RBI.

Direction of arrow: Down


What's ahead?

So how does the division shake out in the end? The Cubs still have the most talent in the division, and they have winning experience. Both the Cubs and Brewers have issues with their starting rotations.

"Of course you know you've done it before, so you feel like you can do it again," Maddon said. "But I don't want to keep putting our backs against the wall that deeply. I always count on the fact that the teams I'm affiliated with are going to play well in the second half. That's my minor-league training. I wanted to be better than they were in April in July, August and September. That's what you really want, to be playing your best baseball (late) if you can."

• Twitter: BruceMiles2112

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