NL Central has traffic jam for top spot
The most compelling divisional race in the second half of the 2011 season could be the one found in the National League Central. This race could also qualify as the strangest.
Entering the first weekend of the second half, we find four NL Central teams within four games of first place. No other division in baseball has this kind of traffic jam at the top.
On the other hand, the fifth- and sixth-place teams in this division-the Cubs and the Astros -- rank 29th and 30th in winning percentage in all of the Major Leagues. No other division has two clubs that are this far south of .500.
Catch this while you can because the push is on for at least a modest realignment that will end the Central's run as baseball's only six-team division. These teams have been the victim of overcrowding. From the standpoint of reaching the postseason, nobody else in baseball has to work through five other teams to win a divisional title. And it is also at least theoretically more difficult to win a Wild Card berth in a 16-team league than in a 14-team league.
Competitive equality demands a 15-15 split between the American and National Leagues. And that is what will happen, sooner or later. For the moment, in the overpopulated NL Central, there is intense competition at the top, with relatively slight competition at the bottom. Both the legitimately hopeful and the currently hapless reside here. It's an integrated neighborhood.
And it includes one of the pleasant surprises of 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The long franchise losing streak may be coming to an end. The Pirates' pitching has been sturdy, ranking fifth in league team earned run average. That is the best ERA in this division and it explains why the Pirates remain not merely competitive, but to date, a genuine contender.
Among the other three teams in the hunt, the Reds and the Brewers have under-achieved. The Reds are the defending divisional champions, but at the moment they are under .500 and in fourth place. Of course, that fourth place is only four games from first place, but still, it's an uncomfortable locale for the Cincinnati club.
The Reds came into the weekend ranked 14th in the NL in team ERA. The Reds lead the league in runs scored, but they believe that their offense should still be better. The recent callup of shortstop Zack Cozart looks like a move that should help. But the pitching must come closer to expectations.
The Brewers' season recalls a work by Robert Louis Stevenson, along the plot lines of "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The Brewers are 33-14 at home, best in the Majors, but 16-30 on the road, worst in the NL.
The Brewers have done everything possible to win immediately, hanging on to Prince Fielder, who is likely to depart in free agency after this season, trading away the best prospects in their system for starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and recently trading more prospects for reliever Francisco Rodriguez. But the pitching -- ranked 13th in the NL in team ERA -- has slipped recently and Greinke has not consistently approached his 2009 AL Cy Young Award form. For all this effort, a record just above .500 is not suitable.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, have overcome the loss of their top starter, Adam Wainwright, and a sub-standard season from the game's best all-around performer, Albert Pujols. The Cardinals still are second in the league in runs scored and they are, as usual, a maximum-effort operation. But they probably require pitching help, too.
Each of the four contenders has a combination of talent and drawbacks that could make this a race that goes all the way to the end of September. And in all honestly, the lack of competence demonstrated by the Astros and the Cubs indicates that there could be room for four clubs in this division to finish above .500.
At this point, none of the four contending clubs has shown the kind of consistent play that would allow it to run away from the other three. Then again, each of the clubs has shown enough ability to stay in the race.
There is no Philadelphia in this division, and no Boston, either. But the four clubs that have stuck around and stuck close to each other, have not yet produced evidence that they will either sprint off with the division title or evaporate.
That is competitive balance. It is supposed to create the possibility of great races. Here in the NL Central, baseball's most crowded division, this is exactly what is happening.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.