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Handicapping the NL Central: Playoff Odds and Perspective For Every Team in 2015’s Toughest Division

There are plenty of great division races going on in baseball right now, but none of them are quite as exciting as the ongoing contest in the National League Central. Baseball’s toughest division includes the best team in baseball (the St. Louis Cardinals, 76-43, .639 win percentage) and the third-best team in baseball (the Pittsburgh Pirates, 70-47, .598 win percentage; the Kansas City Royals are the team in between). The NL Central is a showdown between two teams that are each better than any other team in the entire National League – and the third-place team, the Chicago Cubs, is a Wild Card favorite!

 

It’s a very real possibility that all three of these teams make the National League Playoffs (it’s what would happen if the season ended today). That’s why we’re breaking down the season outlook and playoff odds for each of these red-hot teams.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

76-43, .639

How good are the Cardinals? Well, as of this writing, they have a 99.8% chance of making the playoffs. That includes an 83.3% chance of winning the division, which, to put things in perspective, is about the same odds that the Dodgers are getting to make the playoffs at all (84.1%).

 

Still, the Cardinals can’t afford to rest on their laurels. To fulfill their destiny, they’ll have to hold off the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs, both surging squads with tons of talent. The Cardinals have what it takes to go all the way, though: immense talent, playoff-caliber pitching, and a front office that has pulled all the right strings. The division – and all of baseball – is theirs to lose.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

69-47, .598

5.0 games back in the division

Hold first Wild Card spot by 3.0 games

 

The poor Pirates. They’d be leading any other division in the National League, and four out of the other five divisions in baseball, with the record they have – and their record would be even better if they weren’t constantly forced to play the division-rival Cardinals. But the reality is that the Pirates are stuck in this brutal division, and the path to the division crown goes through St. Louis.

 

Pittsburgh has the talent to win any division, even the one they’re in, but they’re facing an uphill battle. They have just a 12.5% chance of winning the division, but a remarkable 80.9% chance of taking the Wild Card (their total playoff odds stand at 93.4%). The good news is that their ace pitcher, Gerrit Cole, gives them a great chance to win the Wild Card game if they fail to win the division. Unfortunately, the worst thing you can say about the Pirates in the regular season is also true about the playoffs: eventually, they’ll have to get through St. Louis.

 

Chicago Cubs

67-50, .573

8.0 games back in the division

Hold second Wild Card spot by 3.0 games

 

At less than 5%, the Cubs’ chances of winning the division look pretty grim. But that’s okay: their postseason probability is still higher than any National League division leader besides the Cardinals themselves. If that doesn’t drive home how good the NL Central is, then nothing will.

 

Like the rest of the division, the Cubs have great pitching (led by a solid season from Jake Arrieta). Like the rest of the division, they can hit. And like the rest of the division, they’re red-hot, only 3.0 games behind of a Pirates team that’s been the best in baseball over the past couple of months.

 

Come playoff time, the Cubs will be glad that they acquired RHP Dan Haren. With the Cardinals grabbing OF/1B Brandon Moss and RHP Jonathan Broxton, and the Pirates snagging LHP J.A. Happ, closer Joakim Soria, and 1B Michael Morse, it was clear that the Cubs needed to make a move to stay competitive. Now they have shored up their previously patchy starting rotation and seem much more ready for a playoff run that is sure include games against their tough division rivals. Of course, the Cubs didn’t go quite as crazy at the deadline as their rivals did – but this makes sense given when the Cubs are in the rebuilding process. They have their eye on long-term contention.

 

 

Cincinnati Reds

51-66, .436

24.0 games back in the division

16.0 games back in the Wild Card

 

Milwaukee Brewers

51-70, .421

26.0 games back in the division

18.0 games back in the Wild Card

 

It’s all over but the crying for the Reds and the Brewers, and to make matters worse, they’re looking at a division that is likely to stay difficult for quite a while. The Cardinals front office has shown a remarkable ability to keep their championship window alive almost in perpetuity, and the Cubs are just beginning to flex their muscles after a rebuilding project headed by one of the best general managers in all of baseball.

 

It’s too early to handicap the Reds’ and Brewers’ own odds of rebuilding successfully, but they’ve done the first part right by shedding payroll at the trade deadline this season.

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