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Rivals Stalking St. Louis Cardinals in National League Central Race

Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates Continue to Find Ways to Win in Crowded NL Central

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COMMENTARY | With baseball's best record at 34-17 through May 28, fans could be forgiven for expecting to find the St. Louis Cardinals running away with the National League Central division lead. And perhaps they would be -- if not for the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates drafting their way to a division showdown.

I recently explored how the Cardinals are winning games at their best pace since 2005. Just to round things out a bit, here's a look at how their NL Central rivals are keeping pace as well.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds are streaking through the 2013 season in their quest to catch the Cardinals atop the NL Central. Not quite as efficient as the Redbirds, the Redlegs combine their No. 1 OBP (.339) in the National League with their No. 6 slugging percentage (.404) to score runs in bunches. Their divison-leading 54 home runs and second-best OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) make them the most dangerous offensive team in the division. Honestly, with the exception of a No. 7 ranked batting average, it's hard to find a weakness in this offense.

Of course, their pitching is no slouch either. With both the starters and relievers ranking in the top five in the NL in WHIP and batting average against, their pitching staff is posting a No. 3 ranked 3.23 ERA, a No. 3 ranked .235 batting average against, and a No. 1 ranked WHIP of 1.17.

Perhaps their one Achilles heel comes in the form of home runs allowed and free passes issued. As a result, the pen is literally losing games for them (their 10 bullpen losses is third most in the NL), a trend that's not likely to end anytime soon with Sean Marshall on the disabled list and Aroldis Chapman showing a few cracks.

Overall, the only question mark surrounding the Reds at this point is whether or not their power display will continue. With Shin-Soo Choo and Brandon Phillips slugging home runs at a career-best pace and Ryan Ludwick (26 HRs in 2012) on the disabled list until mid-August, their home run totals are vulnerable to midseason slumps.

But don't think for a minute that Reds general manager Walt Jocketty will stand pat at the trade deadline if he has a chance to beat his old team in the NL Central. Jocketty will be on the lookout for the best possible way to improve his club. The hard part may be figuring out how to do that with one of the most well-rounded teams in baseball.

Pittsburgh Pirates

At 32-20 through May 28, the Bucs have the third-best record in the National League. The only problem is, the teams with the first and second-best records are in the same division. Still, what the Pirates are doing -- especially with their pitching staff -- should not be overlooked.

The starting rotation in Pittsburgh may be one of the biggest surprises of the season. With the No. 5 ranked ERA (3.51), the No. 5 ranked WHIP (1.23), and the No. 2 ranked opponents' batting average in the NL (.229), Pirates starters are doing just enough to hang with the Reds and Cardinals. But it's their bullpen that really stands out.

Among all NL pens, the Pirates' relievers rank No. 2 in ERA (2.76), No. 1 in WHIP (1.13), and No. 1 in opponents' batting average (.212). That brings the Pittsburgh pitching staff statistics up to No. 2 in ERA (3.20), No. 2 in WHIP (1.19), and No. 1 in opponents' batting average (.222) as a whole. Led by Jason Grilli's 0.68 WHIP, the Bucs' relievers give Pirates manager Clint Hurdle no reason to worry late in games.

What is a concern, however, is the Pirates' offense.

With a .242 batting average (No. 12 in the NL), a .308 OBP (No. 10 in the NL), and a league-worst .214 average with runners in scoring position (No. 15 in the NL), Pittsburgh hitters are one of the most inefficient offensive groups in the National League. If not for their 52 home runs (tied for No. 4 in the NL), they could find themselves battling for fourth place in the division with the Milwaukee Brewers.

And that's the real question for the Pirates. Is their offensive power the real deal, or is it vulnerable to sudden and steep power loss?

Led by Pedro Alvarez' 10 home runs and Andrew McCutchen's seven, 10 other Pirates hitters have between two and six home runs each. That kind of widespread power distribution can create a certain level of slump immunity for a homer-happy lineup, and there's certainly nothing about either Alvarez' or McCutchen's homer history to suggest they're slugging way above their norm.

Still, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington would be wise to look for an offensive improvement in the trade market -- preferably someone who can get on-base somewhere in the neighborhood of a .400 OBP. But an offensive piece may have to take a back seat to a starting pitcher.

Although the Pirates rotation is currently hanging in there, several hurlers are posting career numbers only two months into the season.

A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Jeanmar Gomez and Wandy Rodriguez are all posting unsustainable -- considering their career numbers -- WHIP numbers. And Burnett, Locke, Gomez and Francisco Liriano are easily out-performing their previous seasons in terms of ERA. When it comes down to it, their rotation is a nice story, but history tells us that at least a few of them are bound to fall back to Earth by the end of July.

All things considered, the Pirates have quite a bit to build on, but the front office has a lot of work to do if they expect to contend with the Reds and Cardinals in September.

Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast every Sunday evening at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).

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