Miami Marlins vs St. Louis Cardinals

Jose Martinez uses a bubble gum container as a drum while Dexter Fowler dances during a Cardinals home run celebration in the June 17 game against the Miami Marlins at Busch Stadium.

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The headlines sound familiar.

“Will the Cubs be fine in the 2nd half or are they in denial?” asks the Chicago Tribune.

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Brewers “skidded into the break.”

And both of these teams are ahead of the .500 Cardinals at the All-Star break.

We were right about the National League Central being baseball’s most competitive division.

Only six wins separate the division-leading Cubs from the last-place Reds.

The next-closest division, from top to bottom, is the American League West, where the Astros hold a seven-win lead over the Athletics, and an 18-game advantage over the last-place Mariners. Not even close.

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt says we need to be more positive, so let’s give it a spin.

The Cardinals are fortunate to call home the only division in which the division leader has less than 50 wins.

Call it competitive, crowded or just plain underwhelming, the most important truth of the NL Central is that each team in it will return after the All-Star break knowing they have a legitimate chance to win it.

In an era of baseball that has trended toward all-or-nothing in almost every phase — tank, or tiptoe toward the luxury tax; strike out, or hit a home run; throw 100 mph, or not at all thanks to Tommy John surgery — here is a division that lacks both overlords and bottom-feeders. It’s a mess, sure, but is there not some beauty in it?

Ask the 46-win, second-place Diamondbacks, who are 13½ games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. They own two more wins than the Cardinals, but their best bet is now an NL wild card.

Teams that have outplayed the Cardinals are in much worse positions than the Cardinals, and while every team in the NL Central can cite opportunities lost, they also know their door remains open. Some club has to win. Let’s examine why each one will or won’t.

Cubs (47-43)

The Cubs could win the division because they have managed to lead it to this point, and their front office seems willing to move heaven and earth to win another championship before this roster’s window closes. Actions speak louder than words, but the Cubs have a history of bold in-season moves.

The Cubs could not win the division because they have not shown a single flash of the powerhouse they once were. They are 18-27 away from Wrigley Field, and just .500 against teams above. 500. Perhaps the most surprising issue is the Cubs’ defensive decay. They have the second-most errors (65) in the NL.

Brewers (47-44)

The Brewers could win the division because they have the confidence of defending division champs and an offense that produces more home runs (155) than any other NL team. They are reportedly major players in trade discussions that could add a top-of-the-rotation starter to a rotation that has one of the NL’s highest ERAs (4.33). Another thing: No NL Central team has a better winning percentage against the NL Central than the Brewers’ .571.

The Brewers could not win the division because they are trending in the wrong direction. They lost 15 of their last 23 games, taking just one of their last seven series. The Brewers have a losing record against winning teams (21-22), along with a minus-17 run differential. The rotation needs help, and reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich has battled back and oblique issues.

Cardinals (44-44)

The Cardinals could win the division because the front office needs to make the kind of trade-deadline moves that live up to the “2019 matters” tagline. Marcell Ozuna, the only overwhelming positive of a lineup that can’t find pop in a season overflowing with home runs elsewhere, will be back soon. Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt can’t possibly be as bad in the second half, right?

The Cardinals could not win the division because they have a losing record against NL Central opponents (15-17) and can’t seem to win division games on the road (5-12). They are 22-28 against winning teams and own one of the most meager offenses in the NL, averaging just 4.47 runs per game while totaling the second-fewest extra-base hits (244) behind the lowly Marlins (212).

Pirates (44-45)

The Pirates could win the division because the division has inspired them to believe. Pittsburgh is 12-5 since June 19 with series wins against both the Cubs and Brewers during that span. The Pirates have lost just one of their last seven series. They are now 18-18 against division foes, which should nudge a stingy front office toward trade-deadline improvements.

The Pirates could not win the division because their starting pitching, while trending up toward the break, could fall apart if not improved. The rotation’s 4.90 ERA is even worse than the Brewers’, and is third-worst in the NL.

Reds (41-46)

The Reds could win the division because their plus-27 run differential, second-best in the division, suggests they should have a better record than they do, and their vastly improved starting pitching just posted a division-best first-half ERA of 3.60. That keeps you alive.

The Reds could not win the division because their once-threatening lineup is shooting sparks and averaging a division-low 4.23 runs per game. If Joey Votto is a league average hitter, as he has been this season, the Reds won’t surprise. But when your best player is having the worst season of his career, and you still have a chance, there are reasons for optimism.

Sound familiar?

Every team in the Central can and should dream big during the break, and chase improvements before the trade deadline. Five teams battling it out. Enjoy it, because it’s becoming quite rare.

The brightest All-Stars in Cardinals history

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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