The big storyline coming into the 2011 season for the NL Central was its parity. It certainly wasn't going to be the strongest division in baseball, and it might even be the worst. But at the very least, it would definitely be exciting.
Through the first three weeks of the season, the NL Central has been happy to oblige that storyline. It's been the tightest division so far, with only four games separating first place from last. Just a couple of days ago, there were four teams tied for first, and the last-place Astros were only 2.5 games back.
Expect to see that start changing this weekend. The marquee series for the Central is that between the Reds and Cardinals. Entering Friday night's action, those two were tied for the division lead, and the Cardinals have been doing well enough before even really starting division play yet. They have played only one series against an NL Central opponent. That changes now, as 15 of the Cards' next 22 contests are in-division games.
The Cardinals or Reds could get some good separation this weekend by getting some key wins against the second-best team in the division. The Cards got an initial leg up, of course, by winning 4-2 last night, as Mitchell Boggs logged his second save as the newly minted closer.
Divisional play might be the only thing keeping some of these teams in the mix, as much as you can make something of three weeks of action. Take the Pirates, for example: They're 8-11, but 7-5 against their NL Central rivals. The Bucs have played the most games in-division, and it's pretty safe to assume they are due for a significant drop when they finally have to venture further outside this very weak division.
The Brewers have the benefit of playing the Astros at home this weekend. They have already taken it to the Astros in a big way by winning the first game of the series by a score of 14-7. The next two games will probably be better, as they have Yovani Gallardo, their rotation front man in Zack Greinke's absence, going up against the Astros' fifth starter du jour, Nelson Figueroa ... who frankly, with an 8.55 ERA, has no business starting for a team even as bad as the Astros. It's safe to assume the Brewers will win the series and pick up ground on the division leader as the Cardinals and Reds beat each other up. All this when the Brewers don't even have Greinke in their rotation yet.
As a side story, Astros manager Brad Mills and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg both got ejected by Joe West's crew in the second inning of Friday night's game, so the series could be a very interesting one to watch if you want fireworks on the field as opposed to fired off before, during or after.
What's to come? The separation will happen between the top three and the bottom three, because while all six teams are very close, record-wise, a closer look at run differentials reveals that they are already ripe for separation. These six teams really are not as close as a brief glance at the records might make them appear:
Teams can hang in with their betters for only so long when they're delivering run differentials like that. However, funny things can always happen with divisional opponents who know each other so well, especially when you have such potent offenses as those of the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers.
As a result, it won't be much longer before we'll see serious separation between the top three and the bottom three in the NL Central, because of the stark contrast in the talent, both among the players and the managers. The NL Central will be as exciting a race as they all said it would be, but it will be a three-team race, not six.