For years, the American League East has been considered the class of Major League Baseball. While that might have been true in the late '90s into the early 2000s, the past few seasons are proving to be a different story. While the AL East appears to be a shell of its former self (the top three teams entered play on Friday a combined 11 games above .500), the National League Central -- the only division that sent three teams to the postseason in 2013 -- may now be baseball's best group.
This year's version of the Central has four teams over .500 within a handful of games of each other. Currently, the division is paced by the Milwaukee Brewers, but the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals are a game behind, while the next two teams -- the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates -- are a good week away from climbing to the top.
The Brewers top the division thanks to a potent offense. Led by Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew entered the second half of the season with the second-most runs scored in the NL. Braun is the star, but the club has six players with an OPS above .780, including four above .800. The bullpen is anchored by the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez but is also getting fine performances by left-handers Will Smith and Zach Duke.
If the Cardinals are to overcome Milwaukee, they will need to do the bulk of the work without All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. A torn ligament in his right thumb will shelve the backstop for the foreseeable future, leaving the heavy lifting to a trio of Matts: Holliday, Carpenter and Adams. NL All-Star starter Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in the league, while Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez are two of the best young hurlers. The Cardinals have two more starters on the disabled list in Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, who will miss the rest of the season.
Former starter Trevor Rosenthal has control of the ninth inning, while All-Star setup man Pat Neshek has revived his once-stagnant career. The Cardinals have the resources to fill holes at second base and in the rotation, should they choose to, but may let young players like Kolten Wong and Marco Gonzalez cut their teeth in a pennant race. When healthy, the Cards are the most talented team in the division, but if and when they can get healthy is their biggest question mark.
The Reds opened the second half with a loss to the New York Yankees and without the right side of their infield as Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips sit on the disabled list. Still, the club has Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco --both All-Stars this year -- and Billy Hamilton, who appears to be improving every day. They also have a three-headed monster at the top of their rotation with Johnny Cueto and his 2.13 ERA as the ace.
At the back end of their bullpen, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton have allowed a combined 11 runs in more than 60 innings of work. Mat Latos has made just six starts this season and could be the spark needed to make a move even without Votto and Phillips.
The Pirates needed two separate comebacks on Friday night in order to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Of the contenders in the Central, the Pirates need the most help. Ace Gerrit Cole sits on the disabled list, and the lineup has several holes, none more glaring than first base, which was all but ignored this past winter. General manager Neal Huntington has the chips to make a deal but might be reluctant to sacrifice the future on a team that's just four games above .500.
Each contender to the Central's crown has flaws. At the same time, each has something on which to stake their claim to the throne.
The Brewers' rotation has underperformed in spots, but the lineup has outscored every non-Rockies team in the Senior Circuit. The Cardinals' staff has been infected with the injury bug and the offense is without its best player, but they have a guy named Wainwright, a bunch of live arms and a talented group of hitters, even in the wake of Molina's injury. Cincinnati is also missing its best player; however, it owns a quality rotation, a few mashers remaining and speed on the bases and in the bullpen. The Pirates might be the least talented group. Meanwhile, they have the best player in McCutchen and the system to make moves.
Milwaukee -- with the division lead -- appears to have the best shot, but this race is shaping up to be the best of them all.