Debate the NL Central with Jayson Stark
THE CASE FOR THE BREWERSThe Brewers didn't just make the most important pre-deadline trade of 2008. They made the first pre-deadline trade of 2008. And because they struck so fast, Sabathia figures to sneak in two starts for the Brewers before the All-Star break -- and four before the deadline hits. So as rentals go, an elite pitcher who makes 14 starts is likely to make a far bigger impact than a pitcher who makes 10. And don't let that 6-8 record fool you. C.C. is still as elite a hired-gun arm as anybody is going to deal for this year. Since May 9, he's 5-3 with a 2.14 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 84 innings -- the most strikeouts and fourth-best ERA in baseball since that date. And adding a strikeout machine was a major development for a team like the Brewers that, while better with the leather than last year, can still have its defensive issues.
THE CASE FOR THE CUBSThe Cubs were the best team in the National League before this deal. And it won't be easy for a man who only goes out there every fifth day to change that. The Cubs are a deeper, more efficient and more consistent offensive team than Milwaukee, for one thing. They've scored nearly 70 more runs (475-406). They've outhit the Brewers by nearly 30 points (.283-.255) and have a much better on-base percentage (.359-.324). And the Cubs still have the better bullpen (3.65 ERA to Milwaukee's 4.07).
THE CASE FOR THE CARDINALSThe Cardinals have been defying the numbers and the experts all season. So it would be crazy to count them out. You wouldn't think this would be possible if you looked over the names in their lineup, but they've been a better offensive team than the Brewers in just about every category except home runs. The Cardinals also have committed the fewest errors in the league (46 -- or 10 fewer than either the Cubs or Brewers). And they figure to get both Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright back in the second half. So they won't be conceding anytime soon.
THE VERDICTThe Brewers may have leaped over the Cubs as The NL Team You'd Least Want to Face in October. But I'm still taking the Cubs as the favorites in this division. They're deeper. They're more versatile. They're less reliant on the home run to score. They have the better late-inning relief crew. And they undoubtedly have a trade or two in them themselves. So let's see what the Cubs do between now and the deadline, and maybe we can have this same debate on the first Monday in August. In the meantime, let's kick around the fate of the most intriguing division in baseball.
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