As the weekend began, a mere 2 1/2 games separated the top four teams in the division -- the Cardinals, Cubs, Astros and Brewers. Even the fifth-place club, the Reds, and the cellar-dwelling Pirates were not hopelessly off the pace.
Part of this reflects a healthy competitive balance within this division, but part of it also indicates that no club in the Central could be considered anything like dominant. The four closest competitors at this point have obvious strengths and weaknesses.
The Cubs, who were an extremely popular preseason pick to win the division for the third straight year, have had some injuries, but also have had significant offensive underachievement. Entering the weekend, they were a mere 11th in the NL in runs scored. Their pitching appears to stack up reasonably well against the rest of the division, so they should remain in the hunt.
The Brewers, the NL Wild Card team in 2008, do not have the pitching depth that they had last year at this time, when CC Sabathia was putting together a second half for the ages, and Ben Sheets was still on board and healthy. The Brewers are 14th in the league in team earned run average. Championships are not won with that kind of pitching. The Brewers still have major power, ranking fourth in the league in runs scored. But they don't run much anymore, so their offense is a bit too all-or-nothing in nature. They are good enough to stick around in this race, but probably not good enough to win unless their pitching makes major improvements.
The Astros have already exceeded some expectations by being above .500 nearly four months into the season. But these are not the Washington Nationals we're talking about here. The Astros are sixth in the NL in team ERA and ninth in runs scored. Those numbers don't say "championship," but they also don't give any indication that the Astros will evaporate.
With the other two clubs, a division title is a concept for the future. The Reds are building a nice base of talent and may be only a year away from being all-purpose contenders. The Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992, and this year will serve to add one more season to that stretch of futility. Maybe later for the Pittsburgh club.
That leaves us with the Cardinals, who, even before the Holliday deal, may have been the least flawed club in the division. Their pitching has been better than anybody outside the immediate Cardinals family might have expected. After 98 games they were fourth in the NL in team earned run average, the best ranking for any Central team. So even without this trade, they projected to be no worse than down-to-the-wire contenders.
But even though their overall offensive numbers are acceptable, and Pujols is having an even better campaign than usual, the Cardinals have not supported him with enough help to take full advantage of his extraordinary performance. The acquisition of Holliday addresses that shortcoming in a direct and dramatic way. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak should be given credit for doing exactly what needed to be done.
Yes, the Cardinals had to part with significant young talent, three prospects, to make this deal. In particular, third baseman Brett Wallace, the Cards' first-round Draft choice in 2008, is widely regarded as a big talent. He has already reached Triple-A in the St. Louis system. But you have to give value to get value. In baseball's current competitive framework, and in the difficult economic circumstances that confront everyone, the relatively inexpensive prospects are more valuable than ever.
Holliday's career run-production numbers are impressive. If there is a question regarding his ability, it centers on the fact that his numbers this season with Oakland do not approach the imposing statistics he produced with Colorado, especially in the past three seasons. But Coors Field, with the advent of the baseballs-in-the-humidor is no longer the hitting haven it once was. Holliday is just 29. It is distinctly possible that, far from declining while not playing his home games at altitude, he could be entering the prime of his career.
In any case, the Cardinals, with this acquisition, may have covered the ground that separates a winner from a contender. In the crowded cast of characters in the NL Central, their chances looked reasonably good before this deal. Now, by solving the closest thing they had to a problem, they ought to be considered as nothing less than favorites to win the division.