By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
It’s still June, but it’s pretty safe to say that the NL Central is going to be a two-horse race over the next three months.
That reality alone makes this division unique. If you look at the rest of the league, there’s either one team running away with the division (AL East, AL West, NL East), or three teams within striking distance of the division lead (AL Central, NL West).
This means it’s not too early to start comparing the Cardinals and Brewers directly. With the two teams squaring off this week in Milwaukee, it’s a great time to take stock of these NL Central heavyweights.
In a tale of the tape comparison, like the one we recently did on the Mets vs. the Yankees, Jake Mintz and I went position by position and decided which team, the Cardinals or Brewers, has the edge in each spot.
MLB Power Rankings
Ben Verlander breaks down his MLB Power Rankings after week 11 of the season. See if the Cardinals or Brewers make the top 10.
Gut instinct is to take the legendary Molina and his unparalleled ability to lead a pitching staff. But with his recent injuries at age 39 (40 on July 13) and objectively terrible offensive production, we’ll give the slight edge to the Brewers’ duo. Narvaez and Caratini have been one of the better hitting catching tandems in all of baseball and not too shabby defensively either.
It’s been a joy watching Rowdy establish himself as a quality first baseman since arriving from Toronto via trade, and he’s been one of Milwaukee’s most consistent hitters this year. Still, this one isn’t much of a debate — Goldschmidt has been unbelievable this season and is a legitimate MVP candidate.
This is a fun contrast: a former Cardinal in Wong who offers Gold Glove defense and an average bat vs. a rookie in Gorman who’s still learning to play second base but may already have the most raw power of any player at his position. Gorman looks like a future star, but Wong might be the safer choice for this year. It’s a toss-up.
Respect to Peterson, who has already started more games this season than any season since 2016 after spending several years as a utility bench bat, but this one is also an easy call. Any doubt that Arenado’s offense wouldn’t translate away from Coors Field has been completely quashed. He has been tremendous.
The Adames we saw in the second half of 2021 was one of the best players in the National League, and he has carried over some of that success into this season. He’s still showing plus power and plus defense, but he’s still pretty streaky. Edman, meanwhile, moved to shortstop about a month ago and is now apparently a WAR machine? We love both of these guys, but we have to go with Edman.
With Lorenzo Cain recently DFA’d, the Brewers turn to Taylor as their center fielder. He’s flanked by Yelich, who we are still desperately waiting to see return to MVP form, and offseason addition Renfroe, who has quietly been Milwaukee’s best hitter while providing stellar defense in right field.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals have seen both Carlson and O’Neill regress after 2021 seasons that seemed to portend stardom. Bader continues to be excellent defensively and reasonably sufficient at the plate. Sure enough, it’s Brendan Donovan of all of these who’s performing the best, as he’s now filling in for the injured O’Neill and getting on base a ton.
All of which is to say: We have no idea what to make of any of these guys, and it’s tough to say which outfield unit is definitively stronger.
Surprise, surprise: Pujols can still crush lefties (.951 OPS) and can’t hit a lick anymore vs. righties (.496 OPS). Still, the emergence of Yepez as an additional DH option and the continued struggles of McCutchen in his age-35 season give the edge to St. Louis here.
Count us in among those who thought Sosa might be on the verge of a breakout in 2022 only to be harshly disappointed thus far. We also believed that Hiura could be an All-Star after his monster rookie season in 2019, but he has underwhelmed as well thus far. This one is close, but Urías’ versatility is so valuable and Brosseau has also hit well when healthy. We’ll give it to Milwaukee.
The two staffs’ do it in tremendously different ways, but their effectiveness has been shockingly similar thus far this season: The Brewers’ starters ERA of 3.76 is only a touch better than the Cardinals’ starters’ mark of 3.81. Without a whole lot of swing-and-miss, St. Louis relies heavily on its elite defense for run prevention.
Conversely, all of Milwaukee’s starters save for Houser can rack up the strikeouts to keep offenses at bay. Even with Peralta and Woodruff dealing with injuries, Burnes’ dominance alone gives Milwaukee quite an edge here. We’d rather bet on the staff with elite stuff than the one dependent on converting a ton of balls in play into outs. It’s closer than you’d think, though.
Helsley’s huge breakout has actually made this something of a discussion. But Milwaukee still has a huge depth advantage here and a much stronger track record of finding quality innings from unexpected places.
Manager: Craig Counsell vs. Oli Marmol
Among active managers, only Terry Francona and Kevin Cash have held their positions longer than Counsell, who is consistently lauded as one of the best skippers in the league. Marmol’s first year at the helm is off to a good start, but he still has a ton to prove. Counsell is the clear choice for now.
WINNER: Jake says Brewers; Jordan says Cardinals
Those are our picks. Let us know what you think!
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He lives in D.C. but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn’t get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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