Cubs vs. Cardinals, The Rivalry Intensifies. Plus, A Closer Look At The NL Central Race.

The Cubs and the Cardinals will spend a lot of time hanging out –and battling it out — over the final weeks of the 2019 season.

As the rivals enter tonight’s start of a three-game series at Busch Stadium they’re tied for first in the NL Central with identical 56-49 records. Milwaukee is in third place, one game behind the co-leaders.

The Cubs and Cardinals will compete against each other 10 times during their final 57 games. Those 10 head-to-head clashes represent 17.5 percent of each team’s remaining regular-season schedule.

This week’s series at Busch is just the warmup. A large series, yes. And the drama is intensified by Wednesday’s 3 p.m. CST trade deadline, which arrives four hours before the Cubs and Cardinals play the third and final game of the series.

But if both teams are still contending for first place late in the season, we could be in for Cardinals vs. Cubs lollapalooza.

The Cardinals are Wrigley Field for a four-game series that opens Sept. 19. And after three games at Arizona, the Cardinals return to Busch to close the regular season with three against the Cubs.

Yes. The Cardinals and Cubs will throw down seven times in their final 10 games. This could be a crazy ride to the finish line.

And much of that depends on the work of the three front-office operations in St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee. All three teams have serious flaws.

Let’s take a look:

CARDINALS: the glaring fault lines are a sketchy and vulnerable rotation and an offense that ranks 10th in the NL with an average of 4.58 runs per game. Only two NL teams have a weaker slugging percentage than the Cards’ .410. And the team’s situational hitting is, in a word, awful. But as is — Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Michael Wacha — this rotation isn’t sturdy enough. And unless president of baseball operations John Mozeliak engineers a trade for a good starting pitcher, a strong but overworked bullpen will face increased risk, be it injuries or fatigue.

I could put some other areas on the St. Louis list … but since we’re all familiar with the Cardinals let’s move on and inspect the other NL Central contenders…

CUBS: The bullpen has a poor 56 percent save percentage which ranks 12th in the NL. The Cubs have lost 11 times after taking a lead into the seventh inning — and dropped eight games when holding a lead at the start of the eighth inning. Only two MLB teams have more blown saves than the Cubs’ 20 count.

The noise-making signing of free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel hasn’t solved the problem. In 12 appearances he has a 6.75 ERA, 8.01 FIP, has allowed an average of 3.38 homers per nine innings. His walk rate is soaring (15.7%) and his strikeout rate (27.5%) is 14 percent below his career standard.

Other issues:

1-The Cubs are a ghastly 20-31 on the road. That includes an 8-20 record in the last 28 roadies.

2-During the first two months of the season, the Cubs offense averaged 5.25 runs and ranked fourth in the majors with an .805 OPS. But in June-July the Cubs are averaging 4.69 runs and rank 20th in the bigs with a .756 OPS. Their team onbase percentage is spiraling; it’s only .315 since the start of June.

3-Speaking of OBP, the Cubs rank 29th in the majors with a .289 onbase rate from the leadoff spot. (That’s even worse than the Cardinals’ .295 leadoff OBP.

4-The Cubs are overly dependent on homers to generate runs. They’ve scored 50 percent of their runs via the homer this season. This is a concern for manager Joe Maddon

‘‘I don’t want to be just home-run reliant,’’ Maddon said after Sunday’s win at Milwaukee. “I don’t want to play that game; that’s the 2019 game. I want us to be more than that.

“I want us to play baseball. I don’t want us to do this new-wave, analytical baseball that just tries to put the ball in the seats all the time. I want baseball properly played, and I want us to be fundamentally sound. And that includes offense, too.”

5-Since the beginning of June the Cubs have been tamed by LH pitching, batting .230 with a .695 OPS that ranks 29th in the majors (vs. lefties) over that time.

6-The Cubs defense isn’t bad; their 15 Defensive Runs Saved ranks 13th overall in MLB. The Cardinals (55 DRS) and Brewers (30 DRS) rank fourth and 10th overall, respectively.

7-The Cubs are a terrible base-running team. According to Bill James Online, the Cubs have a net baserunning gain of minus 20 this season. By comparison, the Brewers are at plus 64, and the Cardinals are a plus 45.

BREWERS: Yes, the offense has been inconsistent. And that’s surprising given the Crew’s above-average power and onbase percentage. But sure enough the Brewers rank 9th in the league with an average of 4.88 runs per game. However: that’s changing, at least for now, with the Brewers averaging 6.1 runs during an 8-4 stretch through Sunday. One other note: The Brewers are even more HR-needy than the Cubs; Milwaukee has scored 53.3 percent of its runs via the homer this season. That’s the highest percentage in the majors.

The Crew’s crisis, of course, is pitching … especially starting pitching. Because of injuries the Brewers are down two starters: ace Brandon Woodruff and Jhoulys Chacin. Meanwhile, lefty Gio Gonzalez returned from the IL and didn’t make it through his first start, leaving because if “shoulder tightness.” Can Gonzalez hold up? Can he even make his next start? (To be determined.) So that’s two injured starters, and another who may be coping with a tired shoulder. And erstwhile starter Jimmy Nelson, who hasn’t pitched since the final month of the 2017 season, is still trying to return to form, pitching in the minors after pausing to deal with elbow discomfort.

And while it’s true that Chacin (5.79 ERA) is a liability, this is about supply. This is about Milwaukee having enough arms to fill a rotation. And unless the Brewers can pull off a trade for a plus starter, this chewed-up rotation could be their downfall. As play resumes Tuesday, the Brewers rank 13th in the NL with a 4.84 rotation ERA.

The Milwaukee bullpen isn’t as stout as a year ago; statistically we can make an easy case for the Cardinals having the best ‘pen in the division.

The Brewers have allowed 5.03 runs per game (that includes unearned runs) and are the NL’s third-worst staff at run prevention. By contrast the Cubs are third at 4.37 runs allowed per game and the Cards rank fourth at 4.40 runs yielded per contest.

The Brewers tried to patch their rotation on Monday by trading for slumping Pirates starter Jordan Lyles. The Brewers also made a trade for Lyles last summer, and he did a swell job as a reliever. But the Crew is asking Lyles to fill a rotation void, and that could be a reach. In his last nine starts for Pittsburgh, Lyles had a 9.57 ERA and allowed a .7o1 slug and 1.108 OPS. But Lyles pitched well earlier in the season, and perhaps he’ll have a mini-revival.

Rookie Adrian Houser, an asset in the bullpen has been relocated to the rotation. But the move could be problematic; Houser has a 1.47 ERA as a reliever this season but got ripped for a 7.83 ERA in six starts. Another possibility is young Freddy Peralta, who opened the season in the MIL rotation. But after a rough start — a 7.07 ERA in six outings — Peralta was shifted to the bullpen. He’s been a plus in a relief role with a 2.38 ERA in 16 appearances.

It’s never easy to compete when a team’s starting pitching breaks down. But the timing especially is cruel for the Brewers. That said, the otherwise astute Milwaukee front office erred in declining to re-sign lefthanded starter Wade Miley after last season; he’s thriving for the Astros.

“Every season takes its own twists and turns, and every season comes up with unexpected situations and circumstances,” said Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns, in an interview with Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“We went into the season with what we thought was a very deep pitching staff, with numbers we thought could help us get through the rigors of a major-league season.

“We know every single year you’re going to go through 10-12 starting pitchers. To some extent, we worked through that depth, for a variety of different reasons, faster than I would have anticipated. But the unexpected happens every year. It just so happened that this year it seems to have occurred in this realm.”

It’s a fascinating time for watching the three contending teams in the NL Central … not only the players but the front offices as well.

Today’s Playoff Odds, from Baseball Reference.

Probability of making the postseason: Cubs 78.3 percent, Cardinals 44.7%, Brewers 29.7%.

Here are each team’s  realistic  trade-deadline needs:

  • Cardinals: a dependable, innings-consuming starting pitcher and an effective LH reliever.
  • Cubs: Bullpen. Bullpen. Bullpen. And a platoon bat, to clobber LH pitching, would strengthen the lineup. (Nick Castellanos? The Cubs are supposedly interested.) Second base and center field are weak spots for the Cubs, but the expected return of Ben Zobrist (sometime in August) could fix the mess at 2B.
  • Brewers: Starting pitching … and perhaps some bullpen depth to help out killer lefty Josh Hader. But is Milwaukee, as speculated, willing to move catcher Yasmani Grandal or third baseman Mike Moustakas to land an impact starter?

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie