ST. LOUIS - The St. Louis Cardinals are shaking up their coaching staff, the Chicago Cubs are shaking up their lineup, and everyone else in baseball is shaking their head.
In what was supposed to be the infancy of a Cubs dynasty and a bounce-back year for the Cardinals, the two National League powerhouses instead epitomize the woeful NL Central.
We’re nearing mid-June, and the Milwaukee Brewers, of all teams, are the lone club in the NL Central with a winning record.
And just barely, two games above .500.
“The good news is that when you don’t have a team that just runs away with it, it allows you to believe you have a chance,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told USA TODAY Sports. “Last year, by July 4, we knew we were chasing something that would be hard to catch. Basically, you were playing for the wild card.”
Ah, yes, a year ago, the Cubs were 42-18 with a nine-game lead in the NL Central en route to a runaway division title, winning 103 games and their first World Series title in 108 years.
These days, they are nothing more than mediocre, 31-31, after losing three of four games to the Colorado Rockies at Wrigley Field.
But life is so deplorable in the NL Central that mediocrity is actually a good thing.
“This is probably the lowest point that I’ve been here,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant told Chicago reporters. “But it’s really not that bad when you look at it in context of the division. Nobody’s really taken off like some of the other divisions out there, or like we did last year. So you’ve just to keep your head up.”
In a league that only has five teams with winning records, the NL Central has been an embarrassment, going 30-47 against the NL West and 13-27 in interleague play.
The Cardinals, 29-32 despite sweeping the woeful Philadelphia Phillies, have lost 17 of their last 25 games. The Cincinnati Reds (29-33) have lost 18 of their last 28 games. And the last-place Pirates (28-35) haven’t been above .500 since the fifth game of the season.
“Everybody here is ashamed the way we played the last couple of weeks,” Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz said.
It’s gotten so ugly that Mozeliak called a news conference to announce they’d fired third-base coach Chris Maloney — their first in-season coaching dismissal in 16 years — and upstaged the news by revealing there could be more firings by the end of the year if things don’t soon change.
“I think everybody, including myself, is not in the most secure situation right now,” Mozeliak said. “Expectations from ownership on down are very high. And when you’re under-performing, people have to make changes. …
“Everybody’s frustrated. We could no longer stand still and do nothing.”
The Cubs haven’t fired anyone yet, with the World Series banner still flapping in the breeze to provide solace, but it will be a long, ugly winter in Chicago if they miss the playoffs.
‘‘I don’t have any strong explanations for it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters. “A lot of guys are really struggling badly at the same time. They’re the same guys that we rode to the World Series last year, and they’re very good young players.”
Kyle Schwarber, one of the Cubs’ World Series heroes, won’t keep hitting .171 all year, will he? Jake Arrieta, the 2015 Cy Young Award winner who has a 4.68 ERA, will eventually find the life on his fastball, right? An offense that bludgeoned teams last year with a staggering 252-run differential, can’t continue to have the second-worst offense in the major leagues with a .233 batting average, correct?
Then again, as miserable as the Cubs have been on offense has been this year, they can cheer themselves up by checking out the Cardinals’ statistics.
It’s no wonder Mozeliak paused, giving him a chance to collect his thoughts, when asked if he thought the Cardinals were a playoff contender.
“Not if we don’t start hitting,” he said. “It’s hard to win when you’re scoring 2 ½ runs a game.’’
The most excruciating aspect of the Cardinals’ troubles is that they’re wasting the best starting pitching in the land. They lead the major leagues with a 3.48 ERA and .233 opponent’s batting average, but their bullpen has been horrendous. They’ve been outscored, 116-67, after the sixth inning.
Yet, as poorly as the Cubs and Cardinals have played, they’ve managed to stay alive. The Cubs are just one game out of first place and the Cardinals are 2 ½ out.
“You look at the whole division, and nobody’s playing well,’’ Cardinals starter Lance Lynn says. “Somebody’s got to get hot and start doing something. Why not be us?’’
Certainly, logic tells us it won’t be the Pirates, not with the drug suspension of Starling Marte and third baseman Jung Ho Kang stuck in South Korea, unable to get a work visa after his suspended prison sentence for DUI charges. It won’t be the Reds, who have the finest bullpen arms in the division, but have a major-league worst 5.87 rotation ERA, and are in a full-scale rebuilding mode.
It’s tough to believe in the Brewers, either, who also are rebuilding and not expected to contend until 2019, but it’s a little silly to count them out when they’re in first place, heading into St. Louis on Tuesday with a one-game lead.
“They’ve got some pop, they’re a dangerous club,’’ Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “They’ve got guys all of the way through that lineup that can hurt you in a hurry. They’ve got some pitching that’s come around, and they’re playing with confidence.
“There’s legit talent on that club that has come together.’’
Still, let’s get back to reality. It may be an interesting narrative now, but the Cubs are going to win this division. Maybe even run away with it. They simply have too much talent. And if they don’t start playing better, you know they’ll be aggressive at the trade deadline, and find another starting pitcher and a veteran hitter.
Funny, a year ago, baseball executives moaned that everything went just right for the Cubs.
This year, they’re catching even a bigger break.
They’re in the NL Central.
The division that just keeps on giving.
© 2017 USATODAY.COM