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Sizing Up the Competition

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Ladies and gentlemen, the Cardinals now have home field advantage in the 2011 World Series.

At least, that's what I got out of the game last night. When the Cards make their triumphant run to their firs title in five years, they'll be able to play the first two games of the championship series at home, in the friendly confines of Busch Stadium.

Hmm. Maybe I should be a bit more circumspect with my choice of words. After all, "friendly confines," does hold some other baseball-related connotations, and most of them have to do with a legacy of failure and heartbreak. And a parasitic plant. So, how about the welcoming environs of Busch Stadium? There we go. Much better.

Seriously, though, the Cards came through without any injuries to their players participating, and that's honestly the only thing I care about. It was cool to see Berkman and Yadi both get hits, but I'm much more interested in seeing them rested and healthy for the stretch run of the season.

An odd thing happened to me the other day. I was just walking along, minding my business (no, this isn't the beginning of the song Orange Coloured Sky, in case you were wondering), and suddenly I had a song stuck in my head. Which is always irritating, but this was made doubly so by the fact it was Taylor Dayne's "I'll Be Your Shelter", which may be one of the worst songs in the history of recorded sounds. And not in a so-bad-it's-ironically-enjoyable way, either. Just awful. And there it was, replaying itself overandoverandover in my head.

What's especially odd is the fact I don't think I've heard that song in probably fifteen years. It didn't come on the radio. It wasn't playing in the grocery store when I went shopping the other day. I honestly haven't thought of Taylor Dayne or her terrible music since my mother got rid of her Eagle Talon in 1995 and a bunch of her cassettes were thrown out by mistake.  Why my brain coughed up that bit of pop history and then decided to run it into the ground for four hours is a mystery.

After the jump we're going to look at the rest of the division, and what we might see from each of the Cardinals' competitors as we head toward crunch time.

The Cardinals open the second "half" of the season with a record of 49-43, tied for first place in the National League Central. Their run differential stands at 433 scored, 407 allowed, good for a Pythagorean record of, well, 49-43. So don't expect any bumps thanks to run scoring evening out for El Birdos.

Starting at the bottom ('cuz that's how I roll, ladies), let's take a quick look at the competition shall we? We'll look at the teams, their capacity to affect the outcome of the division, and what they may be looking to do at the trade deadline.

Houston Astros

Actual Record: 30-62, 6th place in the division 

Pythagorean Record: 35-57

How They Could Affect the Race: The Astros have two possible roles in the division race: spoilers and junkyard. Spoilers because they do still have Bud Norris, which could easily ruin our chances, and junkyard, because the 'Stros are in dire enough straits they should be looking to offload any and everything they can to try and speed up the process of building the core for their next run. Even youngish guys like Hunter Pence should probably be in play, because by the time Houston gets back on track Pence will likely be well into his next contract.

Interesting Trade Pieces: Most of the team outside of Brett Wallace. One name of particular note to me is Michael Bourn, their speedy centerfielder. Sure, the Cardinals don't need a center fielder now, but if they do indeed end up moving Colby Rasmus the package would almost certainly include a prospect or two, and flipping something to Houston to bring in Bourn would then make all the sense in the world. Bourn has been worth close to 5.0 WAR each of the last two seasons, and is on a similar pace again this year.

As Terrifying as: A labradoodle puppy. Even if you're pathologically afraid of dogs (or the mysical power of Houston teams to go on a run in the second half), you have to just laugh a little at something this pathetic. A really, really bad team.

Chicago Cubs

Actual Record: 37-55, 5th place in the division

Pythagorean Record: 38-54

How They Could Affect the Race: At least as much as, and perhaps even moreso than, the Houston Astros, the Chicago Cubs could end up being some team's personal salvage yard. The only problem for the Cubs is the fact most of their pieces they would like to move come with prohibitively stupid contracts attached. (see Soriano, Alfonso)

Aside from parts, though, the Cubs just don't play a role in the division, I don't think. They were predicted as one of the four competitive teams before the season, but this team is just a disaster. They don't even have a new manager to play for this year, and I think they just continue to fade into irrelevance.

Interesting Trade Pieces: As I said, most of the players the Cubs would like to move tend to come with large price tags, making them much less attractive targets for an acquiring team.  Zambrano still has another year at $18 million after this. Soriano has three more years, at $18 million annually. (Seriously, how painful is that?) On the other hand, Kosuke Fukudome could present an intriguing option for the Cards if they were to move, say, Jon Jay for pitching help and didn't want to throw an Adron Chambers right into the fire. Fukudome has lost a step, but he's still a remarkably patient hitter and can play all three outfield positions at least tolerably.

Aramis Ramirez is the other big name the Cubs will be looking to move, but the Cards don't really have a spot for him. If Freese were to go down with yet another injury, though, I could see them trying to make a play to bring in Ramirez and his veteran, er, something.

As Terrifying As: A labradoodle puppy with a broken leg. You don't laugh at it the way you do Houston, because this puppy is just too sad.

Cincinnati Reds

Actual Record: 45-47, 4th place in the division (4.0 GB)

Pythagorean Record: 49-43

How They Could Affect the Division: Would it be wrong of me to say, in the words of the immortal Dennis Green, that the Cincinnati Reds are who we thought they were? All last season there was talk of them playing over their heads, outperforming their talent level, and this year they've crashed to earth quite magnificently.

Actually, that's not entirely true, as their run differential shows they're clearly a better team than their record, which is the biggest reason for the shift in fortunes from 2010 to 2011. This is a pretty good team, though I think clearly the third-best in the division. Still, I'm certainly not sleeping on the Reds. The offense has been good again, but the pitching has been pretty bad.

Potential Trade Targets: Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. If the Reds are going to make a move down the stretch you would have to expect it will be an attempt to shore up one of the weaker pitching staffs we've seen this year. Injuries and ineffectiveness have both been to blame for their slide.

The bullpen is pretty solid, so you would have to think the Reds will focus on possibly adding a starter. Whatever the target may be, we know Walt Jocketty is always one of the most aggressive GMs at the trade deadline, so I fully expect them to try and make some sort of deal before the 31st of August.

As Terrifying As: A labradoodle puppy with one hand behind its back. Oh, sure, it looks cute enough, but what's it got behind its back? Maybe it's a squeak toy, maybe it's a gun. Maybe it's a severed head. You just don't know what this puppy is going to do yet, and it makes you nervous.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Actual Record: 47-43, 3rd place in the division (1.0 GB)

Pythagorean Record: 46-44

How They Could Affect the Race: I see the Pirates as much more of a potential spoiler than I do a legitimate contender. I like their pitching staff, but even so those guys are due for some regression, and Pittsburgh simply doesn't have the offensive firepower to make up for the rotation coming down. On the other hand, the Pirates are also a very young team, and I'm always afraid of young teams. Just too unpredictable when you have to play them. Oh, and speaking of playing the, the Cards will see Pittsburgh thirteen more times this season.

Charlie Morton and Paul Maholm I both think are real talents, but Jeff Karstens is not this good, and while Kevin Correia keeps his area clean, the drapes don't match the rug, if you get my drift.  Both are due for a downturn, I think.

Possible Trade Targets: If I'm the Pirates, I have to make a move this season to bring in some help, not only to take a shot at a very winnable division, but for the fan base as well. This is a fan base which has suffered for a very long time, and I think it would mean an awful lot to Pittsburgh baseball to actually be a buyer at the deadline this year.

That said, if the Pirates do try to make a move, it would almost certainly be for offense. This team simply lacks punch all over the field, and they need to improve on it. The team has only one superstar in Andrew McCutchen  to go along with a bunch of solid role-players, half of whom are hurt at the moment. Acquiring a bat at the deadline would certainly send a message to the fans about where Pittsburgh is headed.

As Terrifying As: A labradoodle puppy with a pistol in its mouth. Hey, I don't know if it's loaded, or if the dog knows how to shoot it, but hey, that thing has a gun, and I'm not sticking around to figure it out.

Milwaukee Brewers

Actual Record: 49-43, tied for first in the division

Pythagorean Record: 46-46

How They Could Affect the Division: See, now if you had told me before I started writing this that the Brewers' Pythagorean record would be .500 even, I likely wouldn't have believed you. The Brew Crew certainly feels much better this year, but feeling can be all kinds of misleading, I know.

Even so, I think the Brewers are the best team in the division, though it isn't a huge gap by any means. Their rotation is a major strength, the offense isn't quite as stout as it's been in year past but still strong, and they've caught the ball pretty well in the games I've seen them play.

Possible Trade Targets: Well, given that Milwaukee made a move last night to shore up their biggest weakness, the bullpen, I think we have a pretty good idea already as to how they might take on improving this team.  The relief corps overall still isn't great, but they should have the 8th and 9th innings on lockdown now between John Axford and K-Rod. Aside from that, the Brewers might look to upgrade shortstop, where Yuniesky Betancourt is proving for them why he's never held down a starting gig for a good team before.

As Terrifying As: A full-grown labradoodle with a machine gun in its chest and machetes in place of all its limbs. It may not have long to live, due to the constant elective surgeries, but you do not want to piss it off.

Looking over the division, I think the Brewers are the only real threat for the Cardinals. The rest of the division is simply too flawed in one way or another to be legitimate contenders. The Cards will play over a third of their remaining games against the Brewers and Pirates, I believe, which could be a problem for the Cards. It could also be a chance to make some real hay, but as maddeningly inconsistent as this this team has been I expect to see them lose approximately half their games, but all in a particularly frustrating way.

I'm picking the Brewrs to win the division, much as it pains me to do it. That rotation is just too good, I think, particularly considering our own recent run of issues with starters.