The NL Central And The Cardinals' Sense Of Urgency

PITTSBURGH : Chris Carpenter and Skip Schumaker of the St Louis Cardinals watch the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates from the dugout. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Now that the furor over the mysterious Man in White has faded -- presumably he's been arrested and flayed by INTERPOL, which totally hoses the Blue Jays' playoff chances -- maybe it's time to look into the Milwaukee Brewers. After a win on Wednesday, the Brewers improved to 47-17 at home, which is absolutely ludicrous. They've won 19 of their last 21 games, putting the rest of the NL Central in a headlock. Everything happened so quickly, most baseball fans didn't have time to notice.

Oh, the Cardinals might have noticed, though. Nineteen games ago, they were in first place. Since then, they've gone 10-9. That's not great, but it's not awful. A team that wins 10 of every 19 would finish the season with 85 wins. A team playing that kind of baseball probably doesn't deserve to win their division playing like that for a full season, but over a three-week stretch, it shouldn't drop them out of a race.

Yet there the Cardinals sit, seven games out of first place, after just three weeks of playing okay. Seven games! A responsible writer would probably look up what the Brewers have during that same timeframe. Luckily there isn't one around, so I'll just guess that the Brewers have won 20 of their last 19 games. It's still early. It's the middle of August. There are still 38 games left. But, dang, things have changed quickly.

Here's the kicker: there might not be another team with a bigger gulf between short-term and long-term expectations. The Cardinals are built to win in 2011, and it gets fuzzy after that. They traded their only young player of note for a couple of relievers and a pending free agent. And speaking of pending free agents, it's pretty hard for any team to compete with this group:

They'll need to exercise a $9 million option on a player that might not even be ready in April (Adam Wainwright), and a $15 million option on a pitcher having his worst healthy season as a Cardinal (Chris Carpenter). Then they'll need to figure out what's going on with Pujols, and that's before trying to re-sign Berkman (who will have a line of AL teams waiting for him) or Jackson.

Again, they haven't been eliminated yet. The Brewers' magic number is still "a lot." But the 2012 Cardinals might not be that exciting, depending on what happens in the offseason -- this is the season. And it's not looking so good in mid-August.

Another team that has a bit of a window to contend: Milwaukee, who almost certainly can't afford to keep Prince Fielder after this season. So it's down to two win-now teams, each desperately vying to win the Central. Whatever happens, at least we can all agree that it's a good thing that the Pirates fell out of the race, as they were trying to build for the long-term while hanging around in the short-term. How selfish of them.

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