It’s Friday. That means we’re about to go on a tour of the NL Central division, a wacky colony that offers a million strikeouts and wheezing lineups. 

1–CINCINNATI REDS, 7-5

The Reds opened the season at Great American Ball Park, rolling to a quick 5-1 record and clobbering St. Louis and Pittsburgh pitchers for 14 homers, a .320 batting average, and 9.5 runs per game. But the Cincinnati offense quieted down on the first road trip of the season, batting .206 and slugging only .352 in losing four of six to Arizona and San Francisco. The Reds were shut out twice, hit six homers and averaged only 3 runs per game. 

The Reds are coming home with a weekend series against Cleveland, and pitcher Sonny Gray is set to make his first start of the season on Saturday. Gray was sidelined with back spasms after one appearance in spring training. In his two seasons with Cincinnati Gray has a 16-11 record and 3.07 ERA in 42 starts … going forward the Reds rotation consists of Gray, Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Wade Miley and Jeff Hoffman … so far the Reds’ starters have a 4.12 ERA, which ranks 17th in MLB … José De León made two starts in Gray’s absence, striking out 18 in 12 innings. He now moves to the bullpen, which can use some help … though RHP Tejay Antone has looked great in his 6.2 scoreless innings, CIN relievers have a 4.70 ERA. They’ve allowed 8 home runs and 24 walks in 46 innings. 

Through the first 12 games the Reds have the most dangerous outfield group in the majors. Led by RF Nick Castellanos, Cincinnati outfielders have combined for a .308 average, .636 slug, 1.006 OPS, 12 homers and 30 runs batted in … the Cardinals are low on quality outfielders but that isn’t a problem for the Reds. When Shogo Akiyama (hamstring) returns from the IL, the Reds will have Castellanos, CF Nick Senzel, the LF platoon of Tyler Naquin and Jesse Winker and fifth outfielder Aristides Aquino. Akiyama would make it six, and the Reds won’t carry six. So when Akiyama returns in seven to 10 days, the Reds will have a tough decision to make. 

Quote: Reds 1B Joey Votto wants you to know how much he admires and appreciates the leadership provided by 3B Mike Moustakas. 

“I can see why he was a part of culture changes in Kansas City and in Milwaukee and now in Cincinnati. It’s very important to have that.Winning clubhouses are good clubhouses but sometimes there’s a person who can help keep you afloat when you struggle a little bit and he’s got that strength. He’s a fantastic teammate. He’s all about the team. He knows how to bring guys together. He’s changed the culture in some ways here, and for the better. It’s not a strength of mine, some of the things he does. He fills that void tremendously.”

Next On The Schedule: 3 at home vs. Cleveland, 3 at home vs. Arizona. 

2–MILWAUKEE BREWERS , 7-5 

The Crew’s starting pitchers continue to dominate, showing how a terrific rotation can help compensate for an offense that’s weakened by injuries and ineffectiveness. Righthanders Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Adrian Houser, Freddy Peralta and lefty Brett Anderson have combined for the best rotation ERA (1.76) and the highest strikeout rate (31.7%) in the majors through 12 games. 

Burnes has overpowered hitters to a ridiculous extent in his three starts, striking out 30 of 62 batters (48.4%) and yielding only four hits and one run in 18.1 innings for an ERA of 0.49 … Woodruff, Houser and Peralta have combined for a 1.57 ERA in 40 innings. 

In nine games against the Cubs and Cardinals, Milwaukee starters have a 1.24 ERA, have struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings, and held hitters to a .145 batting average. The Brewers won six of nine from the Cards and Cubs. 

“I think it’s something that bodes well for us,” manager Craig Counsell said of his rambo rotation. “It just sets up well. These guys are off to a good start. They’re capable of this. We thought this would be a strength and they’re showing us right away that it is. There’s going to be times in the season when we have to pick them up, without question. But we also know there will be times we can lean on them, like we thought we’d have to. They’re going to be able to carry the load.”

The Milwaukee offense has erupted at times, but too many regulars are off to poor start, and consistency remains elusive. CF Lorenzo Cain was batting .154 when placed on  the IL with a strained quad. OF Jackie Bradley Jr. has struck out in 39 percent of his plate appearance and has a .195 onbase percentage. 2B Kolten Wong was hitting .105 before straining an oblique and going on the IL. The most glaring free fall is that of 1B Keston Hiura, who has a .114 average, .454 OPS and a 37.5% strikeout rate. Since the start of last season Hiura is batting .198 with a 35% strikeout rate. 

Meanwhile, LF Christian Yelich missed last Sunday’s game against the Cardinals and the ensuing three-game series vs. the Cubs because of back stiffness … the Brewers are being boosted by two surprising sources: catcher Omar Narvaez and 3B Travis Shaw. Narvaez, a career .267 before this season, is batting .414 with a team-leading 1.091 OPS … Shaw is quite a story. He had two big seasons for the Brewers in 2017-2018, averaging 32 homers and 94 RBI. But Shaw faded, was let go by the Crew in 2019, signed with Toronto, spent time in the minors, adjusted his swing, and made progress in 50 games for the Blue Jays last year. The Brewers took a chance on Shaw, bringing him back on a minor-league contract for 2021. But he made the 26-man roster after a good spring training, and the Milwaukee reunion is off to a happy start. Shaw is batting .297 with a .933 OPS and team-leading 12 RBI. 

Next On The Schedule: 3 at home vs. Pittsburgh, 3 at San Diego. 

3–ST. LOUIS  CARDINALS, 6-6 

A 6-6 record seems right. The Cardinals are in neutral, trying to establish an identity. I’ve addressed the Cards in a separate piece that you can find here on Scoops later today. But here are a few quickie notes. A notes appetizer: 

— The Cardinals are 3-0 against the Marlins and 3-6 versus the Brewers, Reds and Nationals. When the Cardinals weren’t pitching to Miami hitters they had a 6.61 ERA overall, and a 7.98 ERA from their starters. St. Louis has lost three of four series so far, same as the Pirates.

— How is Tommy Edman doing as the leadoff hitter? I can provide some numbers and rankings. Among 24 MLB leadoff men who have at least 30 plate appearances so far, Edman ranks 13th in onbase percentage (.357), 12th in OPS (.769), and 18th in walk rate (8.9%.) Edman has the second-lowest strikeout rate (also 8.9%.) His 7 runs scored is tied for 12th. 

— It’s early and all of that, but the Cardinals are one of several teams that should probably take a look at how they’re deploying shifts. The Cards are a minus 1 when using the shift so far; in other words the shifting has cost them a run. Atlanta, NY Mets, Oakland and Seattle are also minus 1. And the worst of all is Kansas City at minus 5. 

— Every now and then I like to take a peek at Win Shares, the system devised by the legendary Bill James. Here’s Bill’s explanation. “Win Shares are a calculation of the number of wins a player contributed to his team, according to their performance at bat, on the mound and in the field. The quality of a team does not affect an individual player’s Win Shares.”

Nolan Arenado, Dylan Carlson and Yadier Molina are tied for the team lead in Win Shares, with 3. Edman is next with 2. 

— According to Statcast, Paul DeJong ranks last among MLB shortstops so far in Outs Above Average. DeJong’s minus 5 in OAA) is 34th at the position. He’s also tied for last in Runs Prevented at minus 3. DeJong is 33rd among the 34 shortstops in success rate added at minus 11 percent. 

Next On The Schedule: 3 at Philadelphia, 3 at Washington 

4–CHICAGO CUBS, 5-7 

The Cubs are off to an odd and unsettling launch to the season. 

— Tuesday, infielder Matt Duffy became the latest Cub to go on the COVID-19-related injured list, joining relievers Dan Winkler and Brandon Workman. Another reliever, Jason Adam, was on the COVID list before being removed Wednesday. The COVID threat began with first base coach Craig Driver and bullpen coach Chris Young. Another scare happened Tuesday, when No. 1 starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks withdrew from a scheduled start in Milwaukee and headed back to Chicago. Hendricks wasn’t feeling well, and manager David Ross turned to Alec Mills to make the start. Fortunately, Hendricks’ COVID-19 test came back negative. 

The Cubs went through the shortened 2020 season without getting hit by a single COVID case, and they believe the roster continuity helped them win the division with a 34-26 record. The team hasn’t been as fortunate in 2021. 

“I feel like the daily or twice-daily testing has become the stats I’m looking at right now, and that’s not what you want to be doing,” said Jed Hoyer, the Cubs president of baseball operations. 

— The Cubs’ first 12 games were played against Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. Kinda strange, eh? After winning three of the first four the Cubs are 2-6 in their last eight. 

— The Chicago offense sputtered during a 2-4 road trip to Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, scoring only13 runs, batting .197 and striking out 10 times per game. 

— This display of hideous offense was no aberration. The numbers are almost incomprehensible. Through 12 games the Cubs have a team batting average of .163, which is last among the 30 teams They’re also last in the majors in OBP, slugging, OPS, and runs per game (2.67.) How about situational hitting? Ugly. The Cubs are the worst in baseball at hitting with runners in scoring position, going 7 for 75. (That’s an .093.) 

— The Cubs’ 29.4 percent strikeout rate is the worst in the bigs. The Cubs have struck out so many times, they have more than twice as many strikeouts (122) than hits (59.) 

— This season the Cubs have scored 4+ runs in only two of the 12 games. In the 121 seasons for the franchise, only seven Cubs teams scored fewer runs through 12 games than the struggling 2021 Cubbies. These fellows have 32 runs; the 2016 World Series champion Cubs scored 71 runs in the first 12 games. 

The Cubs have a lineup with many familiar names: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javvy Baez, Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, Ian Happ and newcomer Joc Pederson. Hey, Pederson has fit right in with a .108 average and 35% strikeout rate. 

“It’s something we have to get better at,” Hoyer said. “We have to have better at-bats, we have to keep going. Obviously, we are going to swing the bats better than we have. I think that sort of goes without saying but at the same time, there are certainly some things that we’ve struggled with that are carryovers from not just last year, but the previous years.”

Only three teams have scored fewer runs than the Cubs since the start of last season. 

“I still think we’ve got some work to do,” Ross said. “We got to put the ball in play a little more. Take our singles when they give it to us. We can’t live and die by the home run.” 

At least Contreras showed some life by hushing Milwaukee fans as he circled the bases in an entertaining display of showboating following his home run in Tuesday’s 3-2 win. The catcher also started a ruckus in the same game after twice being hit by a pitch. Contreras doesn’t seem to realize that he’s far more likely to get drilled by inside pitches as long as he continues to all but stand on home plate during his at-bats. 

“It feels good to shut them up,” Contreras said after the game. “When they boo me, I don’t really care. But, don’t get sensitive when I do something like that.  Tonight, we sent a message. I think they picked the wrong guy to throw at. That was a message sent.”

Yeah, well. OK.

A day later the Cubs were hushed by the Brewers in a 7-0 defeat, striking out 10 times and yacking their way to four hits.

Next On The Schedule: 3 at home vs. Atlanta, 3 at home vs. the NY Mets. 

5–PITTSBURGH PIRATES, 5-8 

During the first seven games of the season, the  Pirates performed down to the level of subterranean expectations with a 1-6 record. They lost six in a row to the Cubs and Reds, getting pounded for 46 runs while scoring only 19. Their most talented player, rookie 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes, homered in an opening-day victory at Wrigley Field, then went on the IL after spraining his wrist in the second game. 

Bleak, I tell you. Very bleak for the Bucs. But baseball can give us wild, unanticipated twists and turns. After losing the first game of a three-game home set against the Cubs, the Pirates raised their cutlass sabers and began slashing away. 

The Bucs took the series by beating the Cubs in the next two games, outsourcing the visitors 15-3. And when the heralded Padres came to PNC Park, the Pirates knocked out San Diego starters Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove on consecutive days. 

All of a sudden, the worst team in baseball was causing mayhem during a 4-1 hot streak. Though the Pirates lost the series finale to the Padres, they claimed a four-game split and carved out a 4-3 record in their first home stand. 

“It was a good homestand,” manager Derek Shelton said. “We played two pretty good teams, and (San Diego) can really swing the bats. I thought our pitchers did a pretty good job of minimizing that, especially our bullpen.” 

Correct. The Pirates posted a fine 3.57 ERA in the seven games against the Cubs and Padres. Starting pitchers Tyler Anderson, JT Brubaker, Mitch Keller and Trevor Cahill turned in good starts. The bullpen had a 2.40 ERA in 30 innings. The Pirates offense made some noise with 2B Adam Frazier, catcher Jacob Stallings, RF Gregory Polanco, 1B Colin Moran and utility man Phillip Evans making major contributions. 

Evans, 28, is an interesting cat. After spending parts of two unremarkable seasons as a backup for the Mets, Evans was signed to a minor-league deal by Cubs and played the 2019 season at Triple A Iowa. The Pirates picked him up, and Evans made an impression in his 11-game trial. This season he’s batting .342 with a .632 slug and 1.076 OPS. In 90 plate appearances for the Pirates over the last two seasons, Evans is hitting .358 with a 1.003 OPS…

The extremely useful Evans has started games at third base, right field, left field and first base. And when the Pirates were getting routed 14-1 by the Reds on April 6, Evans gave a tired bullpen a helping hand by pitching a scoreless inning of relief. He retired three hitters in order on only five pitches. Now THAT is a utility man. The Pirates may have found their new Josh Harrison?

Unfortunately, Evans can’t play center field. The Pirates have tried three dudes in center: Dustin Fowler, Anthony Alford and Wilmer Dilfo. Collectively they’re 3 for 45 (.067) with a horrendous 50% strikeout rate. Maybe the Buccos would be  interested in acquiring Lane Thomas? 

Next On The Schedule: 3 at Milwaukee, 3 at Detroit. 

Thanks for reading! And please have a wonderful weekend. 

-Bernie 

Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.