Can They Catch The Cubs

If you listen to the mainstream media, the NL Central has already been conceded to the Chicago Cubs. We won't deny the Cubs look awfully good, but no team plays at a .695 pace forever and Chicago has two challengers with a good pedigree behind them. The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are still lurking. Is there any reason to invest in them to win the division?

The good news for bettors is this - if you want to challenge the Cubs in the division, you need not choose between the challengers. The Pirates are available at 8-1 and the Cardinals can be had at 12-1. That's enough room to bet both and have room for a profit in either case.

What's more there's plenty of reason to think that this race will tighten. Pittsburgh and St. Louis are trailing right now because of some starting pitching problems, but those are problems that recent history suggests can correct themselves.

The Pirates have gotten to a 28-19 record and are within five games of the Cubs in the loss column in spite of only one reliable starter thus far in Gerrit Cole. But there are other arms that can easily return to career norms...

*Francisco Liriano's ERA is a mediocre 4.30 right now. Yet over the past three years, Liriano has been in the low 3s. He's only 32-years-old, so there's no reason to expect a career decline. That means playing the percentages would suggest some good Liriano starts in the months ahead.

*Jon Niese's ERA is at 4.42. He's not as solid of a bet as Liriano is to return to form, but from 2012-14, Niese was developing into a consistent young starter with the Mets, with ERAs steadily in the 3s. He slipped to 4.13 last year and was nudged out by the excellent young starters that carried the Mets to last season's World Series, abut it's hardly a stretch to think he could knock that ERA down into the 3.75 range by year's end.

If Liriano and Niese just pick it up a bit and combine that with the fact the Cubs are too hot not to cool down, and this race could be a dead heat very quickly.

The Cardinals are a longer shot - the record is 25-24, and that's a ten-game differential in the loss column to try and make up, but they're also capable of doing much better than 10th in the National League in ERA...

*Michael Wacha has pitched very poorly, with a 5.04 ERA. The 24-year-old came up in 2013 and electrified baseball with a dominant run down the stretch and in the postseason. He built off that with two steady full years, with ERAs in the 3s. There is absolutely no reason at this point to assume he won't settle into form.

*Adam Wainwright's track record as an ace starter is well-established and he's also getting knocked around, with a 5.77 ERA. This situation is a little touchier - he's 34-years-old and missed most of last year with an injury. But he also had a 1.61 ERA at the time of the injury last year, so let's not be too hasty to bury him.

*Carlos Martinez is a young arm like Wacha, and last year - his first full one as a starter, Martinez went to the post 29 times  and had a 3.01 ERA. This year he's on 4.25. The track record isn't long enough to simply assume he'll return to last year's form, but it's also more likely than not given his outstanding stuff and the regard that baseball observers have for him.

St. Louis and Pittsburgh are already hitting and already getting good bullpen work. Both are teams with established core talent that has proven it can make the postseason. Chicago is a legitimate World Series contender, but are they really this much better than their accomplished rivals? Especially when you can bet both the Pirates and Cardinals to try and run down the leaders. If they make any kind of move, the market will likely react quickly and remove the value. It's a bit of a risk right now, but you don't get real value without taking some chances. And when you can do it with established winners? So much the better.

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