Our analysts -- Dan Szymborski, Chad Dotson and David Schoenfield -- take a look at the top storylines in the Pirates-Reds series, a battle between the NL Central's top two teams.
1. Does Joey Votto's injury mean Andrew McCutchen is the clear-cut NL MVP favorite?
Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski
), ESPN Insider: McCutchen's certainly the favorite at this point. David Wright has a solid argument for deserving the MVP as well, but voters don't tend to like to cast ballots for candidates from losing teams and the Mets' fade probably keeps him out of the picture. McCutchen already has 50 more plate appearances than Votto, and with the latter's return not yet set in stone, that number's going to get bigger. As great a player as Votto has become, he's likely to be penalized for being on the shelf during Cincy's recent run, arguably the crucial moment in the divisional race.
Chad Dotson (@dotsonc
), Redleg Nation:
Probably, but with two months remaining, and with Votto on the verge of returning to the lineup, I wouldn't bet the ranch just yet.
McCutchen is having an undeniably great season: .373/.432/.632, 22 homers,
66 RBIs, 5.7 WAR. Of course, Votto's numbers (.342/.465/.604) aren't too shabby, either, and you'll go broke betting against Cincinnati's unofficial captain. It may ultimately come down to which team actually wins the NL Central; if the Pirates win, McCutchen will start looking like an easy choice for MVP.
David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield
), SweetSpot: McCutchen would likely be the unanimous choice right now, that's how good he's been. Ryan Braun has monster numbers, but the Brewers aren't contenders so he won't win. One possible contender if McCutchen slows down and the Cardinals pass the Pirates for a playoff spot is Matt Holliday. But it's McCutchen's award to lose right now.
2. Besides McCutchen and Votto, who's the most important player in the NL Central race?
Szymborski: Mat Latos. Johnny Cueto has been sterling at the top of the rotation, but the rest of the rotation has generally been adequate rather than sterling. Since a lousy April, Latos' ERA is 3.65 and he gives the Reds a second pitcher that can threaten an ace-type start at any time. That extra bit of excellence in the rotation will help the Reds hold off the Pirates and any 2011-type miracles from the Cardinals.
Dotson: McCutchen is, by far, the most important player, but I'll say Jay Bruce. Cincinnati's rotation has been great, and the bullpen spectacular. The offense, however, has been sputtering along without much help from Bruce. He has been adequate at the plate (.247/.329/.499, 21 homers, 56 RBIs), but you can't expect Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier to continue shouldering the burden. It's time for Bruce to get on one of his patented hot streaks.
Schoenfield: I'm going with McCutchen's Pittsburgh teammate, James McDonald. The ace of the Pirates staff in the first half, McDonald has an 8.71 ERA in four starts since the All-Star break. With Erik Bedard also struggling, the Pirates rotation may have their fans feeling a little nervous.
3. What needs to happen for the Bucs to catch the Reds?
The best chances for the Pirates involve some stumbling by the Reds, most likely due to an injury to Cueto, Latos, or a significant injury-related setback for Votto. Knock off Cueto or Latos and the rotation looks a bit shaky -- despite solid seasons by Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake, all three have the potential to implode at any time.
Someone has to help McCutchen offensively. Pittsburgh's run differential is plus-36; every team with a better record than the Bucs has a run differential that is at least double that number. The Pirates have been walking a very fine line, and you can't blame the pitching.
Then again, maybe all the Pirates need is for the Reds to stop winning games at such an otherworldly pace (20 wins in 23 games, 13 of their last 14).
Schoenfield: As good as Cincinnati's bullpen is, Pittsburgh's best hopes lie in the Reds' rotation falling apart. Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake, in particular, appear to be candidates for potential slides down the stretch (both have lower strikeout rates of late). If they struggle, the Pirates have a chance.