Cardinals, Pirates set to square off

The Cardinals and Pirates will play a three-game series in Pittsburgh beginning Monday. The National League Central contenders are the focus of today's Triple Play.

1. The Cardinals just took two of three from the Reds and lead the wild-card pack. Is a division title still in reach for the defending world champs?

David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield), SweetSpot: It's amazing -- the Cardinals have a run differential 55 runs better than Cincinnati's yet trail the Reds by six games. That implies they have the talent to make a comeback, but I think the margin is too large. It appears Joey Votto is finally about to return and I expect the Cincy bullpen, which Dusty Baker has handled well, to remain strong through September.

Chad Dotson, Redleg Nation: Yes, the division title is still within reach for the Cardinals, and there really shouldn't be any question about that. Sure, the Reds have largely been playing lights-out baseball (and they'll get Votto back this week), but have we forgotten 2011 already? In the final week of August last year, the Cardinals were 10½ games back in the wild-card race. That season ended with St. Louis' 11th championship. This race isn't over.

Matt Philip, Fungoes: Six games is a big margin to cover in 35 games, especially with the Reds getting Votto back soon. But the series win in Cincy should give St. Louis confidence. The Cardinals have three more games with the Reds, and they made a more impressive comeback last year with a lesser team.

2. Can the Pirates reverse their 9-15 tailspin in August? What do they have to do?

Schoenfield: Sure, why not? They have seven games against the Cubs, six against the Astros, six against the Brewers and four against the Mets. Yes, they just lost five of six to San Diego and Milwaukee, but the easy schedule provides wild-card hopes.

Dotson: I want to say that Pittsburgh's tailspin can be reversed because that long-suffering fan base deserves a winner, but I'm skeptical. The offense has been less-than-stellar all season long; unfortunately, the pitching has crashed to earth recently too. The Bucs have allowed more earned runs in August than any NL clubs other than the Cubs and Rockies. Perhaps the franchise's first winning record in two decades is the brass ring that's actually in reach for the Pirates.

Philip: The Pirates have been outperforming their Pythagorean record most of the season, so their August record isn't too surprising. They lost Neil Walker for a handful of games, which didn't help. They buoyed their rotation by adding Wandy Rodriguez; now they "just" need to start getting on base. It's a tall order for the team with the second-lowest on-base percentage in the league.

3. Andrew McCutchen's power has disappeared this month. If it doesn't come back, what does it mean for his MVP campaign?

Schoenfield: He's been streaky all season; remember, he didn't homer until May 8. Obviously, the Pirates need his power to return and his MVP campaign is now in jeopardy. The voters prefer a player whose team makes the playoffs, so you could argue that Buster Posey is the new leader.

Dotson: As McCutchen goes, so go the Bucs. That has always been the case. The recent "power outage" is simple regression to the mean, but whether this slump will affect his MVP chances is a thornier issue. McCutchen still leads the league in runs, hits and OPS+, and he's tied for the top WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Further, he isn't likely to be penalized if the Pirates fall out of the race; Ryan Braun and David Wright certainly aren't playing for playoff contenders.

Philip: I've noted before how concentrated the Pirates' offense was in McCutchen, so their playoff wagon is fairly well hitched to this star. But even with his slight regression, he's still one of the best players in baseball. Regardless of the Pirates' finish, who has been more valuable to his team than McCutchen?