A month into the season, races are naturally tight throughout the league.


The Rays and Yankees, the Twins and Tigers, all the teams in the AL West, NL West, and NL East


In the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals are running neck and neck with…the St. Louis Cardinals.


As of May 5, the Cards are five games ahead of the Cubs and Reds, their nearest competition. Even with an extra-inning loss to the Phillies, they lose no ground in the standings, as the rest of their competition loses as well.


The Cardinals are the only team above .500, so is the NL Central playoff race already done?


Are the Cubs, Reds, and the rest of the NL out of luck with no opportunities to catch up?


It is easy to be cynical and say “oh, it’s only a month into the season. There’s 135 games left to play. Of course every team has a chance.” Naturally that’s true. But for the Cardinals, this is a moot point.


In spite of these 135 games, barring something serious like an Albert Pujols or Chris Carpenter injury, I think it’s safe to say that the Cards have this year wrapped up a little early.


For catching the Cards, the Pirates (Team 6.79 ERA) and Astros (.236 AVG, 73 Runs) are not catching up.


While the Brewers have the same hitting core, Randy Wolf taking over the ace spot left by Ben Sheets does not make a playoff team, so they are out as well. This leaves the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.


The Reds have not been in this position of capturing a division title in some time (1995, though they made a valiant effort in 1999).


While the Reds do not have history, they do have youth, and that youth has been gaining valuable experience over the past couple years.


Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey, and others are no longer wide-eyed rookies, and the Reds have combined this with seasoned veterans such as Orlando Cabrera and Scott Rolen.


In spite of this, one thing is missing, and that is leadership.

What veteran Red has stepped up to take charge of this team? It seems to be Votto on the hitting side, as he is the only everyday player hitting over .300 and leads the team in hits and RBI. They have to improve on that .240 batting average, with three outfielders hitting under .200.


Despite all this, it’s not the hitters that is costing them wins.


The Reds pitching is not doing them any favors, with the only bright spots being Francisco Cordero and his nine saves, alongside rookie starter Mike Leake.


When you skip the minors and make Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo look ineffective, you’re doing well for yourself.


It hasn’t helped that the rest of the starting cast has been ineffective though, as all have ERAs over 5.00.


In fact, Arroyo’s performance last night put his ERA at 6.14. Let me rephrase, it lowered his ERA to 6.14.


If the older batch of players doesn’t turn things around, then this ship isn’t moving past .500.


The Cubs, however, are an interesting story, stat-wise.


They are second in batting average, home runs, and their starting pitchers have performed well. Despite their prowess they cannot stay over .500 either, and yet looking at the stats one would think they would be right up there with the Cardinals.


When Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez fall into the category of the team’s least effective starters, and Carlos Zambrano is the guy you move to the bullpen, where is the problem?


The problem with the Cubs is twofold, part one of which is embedded above.


Like the Reds, where is the leadership on the Cubs’ team?


If Lee, Ramirez, and Zambrano were performing like one would imagine them to (and I should note that despite their struggles, Lee and Ramirez remain the team’s No. Three and No. Five hitters), then the team’s fortunes would certainly improve.


A shakeup in the batting order would be of help, as you wouldn’t have to remove them and cause the team morale to plummet.


Yes, Gorzelanny, Dempster, Silva, and Wells have all been effective, but a six-man rotation would not have been the worst idea. Rotate the six around, use Marshall as a setup man, and have Marmol close.


At least, it wouldn’t be the worst idea seeing as how the bullpen is the clear weak side of the team.


Bullpens can cripple a good team, even if they aren’t terrible; they can just be okay. Moving Zambrano to the bullpen has helped shape it up, though one could say the same about any starting pitcher on the Cubs’ roster.


When Carlos Marmol has pitched in 11 games with a 0.71 ERA, but only has four saves, something is not ringing right, and what is not ringing right is that they have not had opportunities to close out.


The bullpen has six of the 14 losses, and until that leak is plugged, Marmol can’t get the saves he should be getting, and the Cubs can’t get the wins they should be getting.


So you’ve heard why the others won’t catch up, but the more pressing question is why the Cardinals will stay on top. Simply put, their pitching is just too good, enough so that the hitting can become lackluster for a series and they’ll be fine. All their losses have been close, so the pitchers have kept the team in games.


Can you name two members of the pitching roster who have ERAs over 4? I’ll even give you one, Kyle Lohse.


As dominant as their pitching may be, the hitting does have to pick up. If there was one way for another Central team to make a run, it would be for them to hope that the team’s hitting stays quiet. The team’s hitting statistics remain in the top half of the league, but the .263 average needs work.


Despite the flaws, they have one thing in the hitting department the others don’t: leadership production.


Albert Pujols continues his professional dominance this past month, with his .327 average and seven home runs. David Freese and Colby Rasmus have been great as well. Yes, the hitting squad has its weak points that need to step it up (Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker), but they at least have a consistent great performer in the league that they can learn from in Pujols.


So while there is always the chance that something happens to throw the course of the season an entirely different direction (after all, there are 135 games left for most teams), I’d be hard pressed to thing of a compelling argument as to why the Cardinals would not win the NL Central.


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