Neil Walker #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates tags out Scott Rolen #27 of the Cincinnati Reds during the game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pirates defeat the Reds 3-2. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
This weekend, 30 Major League Baseball teams will play 15 series of games.
Of those 15 series of games, fully 13 have significant postseason implications.*
Most of those 13, though, pit contenders against non-contenders. There's really just one series that seems truly compelling, and it's not the one you might have expected, two or three months ago ...
Pirates at Reds
Yeah. Pirates. Yeah. Reds.
Just to refresh your memories: In 2011, the Reds went 79-83 and the Pirates went 72-90.
And now, well into 2012, they're playing the most important series of the August 3-5 weekend.
How important? Well, it's more important to the Pirates than the Reds. Here are the National League Central standings that matter:
Pirates 60-44 -3½
Cardinals 56-49 -8
If the Reds can sweep the Pirates, they'll open a huge gap between themselves and second place. If the Pirates can sweep the Reds, the National League Central will suddenly seem wide open.
It's hard to say which eventually is better for the Cardinals, who have the best run differential in the division but need some help.
If the Reds sweep the Pirates and the Cardinals play well against the Brewers this weekend, the Redbirds will be right in the middle of the Wild Card race. But is the Wild Card really so attractive this season?
If the Pirates sweep the Reds and the Cardinals play well against the Brewers, the Cardinals will still be five or six games behind the Reds and they'll still be well behind the Pirates in the Wild Card standings.
It would be silly to attempt to predict the outcome of this series, however important. The most likely outcome is Reds winning two of three, second most likely outcome is Pirates taking two of three, etc. You know that already. What's less silly is trying to figure which of these teams is fundamentally better, and which is fundamentally most likely to reach the postseason.
The obvious answer to both questions, I think, is the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds' run differential this season is +72; the Pirates is +36, exactly half. The Reds' run differential last season was +15; the Pirates was -132.
And yes, last season does count for something. Maybe not a lot. Less than this season, probably. Especially considering the turnover on the Pirates' roster. But it does count for something, and we might expect some regression from these current Pirates, down the stretch.
Balancing that expected regression, though? The recent acquisitions of Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez and (especially) Wandy Rodriguez. Balancing that, though? Joey Votto's return from the Disabled List. He's been out since July 15, during which time the Reds have played brilliantly. But they're better with him than without him -- you know, since he's the best hitter in the National League, probably -- and they'll have him again within the next week or two.
You have to love the Reds' chances of winning the Central.
You have to like the Pirates' chances of grabbing one of the Wild Cards.
You can't love the Pirates' chances, though, because of the regression thing and also because the St. Louis Cardinals have the best run differential in the division and also because the second-place team in the East will be real good, and maybe the second-place team in the West, too.
Which N.L. Central team(s) are going to the playoffs?
Cardinals (alone) (2 votes)
Pirates (alone) (1 vote)
Reds (alone) (25 votes)
Reds & Pirates (74 votes)
Reds & Cardinals (27 votes)
Cardinals & Pirates (2 votes)
Cardinals, Pirates & Reds (12 votes)
143 total votes