The St. Louis Cardinals are one game behind. I’d sign up to be guaranteed that at every All-Star break.

We’re probably headed for a wild and woolly ride through the next two and a half months in the National League Central. Only three and one half games separate the first place Milwaukee Brewers from the fourth place Pittsburgh Pirates. Cincinnati is a game and a half back. The Cubs are six games under .500 and 12 games back.

The NL Central contenders all have their strengths and enough issues to make a serious run at 100 victories unlikely. Had the Cubs not traded off one top shelf starting pitcher in Jeff Samardzija and another decent starter in Jason Hammel, you would also have to be aware of the possibility that they might climb into at least the wild card race for a while.

Milwaukee—The Brewers pitching has been OK. Nothing spectacular. It is a factor in their lead in the division. The Brewers offense is pretty decent. However, there are some significant issues with the defense. They’ve committed the most errors in the division and opposing teams are stealing bases at a very alarming rate against Jonathan Lucroy.  Milwaukee needs to do something about those extra outs and easy stolen bases or Badger and Packers football will be the only shows in Wisconsin come October.

St. Louis--- Pitching and defense have the Cardinals in contention. And that’s with three of the projected starters when the season started on the disabled list for significant periods of time. It’s very hard to argue with 17 shutouts. The other three NL Central contenders have combined for 16 with Cincinnati having 8 of those. The offense has underachieved.  I’m also not impressed by the extra men on the Cardinals. That being said, Alan Craig hasn’t hit at his usual high standard. Not nearly enough production from whoever plays CF either. Cardinals can make it a lot easier on themselves if these holes in the offense close up somehow. All Tony Cruz should be asked to do is to be adequate until Yadier Molina comes off the disabled list.

Cincinnati—The Reds are battling injury issues. Their pitching is also solid. They don’t hand out a lot of extra outs on defense. Billy Hamilton has shown a few flashes as a leadoff hitter. He’s also looked totally lost at times. If their pitching stays healthy and if Hamilton progresses they’ve got a chance. The Reds could be a handful if Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto return to prime form.

Pittsburgh—Once again, they’re pitching is solid enough. They’re good at getting runners on base. Not as good at scoring runs. However, the Pirates have some defensive problems and they’re also not very good at stopping the running game. As is the case with Milwaukee, they’re going to have problems unless the defense cleans a few things up

Chicago Cubs—Better than they were a year ago. Not inconceivable for them to make this a five team race in 2015.