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MLB Cincinnati Reds

NL Central Toughest Division in Baseball with Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates in Hunt

Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, NL Central

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The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates may currently be battling it out for third and fourth place in the NL Central, but make no mistake, both teams stand to have more than a spoiler’s stake in the division’s outcome.

For the Reds, expectations remain high despite an injury-riddled first half of the season that was compounded by bullpen struggles and offensive woes. Collectively, these issues have reduced the division-winning Reds of 2010 and 2012 to a team that can’t quite reach .500.

The Pirates failed to replicate a fast start that had them eight games over .500 by May 20 last year. This year by the same date, the Pirates were eight games under the .500 mark.

While the Pirates have watched their starting pitching fall to the wayside with the departure of A.J. Burnett and the recurring struggles of Francisco Liriano, the Pirates’ bullpen has kept the team alive from a pitching standpoint.

It’s been just the opposite for the Reds, that have benefited from a strong rotation only to watch a weak corps of middle relievers squander too many games.

Neither the Reds nor the Pirates have exactly tore it up at the plate this year, although the Pirates have been better than the Reds in that respect. But both have the promise of a brighter horizon on offense in the second half of the season.

For the Pirates, that means the insertion of Gregory Polanco in an outfield already loaded with NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and the still-emerging Starling Marte. Their 1-2-3 presence makes for a potentially electric top of the order that will only get better with time.

For the Reds, much of that brighter second-half horizon resides with good health and met expectations from their two left-handed bats in former NL MVP Joey Votto and slugger Jay Bruce and their two right-handed RBI-producing bats in Brandon Phillips and Ryan Ludwick.

But how well the Reds ultimately fare in the NL Central will be determined by their developing players in Billy Hamilton, Devin Mesoraco and Zack Cozart.

Both teams face interesting dilemmas at the trade deadline to help boost their teams’ chances for a division-title run, but even without adding bats or arms, both the Reds and the Pirates are going to make the fast-starting Milwaukee Brewers and the perennially contending St. Louis Cardinals earn their way to the top of the division.

Robb Hoff is a Cincinnati Reds writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @NFLNostradamus, like him on Facebook and add him to your network on Google.