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St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs could decide NL Central race by making a key trade

I’ve been a believer in recent years that the era of the pivotal midseason trade was dead.

With the addition of two wild-card playoff teams in each league, about three-quarters of the general managers in baseball believe their team is still in the postseason hunt by the time the All-Star Game has come and gone.

Because of this, they’re unwilling to run the white flag up the pole and let go of the idea that their team might pull a championship out of the fire. So there are fewer big pieces on the market — and the pieces that are available are ridiculously expensive.

This year might be different because there are so many high-end players who are set to become free agents after the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Clubs that don’t think they can re-sign their marquee players might be tempted to deal them now to maximize their return — instead of letting the players walk away when their contracts are up.

With available players on the market and obvious needs for the top two contenders, the National League Central race could very likely be decided by whether the St. Louis Cardinals or the Chicago Cubs make the better additions to their club.

While the Cardinals, statistically speaking, have the most consistent starting rotation in the National League, they certainly don’t have the most sturdy or spectacular rotation. Who in the Cardinals group of five starters would you be excited about watching pitch a key game of a playoff series besides Carlos Martinez? One starting pitcher does not make a successful postseason rotation.

Adam Wainwright looks as if he’s hanging on to his career by his fingertips at this point. Injury-prone Michael Wacha set off alarm bells across Cardinals Nation when he was scratched from his most recent scheduled start, presumably to get him a little extra rest and save his arm for later in the season. Hopefully, he’s healthy and the move truly is a precautionary one. It’s easy to see why the Redbirds would handle Wacha with care when he’s missed large chunks of a couple of seasons due to the stress reaction he’s been fighting in his pitching shoulder.

Wacha has performed well. But as recently as spring training it seemed that St. Louis was resigned to the fact that he would have to pitch out of the bullpen because his arm wouldn’t hold up to being a starter.

The Cubs’ immediate starting pitching needs are a little more obvious. Not only did they have three starters last year enjoy career years at the same time, they have several members of their pitching staff nearing the end of their respective contracts. It’s time for the Cubs to reload — and they have the resources to do it with the money to take on big contracts and the young talent to entice rebuilding clubs to restock their cupboards.

Both teams could use help in their bullpen. The Cardinals need pitchers who can get lefties out and they need guys who can give them a couple of innings at a time in middle relief. The Cubs need help more toward the back of the bullpen after losing dominant closer Aroldis Chapman (now injured) to free agency and replacing him with the serviceable but less elite closer Wade Davis.

Offensively, the Cubs seem set with the exception that they could use a table-setter to serve as their leadoff man. The Cardinals stole Chicago’s former leadoff man, Dexter Fowler, forcing the Cubs to use plodding outfielder Kyle Schwarber at the top of the lineup instead of in a place where he can drive in runs.

The Birds could use a guy in the middle of the order to provide some punch — and an intimidation factor that helps the other hitters see more pitches they can do something with.

The Redbirds, over the past few years, have been reluctant to pull the trigger on big trades that could have been transformational for the franchise. But this may be the year to make the move. They have a logjam of outfield talent in the minor leagues, including top prospect Harrison Bader. With just a couple of astute moves, this club could go from a fairly good one to a dominant one.