Sunday, July 1, 2012

MLB - NL Division Races

NL East

Wow.  The NL East has to be the most surprising division in baseball.  Sitting on top of the heap are the Washington Nationals thanks in large part to the major’s best pitching staff.  The top three arms in their rotation, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmerman, each has a sub-3.00 ERA.  The bullpen has a solid threesome of its own in Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen, and Sean Burnett.  Clippard has filled in more than admirably in closer Drew Storen’s absence.  They’re doing everything right in the pitching department, and they might need to keep it up in order to remain on top considering they have one of the game’s weaker offenses.  Bryce Harper didn’t have to wait long to get the call, and he’s been putting up his share of highlights in the first half, most notably his hustle doubles.  He’s well on his way to winning ROY honors.  Ian Desmond doesn’t get talked about much, but he’s one of the better all-round SS in baseball.  Ryan Zimmerman has been dealing with a shoulder issue since April but is starting to put together a Zimmerman-like hitting streak.  As a fan without a vested interest in this division, it’s hard to not root for these guys.

The Nationals are in first place, but the Mets are the most pleasant surprise in the division.  Picked by most to finish last again, the Mets are currently six games over .500 and finally notched a no-hitter for the franchise when Johan Santana stifled the Cardinals June 1.  David Wright led baseball in hitting for a good stretch of the first half, but the rest of the offense is more clutch than consistent when it comes to hitting.  R.A. Dickey is one of the best stories of this first half.  He threw two near no-hitters in back-to-back games and gave up zero earned runs for five straight starts.  Can Wright continue carrying a limited offense?  Can Dickey and Santana continue carrying a mediocre starting staff and shaky bullpen? 

Atlanta’s lying in the weeds within reach of first place.  Chipper Jones is taking the farewell tour, and Jason Heyward is doing a good job trying to establish himself as the next Mr. Brave.  Michael Bourn is having a great year and is providing some pop (7 homers) from the leadoff spot.  Unfortunately, first half ace (and Cy Young candidate) Brandon Beachy is now out for the year and facing Tommy John surgery.  Tommy Hanson sill looks like a 1a starter rather than a #1, but they’re getting great stuff from the soon to be 37 Tim Hudson.  Craig Kimbrel has only faltered once in 23 save opportunities and makes nearly every game an 8 inning affair.

The division’s Jekyll and Hyde resides in Miami.  The Marlins were baseball’s best team in May but were its most awful in June.  They’re the fourth worst hitting team in the game and aren’t getting much from their big dollar duo of Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez.  Giancarlo Stanton is the lone bright spot, but he did nearly all of his damage in a huge May.  The pitching hasn’t been there.  Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano, and Anibal Sanchez all have losing records and ERAs over 3.50.  Josh Johnson is looking good of late though, but there’s just not enough around him.  And oh my is it painful to watch Heath Bell attempt to close games.

Bringing up the rear are the shocking last place Phillies.  They’ve looked really anemic offensively without Ryan Howard and, until recently, Chase Utley.  Cliff Lee doesn’t have a single win through the first three months of the season, and Roy Halladay has been out with a shoulder injury since late May.  It’s going to take a hell of a lot of magic to make them relevant in the second half. 

Most Impressive Team – Washington Nationals
Most Impressive Player – R.A. Dickey

Most Disappointing Team – Philadelphia Phillies
Most Disappointing Player – Cliff Lee

NL Central

I see the Central as a three team race the rest of the way.  The team sitting on top of the division is the Cincinnati Reds, and through no coincidence, Joey Votto is well on his way to winning his second MVP in three seasons.  He’s among the league leaders in all offensive categories except steals and is the rock in the middle of a lineup with some pop.  Brandon Phillips heats up with the weather, and Jay Bruce is tied for third in the NL in homers.  June has been Ryan Ludwick’s best month, but if they were able to upgrade over him in left field, they might put some distance between them and the rest of the division.  Johnny Cueto is having a great year and would be among the top vote getters for the half way Cy Young, but the second half of that desired deadly 1-2 combo, Mat Latos, hasn’t delivered as hoped.  He’s 24th in the NL in K’s, but only two players rated higher than him have a higher ERA (Lincecum and Samardzija).  He’s doesn’t look like a playoff #2 at the moment, but maybe Mike Leake is.  Leake doesn’t have the Ws to show for it, but he’s been dominant in June.  We know he has the stuff, but can he maintain it this year?  Aroldis Champan was unhittable in April and May, so despite the recent hiccups, he’s still one of the game’s elite closers.  I still see the Reds winning this division.

Pittsburgh is the Rodney Dangerfield of major league baseball.  They just don’t get any respect.  If Joey Votto doesn’t win the MVP, the award winner might still come from this division.  Andrew McCutchen is this team’s offense – hitting for power, average, and racking up double digit steals.  I think he’ll maintain, but can they keep posting wins when Pedro Alvarez can’t hit his weight and no other regular besides McCutchen is hitting at least .270.  McCutchen’s help comes from the hurlers.  Leading one of the game’s best staffs of the season is James McDonald.  The former Dodger has thrown like an elite #1 this year.  He has an impressive 7 wins, but he could easily have another 4.  The Pirates are 10-5 in games McDonald starts, and in 4 of those 5 losses, McDonald pitched a total 28 innings giving up 1 ER in each contest.  AJ Burnett has been awesome as well and has a great chance to earn his most wins since ’08.    Joel Hanrahan is on his way to a second straight All Star game.  Will the Pirates sink like last year?  They traded for hitting at last season’s deadline (Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick) and will likely need to do so again in order to hang in this thing.

Last year’s champs sit in third place and are weathering more than their fair share of injuries.  A significant knee injury has limited Lance Berkman to just 13 games, John Jay missed more than a month, Skip Schumaker was sidelined two weeks twice, Jaime Garcia may need shoulder surgery, and Chris Carpenter still hasn’t thrown a pitch this year.  The lineup still has plenty of pop.  Carlos Beltran has far surpassed his free agency expectations, and Allen Craig has been a great source of power.  In addition to his defensive excellence, Yadier Molina is getting it done again offensively.  Their pitching has been very unCardinal-like.  Adam Wainwright hasn’t completely turned the corner, and Lance Lynn seems to be falling back to earth after a huge start to the season.  Kyle Lohse has been their most efficient pitcher, but he’s never been a true stopper.  Despite the offensive output, they must get better pitching if they want to have a shot at defending their title.

The Brewers definitely miss Prince Fielder.  Ryan Braun has remained his typical MVP self despite the lack of adequate protection, but Aramis Ramirez isn’t making anyone forget Cecil’s son.  Corey Hart provides pop, but he’s not a consistent threat.  The biggest disappointment so far has been Rickie Weeks.  The All Star second baseman has more strikeouts than total bases and is hitting well below .200.  Zack Greinke is a stud.  He just doesn’t lose at Miller Park, despite its reputation as a hitter friendly stadium.  If the Brewers decide to deal the impending free agent, the Dodgers better race to the phone.  Yovani Gallardo has slipped, Shaun Marcum is dealing with an elbow issue, and Randy Wolf is just about done.  John Axford makes Heath Bell look stable, and Francisco Rodriguez is still pouting because he’s not a closer.  The Brewers don’t have the firepower to make a run.

Houston’s remaining goal is to stay ahead of Chicago and out of last place.  Jose Altuve has been the bright spot offensively, as the diminutive second baseman leads the team in batting average, total bases, and on base percentage.  The pitching is worse.  Lucas Harrell has been somewhat entertaining to watch, but none of them strikes fear in an opposing lineup. 

The Cubs are probably the worst team in baseball.  Anyone worth a darn not named Rizzo or Castro will likely be dealt in the next month.  That includes Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, and Brian LaHair.  Sarlin Castro still hasn’t figured out what it takes mentally to be a star, and Carlos Marmol might be the worst closer in baseball.

Most Impressive Team – Pittsburgh Pirates
Most Impressive Player – Andrew McCutchen

Most Disappointing Team – Milwaukee Brewers
Most Disappointing Player – Rickie Weeks

NL West

When trying to pinpoint the keys to San Francisco’s success this season, you’ve got to start with the pitching.  Individual players stepping up started early in the year when the Beard went down with an elbow injury that forced him to undergo his second Tommy John surgery.  In his stead, Santiago Casilla has racked up over 20 first half saves, giving him the third highest save total in the majors.  Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, and Madison Bumgarner are all worthy of All Star invites.  Cain threw a perfect game and owns a sub-1.00 WHIP, Vogelsong owns the league’s 4th best ERA, and Bumgarner has racked up 10 wins.  Don’t look now, but Tim Lincecum seems to be finally getting it together, so that would be four studs in a rotation backed by an improved offense.  Buster Posey may be the franchise player, but Melky Cabrera is having a better year thus far.  Cabrera is showing that last year’s career year was no fluke, as he’s among baseball’s best hitters with a .350 average.  Angel Pagan has been a fine acquisition in center field, and Pablo Sandoval is just getting back into action after undergoing hand surgery.  When you’ve got pitching, you can weather batting slumps, but when you’ve got this kind of pitching, it’s almost unfair.  I don’t think they’ll run off and hide with the division lead, but they’re definitely in it for the long haul. 

After owning baseball’s best record for a good stretch of the early season, the Dodgers have sputtered of late, giving up that designation as well as their hold on the division lead.  You don’t have to look far to figure out why.  Stud center fielder Matt Kemp has missed a large part of the first half with a hamstring injury, and there’s perhaps no other player in baseball who has such a direct impact on his team’s performance than Kemp.  This team resembled the historic ’88 squad in that aside from Kemp (Kirk Gibson) the offense is without any real superstar talents and gets its wins on the strength of its pitching and various role players stepping up in key moments.  Without Kemp and now Andre Ethier (oblique) this is really a toothless lineup.  Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ll be able to fix enough of the offensive holes in-season to make a championship run.  Their pitching was a huge strength early on, but Ted Lilly has been dealing with shoulder inflammation, Chad Billingsley peaked four years ago, and Aaron Harang is starting to pitch like Aaron Harang.  Even Clayton Kershaw hasn’t been his dominant self.  The reigning Cy Young has a pedestrian 5-4 record through 16 starts and had only one dominant outing in his last six trips to the hill.  I expect the ownership to put this team in the best position to be as competitive as possible, but I’m not sure it will matter unless Kemp gets back real quick. 

I was high on the Diamondbacks in the preseason, and despite their third place positioning, I still think they’ll be the team to reckon with come October.  They got nothing from Justin Upton over the first two months, played without Chris Young for a long stretch and Stephen Drew even longer, and have had some very inconsistent pitching from their starters.  Still, they sit just a handful of games outside of first place.  Upton has had a hot June, but their three most dangerous offensive players have been Aaron Hill, Jason Kubel, and Paul Goldschmidt.  Hill has hit for the cycle twice this year, and only Robinson Cano has been a more productive second sacker.  Kubel has been a very consistent producer and looks to be making a run at topping his career year numbers from ’09.  Goldschmidt is tied with Hill and Kubel for the team lead in homers but has 54 less ABs than Hill and 37 less than Kubel.  He’s also 8th in the majors in total bases for first basemen despite not having been an every day player.  The key to whether or not they can repeat as division champs will be their second half pitching, more specifically, ace Ian Kennedy who has looked anything but this season.  He posted a 2.88 ERA last year but hasn’t seen 3.00 since April 12.  Daniel Hudson is lost for the year with an elbow injury, and both Trevor Cahill and Joe Saunders have been too inconsistent.  Wade Miley has been a real bright spot, and phenom Trevor Bauer just got the call. Still, a second half Kennedy rebound is key. 

Not a lot of good things going on in Colorado.  Troy Tulowitzki will miss at least a decent chunk of the second half after undergoing groin surgery.  Carlos Gonzalez still looks like one of the best players in the game, but the pitching has been awful.  Jim Tracy is getting a lot of heat for his new ‘6 man 75 pitch limit’ rotation.  Aside from youngster Derw Pomeranz, there isn’t a starter on that team I’d want taking the ball for my team.

The Padres are expectedly awful.  Houston Street has been awesome, but it’s hard to earn saves when your team doesn’t often have the lead.  No starter has 6 wins, and no hitter has 10 homers.  Whole lot of nothing going on in San Diego

Most Impressive Team – Los Angeles Dodgers
Most Impressive Player – Melky Cabrera

Most Disappointing Team – Arizona Diamondbacks
Most Disappointing Player – Justin Upton

No comments:

Post a Comment