As we hit interleague action in MLB this weekend, everyone has 35-plus games behind them and we’ve covered a little more than 1/5 of the schedule. TheSportsNotebook continues its evaluation period that’s going on this week. This post focuses on the National League. Please also check the American League overview from earlier today and the individual reports that were run yesterday, with an All-Star ballot put together for both the AL & NL.
Atlanta (23-14): Whether you believe in the Braves for the long haul or not, at least we know they didn’t drag the residue of last September’s collapse with them into 2012, the way a team from up New England did. The Braves have bashed their way to the top of the NL’s toughest division, 2nd in the NL in runs scored thanks to a lineup that’s getting contributions up and down—no one’s been a star and no one’s been an easy out, so it’s very feasible that Atlanta will be an offensive force this year. The starting pitching just has to get better though. Even with Brandon Beachy dazzling with a 1.60 ERA, Mike Minor has been a huge disappointment in his first full year as a starter and the middle three—Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Randall Delgado are floating around the high 3s, which isn’t bad, but given the higher standards that exist in the National League for this stat, it’s not championship-level either.
Washington (22-14): The starting pitching has had to carry Washington, with the bullpen hit hard by injuries to Brad Lidge and Drew Storen and that’s likely to persist until at least the All-Star break. Then there’s the whole problem with the offense, which is 14th in the league scoring runs and with Jayson Werth out for the year and Danny Espinosa having come down to earth after such a good year in 2011, the Nats are not likely to see significant improvement here. Even if Ryan Zimmerman heats up at third base—and he will—Adam LaRoche is way over his head right now, so that cancels each other out. But when you have Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmerman you have four extraordinary young arms. When you have Edwin Jackson you have a reliable stabilizer. And when Davey Johnson is your manager you know he doesn’t need that much of an opening to produce wins. Washington might not continue their current 98-win pace, but they’re here to stay in the division and playoff races.
NY Mets (20-16): It’s nice to see this team off to a good start after enduring so many rough headlines because of the Madoff ownership situation and it’s even nice to see Johan Santana pitching well. But don’t get any ideas. The pitching overall is still a real weak point and that was even before Mike Pelfrey was lost for the year. The offense has overachieved to date, ranking 6th in the league in scoring runs thanks to David Wright having an MVP-caliber season and Daniel Murphy being a big contributor. But they need substantial improvement from Lucas Duda and Ike Davis if the offense is going to keep hitting. I think a more realistic goal for this team is to beat their preseason Las Vegas Over/Under win total of 72 and by that measurement they’re off to a very good start.
Miami (19-17): Ozzie Guillen’s troops are coming hard, having gotten through the rough first month and now having played their way back into the race behind strong pitching, with Anibal Sanchez being the best and Mark Buehrle, Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano all having good years. Now the offense has to work its way into form. Giancarlo Stanton has got his power stroke back and Jose Reyes is getting on base. Omar Infante is having a tremendous season at second base. That will come down to earth, and when it happens Hanley Ramirez has to get his bat in gear and on the pitching side Josh Johnson has to get back in rhythm.
Philadelphia (18-19): Carlos Ruiz and Juan Pierre are the only Phillie players getting on base with any regularity and Hunter Pence and Ruiz are the only ones driving the ball with any power. Shane Victorino has tailed off sharply after a good start and believe it or not, even the pitching only ranks in the middle of the National League in ERA. It’s hard to pinpoint one area in particular, other than middle relief. Otherwise it’s most a series of pitchers—Cole Hamels excepted—being just a bit below their norm. I’m sure Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee will soon join Hamels in churning out Cy Young-caliber starts, but at this point in the season it’s fair to say that for as many bad predictions as TheSportsNotebook makes, going hard against the Phils in the NL East—and to even miss the postseason entirely—doesn’t look too bad right now.
St. Louis (21-15): A deep and talented offense has ripped the ball left and right and scored the most runs in the National League, even with Lance Berkman on the disabled list. Given this team has put runs on the board for three straight years, there is no reason to think that will change. The pitching is a mystery right now. St. Loo is getting great work from Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook. But Adam Wainwright is really struggling in his attempt to come back from the elbow surgery of last spring , Jaime Garcia’s seen his ERA gradually nudge upward over 4 and Chris Carpenter is still out and now his return is pushed back to late July. To top it off, the bullpen depth isn’t there. I’m not necessarily saying the Cardinals won’t win the division, but it’s definitely not the runaway they were making it look like early.
Cincinnati (18-17): The Reds are top-heavy when it comes to their personnel. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are getting it done in the everyday lineup, while Johnny Cueto looks like a Cy Young winner in the rotation and Bronson Arroyo’s having a solid year at #2. Aroldis Chapman is good for a lockdown three outs of the bullpen. But they can get enough help? Rookie shortstop Zack Cozart’s bat goes in and out, while Brandon Phillips—whose bat is desperately needed—has been mostly out. In the rotation, Mat Latos has to take his 4.54 ERA and knock a run off it. Then Dusty Baker has a challenge in putting together the bullpen around Chapman. I think the Reds are one of baseball’s most interesting teams going into the summer.
Pittsburgh (17-19): We always knew Erik Bedard could still pitch if he stayed healthy. He’s healthy, so is his 2.57 ERA and the Pirates have the NL’s third-best pitching staff, thanks also to James McDonald and a very good bullpen. What they can’t do is score. At all. Andrew McCutchen is having another All-Star year in the outfield, but to say he lacks help is a woeful understatement. The Pirates might as well have the pitcher’s spot up with the other eight positions in the order for all the help the everyday players are giving. Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones are the prime culprits and they have to hit if this team is going to finally finish on the right side of .500.
Milwaukee (16-20): Don’t think this is about Prince Fielder’s being absent, or Ryan Braun no longer having his alleged steroids. Braun is having a big year and along with Jonathan Lucroy has helped the Brewers stay in the NL’s upper crust on the offensive side. The pitching is awful, with presumed ace Yovani Gallardo and closer John Axford being the biggest culprits. Zack Greinke has pitched well and Shaun Marcum has bounced back from a terrible finish to 2011, but unless one of these two are on the mound a disaster seems imminent. And now that Alex Gonzalez is gone for the year at short, the defense is going to suffer. The early season hope of 85 wins—the Las Vegas betting number—looks like a pipe dream right now and the current pace of 72 looks painfully realistic.
Houston (15-21): A recent slide took the shine off what had been a nice start for the Astros and they’re current pace would set them at 68 wins by season’s end. That would still exceed expectations and while I don’t think Houston will many games, the rebuilding project deserves some good marks for the pieces that are coming into place. Jose Altuve is a nice second baseman swinging a good bat. Jed Lowrie has been solid since coming over from Boston. The young pitching shows continued promise, with Bud Norris and Lucas Farrell, and veterans Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers—the latter in the closer’s role are pitching extremely well and enhancing the value they can bring back at the trade deadline. Houston’s moving to the American League next season and if the team is looking for the start of a new era, the early returns are positive.
ChiCubs (15-21): It has to suck to be one of the top three starters on the Cubs. If you’re Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza or Jeff Samrdijza you’re having a perfectly good year, but there’s no offensive help and no bullpen help. Bryan LaHair is the main bright spot of the offense, hitting 10 home runs in his rookie year. Starlin Castro’s been decent at short and can kick it up a notch, but beyond that David DeJesus’ ability to get on base is all that’s left. Perhaps the bullpen will work out now that Carlos Marmol has been removed from the closer’s job, but this is still hit and miss. On three days out of five the Cubs can compete for seven innings. The other two days and the other two innings? Not so much.
LA Dodgers (24-12): Is this the best team in baseball? That’s one the standings tell us in mid-May. The Dodger resurgence has been keyed by an offense that not only has Matt Kemp picking up right where he left off in what should have been an MVP year in 2011 (for reasons having nothing to do with Ryan Braun’s alleged and never proven steroid use), but Andre Ethier is having a big year, while young catcher A.J. Ellis is off to a blazing start. Clayton Kershaw looks poised to make a run at a second straight Cy Young Award. Now the problems—the bullpen has good setup people, but closer Javy Guerra has been inconsistent, and how much longer can Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly keep their ERAs in the low 2s? Eventually Chad Billingsley’s going to have to come closer to resembling Kershaw than looking like a #4 starter. I’ve got the Dodgers in a group with the Orioles—I respect what they’ve done and they are definitely better than expected, but let’s hold off on the postseason plans.
San Francisco (18-18): The Giants are what they are—good pitching, lousy offense. But thus far the pitching has been merely good and not excellent, which isn’t enough to compensate for the lack of a meaningful offensive attack. Tim Lincecum is the main culprit, with a 5.77 ERA. He looked to be coming around before again stumbling his last couple times out. The everyday lineup really needs Pablo Sandoval to come back strong from his hand injury early next month, because right now left fielder Melky Cabrera is the only one keeping the lineup afloat. The problems with this team are real, but if you’re worst concerns surrounding Lincecum and Sandoval you at least have good reason to be optimistic about the future.
Arizona (16-21): As the record shows the Diamondbacks aren’t hitting on all cylinders, or even a few right now. They need Chris Young in centerfield and starting pitcher Daniel Hudson back from the disabled list. Eventually they need Stephen Drew to make it back from the surgery he had on his ankle last July. So to a certain extent, Arizona has an excuse. But Justin Upton’s having a terrible year and while the starting pitching hasn’t been bad—Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Joe Saunders have all been decent—none have excelled, the way Kennedy did a year ago on his way to 20 wins. I think this team can get it turned around, as they get healthy and Upton gets hot. Whether they get an uptick in the three pitchers mentioned will decide if they can push back over the top.
Colorado (14-21): You would expect a team playing in Coors Field to be strong on scoring runs and less so at stopping them, and the early returns bear that out this year. But there are some underlying factors worthy of note. Even though the Rockies’ have the league’s third-best offense, it’s top-heavy with Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer being the only ones having really good years. While you can certainly expect Troy Tulowitzki to come around, the lack of depth in the offensive attack suggests it will be tough to carry this high level of success much farther. Pitching-wise, there’s not much reason to think the staff with the league’s worst ERA will get much better this year, but the Rocks are doing the right thing and at least choosing to struggle with young pitchers with an upside. Alex White, Drew Pomeranz and Christian Frederich are all getting a trial by fire in big leagues and that will only help in the years to come.
San Diego (13-24): The play of Chase Headley and Yonder Alonso at the infield corner spots is all the Padres have to hang their hat on in the everyday lineup. Edinson Volquez—who came over with Alonso in a deal with the Reds for Latos, a trade looking positively one-side for the Pads right now—is having a sound year, and even Jeff Suppan is finding a career revival in Petco Park. But on the subject of Petco, a good staff will have a team ERA better than sixth in the National League in this place, and that’s where San Diego is right now. Perhaps the return of starter Tim Stauffer from the DL will give them a boost, but when your success to this point has fallen this heavily on Suppan I think it tells you a lot about your long-term chances.
MAY MULLIGANS: The preseason picks here at TheSportsNotebook were Atlanta, St. Louis and Arizona to win divisions, with a Miami-Milwaukee wild-card game. I’m going to stay patient with Arizona and see what happens between now and the All-Star break. They’ll play better and the Dodgers will come down to earth, and I’m not sure what to think about San Francisco yet. I’m certainly sticking with Miami. As for Milwaukee—well, in honor of the June 5 gubernatorial recall election that’s happening here in Wisconsin where I live, I’m recalling the Brewers, and replacing them with Washington. The NL East will sweep the wild-card spots this year.