TheSportsNotebook’s midseason statistical looks at each division shifts to the National League today. MLB coverage in the first part of this week covered the American League and concluded yesterday with the AL West. Today we shift leagues and coasts, by looking at the NL East.
We’ll summarize each team in the NL East by three categories on each “side of the ball”, so to speak. Runs scored, along with their component parts of on-base percentage and slugging percentage are the offensive numbers. Pitching will break down into separate ERA ranks for both starters and relievers, and then the team’s percentage at closing saves.
The rankings are just within the National League, and we conclude by citing a couple notable individual performances from each team, followed by some comments.
Atlanta Braves (52-39)
Starters’ ERA: 5th
Bullpen ERA: 1st
Save Chances: 25/33
Notable: Fredi Freeman has a stat line of a .388 on-base percentage/.470 slugging and would be an eminently worthy choice if the fans choose him over Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder Yasiel Puig, the media favorite. Mike Minor’s ERA of 3.05 in 18 starts is a big reason why the starting pitching has done so well.
Comments: I like the Braves, but I haven’t been sold on them as the best team in the NL East all year. The bullpen is excellent, as it’s been for the past few years, but I question if a rotation with no clear ace can keep pitching like this.
Washington Nationals (47-44)
Starters’ ERA: 6th
Bullpen ERA: 8th
Save Chances; 26/36
Notable: Jayson Werth is finally starting to produce in right field, with a .360/.468 stat line. Jordan Zimmerman has been the team’s best starting pitcher, at 12-3 with a 2.57 ERA. Stephen Strasburg is excellent, but it’s worth noting that Gio Gonzalez was better than him last year, and Zimmerman is this year.
Comments: Just reverse the Atlanta comments. I don’t really like this team and the hype that surrounds them, and the arrogance of shutting down Strasburg going into the playoffs last year. But the rotation is just so solid and it hasn’t even pitched to potential yet.
Philadelphia Phillies (45-47)
Starters’ ERA: 10th
Bullpen ERA: 15th
Save Chances: 21/31
Notable: Say what you will about this team’s age—and you can say a lot in that regard—but if Cole Hamels weren’t 4-11 with a 4.17 ERA, the Phils would be a serious contender. While the offense has been disappointing, Domonic Brown has become a big-time power hitter with 23 home runs.
Comments: Ryan Howard just went on the disabled list, and that would seem to settle the big question all of baseball is wondering—are the Phils selling or not, as the July trade market heats up. They clearly need to be sellers—I’m not saying that means they must trade Cliff Lee or Jonathan Papelbon. There’s something to be said for building to next year, and each would be good for a 2-3 year window. But the Phils at least need to have the mindset of looking to get a significant haul of prospects, and Lee and Papelbon are clearly the trade chips that could do that.
New York Mets (40-48)
Starters’ ERA: 8th
Bullpen ERA: 12th
Save Chances: 18/29
Notable: David Wright continues to churn out big numbers, with a .403/.517 stat line. And of course Matt Harvey is in position to win the NL Cy Young Award and make it two straight for the organization, following R.A. Dickey last year. But beware—Harvey came up with a blister on his right index finger. I know it doesn’t sound serious, but you clearly can’t pitch with that. And keep in mind that the early part of Josh Beckett’s career was marked by repeated blisters until his hands finally got stronger a few years in.
Comments: Take a look at that offensive ranking. Citi Field is very pitcher-friendly, and for the Mets to be outscoring the Phils—in spite of the fact that Philly’s park is the complete opposite—speaks very well to the quality of the Mets’ lineup this year. Now if they just got some pitching behind Harvey.
Miami Marlins (33-57)
Starters’ ERA: 9th
Bullpen ERA: 11th
Save Chances: 18/27
Notable: No one expected anything from Miami this year, so I’m going to be nice and cite two positives in the pitching rotation—Jose Fernandez has a 2.83 ERA in 17 starts. Ricky Nolasco pitched well enough—3.85 ERA in 18 starts—that the Marlins were able to deal him to the Dodgers. And let’s a throw a third name in there—Nate Eovaldi, the pitcher they acquired from those very same Dodgers last year, has a 2.55 ERA in four starts.
Comments: I like the young pitching, but before we just say this is a young team that’s getting better, let’s bear in mind that not only is the offense absolutely hideous, there’s not much in the way of expected improvement as far as young players go.
THE VIEW FROM VEGAS
Atlanta is the 4-9 favorite, which surprises me. Even though they’re up five games, Boston was 5-6 with a similar margin in the AL East. And given how much everyone seemed to like Washington at the start of the season, I guess I’m surprised that they’re not getting more love from the bookmakers just to erase that deficit with a healthy Bryce Harper in the lineup. The Nats are 8-5, and I would consider that a very solid bet. Philadelphia is 14-1, New York is 150-1 and Miami is 1,000-1.
Even with a tough walk-off loss last night in Washington, times are good for the New York Mets. The team universally picked to finish fifth in the NL East, including here, is sitting on a 31-25 record and only a game and a half off the lead. How are they doing it and is it sustainable? TheSportsNotebook takes a brief look at the Big Apple’s “other” team…
You’ve heard about Johan Santana’s no-hitter and perhaps picked up on the fact that the one-time best pitcher in baseball is enjoying an excellent comeback year overall—2.38 ERA in 11 starts. And veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is 8-1 with a 2.69 ERA. But in spite of the quality of these two pitchers and in spite of playing in a pitcher’s park, its offense that’s the reason New York is winning and it’s pitching that foreshadows problems ahead if not corrected.
New York is fourth in the National League in runs scored and, befitting a team in a cavernous park, they do it more by consistently getting runners on base than with the long ball. We can start with David Wright at third base who does everything, with a .465 on-base percentage and .585 slugging percentage. Around him is a series of players who just grind it out. I generally use .350 as a cutoff point for determining if a player is a real asset to the offense with his OBP. By that standard only Ruben Tejada (.362) and Josh Thole (.364), the shortstop and catcher would make the cut. But if we make the reasonable extension to .340, you fill in virtually everyone else in the lineup—second baseman Daniel Murphy has been a consistent offensive player, Lucas Duda is contributing in rightfield, Andres Torres has found a little bit of the magic that helped him key the San Francisco Giants’ offense in their World Series year of 2010 and veteran Jerry Hairston keeps on ticking. Then let’s throw in outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who’s starting to get playing time and is up over .350 threshold. The only disappointment is first baseman Ike Davis, but on balance you get the portrait of an offense that has no easy outs.
The good news for Mets fans is that consistency in getting on base is one of the two most sustainable attributes to a baseball team over the long summer months. The bad news is that the other is pitching depth and here’s where we have issues. The bullpen is a major problem, with Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch each blowing three saves apiece and Ramon Ramirez first being a disappointment with a 4.78 ERA and then going on the disabled list to the middle of this month. Manager Terry Collins does not have great arms back year, but it’s incumbent upon him to do what Mike Scoscia has done with the Angels and Bobby Valentine with the Red Sox and at least turn the last few innings into something less than a disaster area.
Collins is less able to control what happens with the starting pitching and here Jonathan Niese and Dillon Gee simply have to step up and pitch better. Working in a National League pitchers’ park there is no reason for either hurler to have an ERA up over 4. Both need to be more consistent and frankly both should be at this stage in their careers.
New York is the one team I gave no chance to winning the NL East to at the start of the year and I’d stand by that—the bullpen is too problematic, the lack of power means they probably won’t rip off a monster win streak and the division itself is too tough. And at the trade deadline, this is still a team that should be thinking about replenishing its farm system and getting younger rather than loading up for a pennant drive. But the Mets also have real strengths, as outlined here and if they keep getting on base, with Santana and Dickey pitching well, and Wright having an MVP year they can have a winning season—something any reasonable Mets fan would have jumped at in April—and maybe even make a spirited run at one of the two wild-card berths.
Around the rest of the NL East…
Washington (31-22): Ryan Zimmerman has got to pick up the pace at the plate. The All-Star caliber third baseman is hitting .237 with two home runs and with Jayson Werth out until the end of July, Zimmerman is the man who has to make sure this team’s high-quality pitching doesn’t go to waste. He will get some help with the return of Michael Morse from the disabled list. Morse posted a .360/.550 stat line last year and can finally start helping the ’12 Nats.
Miami (31-24): An 11-0 loss last night to Atlanta in a series opener might spell the end of a streak wherein the Marlins haven’t lost a series since the end of April. What’s most scary about this team if you’re an opponent is that Josh Johnson in the rotation and Heath Bell in the bullpen are just starting to pitch well again. What’s most scary about this team if you’re a fan is that they really haven’t gotten nailed with injuries yet.
Atlanta (30-25): I’ve harped on the inadequacy of this team’s pitching in previous division reports already, but it really is the exact opposite of what I expected (which, granted, is about the least surprising development of any sports season for me). I thought Atlanta would have a balanced, top-to-bottom staff with no clear ace. Instead they’re getting a Cy Young-caliber season from Brandon Beachy, but middling performances from Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson, poor pitching from Randall Delgado and outright awfulness from Mike Minor.
Philadelphia (28-29): The general assessment of this team is they can’t hit, but can pitch. Over the long haul I’m sure that will play out as true, but this current team is actually tied for sixth in the NL in runs scored, while ranking just seventh in ERA. The offense is carried by Hunter Pence’s 13 home runs and Carlos Ruiz is quietly having a monster season behind the plate, as he’s put up a .407/.585 stat line. Juan Pierre is swinging a good bat, and even if he cools off, the Phils can expect Shane Victorino to turn around what’s been a tough year. Furthermore, Philly has the cushiest run of interleague play coming up of any NL East opponent. While the rest of the division battles with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, Philadelphia will play Baltimore, Minnesota and Toronto in succession. Granted, they’ll all be on the road and granted, the Orioles and Blue Jays are currently right there in the AL East. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone in Philly is griping.
The vultures are circling around the Philadelphia Phillies now that Roy Halladay has gone to the disabled list, not to return until mid-July at the earliest. It’s even being speculated that the Phils need to be sellers at the trade deadline. In a span of two months they’ve gone from a 3-1 favorite to win the World Series to everyone throwing in the towel. But is this really justified?
I write as one who’s never been high on the 2012 Phils, picking them to miss the playoffswith Halladay in the rotation, but even I think that the thought of writing off the season is just crazy. Let’s begin with pointing out that calling the Phils a last-place team sounds good if you want to make the case for the vultures and yes, it is true. They’re also a last-place team whose record is 26-25 and they’re four games out of first place. Using rhetoric designed to make them sound like the Cubs or the Padres isn’t exactly accurate.
Then let’s visit the question I posed about the New YorkYankees after Mariano Rivera went out for the year. Who do they have left? It’s an obvious question but the immediate aftermath of a big injury the tendency is to focus on the quality of the player you lost, which in both cases is evident. But if you want to evaluate a team going forward, wouldn’t it make more sense to evaluate the players still on the roster? There might, lo and behold, be a few guys left who can compete at the major league level.
Even the most ardent Philadelphia defender would acknowledge the offense is lousy and the World Series predictions won’t come true unless Chase Utley and Ryan Howard come back. That timetable is currently late June, but it’s in a state of constant flux. Everyone knew coming in that pitching was Philly’s meal ticket, so let’s do a quick rundown of who the Phils still have available…
*Cliff Lee is back from his own stint on the disabled list and has a 2.82 ERA, though unbelievably, he’s still looking for his first win of the year. Cole Hamels is pitching like a man who’s got a free agent payday coming up in the offseason, with an 8-1 record and 2.43 ERA. When you have this 1-2 punch at the top of your rotation, and then go to Jonathan Papelbon as the closer in the ninth—14 saves with a 2.21 ERA, the pitching is still going to be competitive.
*Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick are crucial to the middle of the rotation and this is where concerns are. Blanton’s been hammered in successive starts by the Red Sox, Cards and Mets. Kendrick’s ERA is 4.10, barely tolerable in the National League, if only because Citizen’s Bank in Philly is tough on a pitcher. What will give this part of the staff a big lift is when Vance Worley comes off the disabled list. He’s 3-2 with a 3.07 ERA, had a great year in 2011 and could be back as soon as Monday. With his return, the Phils now have a 1-2-3 combo among starters, and veterans at the back end that there’s reasonable hope can turn it around.
*In front of Papelbon in the bullpen is Antonio Bastardo, who was already a consistent setup man and has a 1.98 ERA this season. So the eighth and ninth inning is in reliable hands. In front of these two are problems, with Chad Qualls, Jose Contreras and Joe Savey all being hit. But here again, there’s help on the way—Michael Stutes and David Herndon, who each pitched well last season, are expected back from their own DL trips in the next week or two.
So let’s fast forward the clock to the middle of June when Worley, Stutes and Herndon come back. Philly’s going to have a two Cy Young-caliber starters, a solid #3, arguably the game’s best closer, an elite setup man, a very deep bullpen and even the weak links at the rotation’s back end have track records that tell you they could turn it around. This doesn’t look like a seller’s situation to me. This looks like a batten down the hatches, keep within five games of first place and get people back healthy and in their roles.
And if the Phils can hang in over the next couple months, let’s add this wrinkle—everyone’s going to maneuver for pitching as we get close to the July 31 trade deadline, but there would be no bigger addition than knowing Roy Halladay is coming back.
A quick look at the rest of the NL East…
Washington (29-20): Let’s give a shout-out to the Nats bullpen, which has survived all year without Drew Storen and Brad Lidge. The relief corps gave Davey Johnson 15 innings of work last week at a 2.40 ERA, helping the team win consecutive road series at Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nationals have lost the last two nights in Miami, but the road trip ends tonight and this young team survived a difficult schedule stretch and will still be in first when they resume home games on Friday.
NY Mets (28-22): It was unlikely heroes who triggered the Mets’ offense, which upgraded from bad to average as they went 5-2 in games against the Padres and Pirates to shoot up to second place. 32-year-old Scott Hairston batted .417, while another 32-year-old journeyman, Vinny Rottino, hit .300 and the two outfielders combined for five home runs. Then Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey and Dillon Gee preyed upon the San Diego lineup for strong outings and it was enough to string together some wins.
Miami (28-22): They go for a sweep of Washington tonight, but regardless, Miami will close the month of May without ever having lost a series and seeing what they can be when Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton are all hot at the same time.
Atlanta (27-24): An eight-game losing streak ended last night with a win over St. Louis. The Braves are lucky, that in a stretch where a lot of NL East teams are playing each other, only three of those eight losses came to a division foe (Washington last weekend), so they’re still breathing. We’ll compliment Dan Uggla, Martin Prado and Juan Francisco—the sub for the injured Chipper Jones at third—for great weeks, but everyone else was absolutely terrible.
Every offensive juggernaut faces what the Atlanta Braves are right now—a point when your hitting stops carrying you and the pitching has to stand up and be counted. The Braves have one of the best offenses in the National League this season, but all at once, Michael Bourn has stopped getting on base, Fredi Freeman has stopped hitting for power and Jason Heyward has slowed. And in the first three games of four in Cincinnati, Atlanta scored just five runs combined and lost all three going into tonight’s finale. It’s nothing to panic over as far as the offense in general and these players in particular. But can the pitching keep the Braves upright over the long haul in a competitive division.
The rotation looks to have its top three settling in. Brandon Beachy has been the constant all year, with a 5-2 record and 1.77 ERA, while Tommy Hanson is rounding into form. Hanson’s been sharp his last four starts, which include games against the Cardinals, Rays and Reds. The same goes for Tim Hudson, who’s gone to the post five times since his return from the neck injury that delayed the veteran’s start to the season. Hudson’s last three outings have been against the Cubs, Rays and Reds and the result is 21.2 IP and only three earned runs.
It’s the back end of the rotation that’s the problem and bullpen depth that is at least a concern. #4 starter Mike Minor continues to struggle in establishing himself as a big-league pitcher. The ERA is 6.96 and no signs of life are evident. Randall Delgado hasn’t been that bad, but a 4.26 ERA is nothing special in the National League and his recent form doesn’t suggest a turnaround. In the pen, Craig Kimbrel is a reliable closer and Jonny Venters still as good as there is for the eighth inning. But Eric O’Flaherty, the third prong on the bullpen trio that was so devastating last year, is struggling, as is Chad Durbin. The intriguing move here is manager Fredi Gonzalez’s reliance on veteran Livan Hernandez, who thus far has delivered the goods—24 IP in 14 appearances and a 2.96 ERA. But how long can that be kept up?
I don’t know what to make of Atlanta. I picked them to win the NL East at the start of the year, but have been worried about the very issues outlined above since the season began. If nothing else, the settling of Hudson and Hanson will keep the ship steady. As to whether it’s enough to get over the top…pitching depth ultimately shows (or doesn’t show) in the late summer months, but for the short-term a weekend series in Washington, followed by three with St. Louis and then a return visit by the Nats will provide plenty of tests.
Atlanta’s currently 26-19 and in second place in the NL East. Here’s the rundown on how the rest of the division is looking…
Washington (26-18): It’s a tough schedule stretch for everybody in the NL East right now, with a lot of inter-division games leading up to matchups against the AL East when interleague play resumes on June 7, but perhaps no team is being more closely watched than the Nationals. There’s the natural storyline of the team pushing for its first playoff berth, coupled with debate over how much work to give to Stephen Strasburg. If nothing else, Davey Johnson can be secure that the rest of the staff is ready to pick up the slack if they rest the young ace—only Ross Detwiler had a rough week among starting pitchers and the Nats were able to go 3-3 against the Orioles & Phillies in spite of a combined 5-for-47 from Rick Ankiel and Adam LaRoche, dragging down a struggling offense.
NY Mets (24-20): Terry Collins’ team is the classic stay afloat crew right now, but I have to wonder how much longer they can keep it up. David Wright sizzled last week, as he has all year, going for 8-for-21, but other than Ronny Cedeno—who had ten hits—the rest of the lineup was impotent and the pitching staff’s ERA was 14th in the National League in the past seven days.
Miami (24-20): The Marlins have now won their last six three-game series (and split a pair of two-game sets) and they’ve gotten big performances from stars who’d been struggling. Josh Johnson was sharp in his last outing, going seven innings and giving up one run, while Hanley Ramirez caught fire with the bat, posting a .433 on-base percentage and .566 slugging. Six home games against San Francisco, then first-place Washington, give the Marlins a chance to push to the top of the pack.
Philadelphia (22-23): We know the Phillies can beat bad teams—a run of beating up on the Padres, Cubs and Astros moved them over .500, but then Philly faced Boston and Washington, promptly dropped four of six and slid back under .500 as they get to set to open a four-game series in St. Louis tonight. Their three reliable offensive players—Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Carlos Ruiz are all hot right now, so it’s painfully evident this team needs more. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee got hit a little bit in their last starts—nothing that a good offense couldn’t occasionally cover for, but the margin of error for Philadelphia pitchers does not exist right now.
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 theAL & 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.
The Atlanta Braves have started the season well, with a 16-11 record coming into Saturday’s games, putting them in second place in the NL East and just 1.5 games back of Washington. The Braves have answered concerns about whether they had put last September’s collapse behind them, but as we evaluate their ability to keep this going for the year, we need to ask if the pitching is really good enough.
Atlanta is scoring runs—in fact they’re tied with St. Louis’ more heralded offense for most runs in the National League as of this morning. But the pitching is on the reverse end of the spectrum, at 12th in the NL. There’s no way any team competes over the long haul with that kind of pitching, so let’s move to the next level and see if there’s any possibility for the pitchers on hand to turn things around. Here’s the rundown on the Brave rotation…
*Brandon Beachy is the pride of the staff right now, with a dazzling 1.38 ERA in five starts.
*Tommy Hanson has been steady, at 3.74 over six starts.
*Tim Hudson is back from the neck injury that kept him out most of April. His two-start ERA of 6.55 is misleading, as he had a bad inning last night against Colorado, but otherwise has been fairly respectable. On the flip side, he’s only being kept out there for 5-6 innings.
*Randall Delgado has been hit hard over the past week and his ERA is on 5.13
*Mike Minor, a young arm of whom a lot is being asked, at 4.68 over five starts.
*Jair Jurrjens got off to a hideous start, at 9.37 in his four outings and he’s now on the DL for the rest of the year.
The concern TheSportsNotebook had about this rotation at the start of the year was that there was no clear ace, given Hudson’s injury and the fact he’s 36. The vet isn’t going to chew up the kind of innings you need from a #1 guy, although I think the fact that 10 of his 11 innings since the comeback have been effective has to be seen in a positive light. Delgado is a definite concern, as is Minor. What this boils down to is that essentially I don’t see anyone who’s a logical candidate to improve, given the inevitable comedown that Beachy has ahead of him. The latter has been an ace for a month and the reason the staff has done well enough to win, but I would see him stabilizing around Hanson’s numbers. Which still leaves the team without a clear #1.
If Delgado and Minor can lift their performance to where Hanson is at, Atlanta could make up for in balance what they lack in a stopper. But the injury to Jurrjens stripped them of depth and I have to think Fred Gonzalez is going to be tempted to give veteran Livan Hernandez, or Kris Medlen, back from reconstructive elbow surgery, a shot at starting before the first half of the year is over—or when the next injury comes.
Around the rest of the NL East…
Washington (17-9): The bats in Washington are cooled down right now, partly due to natural slumps, partly due to the fact that last weekend they were in Los Angeles and this weekend they’re playing Philadelphia. The excitement over Bryce Harper’s excellent start since being called up has temporarily obscured the problems the Nats face with Ryan Zimmerman’s trip to the DL. There’s still a lot to like about this lineup and the pitching is good enough to keep things going but a testing time is ahead.
NY Mets (13-13): Mike Pelfrey is lost for the year, Jason Bay is on the disabled list and the Mets have a key week against the Phillies and Marlins on the road starting on Monday. The good news is that Johan Santana tossed six shutout innings in his last start. One legend starts to make his way back in New York, as another, in Mariano Rivera, faces his own career-threatening injury. But with most of the pitching struggling, David Wright being the only offensive producer, and the schedule ahead, I would expect the Mets to assume their expected place in the cellar.
Philadelphia (13-14): Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence have to carry this offense and both are in a bit of a slump right now, as the Phillies try and bounce back from losing Friday’s opener in Washington and keep themselves close to the first place Nats. As the bats seem to get worse, the pitching seems to get better—Joe Blanton has been dominant for two straight starts, averaging 8 IP/1 ER in both and Vance Worley’s looking as good as any of the Big Three. Even with Cliff Lee on the disabled list, this team can still shut people down.
Miami (12-14): A nice sweep of San Francisco on the road earlier in the week have gotten the Marlins back on the board after a slow start, and the big thanks has to go with rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who found his form from last season and ripped four home runs in the past week. Anibal Sanchez is dominating in the mound…but Josh Johnson’s struggles continue, so while a return to .500 level is natural, the Marlins won’t make it much further past that without a return to form by their ace.
The worst fear of the Philadelphia Phillies coming into this season was that the offense would be so woeful—especially in the early going, when Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were still rehabbing—that even their phenomenal pitching wouldn’t be enough to overcome it. Thus far, Carlos Ruiz is Philly’s leading power hitter, with a .458 slugging percentage. Hunter Pence is off to a slow start and only Shane Victorino, with a .333/.424 OBP/Slugging line is even respectable among the rest. Meanwhile, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have been dominant, Cole Hamels effective and Vance Worley has continued to look like a budding star. The result? 7-10 and last place in the NL East. Now Lee is on the disabled list and Philadelphia looks like a team in trouble.
In TheSportsNotebook’s preseason preview on the Phillies, it was emphasized that while the return of Utley and Howard would make things better—how could it not, given they are replacing Freddy Galvis and Ty Wigginton respectively—it wouldn’t be a panacea for Philadelphia’s offensive problems. Both Utley and Howard have been in decline for three years now and of the Phillies’ currently playing, only Pence and Victorino are likely to improve. Add to that a bullpen that doesn’t have anyone beyond Jonathan Papelbon and Chad Qualls pitching well, and I’m starting to think my 85-win non-playoff pick for the Phils looks almost giddily optimistic.
Elsewhere in the NL East…
Washington (12-4): We reviewed the Nationals here last week, so I won’t use too much space on them here, other than to point out that when you’re starting pitchers have the following ERAs, it’s easy to explain winning—1.08 (Stephen Strasburg, 1.09 (Jordan Zimmerman), 2.04 (Gio Gonzalez) and 0.56 (Ross Detwiler). With the Nationals winning, the Capitals getting ready for a Game 7 in the NHL playoffs on Wednesday and the Redskins getting set to draft Robert Griffin III on Thursday, is a sporting renaissance taking place in the nation’s capital? That’s change the good people of the Beltway can believe in.
Atlanta (10-7): If Atlanta doesn’t reverse course soon the winning will stop. The team is first in the National League in runs scored, but that’s in spite of being sixth in on-base percentage. They’re holding on to 12th in the NL for team ERA, but are the league’s worst at keeping runners off base. All of this points to a team that’s going to start giving up more runs and scoring fewer (and being a statistical genius, I have therefore concluded that means fewer wins). Of course the exception would be if individual players start stepping up their games and changing that overall team statistical profile. A good place to start would be the starting rotation, where only Brandon Beachy—0.47 ERA in three starts—is really pitching well. Jair Jurrjens needs to get his act together and Tim Hudson needs to get healthy. Right now the team is being carried by Michael Bourn’s .403 OBP and the solid power hitting of Jason Heyward and Fredi Freeman. Regardless of what it means for the team in the bigger picture, the production of Heyward and Freeman is big—it shows Heyward is putting a subpar sophomore campaign behind him and Freeman building off a solid rookie season in 2011.
NY Mets (8-8): The Mets are a team likely to start scoring more runs if the individual players just maintain current performance. A team that’s 4th in the NL in OBP and 9th in slugging isn’t going to stay at 13th in runs scored for very long. The New York offense has been energized by the play of Daniel Murphy, hitting .323 and Jason Bay has rediscovered his ability to hit the ball in the alleys and out of the park, a skill Mets fans were wondering if he’d left behind in Fenway Park. David Wright has gotten healthy and is doing everything well offensively. If any of these players cool down, Terry Collins can reasonably expect first baseman Ike Davis and rightfielder Lucas Duda to step in and pick up the slack. The team is going to need to pitch better—much better in fact. While Mike Pelfrey and Jonathan Niese are off to nice starts and it’s good to see Johan Santana back on the mound, the latter’s 3.97 ERA is too high, given the vast dimensions of Citi Field. And Jon Rauch is the only reliever pitching well.
Miami (7-8): The controversy of Ozzie Guillen’s pro-Fidel Castro remarks aside, the Marlins are looking like a team that can turn it around. They played their worst baseball out of the gate, then the manager made his idiotic comments about the Cuban dictator. But Mark Buerhle, Carlos Zambrano and Anibal Sanchez are all steady and consistent on the mound, with ERAs in the high 2s, while Hanley Ramirez has put last year behind him to swing a good bat and help teammate Logan Morrison carry the offensive load. What the Marlins now need is for Giancarlo Stanton and Gaby Sanchez to start hitting and for Josh Johnson to again inspire confidence on the mound. The presumed ace has a 5.94 ERA and is allowing better than two baserunners per inning, so it’s not as though it’s just a few ill-time longballs beating him.