July 15, 2010
A nine-game losing streak made Atlanta the division’s lone sub-.500 team in April, but a strong pitching staff featuring the league’s best bullpen east of Petco Park has helped the Braves check into a room with a five-game view atop the NL East. Theirs is a well-rounded roster with no systemic weaknesses, but the Braves can’t afford to be completely complacent if they hope to extend Eric Hinske’s World Series appearance streak to four. The absence of Nate McLouth and Jason Heyward has led to entirely too much Melky Cabrera, who too often puts the “out” into “outfielder” at the plate. The return of the once and future right fielder Heyward would send most of the riffraff to the bench where it belongs, but further room for improvement remains. Signing Willy Taveras to a minor-league is merely a cry for additional help, and if the Braves aren’t believers in a McLouth revival, David DeJesus would make an attractive target to play center field. Even if Atlanta is content to risk letting center field lie fallow, acquiring a right-handed corner bat—Josh Willingham or Cody Ross would do nicely, if one could be pried away from a division rival—might improve the fortunes of a team that has often looked lost against lefties, though Atlanta could also choose to obtain a slugging southpaw (like Luke Scott) to complement Matt Diaz’s talents in the platoon department.
A pair of eight-game winning streaks has catapulted the Mets to within two games of the wild-card-leading Rockies, but there’s reason to expect some regression unless improvements are made. The Amazins’ pitching staff is more pedestrian than it appears, sporting a SIERA almost half a run higher than its 3.81 ERA; rumored trade target Ted Lilly seems to have left his strikeout rate in 2009, but his fly-ball-oriented approach would suit Citi Field nicely, as would Octavio Dotel’s. At anything close to 100 percent, Carlos Beltran could be the most important acquisition any team makes during the remainder of this month, but his impact would be blunted if Jerry Manuel chooses to play out whisperer Jeff Francoeur in right field over Angel Pagan, who’s been the most valuable Met not named David Wright. Pagan and Jose Reyes have sped their way to nearly a win on the basepaths, and their successful rushing has helped the team from Flushing lead the majors in EqBRR.
The Phillies haven’t looked like defending NL champions, but they remain within striking distance of the division lead, as well as a wild-card berth. In the absence of Chase Utley and Placido Polanco, the likes of Greg Dobbs, Juan Castro, and Wilson Valdez are vying to become replacement-level killers, so the Phillies should consider pursuing a Kelly Johnson or Ty Wigginton type to thwart that trio’s dark designs. Starting pitchers have accounted for 72.4 percent of the Phillies' innings, the highest ratio in the majors, but considering the cast of characters composing the rotation behind Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, that’s not necessarily an achievement of which to be proud. Ruben Amaro Jr. can do more than cry over spilt Lee; with Domonic Brown (perhaps baseball’s best prospect) tearing up Triple-A, the GM could afford to dangle impending free agent Jayson Werth for an acceptable return in starting pitching. Even if the Phillies decide that their right fielder is Werth more to them where he is, they should consider putting Brown into motion in place of the sunk cost represented by left fielder Raul Ibanez.
If some divine watchmaker polices baseball’s won-loss records, ensuring that the luck of the league balances out in the long run, then perhaps the Marlins have underperformed their third-order record (running up the NL’s second-worst record in one-run games) in order that the Mets might exceed theirs. Our Adjusted Standings Report places the Fish in theoretical third, but the 11-game deficit they face in the real NL East suggests that it’s high time to cut bait. Cutting bats might be even wiser, and Florida should seek to move any in the vicinity of age 30, including those belonging to Dan Uggla, Ross, and Jorge Cantu. The low-budget Marlins must keep the conga line moving in order to ball on a budget, so they should also attempt to move any fungible bullpen parts experiencing career-best success, such as Leo Nunez and Clay Hensley.
Headed for their third straight season in the NL East cellar, the Nationals may be on life support, but Stephen Strasburg’s presence should keep the patient alert and responsive until the end arrives. The afterlife holds promise, and the club could hasten its budding rebuilding movement by casting off some pieces that won’t be part of its first division winner in Washington. The Nats should capitalize on career-best performances from free-agents-to-be Adam Dunn and Willingham (as well as Matt Capps, who’s signed for 2011) while they’re still theirs to parlay into prospects, and persuade Cristian Guzman to waive his no-trade rights for a trip to a contender. GM Mike Rizzo has plenty of rotation help on the way, and would be well-served by sweet-talking an overly trusting team into taking on Livan Hernandez’s deceptively diminutive ERA.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .