July 16, 2004
NL Mid-Season Report Card
Yesterday I looked at American League teams' year-to-date performance, and their outlook for the second half. Today, let's look in on the senior circuit...
The Phillies are the best team on paper, but the worst of the contenders based on their underlying performance so far this year. The Mets and Braves, thought to be running on the fumes of recent contenders and making the transition to new eras, have been the best teams in the division per the Adjusted Standings Report, while the Phils and Marlins have come in behind them.
Separated by two games entering the All-Star break, there's not much to choose from among these squads. They could end up giving us the most entertaining race in baseball this year, not because they're all good, but because they're all flawed. The Phils have rotation issues and a combustible manager who has already banished his best center fielder to the minors. The Mets have serious OBP questions outside of their lineup core, along with a rotation that is old, not big on missing bats, and likely to regress down the stretch after pitching out of their minds in the first half. The Marlins are finding out what happens when the top of their order is just a little bit worse. The Braves have just hung around long enough to get Marcus Giles back and Rafael Furcal back in business.
The Mets and Phillies are the teams most likely to improve via the trade market, as both have sufficient cash reserves and prospects to deal, the Mets more than the Phils. Even having added Richard Hidalgo, the Mets can still improve their offense. On any given day, four Mets starters have below-average OBPs, and Kazuo Matsui is barely average. A good-hitting first baseman could be an offensive upgrade over Jason Phillips and Vance Wilson, with Mike Piazza going back behind the plate full-time. Even someone like Tino Martinez would be an asset, although you'd hope for Carlos Delgado, or even Matt Stairs.
The Phils need a starting pitcher to replace Vicente Padilla. Paul Abbott isn't a solution, although given the trade options, using in-house guys like Geoff Geary might be better than trading talent for Kris Benson or someone who looks like him. With Larry Bowa having banished Marlon Byrd to Triple-A, the Phils are giving away runs on both sides of the ball. A platoon of Ricky Ledee and Jason Michaels in Byrd's stead could have produced some nice offensive numbers, though it would have been lacking on defense. Ledee made it back from the DL last week, only to have Michaels come up lame with hamstring problems. The result has been too much (read: more than zero) playing time for Doug Glanville.
The Phillies, and lefty-power-friendly Citizens Bank Ballpark, would be a great fit for Steve Finley on a two-month rental, assuming Byrd is kept away. Byrd might even be bait in that deal. The catch? Finley's 10-and-5 status gives him control over any trade, and it's an open question as to whether he'd approve a deal to Philly.
The other two contenders are less likely to import what they need, largely because neither front office wants to add money. Even though the Braves have the most easily-filled holes--first base and left field--it doesn't appear that John Schuerholz has a mandate to do anything. The Marlins would become the favorites if they could get the underrated Jason Kendall, as has been rumored. The slap hitter would fit very well working in Pro Player Stadium's vast outfield. The Fish need one more hitter and at least one extra reliever, even though Larry Beinfest has done a good job eschewing pricey relievers in favor of cheap, low-profile solutions, trading for Billy Koch notwithstanding. Matt Perisho and Josias Manzanillo are setting up for the Fish; you can't get any lower-profile than that.
This is a fluid situation, and these teams may look sufficiently different by August 1, such that predicting their direction now is a bit silly. If I had to choose, I'd stick with my preseason choice of the Phillies, who seem to have come through a few slumps this year without Bowa erupting, and who have the best 25-man roster at the moment. I wouldn't be surprised if the Marlins won it, especially if Josh Beckett made 15 starts the rest of the year. I'll be floored if the Mets or Braves finish above .500, much less win the division. The two teams just don't seem wired that way, although every time Jaret Wright pitches, I'm reminded again of why Leo Mazzone belongs in the Hall of Fame.
The Cardinals have a huge lead, and as I mentioned in writing about the Yankees yesterday, it's hard to blow huge leads. It's going to require them not playing well and their opponents improving significantly at the same time.
Some of that ground can be made up by their opponents now wasting their efforts. The Cubs and Astros each have records at least three games worse than their underlying performance. Neither team has taken advantage of the soft schedule afforded them, and both teams have missed their Pythag records by two wins. The latter is caused, I believe, by a susceptibility to good right-handed pitching. Both of these teams are unbalanced, and they can be manhandled in the late innings by righty relievers with good stuff.
In addition, the teams' lack of threatening left-handed hitting makes it easier for opposing managers to optimize the use of their left-handers. Put another way: Lance Berkman and Corey Patterson don't see too many righties with the game in doubt after the sixth inning.
Watching the Cards' right-handed pitchers against the Cubs this season has reinforced for me the importance of a balanced lineup, in much the same way that the Astros' inability to hit scrubs like Garrett Stephenson made the same point in 1996. I think lineup balance matters more than most people do, although I've never been able to quantify the impact. In a year like this, though, it could possibly be making the difference in a division race that was supposed to be so much closer than this.
The Cardinals have a house-of-cards feel to them, with a starting rotation from the Jobe Collection and two of the all-time stathead bete noires at catcher and second base. You can get away with a lot if you make plays and have a tremendous lineup core, and that's what this team has. Like the late-'90s Mariners, it may not be enough to win a title or be a consistent playoff team, but the years in which it does work--like '99 for the Mariners, or '04 for the Cards--are fun to watch. I think enough of the roster core that even my conviction that Matt Morris is about to see the business end of a scalpel again isn't enough for me to suggest that the Cards will join last year's Royals as the only teams to blow seven-game first-half leads in the Wild Card era.
The Padres have the best team, the Giants have the best player, and the Dodgers have the best management team. I'll go with the Padres, my April pick, in part because they have a lot of prospects to deal and the extra cash on hand to go get a player for the stretch drive. The Pads could use an outfielder who plays on both sides of the ball, and remain the front-runner to add Steve Finley. If Carlos Beltran were back on the market, he'd be an even better fit. The Pads haven't had a good left-handed reliever since '02, when Alan Embree was lights out for half a season. They need to add someone like that; you don't need three left-handers, but in the era of the unbalanced schedule, it is nice to have someone to face Larry Walker 19 times. Other than an insurance agent, I mean.
Meanwhile the Dodgers are stuck paying, and with organizational commitments to, Juan Encarnacion and Shawn Green, neither of whom provides enough offense for a 21st-century corner outfielder or first baseman (though all that can be said for Ryan Klesko too). The Dodgers can fill one of the first base/corner OF slots for thump, and that's about it. They can try to upgrade their starting pitching, but after Randy Johnson you quickly drop to a class of pitcher than makes you pray that Wilson Alvarez can hold it together.
The opposite of the Dodgers are the Giants, who could replace almost anyone other than Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt and get better. That they're so close to first place today is a credit to the work done by their left fielder, who is once again set to make a mockery out of the statistical standards we set for greatness. Bonds is going to draw 225 walks or so, with a chance for 120 or more intentional walks. It's basically the Hack-A-Shaq brought to baseball, a fan-unfriendly strategy that is unfortunately the way teams have to try and win the game.
I'll stick with the Padres in this division. The Giants are just too dependent on two players, and I don't think Brian Sabean can fill in around Bonds in a meaningful way. The Dodgers are actually three teams, with Paul DePodesta's I-just-got-here pickups playing well among assorted detritus from the early-Fox and late-Fox periods. If they tell Shawn Green to go have surgery, I think they can win; as long as they're sticking with him, they won't score enough runs.
Who will be the fourth National League playoff team? I don't know, but I think the Louisville Colonels want back in. Nine teams are separated by five games as of this morning, and while I don't really think the Reds and Brewers are contenders, you have to consider them if you're also going to consider the Astros.
The original iteration of this piece had the Cubs winning the Wild Card. Obviously, I'm less confident about that after watching Mark Prior leave last night's game with a sore elbow. If Prior misses any more time, I don't think the Cubs can hold on. They need to get a quality start nearly every time out with their erratic offense, and Prior is a huge part of that.
If not the Cubs, than who? If I had to hazard a guess, I'd rank the pretenders Marlins, Astros and Giants, with the last of those three spots a stretch. The Marlins, like almost all of these teams, could make a big move by adding the right player--a catcher, a left fielder or a big-time bullpen power arm--for the stretch run. The Astros have already made their big move, and made another Wednesday by cutting loose the flawed Jimy Williams and replacing him with a former major league second baseman with a great mind for...
No, they hired Phil Garner, not Davey Johnson. I have no real opinion of Garner, except to point to the Bill James thesis that teams sometimes need a change in how they're run. An easygoing guy yields to a dictator, or vice versa, and the team responds to the new guy. Garner will upshift from One M's somnambulant style. More important will be how he runs the bullpen, which is down two key contributors from '02, with Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel the most notable deletions.
I have to get this in before the results of Prior's MRI are released, so I'll cheat and make my pick here a conditional one. If Prior makes 12 starts down the stretch, the Cubs will win the Wild Card. If he doesn't, the Cubs will extend their string of disappointments to googol-plus-one, with the Marlins slipping into the final slot.
One last note...I was asked to put together two lists by a friend in the fantasy baseball industry. One was five players who would pick it up in the second half, the other, five whose performance would decline. Without comment: