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July 17, 2006

Prospectus Today

NL Second-Half Preview

by Joe Sheehan

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This is an interesting experiment. I finished the AL capsules mildly sick but unmedicated, and finished the NL ones hopped up on Ativan and NyQuil. Send in your vote on which one is better!

NL East

New York Mets: The Mets have likely locked up a postseason berth, and as such can play for October from this point forward. They can, and should, give their older players short DL stints to keep them fresh, and do the same with anyone with even minor owies. Everything has to be geared towards having the best 25 guys ready to go on October 3, and if that means sending Orlando Hernandez to sit on a beach for three weeks in the interim, then they need to do so. For all the talk about moving Lastings Milledge in a big trade, the Mets would be better off patching around the edges, maybe a left-handed specialist in the pen, or a right-handed-hitting second baseman who plays some defense, to job-share with Jose Valentin. The Mets haven't been in this spot since the summer of 1986; all they have to do is get to the postseason healthy and they'll be the favorites for the NL pennant.

Philadelphia Phillies: A lineup this good should have a run in it, unless they do trade Bobby Abreu. Does anyone expect the Phillies to win an Abreu trade? Nothing against Pat Gillick, but it's difficult to have a player on the market for as long as Abreu's been available and eventually get a fair price for his services. He's the one available player who could change races around the league. If he doesn't go, the Phillies need only to see their rotation stabilize, start to get good work from Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle to make a push. Ryan Howard has already reached, "stop what you're doing, he's up" status.

Atlanta Braves: The Braves will make a run driven by the top of their lineup, and that sentence would seem a lot more prescient had this been posted last week, before they mauled the Padres in San Diego. The offense outside of Jeff Francoeur and his .281 OBP is a good one, especially with Adam LaRoche's power spike. More Wilson Betemit would be nice, if there were a place to play him. The bullpen remains a work in progress, and as Friday night's game showed, the Braves will win in spite of it, not because of it. On the other hand, relievers are among the easiest commodities to find in July and August. If you have to patch a weakness, that's the one to have.

One of the Phillies and Braves is going to be a factor in the wild-card chase, maybe both, and at least one will make a minor run-to within five, maybe four games-of the Mets, just enough to get the New York Post out if its shell.

Florida Marlins: It's hard to say where they go from here. My sense is that very young teams should be susceptible to fatigue at the end of the season, given the jump in travel and season length, as well as all the pitchers breaking through career highs in innings. On the other hand, the Marlins have been this good while getting little from Jeremy Hermida and Jason Vargas and with a new center fielder in every city. I can't blame Miami's residents for passing, but this is one of the more entertaining teams to watch. Trading Dontrelle Willis wouldn't be easy, but he's been worked hard in his early 20s and may not have another 2005 in him for a while. It would be a good move.

Washington Nationals: Last week's deal was just terrific, maybe good enough to launch them into fourth place. The Nats get big upgrades in right field and shortstop in players who they'll control for a few more years. Anyone can find middle relievers under a rock, and it's not like the ones they dealt away were stars, or anything close. They'll be eight to 10 games better next season for doing this, and that's if they don't get anything out of Ryan Wagner. If Jim Bowden can win a couple more of these, swapping out Alfonso Soriano and Jose Vidro and Livan Hernandez for 2007 value, he might just make the Nationals relevant a lot sooner than expected, and justify his hold on the GM job.

NL Central

St. Louis Cardinals: After all the ups and downs in the first half, this is still the best team in the division, probably the second best in the league. They could use some bullpen help-although the Reds have screwed up the market for that commodity-and maybe a corner outfielder, although playing John Rodriguez more could address that. To a certain extent, this is all nitpicking; the Cardinals start so far ahead of the pack with Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Chris Carpenter that even a slightly-below-.500 rest of the roster is a division favorite. Look for Walt Jocketty to add to that core in the next two weeks.

Cincinnati Reds: If they'd made this deal for two difference-making pitchers, it would have been one thing. Gary Majewski and Bill Bray aren't those guys, Scot Shields-level middle relievers who are worth nearly three wins at their peak. In the very short term, it's not devastating; Majewski and Bray are better options than the guys they replaced, while Royce Clayton and Chris Denorfia are probably within two wins of Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns over ten weeks of play. But the deal was a huge waste of resources, and doesn't do anything to actually close the gap between the Reds and the Cardinals. I like their wild-card chances a little bit less than I did a week ago.

Houston Astros: The Aubrey Huff trade seemed to change their outlook, but replacing Preston Wilson should be the long-term goal; it was Jason Lane who was, not undeservedly, the odd man out in this shuffle. It will be interesting to see what happens when Ensberg returns, hopefully healthy enough to be the power bat the Astros need. Even with the additions of Huff and Roger Clemens, though, I have a hard time seeing the Astros as a favorite in the wild-card race. They have too many dead lineup spots and too many problems at the back end of the rotation and in the bullpen. They'll end up around 83 wins.

Milwaukee Brewers: Their defense remains a real issue, one of the areas of agreement between observers and the stats this year. They just seem to play sloppy baseball. That's not fatal, of course, but I'm not sure Ben Sheets can make six straight starts, and that would be. They'd be better off worrying about 2007, which means getting what they can for Carlos Lee, as painful as that will be. Corey Hart is 90% of the player Lee is, considering defense too, and will be very inexpensive for a while. Using Lee to acquire a leadoff hitter or starting pitcher who can help next year might be enough to make them a favorite.

Chicago Cubs: They're done, and if they continue to hide behind the excuse of injuries to avoid making real decisions, they'll never get anywhere. The Cubs aren't out of the race because of the missed time by Derrek Lee and Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. They're out of the race because they don't have enough offense outside of Lee, and because they have a horrific bench. The injuries have hurt, but only in that they've turned a .500 team into a .400 one. What's scary is that they've gotten surprisingly good years from veterans Michael Barrett and Jacque Jones. What happens next year, when those two aren't playing at their peak level?

Pittsburgh Pirates: Is anyone still paying attention? The Pirates have Jason Bay and some interesting arms, and that's about it. Freddy Sanchez isn't a right-handed Ichiro Suzuki, just a singles-and-doubles hitter having a good three months. It might be fun to speculate on who will be next year's Pirates; what thirtysomething free agents will be hitting the market without a ton of demand? Kevin Millar? Aaron Boone? Ryan Klesko? That's right, folks: Buy a half-season package and get priority for 2007 season tickets!

NL West

San Diego Padres: The excellent bullpen and decent offense don't help if the rotation puts them out of games, which is what we saw over the weekend. Still, the Padres have the fewest glaring weaknesses of any of the NL West teams and a very strong front office. One problem is that they don't have any major holes to fill; they could try and grab a third baseman for the stretch (Corey Koskie?) or maybe a right-handed-hitting outfielder, but these would be patch moves. A top-tier starter would help, but there aren't really any of those in the wind right now.

Los Angeles Dodgers: This is the best team in the division, and it will slowly get better as it gets healthy. Ned Colletti has already made one future-for-now deal and has the chips to make another. That's good for 2006, not so much after, but he was raised under Brian Sabean, and that's how Sabes ran the Giants. It would help if Colletti would acquire good players who are likely to have a significant impact, rather than soft-tossing starting pitchers who might not better than the guy they replace. Rafael Furcal will have another big second half that covers a multitude of sins, and Jonathan Broxton becomes Gagne Lite.

San Francisco Giants: It's hard to say what they're going to do without knowing what will happen to Barry Bonds in the next couple of weeks. Bonds has played much more frequently than I expected, and battled significant physical problems to be a highly-productive hitter. His defense is below-average, but he has made some plays and he isn't the worst corner guy in the league. He's worth a lot to this team, which is low on OBP and left-handed pop. Without Bonds, the Giants are a 75-win team. With him, they can hang around and steal this division, especially if Sabean finds some rotation help and one bat.

Colorado Rockies: They've been an interesting story, as much for their suddenly-changed environment as for anything the team has done. The low-strikeout rotation doesn't inspire confidence, although the groundball tendencies are interesting. It's very hard to evaluate this team when there's so much uncertainty over what's going on at Coors Field and whether it will continue. Look for the hit and home-run rates of guys like Aaron Cook and Josh Fogg to rise in the second half, with their ERAs climbing as well. The Rockies are at least a year away, but will be good once Troy Tulowitzki and Ian Stewart arrive.

Arizona Diamondbacks: I'm a broken record on this, but they can turn around their season by integrating the good young players in their system while simultaneously turning out the veterans who aren't championship-caliber any longer. Stephen Drew, Chris Young and Carlos Quentin are collectively 3-5 wins better over half a season than Craig Counsell, Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green. The division is there for the taking, and they have the tools to take it. They remain my wild-card pick.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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