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July 14, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Looking Forward in the NL

by Joe Sheehan

When we looked back at the first-half performances, we led with the American League, so we'll start this segment with the National.

I'll start with the easiest call: the Cardinals are going to win the NL Central. Even if Mark McGwire's knee injury restricts his playing time, there is no team in the division capable of challenging the Redbirds. Only the Reds are even a contender, and their shaky pitching makes them unlikely to improve in the second half. While I still think the Astros will get out of the cellar, they're not going to make up 21 games. The Pirates, Brewers and Cubs aren't a part of the discussion any more than they were in April.

The interesting thing about the Cardinals is how good a team they could be in October. As we've seen in the past few postseasons, a team can win a series on the strength of just a couple of effective relievers, and the Cardinals' Matt Morris and Alan Benes give St. Louis exactly that. Morris, in particular, could become a Mariano Rivera circa 1996 or Derek Lowe circa 1999 for this team, a thought that should scare their postseason opponents.

Moving west, we stumble upon what looks like a four-team race, with the contenders separated by less than seven games. Of this group, the Dodgers have the most talent overall; that doesn't make them the favorite, though, as they start the second half 6 1/2 games behind the Diamondbacks.

Really, none of these teams looks that impressive. For all the positive press they've received, the Rockies lack power and aren't all that good offensively--they rank next-to-last in the majors in EqA. While their bad players have a different shape, as Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla have given way to Tom Goodwin and Darren Bragg, they're still bad. Yes, the defense is better, and that has helped the pitching staff, but a .239 EqA isn't going to win anything.

The Giants are the division's darlings right now thanks to a hot streak before the break, and they have the division's best bench and best lineup. What they don't have is a pitching staff that's going to make it through the season unscathed. Kirk Rueter is an innings sponge coming off his best half in years, and you've heard enough of our bleatings about Dusty Baker's treatment of Livan Hernandez and Shawn Estes. There's no reason to expect this rotation to be as effective as its been.

GM Brian Sabean is the X factor. The Giants need at least one more pitcher to stay in the race, probably two, and Sabean has shown a willingness to trade the Giants' future to win in the present. While there aren't any solutions for the rotation on the market, Sabean could add some relief help if he wants to trade someone like Kurt Ainsworth. If the Giants can upgrade the pitching, they can win the NL West in 2000.

Realistically, though, this race is between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, with the D'backs having a 6 1/2-game lead. Arizona is in first place despite suffering a number of injuries to power hitters Matt Williams and Erubiel Durazo, and the collapse of the starting rotation behind Randy Johnson and Brian Anderson. Their great bullpen and a two-man offense of Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley have carried them.

Even after some ill-advised trades the past year or so, the Diamondbacks have some talent in the minor leagues, and they have an owner with a desire to win now and the resources to back that desire. The D'backs will add at least a hitter between now and the break, and may also pick up a starting pitcher. It's who they shore up the lineup and the rotation with that will determine if they can hold off the Dodgers.

It's not like the Dodgers have a great team. They are terrible up the middle, save Todd Hundley, and have a weak bench after Dave Hansen. They have the deepest rotation of the contenders, though, and you might be surprised to know they have the second-best offense in the league, behind the Giants. They also have a major chip, starter Eric Gagne, that they can burn to add a top-of-the-lineup shortstop or center fielder, the key missing piece.

I think the Dodgers will ride their offense past the three teams in front of them and win the West.

Finally, the NL East shows signs of being a race, but does anyone really expect the Mets to catch the Braves? They've gotten some good pitching from an old staff and may have the league MVP in Mike Piazza and another candidate in Edgardo Alfonzo. While I pan their offense, the fact is they're fourth in the league in EqA and of their current starters, only Jay Payton is hitting at a below-average level for his position.

And yet... Al Leiter and Rick Reed are old, and Reed always seems to be fighting some minor aches and pains. The fifth starter spot has been a hole all season, and last year's good bullpen has given way to a much more flammable one this season. As with the Giants, picking up a good pitcher or two would make a significant difference in the Mets' chances, and in fact, I think they're in the best position to win the wild card.

But they're not going to catch the Braves.

Aside from the races, there are some other interesting things that will be happening:

The Expos and Marlins have been great stories, but the teams have both been lucky, especially the Expos, and neither has the wherewithal to add payroll to make a wild-card charge. And bully for them: the Expos are a leadoff hitter from being a 90-win team, and the Marlins aren't far behind them; neither should spend one whit of their future to chase something this season.

(Side note. As I write this, I'm watching the Angels/Dodgers game. As many times as I've seen the desperation "five infielder" alignment, I've never actually seen it work. It just did in the tenth inning, as Darin Erstad, in roughly the shortstop position, snagged a grounder by Kevin Elster, held the runner at third base and threw Elster out. No small feat, considering Erstad throws left-handed.)

The Astros will have to make some decisions: do they dump the villains of 2000's crime story, or chalk it up to a bad year and bring everyone back in 2001? Jose Lima, Moises Alou and Ken Caminiti are all in the spotlight. Assuming they remain together, for the most part, I think Houston will be one of the league's better teams in the second half, moving up a few spots in the Central, getting to 75 wins or so and setting a nice base for a return next year.

The Phillies are really coming together. With Bobby Abreu, Scott Rolen and Pat Burrell, the core of a championship lineup is there. Bruce Chen and Randy Wolf are the beginnings of a top-notch rotation, if someone can get Terry Francona away from Dallas Green. They should have an impressive second half. The NL East, in fact, has five teams that could win the NL West next season.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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