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July 21, 2008

Prospectus Today

Second-Half Preview, NL

by Joe Sheehan

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A quick note on process: Sometimes, you have an idea that you like, but when you don’t execute it immediately, it blocks everything else, and you’re stuck hating it, unable to work on it, and unable to move past it.

That’s what we have here. A big second-half preview sounded like a real good idea last Thursday. Now, it’s sitting on my desktop like a pile of spinach, one that I have to eat if I'm to be allowed to eat any other part of the meal. I’ll choke it down, but really, all I want to do is get to the steak and potatoes of what’s happening now.

NL East

The Mets were the best team at the start of the year, and they look like the best team now. Their recent run isn’t about the managerial change at all; it’s about having a five-man core of David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, and John Maine—feel free to name Billy Wagner, instead—that matches up against any team in baseball. The team around that has been shaky, but when you start with 45 WARP in five roster spots, you’re far, far ahead of the game. They could use a corner outfielder who can rake, and getting even the fourth-best one available in the market, such as Brian Giles, would be a nice pickup. Even if they don’t pull that off, they should hang on for the division crown.

The Phillies have overachieved to date on the backs of a bullpen that was way, way over its head for a few months. Getting Joe Blanton helps, because every inning he throws—and he will throw some innings—keeps the pen out of the game as its regression continues. It still doesn’t seem like that will be enough, especially given the OBP sinks on the roster and the lack of organizational depth. This team isn’t as good as last year’s version; the caveat there is that last year’s team didn’t look that impressive until September 1 or so.

The Braves join the Indians as the two most frustrating teams in baseball, with positive run differentials and sub-.500 records. The Tribe punted its season when it traded CC Sabathia to the Brewers. The Braves have a similar decision to make when it comes to Mark Teixeira—like Sabathia, he's a free agent at the end of the season—a player worth two or three wins to a contender down the stretch. Unlike the Indians, the Braves are within 6 games of first place, and they haven’t suffered the long losing streak that would make dealing Teixeira an easy call. In fact, I think the Braves should deal for a mid-rotation starter and an outfielder, because they’re as good or better than the teams they’re fighting for a post-season berth, and still capable of winning the wild card. They play 13 straight games against those teams beginning tonight, so we’ll know by the deadline where they stand.

The Marlins took two of three from the Phillies this week, and every time it looks like they’re going to fall back from the leaders, they win a series. I don’t see how they sustain this—their pitching staff is pretty bad, and it puts a lot of balls in play in front of a lousy defense. I expect them to give up more than 300 runs the rest of the way, and their power, though impressive, won’t be enough to overcome that, or their OBP issues. The Marlins will finish in fourth.

Player to watch: Ramon Castro, Mets
Avert your eyes: Cristian Guzman, Nationals
Pitcher to watch: Jay Bergmann, Nationals
Avert your eyes: Brad Lidge, Phillies

NL Central

The Cubs are the best team in the league, and all the trade acquisitions in the world by the teams chasing them aren’t going to change that. They won’t be caught by anyone, leaving them only to manage their health and set their rotation for the start of the postseason. With as deep and balanced a roster as there is in the National League, the Cubs will be the favorites to reach their first World Series in 63 years.

The acquisition of Sabathia made clear what should have been before: the Brewers are better than the Cardinals, and will finish ahead of them in the Central. Whether that will be enough to reach the postseason—the NL East features three teams as good as or better than the Brew Crew—is an incredibly close call. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Russell Branyan saved this team, arriving in June and providing the second lefty power bat that the team desperately needed at a time when the team’s hopes were fading away. With Ray Durham now on hand as well, the Brewers can put out better balance in the lineup than they’ve been able to in years, which should help them threaten both northpaws and southpaws. The bullpen remains a concern; their collection of veteran arms has been intermittently effective, and prone to ugly blowups. The defense is also sub-par, although much better than the 2007 team. If the Braves don’t win the wild card, the Brewers will.

The Cardinals have been a great story, as Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer, Ryan Franklin, and a host of journeymen hurlers have bought into the Dave Duncan plan and become effective starters in front of a good defense. It’s been enough for them to overachieve to date—helped along by a career year or two—but it’s critical that the Cardinals not be fooled by their short-term success. The target year for this organization is 2009, and every move they make that lessens their chance of winning in that year is a mistake. As hard as it must be for Tony La Russa to deal with, help isn’t coming, and the choice not to get that help is the right long-term decision.

I’ve largely focused on teams with a post-season shot in these previews, but I want to mention the Pirates here. With a lot of veteran talent having good years, Neal Huntington has a chance to do what Jon Daniels did a year ago: change the conversation around a franchise by making a handful of trades that dramatically improve the talent base. No story outside of the races is more interesting than what Huntington will do over the next 10 days.

Player to watch: Rickie Weeks, Brewers
Avert your eyes: Xavier Nady, Pirates
Pitcher to watch: Chris Perez, Cardinals
Avert your eyes: Edinson Volquez, Reds

NL West

The division leaders are 48-50, and a team playing .430 baseball is just six games off of the pace, so it’s fair to throw up your hands a bit here. The Diamondbacks and Dodgers both have strong core talent, but they either haven’t been able to get it all on the field at once, or they've watched it disappoint terribly. Chris Young, Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, Chin-Lung Hu, Andy LaRoche, and Jonathon Broxton have all underperformed relative to expectations. Both teams have made expensive mistakes, but the homegrown players have failed to produce as well.

In the short term the Dodgers may be the better bet, thanks to the likelihood that Ned Colletti will make a move to improve the 2008 team before Josh Byrnes will. Colletti hasn’t made big trading mistakes since the 2006 season, but with the expectations—and payroll—high for the current Dodgers team, he may feel the need to move the core talent for an apparent short-term upgrade. It’s not clear that he can trade Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, LaRoche, or others for much of an improvement on those players, but perception may drive the reality here. The Logan White Dodgers are quite good enough to win, and are certainly better than the imports, be they expensive (Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones) or cheap (Angel Berroa).

The Dodgers have more short-term upside even if they don’t make any trades. It won’t work out this way, but a rotation consisting of Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Hong-Chih Kuo, Derek Lowe, and Hiroki Kuroda would be harder to hit than a 78-year-old nun. The Dodger offense—crippled in the absence of Rafael Furcal—wouldn’t have to be that good with that unit pitching in front of a solid bullpen. Throw in the return of Takashi Saito, and maybe Furcal in September, and you have a scary set of front-line talent.

That’s not to neglect the D’backs, who run Brandon Webb and Dan Haren out there 40 percent of the time, and are tough to beat late in games. However, their contact rate has swallowed their offense—ninth in OBP, 10th in SLG despite Chase Field being a good hitters’ park—and is the biggest reason why they’re 28-42 since May 1. Now, they could improve that externally, with a trade for an OBP-minded left fielder, in which case they’d rate an edge on the Dodgers. The current plan of running Conor Jackson out to left is creative, but not as productive a solution as adding Jason Bay or someone similar to the mix. Jackson’s bat barely cancels out his glove at first base; in left, he’s basically a wash. A real left fielder and a Tracy/Jackson platoon at first base would put more runs on the board.

I’ll stick with my preseason pick of the Diamondbacks, although neither team will get to 88 wins, much less 90. The two teams are close enough that the relative health of each, plus the work each GM does over the next two weeks, could prove to be the difference between the two.

Player to watch: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Avert your eyes: Clint Barmes, Rockies
Pitcher to watch: Sergio Romo, Giants
Avert your eyes: Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks

Now, careful readers will note that some of my conclusions—like the Tigers winning the AL Central and the Braves coming back to take the NL wild-card—seem a bit forced, and they are. Unlike in past seasons, it was important to me that I not change my preseason predictions at midseason. This isn’t just about ego; I've been arguing for some time that players and teams can fool us over broad swaths of a season, and even complete seasons. At the start of the year, I felt that over 162 games, the Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Mets, Cubs, and Diamondbacks would win their divisions, with the Yankees and Braves the wild-card teams. Certainly we have more information now, and had I been a backer of the Indians I might have changed, but with all eight of those teams in contention, I’m sticking to my original picks, because I don’t think 95 games of performance is convincing enough to change them.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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