The National League is beginning to sort itself out, after looking like it was going to be a wild, 13-teams-for-three-spots free-for-all. The Mets, Brewers and Padres have been done for a while, and the Reds, Rockies, Expos and Pirates are going to have a hard time selling the idea they’re contending for much longer. That still leaves nine teams within six games of a playoff spot, however, which will make for a great second half of baseball.

NL East

The Braves have a huge cushion in the NL East, with a wildly different approach than they’ve ever had before. Check out how they’ve ranked in the National League using three key Baseball Prospectus statistics:

Year   EqA    SNVA    ARP
2003     2      10      9
2002     9       1      1
2001    11       2      9
2000     6       1      7
1999     5       2      3
1998     3       1      8

This is a team bashing its way into the postseason, and not the Boys of Mazzone. Greg Maddux has been ineffective, and the rest of the pitching staff, save John Smoltz, is completely new and just barely holding its own. The lineup, with the league’s best outfield and middle-infield, has made the difference this year.

Well, that and some good fortune. The Braves are 9 1/2 games up on the Phillies in the standings because they’ve outplayed their runs scored and allowed by a whopping eight games, while the Phillies have fallen short of their markers by four. All of this, however, depends on whether or not you believe that runs scored and allowed are meaningful indicators of team ability. And if you’re reading this column, I imagine you do.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the Phillies are going to win the East. In fact, I would argue that it provides strong evidence that they will not do so; they might be better than the Braves, but making up nearly 10 games in 10 weeks is no small feat, hard to do even if you’re chasing a .500 team. Put another way, if the Phillies start playing to their Pythagorean record and go 40-25 the rest of the way, the Braves only need to go 31-33 to hold them off. That would be a huge swing for both teams, and it still doesn’t get the Phillies a flag.

The Phillies won’t catch the Braves, but they are going to be a tough beat in the wild-card chase. While newly-acquired Mike Williams didn’t deserve All-Star status, he helps the Phillies in a limited, get-the-righty role that has made Jeff Nelson a wealthy man. I’ve long called Williams “SliderBoy” for his one good trick, and if Bowa can shove him down the throat of the righty-heavy Braves when the teams play seven times in September, that could make this division a bit more interesting.

There are two other teams above .500 in this division, but I have a hard time taking them seriously when they’re chasing true .575 teams like the Phillies and Diamondbacks. The Expos had their backs broken–as was predicted–by a travel schedule that forced them to spend most of the first half living out of suitcases. They went 8-14 in what amounted to a monthlong road trip, a stretch that knocked them from 32-18 to 40-32, and from just behind the Braves to a distant third.

MLB wants to push the notion that the Expos can’t compete, but the fact is, they’ve competed for three seasons now despite the league raising the barriers each time. I’m sure that train travel, forcing the players to wash their own uniforms, and a ban on all modern training techniques are in the works for 2004.

Or something even sillier. Bob DuPuy made a statement last week about how the Expos could play their entire schedule in Puerto Rico. It’s not even a good bluff; with all the hype, the Expos’ attendance in Puerto Rico has averaged just a little better than it did in Montreal: 14,247 in 16 games, concentrated in the first series and the Rangers (Juan Gonzalez) series. The team has averaged 11,117 at Olympic Stadium. In fairness, the median is a bit higher in Puerto Rico, but the five series at Hiram Birthorn have featured two division rivals (one in the first series of the year), the defending World Champions and another interleague series with a high-profile Puerto Rican star. As it does with interleague play in general, MLB juiced the Expos Puerto Rico slate to give the best possible result, and even then it hasn’t been all that great.

The Marlins are a .500 team playing .500 baseball. You can’t even blame the loss of A.J. Burnett for their inability to do more, given how well Dontrelle Willis has pitched in his absence. The only thing the Marlins’ moderate success can do is hurt them in the long term, encouraging them to do things like trade Adrian Gonzalez for average-plus relief help and hold on to trade bait like Mike Lowell and Luis Castillo. This team might be able to make a run next year, and the focus should be on building the best team possible for 2004, in the hopes that it makes the Marlins relevant once again.

NL Central

Two months ago, this division was all over the map, with no relationship between the team’s records and their underlying run indicators. Now, with those numbers having lined up, it’s clear that the Astros and Cardinals are the top tier, with the Cubs trying to stay close in the wake of some key injuries, and the Reds and Pirates not good enough to contend.

The Astros and Cardinals present an interesting contrast. Neither team is getting much from their rotation; the Astros are just above average, the Cards just below. The Cardinals have been about seven wins better on offense, and given all of that back in the bullpen thanks to a complete lack of quality outside of the just-now-healthy Jason Isringhausen. Kiko Calero has been a mildly positive contributor in 33 1/3 innings, and everyone else has been old, bad, and whiny. The failure of the pen has been the only thing keeping the Cardinals out of first place.

Jimy Williams has done a better job this year of getting the right players on the field, helped by a comeback season from Richard Hidalgo and the development of Morgan Ensberg. He’s also avoided the temptation to ride Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller too hard, as sometimes happens when a team has a top-heavy rotation. Instead, he’s used Brad Lidge (16.0 ARP) and Ricky Stone (7.7 ARP) as a bridge to the deadly tandem of Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner. I’m not a big Williams fan, but this is his best job in years.

I don’t think the Cubs will stay in this race. They are far too right-handed, especially with Dusty Baker playing Mark Grudzielanek and Eric Karros too often and instead of Bobby Hill and Hee Seop Choi. The Mark Bellhorn-for-Jose Hernandez trade didn’t help matters, sacrificing one of the few Cubs with at least the potential for a .360 OBP.

The team badly needs a left-handed bat, preferably one that can play third base or center field. The rumors that the Cubs are chasing Kenny Lofton are a daily staple of the baseball world, like box scores or ridiculous ejections for hitting a batter with a pitch. The Cubs can add payroll and they have talent to move, so they’re as dangerous as any team in the trade market. Their problem is finding a real solution, not settling for a stopgap like Lofton. That solution may not exist in this market, especially with the Royals playing well enough to keep Carlos Beltran.

None of this will matter unless the pitching staff remains healthy, and that’s unlikely. The Cubs have a third more Pitcher Abuse Points than any other team, are one of three teams averaging more than 100 pitches a start, and are doing all this with two 22-year-olds in the rotation. Mark Prior may be thanking Marcus Giles for the collision last week that sent him to the DL, given how much he needs the respite.

I’m torn what to predict going forward. The Cardinals have four of the best nine players in the league, and a bullpen that wouldn’t get out of sectionals on the road to Williamsport. Of course, a bullpen is the easiest thing to fix in the trade market, and there has been no one better than Walt Jocketty–not even Billy Beane–at making the big trade in late July. The Astros are the most complete team right now, but it’s hard to go into a pennant race relying so heavily on Tim Redding and Jeriome Robertson, so Gerry Hunsicker has to work the phones as well. I’m going to go with the Cardinals, who seem more likely to fill their holes and be a better team on August 1. Neither of these teams can hang with the Phillies and Snakes in the Wild Card chase, so it’s first place or bust.

Back in March, I liked the Reds to win the division, but they can’t pitch. The guys I thought would be good placeholders in front of a deep bullpen have just gotten hammered, and the team hasn’t been as good offensively–just a .251 EqA–as it’s needed to be. The four-man rotation is a nice thought, and I’d like to think they’ll recognize that the problem isn’t with the plan but the pitchers executing it. Check back in 2004.

The Pirates have to get a mention, if only because they’re just 8 1/2 games out and they’ve been playing fairly well over the last month. There’s not much to recommend them: their offense is a little below average, and their rotation, bullpen, and defense are all almost exactly average. Dave Littlefield is rightly focusing more on acquiring talent than filling the holes that might push the team into the race. With each passing year knocking more bad contracts off the books, we’re definitely getting closer to seeing the Pirates contend. Just not this summer.

NL West

The Giants started strong and have stayed strong, again proving that having Barry Bonds makes up for a lot of holes. Bonds gives the Giants one of the league’s best offenses, which combines with an average staff–even in the wake of injuries to Robb Nen and Kurt Ainsworth–to be the league’s second-best team and a real threat to play deep into October.

The Diamondbacks are making great trade-deadline acquisitions without lifting a finger, getting back Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson from months-long DL stays. With Brandon Webb and Miguel Batista having huge years, the Snakes’ rotation will be a huge positive over the next few months. They even managed to hurt one of their rivals, dumping Tony Womack on the Rockies, where he can make outs and keep Ronnie Belliard on the bench.

The NL West presents a similar dilemma to the NL East. With two teams as strong as the Giants and Diamondbacks, it’s hard to take the other two teams above .500 that seriously. As they usually do when they’re good, the Rockies have assembled a cheap, effective bullpen that helps them survive the five-inning starts and 185-pitch games so common at Coors Field.

The Dodgers made a big play last week, adding Jeromy Burnitz and Rickey Henderson. It’s a nice attempt, but it’s not enough for a team committed to Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora up the middle, and getting poor years from the nominal best hitters on the team. Just one player is worth more than 10 runs above replacement, and that player is a catcher, Paul Lo Duca, with some history of falling apart in August.

It’s worth noting that playing Henderson and Burnitz alongside each other in the outfield is going to hurt a key Dodger strength, their defense. They have the second-best Defensive Efficiency in the NL, and while that figure is influenced by their park–balls don’t travel well in Chavez Ravine, leading to easier chances for outfielders–it’s a reflection of the emphasis they’ve placed on run prevention. The switch from Brian Jordan and Dave Roberts to Henderson and Burnitz is going to show up in and increase in doubles and runs allowed, negating part of the benefit of having them in the lineup.

The outlook is grim, and the Dodgers would be better off swapping some pitching to get some hitting prospects. They can’t hang with this crowd.