Around the NL…

  • The Diamondbacks’ fall from grace can be traced to their problems up the middle. Craig Counsell went back to being Craig Counsell at second base, while Royce Clayton and the team’s center-field and catching situations are among the worst in the NL. They’re not contributing much defensively, either. As James Click points out today, the D’backs have the fourth-worst Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) in the league.

    My personal philosophy is that you can win if you’re weak on the outside–the 1999-2001 Yankees come to mind–and strong on the inside. I don’t think it works the other way around, and the ’05 D’backs are just the latest example.

  • I know I wrote about them recently, but take a look at the players who have made it to Atlanta this season. The Braves are in the process of turning over their position players once again, breaking in a crop of very good prospects including Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and Andy Marte. They’re also getting contributions from some guys who’ve been bumping around the top levels for a while: Ryan Langerhans, Kelly Johnson, Wilson Betemit. It’s not hard to see a 2006 Braves team that has just one starter older than 30 (Chipper Jones at 34), with a lineup good enough to be in the top third of the league in runs.

    If the Braves don’t break their streak of NL East titles this year, it could stretch close to 20. That, and not any book, will be this team’s legacy.

  • Derrek Lee‘s shot at a Triple Crown got a whole lot better over the last couple of weeks. With Todd Walker back off of the DL, Jerry Hairston Jr. picking up playing time and the acquisition of Jody Gerut, Lee will now hit much more often with runners on base. That evens the playing field among him, Carlos Lee and Albert Pujols for the RBI crown. The changes also happen to make the Cubs a much better team, solidifying their shot at the wild card.
  • Last week on ESPNews, I was extolling the virtues of Mark Prior and closed with the comment that he’d be moving into the race for the NL Cy Young Award. That was a silly thing to say, which sometimes happens on live TV. The buy-in for that award is extremely high this season, with at least four starting pitchers having Cy Young-caliber years. Prior, with all the missed time, has no chance to get into that mix.

    With that said…I love Prior’s chance to have a big second half. He has a 33/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 1/3 innings since coming off of the DL, allowing just two homers in that time. He could well be the best pitcher in the league from this point forward.

  • Time to start watching Greg Maddux, whose streak of 15-win seasons is in jeopardy. He has eight wins with 13 or 14 starts left, and he’s not pitching so well that you’d think of him as a good bet to rack up Ws down the stretch.
  • For all the discussion of the Reds’ outfield situation, and how two GMs have failed to properly address the four-men-for-three-spots problem, not enough is said about the way Sean Casey has served as a road block. After a power spike in ’03, Casey is back to his old ways, .308/.360/.401. It’s the kind of empty .300 that might have played 20 years ago, but just serves as a money dump in the ’00s.

    That the Reds picked up Casey’s 2006 option coming off of that fluke ’04 performance–and no doubt influenced by his good-guy charm–is yet another indictment of one of the game’s disaster franchises. Had they not done so, they would be able to move Adam Dunn to first base, solving the outfield logjam.

  • I actually liked the Rockies’ pickup of Aaron Miles two winters ago, reasoning that he could hit .330 or higher with a good number of doubles in Colorado. I didn’t expect him to start channeling Rob Picciolo: three walks in 210 at-bats. That’s unacceptable, grounds on its face to demote him.
  • Then again, it’s not like the Rockies have good options. Since coming over from Oakland, Eric Byrnes has been batting cleanup, even against right-handers. He’s .228/.303/.362 against them this year, after similar OPS splits prior to this year. Byrnes is a platoon player who has been elevated in many eyes to an everyday one, and not only should be not be hitting in the middle of the lineup against righties, he probably shouldn’t be playing against them.
  • This will likely just get its own column shortly, but why are the Marlins considered a disappointment? I see them as having played just about exactly as well as I expected, in the vicinity of .500 and six games out of first place. They didn’t have the depth to contend, and the bottom of their roster, especially the pitching staff, has really been exposed.
  • Dontrelle Willis has worn down in the second halves of his fiirst two seasons, so his last two starts have to be a red flag for Fishwatchers. His mechanical changes drove much of his first-half success; he’ll need to sustain the new mechanics even as the season wears his body down to stay in the Cy Young race. Of the top four contenders, he’s the one I expect to fall by the wayside first.
  • In all the A.J. Burnett hype, consider this: he’s allowed at least three runs in 11 of his last 12 starts. He’s a good pitcher, an upgrade for many teams, but no star.
  • Roger Clemens has been the best pitcher in the NL this year, with an edge on Chris Carpenter and Roy Oswalt in both Support-Neutral stats and VORP. His horrible run support–which you can’t even blame on him, as he’s at .257/.297/.286–has left him with a 7-4 record, though, and while the BBWAA has gotten better about recognizing the problems with wins, they’re just not going to give a Cy Young to a guy who’s 15-6 if there are 20-win pitchers in the mix.
  • In a division as winnable as the NL East, how much longer can Willie Randolph cripple the Mets by batting Jose Reyes’ .287 OBP atop the lineup? Reyes is one of the worst leadoff hitters in the game, and hurting an offense that can’t afford the damage. Mike Cameron isn’t a great solution, but moving him up and using David Wright in the #2 hole wouldn’t be the worst idea. Anything is better than Reyes.
  • What does Albert Pujols have to do to catch a break? He finally gets to play in a National League without Barry Bonds, comes into the year as the MVP favorite, and watches as Derrek Lee makes a run at the Triple Crown. At .338/.425/.617, Pujols is once again on pace to be the second-most valuable player in the NL, a spot he’s held for three straight seasons.
  • David Eckstein Watch: .279/.365/.356, eighth among NL shortstops in VORP. Sinking like a stone, more or less, and still likely to have been outplayed by Edgar Renteria by the end of the year. He should stay ahead of Orlando Cabrera, though.
  • I’m thrilled to see Al Reyes making the most of his opportunity in St. Louis: 37 1/3 IP, 39 K, 11 BB, 2.17 ERA. I don’t know the guy, I’ve just been yammering for years that he should have a job. If there’s an overly positive comment in an annual about him, it’s a sign that I wrote the chapter.
  • And while I’m on the topic of relievers, has anyone seen Chris Hammond lately? He’s become very fun to watch, dropping his change-up down to “LaLob” velocities. The pitch moves towards the plate like a fourth grader walking to the principal’s office.

  • Vinny Castilla: .254/.331/.395. Who could have seen that coming?

I have a flight to catch…if tomorrow’s column shows up Saturday, blame travel.

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