A little late to truly be a commentary at the half, my take on what the next 2.5 months will bring in the National League…
Was: New York Mets
Will Be: New York Mets
Why: The Mets have survived a significant number of injuries to enter the second half with a slim lead in the East, but of the the three real contenders, they have both the best current roster and the most depth to use, either as roster fodder or in trade. Already, we’ve seen them swap out Julio Franco for Lastings Milledge, giving them a better hitter, fielder, and runner off the bench. The Mets may use Milledge, Carlos Gomez, or Fernando Martinez in a deal for pitching help, although you could make an argument that the marginal upgrades available on the market make doing so wasteful. Regardless, they looked like the best team in the division in March, and while the Braves are a strong threat, they still look like the best team now.
The Braves have hung around with four regulars or semi-regulars posting sub-.330 OBPs, including the greatly disappointing year they’ve gotten out of Brian McCann. An offense that is sixth in the league in runs could actually improve if McCann and Andruw Jones could just approach their projected 2007 lines down the stretch. A straight comparison to the Mets favors the latter slightly, mostly due to the Mets’ left side of the infield and middle relief. As was the case in the late 1990s, this could come down to head-to-head play.
Until the Phillies can build a bullpen out of anything, they can’t hang with these two teams. I truly wonder what the NL East would have looked like over the past six years had the Phillies been able to generate any kind of live arms as an organization to pitch the late innings for them. I’m not saying they have to be the Twins or Angels; I’m saying that finding one guy every two years or so to strike out eight men a game and post an ERA under 3.50 would have made a huge difference in their present pennant “chase.”
Aaaaaaand…: The Braves have the two best catchers in the division. How often does that happen?
Was: Milwaukee Brewers
Will Be: Chicago Cubs
Why: I’ve been consistent on this point from the start of the season, and see no reason to change now. The Brewers’ run prevention at the start of the year was flukish, the product of unusually low home run and hit rates, and as those figures have returned to normal, so has their runs allowed. I’m not predicting a collapse, just enough regression to make them an 84-win team or so-better than I’d predicted in March-and allow the Cubs, who have played about as well as the Brew Crew has, to sneak in front of them.
To their credit, the Brewers have done a good job of getting the guys who can play on the field. Yovani Gallardo and Ryan Braun are on the team, and Corey Hart has become pretty much an everyday player. That’s good roster management, and if they do win this division, that will be a big reason why.
For their part, the Cubs have made their own in-season adjustments, albeit with less success. They abandoned the idea of Alfonso Soriano as a center fielder, but eventually came around to the idea Felix Pie wasn’t the solution, either. Cliff Floyd has earned more playing time, contributing some desperately-needed OBP. Geovany Soto has been recalled to replace the patchwork Rob Bowen/Koyie Hill platoon that has been a disaster in the wake of the Michael Barrett trade.
The Cubs’ biggest edge is the rotation. They have five starters with ERAs in the threes, and they get a quality start most days, turing the game over to a passable bullpen. They’ve been a bit weak from the left side, as Neal Cotts and Scott Eyre have struggled, and while they’re deep from the right side, only Carlos Marmol has been genuinely dominant. The gap between the Cubs’ run differential and their record is part luck, but also reflects a bullpen that has failed them at times.
Aaaaaaand…: The Cardinals will finish above .500, and inspire a host of Labor Day stories about their chance to repeat.
Was: San Diego Padres
Will Be: Arizona Diamondbacks
Why: The Diamondbacks’ young hitters can’t possibly continue to be this bad, can they? Stephan Drew, Carlos Quentin, and Chris Young combined for about 900 PAs of a sub-.300 OBP in the first half. That’s just awful, and given that the team’s best hitter, Eric Byrnes, goes pumpkin every year about this time, it has to change. I suspect that it will, and that they’ll continue to get good work from a power-arm-laden bullpen, make a good decision or two with the rotation-Dustin Nippert, come on down!-and win a fantastic three-teams-for-two-spots race.
Realistically, there’s not much difference among the D’backs, Padres, and Dodgers. I’ll make the above prediction, but over half a season, pretty much anything could happen.
NL Wild Card
Was: Los Angeles Dodgers
Will Be: San Diego Padres
Why: A tough call here, as I liked the Dodgers before the season, and the Padres do have some holes. It really comes down to Kevin Towers vs. Ned Colletti, and that’s the kind of mismatch they take off the board in Vegas. The Dodgers appear set to play out the year with a .313 OBP in the leadoff spot, and the fourth-best third baseman in the organization as the everyday guy at the position. Good luck with that, guys. All the great relief pitching in the world won’t make up for those two decisions.
The Padres have an even better bullpen, although their offense is down a couple of notches from last season. (It’s not just a park effect; their .255 EqA is 12th in the NL.) Adding Michael Barrett and Milton Bradley should improve the situation, but Barrett has yet to walk as a Padre, and Bradley went kerplunk after about 16 minutes in San Diego. The Padres could still bring in someone from the outside-Adam Dunn has been mentioned, although he’s a brutal fit for this park-and as long he draws breath, Kevin Towers will be a threat to improve his squad.
The Braves might be a factor in this race as well. The Padres and Dodgers are both better teams, but the Braves probably have more room to improve, realistically, as so many of their big hitters have underperformed or missed time.
Was: Jake Peavy
Will Be: Chase Utley for me, but the BBWAA picks Prince Fielder
Why: Peavy had the highest VORP in the NL in the first half, by just a hair over Brad Penny, Hanley Ramirez, and Utley. It’s a somewhat idiosyncratic choice, given the small margin and that it’s just one stat. However, he was more dominant than Penny, and Ramirez’s defense drags him back to the pack a bit. In the end, I think Utley or Barry Bonds will add the most wins to their team.
With all that said, Prince Fielder is the popular favorite. He basically has Justin Morneau‘s case from last year, when Morneau wasn’t one of the ten most valuable players in the AL, but nevertheless won the MVP by having lots of home runs and RBI for a playoff team. Fielder has the HRs and RBI, is an even better story than Morneau, and may not need the Brewers to make the playoffs to end up with the hardware. He’s down the list in VORP and WARP, but we saw last year how little that can matter. This will be one of the bigger stories of the second half.
NL Cy Young
Was: Jake Peavy
Will Be: Jake Peavy
Why: Because he’s the best pitcher in the league, and he’s pitching in a great environment. The missed start is a concern, but I’ll stick with this. It’s shaping up as another year with no obvious favorite for this award in the NL, so there’s a possibility for some kind of silliness if someone like Carlos Zambrano gets to 19 wins with a mid-3.00s ERA.
NL Rookie of the Year
Was: Hunter Pence
Will Be: Ryan Braun
Why: If the All-Star break had come a week later, Braun might have caught Pence. Both hitters are having great seasons, but Braun’s power gives him the edge in the second half. It’s interesting that both players are being somewhat stretched defensively, but holding their own at positions many people-myself included, in Braun’s case-didn’t think they could play.