Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Second Half of the Season Starts Today - National League Preview

The All Star Break is over (thank god!). And now we can look forward to the second half of the season. For many fans, especially Mets fans, the second half couldn't be worse than the first....or could it? There are a lot of interesting pennant and wild card races to discuss, so let's get to it by starting with the NL.

NL East

The Phillies have a 6 1/2 game lead and seem to be on all cylinders having nine of their last ten. Jimmy Rollins has fix his swing and apparently awaken from his seemingly endless first half coma. That's bad news for the rest of the NL East. Throw in a healthy Ibanez, a surging Ryan Howard and good pitching from J.A. Happ and the outlook looks bad for the other NL East contenders. However, there is hope for the rest of the NL East. Cole Hamels has struggled. Brad Lidge, though now healthy, has been far from lights out. The rest of the pitching staff is so beleaguered that the Phils went out and signed Pedro "5 Innings is the Limit" Martinez. That sounds like an act of desperation and that may also say the Phils are not going to go after Roy Halladay. The Phils are a better road team (26-15) than home team (22-23) so that also bodes well for the contenders. As the Mets have shown the past two years, no lead is safe in the NL East.

The Marlins have been surging too, going back up over .500 due to a strong June and July despite a .500 record in their last ten games. The reason, the duo of Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco. Good pitching takes you far and great pitching even farther and lately they have been great. A healthy Hanley Ramirez also helps. Ramirez has been on fire and is hitting now .349 with a sick OPS of .979. The one weakness has been the bullpen where Matt Lindstrom struggled before going on the DL. He is due back in August and Leo Nunez and company must now hold the fort. The question will be "Will the Fish take on payroll to make a run?" Supposedly the answer is yes. We'll see.

The Braves have been as mediocre as their record, 43-45. This is due in large part to the Braves struggling to score runs. Only four teams in the National League have scored less runs than the Braves (and no, the Mets are not one of those teams). Nate McClouth has not been the answer so far to the Braves hitting woes and if Bobby Cox thinks Ryan Church is, he is sadly mistaken. However, the Braves pitching staff rocks. Javier Vasquez, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrens and Tommy Hanson make a very formidable row. If the Braves can get Tim Hudson back in August, there is hope. However the Braves don't seem to be capable of adding payroll so the team they have now is it. Chipper Jones, specifically his (pictured here) health, is the key to whether the Braves can at least compete for the wild card.

The Mets were probably the biggest disappointment in all of major league baseball in the first half. Everyone understands losing your leadoff (Jose Reyes), three hole (Carlos Beltran) and cleanup (Carlos Delgado) hitters for a significant amount of time will be very difficult to overcome. But to be such a bad fielding and fundamentally lacking team is amazing (and not a good amazing). Top that with substandard starting pitching (seriously who thought signing Oliver Perez to a three year 36 million dollar deal was a good thing - a topic for another day) and you have the recipe for a unmitigated disaster. It's really surprising the Mets are NOT WORSE than 42-45 at the moment. Credit David Wright (pictured here), Johan Santana and Frankie Rodriguez for keeping the Mets afloat. Beltran, Reyes and Delgado don't look to be back soon. John Maine might be, but it probably won't matter. Could be lots of empty seats at the new Citi Field in August and September.

The Nationals are barely worth mentioning. Jim Riggleman will try to play spoiler now that management has fired the inept Manny Acta. Ryan Zimmermann (pictured here) has a chance to establish himself as one of the NL's elite in the second half. Nyjer Morgan was a nice acquisition by the Nats and should provide a little spark for a team that sorely needs it.

NL Central

The Cardinals
have Albert Pujols. I repeat. The Cardinals have Albert Pujols. That alone will keep the Cards in contention. Factor in a starting staff with Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainright and a rejuvenated Joel Pineiro and the Redbirds are the team to beat in the Central. St. Louis could stand a little more hitting and a little bit of bullpen help. But if Ryan Ludwick rights himself and Troy Glaus and recently acquired Mark DeRosa both can come back from injury, the Cards should be just fine. Colby Rasmus will be a future star, that's if the Cards don't trade him to Toronto for Halladay. If that happens though, the Cards now jump to the top of the class with the Dodgers.

The Brewers are the feel good story of the first half of the season. No Sabathia. No Sheets. No problem. Thanks to a terrific effort by Yovani Gallardo, and of course the stellar hitting of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the Brewers are two games out and only two and half games out from first place. The biggest concern for the Brewers is the rest of the rotation after Gallardo. David Bush could be out a significant amount of time. Manny Parra has been relegated to the pen (rightly so with that 6.78 ERA), while Braden Looper and Jeff Suppan have struggled. For the Brewers to succeed, they will need more starting pitching to compete with the Cards. Could we see a dark horse in the Halladay sweepstakes?

The Cubs have had really good pitching the first half (this despite a disappointing first half by Rich Harden, pictured here). Only the Dodgers and the Giants have given up less runs. Problem. No team in the National League has scored less runs than the Cubs. Thus a 43-43 record. The Cubs have the most upside of any other teams in the Central not named St. Louis. With the return of Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs offense should improve. Derrek Lee looks to be on a mission right now. Now if someone could find the Milton Bradley of last season and just keep Carlos Zambrano grounded, then the Cubs could be the team to beat. Rich Harden must have a better second half. If he does, the Cubs are in very good shape.

The Astros can hit. It's the usual suspects - Berkman, Pence, Tejada, and Lee. But surprisingly enough, Michael Bourn has also been a very effective leadoff hitter. The problem is similar to the Brewers - pitching. When you trot out Mike Hampton, Brian Moehler and Russ Ortiz regularly as part of your rotation, you are asking for trouble. Thus a 44-44 record. Yes Hampton and Ortiz have been serviceable, but their history points to a rough second half for both. Moehler just plain stinks. If the Astros can add a third starter to complement the always solid Roy Oswalt and the emerging Wandy Rodriguez, then the Minute Maid Park faithful will be happy and the Stros will be competitive.

The Reds are on the precipice at 42-45. The Reds have talent with Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto (pictured here), Brandon Phillips and Chris Dickerson. Francisco Cordero has been very good. Unfortunately Edison Volquez has been hurt a lot and the Reds can't hit as a team in general. Only the Padres and the Cubs have scored less runs than the Reds. The lineup has struggled with Jay Bruce in a year long batting average funk (now on the DL with a fractured wrist) and no production at third base since Edwin Encarnacion was out for most of the first half due to injury. Encarnacion is back so hopefully the offense picks up. However Volquez needs to be back and Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo must step up and help Cueto in the rotation for the Reds to contend. Don't expect the Reds to make any moves.

The Pirates won't be in the hunt but have a chance to affect the hunt. Expect to see the Pirates try to trade Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche and Matt Capps before the deadline. The Pirates have some young players who can stand out in Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones. But Neal Huntington has done a poor job in receiving enough talent for his top traded players in the past year. Huntington has traded Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan in the past year and only really so far has Brandon Moss, Adam LaRoche and the medicore Ross Ohlendorf to show for it (perhaps Charlie Morton acquired in the McLouth trade will help). It's another long August and September for the Buccos.

NL West

The Dodgers
are the elite of the National League. They have the best record at in the majors at 56-32 and now they have Manny Ramirez back from his suspension. The reason they were so good is they have depth in the outfield and Juan Pierre did an absolutely terrific job while Ramirez is out. The Dodgers' lineup is so good that Matt Kemp, he of the .316 batting average often hits eighth. EIGHTH! Orlando Hudson was a huge pickup on the cheap and made the Dodgers infield defense even better. Andre Ethier and Chad Billingsley are stars in the making. If the Dodgers can add one more starter to complement Billingsley and Wolf, they have a chance to win it all.

The Giants have been the surprise of the National League so far with a 49-39 record. They certainly aren't doing it with hitting as only the Padres, Cubs and Reds have scored fewer runs going into the start of the second half. The Giants have done it with the one - two punch of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, both of whom are 10-2 and both have an ERA of under 2.40. When your first two starters are 20-4, chances are you are going to be over .500. However, the rest of the staff is a mediocre 29-35. Jonathan Sanchez has come on of late with the no hitter and a 3.66 ERA. But his 3-8 record shows that when the Giants don't limit their opponents under three runs, outside of the terrific Pablo Sandoval, they can't hit their way out of trouble. Randy Johnson and Barry Zito have also struggled. The Giants are the team most likely to come back down to earth. The Giants can use another starter and another bat..desperately.

The Rockies are the other big surprise of the National League the first half of the season. Left for dead by many after the firing of Clint Hurdle, new manager Jim Tracy resurrected his team. The Rockies have gone 30-13 since Tracy took over the reigns. Much of this can be traced to the pitching staff, where Jason Marquis has learned to throw strikes with great results. Marquis leads the pitching staff with an 11-6 record and a 3.65 ERA. Marquis is one of the three starters, along with Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jiminez who have ERAs under 4.00, which is incredibly impressive at Coors Field. The bats have been solid too, as Brad Hawpe and the re-emergence of Todd Helton have led the way. Throw in a fine season by Huston Street and the Rockies are right in the hunt for the wild card.

The Diamondbacks were crushed from the outset with the loss of Brandon Webb and Conor Jackson to injury. Toss in a really weak bottom of the lineup and thus the 38-51 record. Mark Reynolds, Felipe Lopez and the absolutely terrific Juston Upton (pictured here) are a nice trio to build around. And Dan Haren is having an absolutely terrific season (9-5 , 2.01 ERA) that's been overshadowed by the injury to Webb and the weak overall hitting.

The Padres are brutal at 36-53. What did you expect when you don't have Jake Peavy, the rest of your pitching staff has given up the second most runs in the National League IN A PITCHER'S PARK! And you have the worst scoring offense in the major leagues with a starting outfield by all regards should be in Triple A. Ladies and Gentlemen, your San Diego Padres.

Wild Card

Right now, I am going to go on record saying the Phillies and Dodgers will win their divisions. I think that's a pretty safe bet. That leaves the NL Central. Somehow I think the Cards hold off the Cubs thanks to a better top of the rotation and one Albert Pujols. That leaves the wild card. Right now, nine teams are within seven games of the wild card, with five teams with 4.5 games.

Ok, let's start eliminating some teams. The Mets, the Reds and the Astros will all ultimately fall by the waste side. Too many holes in each of these teams. The Brewers simply don't have enough starting pitching to hang, so eliminate them eventually as well. The Braves have the starting pitching but have to deal with the Phillies and the Marlins. Their lack of hitting might cost them against those teams so I will rule them out. Likewise, I think the Marlins are out, because after Johnson and Nolasco, the rest of the staff is suspect (and that includes Chris Volstad who has struggled lately). I think the Braves and Marlins cancel each other out.

That leaves the Cubs, the Rockies and the Giants, the wild card leaders. I really think if the Giants don't make any moves, they will drop down to earth. I really don't like the back of their rotation. Sanchez is the key here. If he continues to pitch like he did in his no-hitter, then the Giants stand a real good chance. If he returns to his wild form, then it stands to believe that Cain and Lincecum will be hard pressed to match their 10-2 records from the first half. Brian Wilson is also not Mariano Rivera. I think the Giants fade in the second half.

So now that leaves the Cubs and the Rockies. The Cubs have very solid pitching, if they get their act together. Zambrano needs to focus and Harden needs to think Wrigley Field is on the road (his road ERA is terrific). A healthy Ryan Dempster will help. Aramis Ramirez should return to form and make a really solid 1-2 punch with Derrek Lee. The questions are the rest of the team. Can they get enough hitting from Milton Bradley and Alfonso Soriano? When will Geovany Soto be back? Can the bullpen led by Kevin Gregg hold on? There's a reason why the Marlins cut bait with Gregg. Just two many questions with the Cubs for my liking. Plus they will be battling with the Astros, Brewers and Reds who all think they are still in the hunt not just for the wild card bu the NL Central too.

That leaves the Rockies. I have seen nine baseball games live this season. No team impressed me more than the Colorado Rockies. I have already mentioned their starting pitching staff and also the job Huston Street has done this season. I have also mentioned the terrific hitting they have got from Hawpe and Helton. Throw in solid seasons by Clint Barmes and Troy Tulowitski and the lineup is solid. Derek Fowler will be a future star and his speed adds a lot to the Rockies lineup. But what I liked most about the Rockies when I saw them against the Pirates is that they play defense. That infield now with Ian Stewart playing third is quite possibly the best defensive infield in the National League. And Fowler and Hawpe in the outfield are really solid.

The key will be if Marquis doesn't have one of his second half swoons. If Marquis continues to throw strikes and pitch as well as he has, then the Rockies are going to be difficult to beat. Plus the Rockies are as good on the road (25-22) as they are at home (23-19). They are consistent. Finally they play in the weakest of the three NL divisions. They should be able to feast on the DBacks and the Padres, plus they should start beating the Giants as well. The Rockies are my pick for the NL Wild Card.

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