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Friday, June 28, 2013

MLB - One Quarter Point - National League

Better late than never. The Hat Trick "One Quarter Point" is more like the pre-All-Star break. Regardless, following up the American League evaluations from yesterday, here is the skinny on the National League. Opening Day comments are in black. One-quarter point comments are in blue.

N.L. East

Atlanta Braves

Expect the first year of the post Chipper Jones era to be no different than last year. Atlanta will play well. They will be a tough win. They will pitch very well. A playoff appearance should not be a surprise. But I don’t expect them to appear in the NLCS.

I like the acquisition of left fielder Justin Upton from the Diamondbacks and love the acquisition of his brother, centerfielder B.J. Upton from the Rays. Still, the driving force on this team will continue to be pitching. Time will tell if the Braves made the correct choice in letting go of often injured starter Jair Jurrjens (Orioles). The bullpen is as solid as ever and ace starter, 37 year old Tim Hudson (16-7, 3.62 ERA in 2012), is poised for another solid season.

(45-34, 1st place) - This year's Braves look like what I call "the real Braves". The Braves I remember in my younger years who dominated the National League in the 1990s.... The Braves pitching staff is lights out from top to bottom and their offseason moves have delivered the timely power they were needing more of last year. 

Justin Upton (.243, 15 HR, 37 RBI) has been all he was cracked up to be, bringing much needed power and speed to the lineup. His brother, B.J. Upton (.176, 8 HR, 17 RBI), has been playing like his bat is cracked. He has shown a pulse in June and he has been more disciplined in his at-bats of late. If he can completely break out of his early season slump, the Braves are going to be an extremely tough out at the plate. Other early season standouts are first baseman Freddie Freeman (.303, 7 HR, 48 RBI), who has been a model of efficiency at the plate, and closer Craig Kimbrel (2-1, 1.53 ERA, 22 SV, 43 Ks, 29.1 IP), whose arm has been examined by the league for the presence of a flame thrower. None was found.

Washington Nationals

Last year, they were a feel good story. This year, they are a front runner. Washington has the best pitching in the National League. They can hit the ball as well as any team in the N.L.. They are the hunted, not the hunters.

The keys to the Nats building on their 2012 breakout out are their start players. Outfielder Bryce Harper needs to continue to build on a great rookie campaign (he’s off to a great start, one game into the season). Ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg simply needs to remain healthy, and fellow starter Gio Gonzalez needs to show that last year’s Cy Young contending season was not a fluke.   

(39-39, 2nd place) - Success is driven by pitching in Major League Baseball, but the Nationals have become completely one dimensional. The bottom of their batting order and their bench may as well bring garden hoses to the ballpark. It won't make much difference. 

Pitching can cover up for bad hitting, but nothing can cover up the putrid performances of starting pitcher Dan Haren (4-9, 6.15 ERA). Haren appeared to shake off early season rust in May after getting off to a very rough start in April. But he's reverted to horrendous form in June, getting pimp-slapped all over the ballpark. His days in the Nationals' starting rotation may be over. He hasn't won a decision since May 9th. 

Philadelphia Phillies

What to make of the Philadelphia Phillies. They owned the N.L. East for the previous half decade and then went into a black hole last season. They are not the team they were, a team that was a presumptive front runner in the National League for the last several years. 

The Phillies got into too deep of a hole too early to make it out last season. They must have better play from their bullpen, which often led Philly into the abyss last season. I like the pick-up of third baseman Michael Young. Their position players must play up to expectations. Having former All-Star first baseman Ryan Howard for (hopefully) the entire season should be a boost. Don’t be surprised to see the Phillies get at least one game to prove themselves in the postseason.

(38-42, 3rd place) - The Phillies got into a semi-rebuilding mode after last year's bitter disappointment of a campaign. If their middle relievers weren't leaving the team in the middle over nowhere with such regularity, the Phillies might have an outside chance in the N.L. East. The Phillies have been treading water this year without the services of a healthy Roy Halladay (2-4, 8.65 ERA), who is on the 60 day Disabled List with a shoulder injury.

New York Mets

There’s the first pitch…and the season’s over!

(32-43, 4th place) - The season is over, but not because of pitching. Matt Harvey (7-1, 2.05 ERA, 121 Ks) has been "the truth" and the pitching staff has really picked its game up in the month of June. Other than perennial All-Star third baseman David Wright (.307, 12 HR, 41 RBI), I am not clear why any of the Mets position players get out of bed in the morning. They can't hit a mountain with a pebble from three feet away.

Miami Marlins

Ah! Brand new, state of the art Marlins Park! Opened 2012!
Grand opening…grand closing, just like this season in Miami.

(27-50, 5th place) - The staring pitching is decent. The bullpen is mediocre but serviceable. They should be allowed to hit off of a tee to keep the games competitive.

He's like that. 1

N.L. Central

Pittsburgh Pirates

Can this team end its 21 year playoff drought? They have their star in centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (.327 avg., 31 HR, 96 RBI, .400 OBP), made a key pickup in catcher Russell Martin (21 HR in 2012 with the Yankees) and have the most of same stellar bullpen that carried this team to wins last season.
The notable absence? Closer Joel Hanrahan left the Bucs for the Boston Red Sox this past offseason. That will leave it on the shoulders of 36 year old Jason Grilli, who is untested as a closer, to nail down close games. 

The biggest improvement the Pirates made over the last year is to their starting pitching. What could push Pittsburgh into the post season is the addition of Wandy Rodriguez late last season in concert with a sustained successful campaign of pitcher James McDonald, who started off 2012 looking like a Cy Young winner and utterly collapsed after the All-Star break. Also, 36 year old ace A.J. Burnett needs to remain healthy.  

(48-30, 1st place) - ♫ "Best record in the majors, whatcha know 'bout 'dat?" ♪♪ The Bucs have shown a steady improvement in each of the last three seasons and it is paying off in a big way. Baseball fans know all about All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (.290, 8 HR, 40 RBI, 15 SB, .810 OPS), but third baseman Pedro Alvarez (.246, 19 HR, 52 RBI) is showing that his breakout 2012 season was not a fluke.

The real secret to the Pirates' success has been its bullpen. Their relievers have been BALLER-RIFFIC! Seven of their relievers have logged in 29-2/3 innings or more of work. Jason Grilli (0-1, 1.82 ERA, 26 SV, 58 Ks, 7 BB, 34.2 IP) has effectively given Pirates opponents eight innings instead of nine to do their damage because he is like a John Deere: moving down everything in his path. The early season wear on the bullpen is something that Manager Clint Hurdle needs to monitor carefully. However, the starters have proven quite capable and should be able to shoulder a heavier load later in the season if necessary.

St. Louis Cardinals

Chris Carpenter: gone. Lance Berkman: gone. Kyle Loshe: gone. Chances at a third straight playoff run: gone.

(48-30, 1st place) - My prognosticating ability: gone. Boy did I whiff on this team. St. Louis is not only alive and well, but they are tied for the best record in the majors. They are a total team package. Veteran catcher Yadier Molina (.357, 6 HR, 44 RBI) is as viable an early season candidate as any for National League MVP. When a catcher can put up video-game like batting numbers, the team with that lineup has a substantial advantage over of most of its opponents. Meanwhile, ace pitcher Adam Wainwright appears to be making his own early season bid for the National League Cy Young.

I'll have my crow with a side of shoe leather and humble pie for dessert.

Cincinnati Reds

This team is LOADED! I cannot help but wonder how far this team could have gone last year had ace Johnny Cueto (19-9, 2.78 ERA in 2012) not been injured in the first inning of the National League Divisional Series against the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. The Reds have the same potent weapons on the mound and at the plate and I can only imagine a chip on their collective shoulder after last year’s bitter postseason disappointment.   

(45-34, 3rd place) - Third best record in the National League Central...third best record in the National League. Two teams are going to be bitterly disappointed come October. This team can pitch the lights out. They are very disciplined at the plate and can tear the cover off of the ball, with good power from top to bottom in the lineup. Their ability to hit for average is not bad, but not great, however. In a division with the three alpha-dogs of the National League, the lack of .300 hitters other than former MVP Joey Votto (.322, 14 HR, 38 RBI) could be the difference between winning the division and being in a one game Wild Card playoff at the end of the regular season. 

Chicago Cubs

Good news: Theo Epstein is behind the controls. Bad news: the car was a junkyard chassis when he was handed the keys. Epstein has fast-tracked some of the Cubs’ young talent full-time to the big leagues quickly and expectations are high. First baseman Anthony Rizzo (.285, 15 HR in 87 GP in 2012) is one to keep an eye on. He’s a young talent who came on strong late last season and could bolster the Cubs’ lineup this year.
The Cubs pipeline, from all accounts, is moving quickly, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Cubs can only make so many changes in two seasons. A non-cellar dweller finish would be a success for this team, but I am not willing to pick the Cubbies ahead of anyone in this division…yet.

(33-44, 4th place) - I really like the direction in which the Cubs are headed. Theo Epstein is the freaking man. The Cubs will go nowhere this season, but they are building themselves up to make some noise next season and legitimately contend in the years beyond. First baseman Anthony Rizzo (.253, 12 HR, 46 RBI, .806 OPS) is the real deal and he is going to continue to improve. The team is really hitting the ball well for power. They are learning how to hit effectively as a team, though they have a long way to go. They strikeout too often and don't draw enough walks.

The pitching staff is there. They could do a better job of keeping the ball in the yard, but they have made dramatic progress over last season. Still,  closer Kevin Gregg (2-1, 1.42, 12 SV) has made it such that if the Cubs can carry a lead through eight innings, they don't have to worry about the 9th.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brew Crew made a splash, sort of, by signing Kyle Loshe (16-3, 2.86 ERA in 2012) to a lucrative, long term contract. They are solid in the field and at the plate. The Lohse signing will give the starting rotation a desperately needed boost. But will it be enough to get the Brewers back into the postseason?

(32-45, 5th place) - The only pitching I associate with the Brew Crew is the fit that Manager Ron Roenicke must throw every night.

Like Bernie, the Brewers' season is heading right into the drink. 2
N.L. West

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Snakes can sneak up on their prey in the West. Arizona quietly remained within striking distance of a playoff spot until the final weeks of the 2012 season. It has to improve on its .500 record from last year. The problem? This is a team whose strength was in its offense, lost key offensive players, and made no major starting pitching upgrades. Third baseman Martin Prado (.301, 10 HR, 70 RBI) was a key pick-up, but it hardly offsets the power losses of Justin Upton and Chris Young.

(42-36, 1st place) - The good news for the D-Backs is that they have been in first place for much of the year, meaning they appear to be set up for the marathon that will be the N.L. West race. The bad news is that the last place Dodgers are only six games back and on fire.

The Snakes have had a balanced approach under Manager Kirk Gibson. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt (.308, 19 HR, 67 RBI) is a potential MVP candidate. He may even win the MVP if he stops striking out every night. Patrick Corbin has been the most consistent among the starting pitchers (9-0, 2.22 ERA, 85 Ks) as he just doesn't lose. Closer Heath Bell, acquired in the Miami Marlins' Fire Sale of 2012, has been effective in his bend but don't break performances in the 9th innings. However, ace pitcher Ian Kennedy (3-4, 5.21 ERA), coming off of a suspension for his role in a bench clearing brawl with the Dodgers earlier in the month, has got to shake off his June slump and get back to delivering quality starts if Arizona is to keep its pursuers at bay.

San Diego Padres

I read an article in Bleacher Report saying, “Don’t count the Padres out.” One, two, three…ten. They’re out! Lackluster pitching plus an infield with guys I’ve never heard of equals a lot of free ticket giveaways after the All-Star break.

(39-40, 2nd place) - There are few things in sports I have trouble explaining, but the Padres' second place standing, notwithstanding their losing record as of this morning, is one of them. They aren't in a strong division. They don't do anything particularly well, but they aren't particularly bad at anything either. 

Should their non-hapless-ness continue, I may have to keep a closer watch on the Friars. But for now, I won't comment further on something I simply do not understand. Perhaps the Padres pleasantly surprising mediocrity is part of the luck factor in baseball.

Colorado Rockies

Good position players…. Worst…starting…pitching…ever! EV-ER!!!

(39-41, 3rd place) - They have excellent hitters, both at and away from Coors Field. Their starting pitchers...aren't the worst ever. Mediocre? Yes. Made of Swiss cheese? No. I just don't think their pitchers are good enough to close the gap in the West.

San Francisco Giants

By and large, these are the same old Giants. That isn’t a bad thing. They’ve won two of the last three World Series. This team is going to live and die by its pitching, but it is clear that the Giants took a step up at the plate last year.

The addition of right fielder Hunter Pence (.253 avg., 24 HR, 104 RBI in 2012) via trade from the Phillies provided a big push to the batting order.  Second baseman Marco Scutaro (.306 avg, 7 HR, 74 RBI in 2012) also came on strong after the All-Star break after being acquired from the Colorado Rockies. With no changes to the starting pitching and closer Sergio Romo filling the shoes of the now departed Brian Wilson, expect the Giants to be in a slugfest with the Dodgers for most of the season.

(38-40, 3rd place) - Losers of 9 of their last 12, the defending World Series champion Giants are making a giant nose dive in the West. The earlier part of this season was spent staying on the heels of the Diamondbacks. However, their weaknesses have bubbled to the surface.

The Giants are an awful road team. Their starting rotation has been underwhelming and they are exposed when they are away from their pitcher-friendly confines of AT&T Park.  One bright spot is Tim Lincecum (4-8, 4.64 ERA). Lincecum looked nothing like a two time Cy Young winner going back to last season. However, he has 25 strikeouts and only 10 walks issued in his last 30 innings pitched. He is doing a much better job of keeping the ball in the park.

The Giants pitching is simply not at the level where they can win games by manufacturing runs as they had in the past. Their lack of power in the batting order is beginning to catch up to them. Since power is not learned nor acquired overnight, the onus falls on the starting pitchers to pick it up if they have any hope of defending their crown. 

Los Angeles Dodgers

Whoever said you can’t buy success never watched Major League Baseball. The Los Angeles Dodgers have upped the ante in the N.L. West. Since the start of last season, the Dodgers have broken the bank to bring in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, left fielder Carl Crawford, utility man Skip Schumaker, and starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Zack Greinke. This looks more like an All-Star Game lineup than an opening day roster.

Don Mattingly is running the dugout. Front man Magic Johnson and his group are running the front office. I think the Dodgers are running the division this year.

(36-42, 5th place) - Don Matingly was on his way to being run out of town. But ridning in on a galloping white horse is rookie Yasiel Puig (.422, 7 HR, 16 RBI, 1.153 OPS, 24 GP). Folks, you ain't seen nothin' yet. 

All of a sudden, the scrambling, struggling Dodgers are now winners of six in a row and among the hottest teams in baseball. Puig's insertion into the lineup is the extra potent bat in the order that has made the difference in the Dodgers winning and losing in the last month. What Puig cannot cure is the shaky starting pitching. 

Josh Beckett appears to have brought the problems that dogged him in Boston over to the West Coast. In addition to sub-par play on the mound, Beckett has not started a game since May, missing time with a finger injury. He is on the 15-day Disabled List. The back end of their rotation, on the whole, has been an enigma and will continue to weigh the team down until a steady, long term solution is in place and stays in place.  

This is just the beginning. Puig Mania is here to stay! 3
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