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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

MLB - Three-Quarter Point - National League

Yesterday, we discussed the American League. The National League pennant race is red hot and the contenders are separating themselves from the pack! Opening Day remarks are in black. One quarter mark comments are in blue. Halfway mark comments are in green. Home stretch comments are in red.

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.

(54-41, 1st place) – The Braves are doing everything well right now, including getting hot. Their bats appear to be heating up for the second half race to the finish line. The keys for the Braves? The pitchers need to keep doing their thing. People who don’t follow the Braves may not know much about starting pitcher Mike Minor (9-4, 3.02 ERA, 115 Ks), but he is carrying an already strong Braves rotation. The 25-year-old from Vanderbilt is having a breakout season. Also, Dan Uggla (.200, 18 HR, 42 RBI, 118 SO): hit more, strike out less. It would help.

(73-47, 1st place) – There have been a few teams that have caught fire in the majors, but the Braves have been consistently excellent all year (as well as hot of late). As a result they have the best record in MLB and are running away with the National League East.

The Braves are doing it with lights out pitching, good plate discipline and solid, timely power hitting. Standing out is young pitcher Julio Teheran (9-6, 3.08 ERA) and third baseman Chris Johnson (.337, 9 HR, 50 RBI), who has a shot at the N.L. batting title. Right now, the Braves look like a lock to reach the National League Championship Series unless something goes horribly wrong, like a rash of injuries or P.E.D. suspensions.

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.

(48-47, 2nd place) – The Nats need to poop or get off of the pot. Expectations were sky high in April, but the team is fair-and-middling and the bats have bottomed out for most of the season. They are hitting the ball better of late. Left fielder Bryce Harper’s (.264, 13 HR, 29 RBI) return to the lineup has made an immediate impact on the lineup’s run production. Quietly, shortstop Ian Desmond (.281, 15 HR, 49 RBI) has been the pillar of consistency in the batting order. Good for him, but when your shortstop is your most reliable bat, you have a problem.

(58-60, 2nd place) – Stick a fork in the Nats; they’re done. This has been an incredibly disappointing season for a team that had lofty expectations following a breakthrough, division-title winning year of 2012. The strength of the team, pitching, has been solid all season, but apparently their position players have mistaken the term “at-bat” in 2013 with “go up to the plate and swing like you’re as blind as a bat”.

Washington has shown a pulse at the plate, post All-Star break, but their starting pitchers, the spine of the Nationals, hit a collective slump in July. Stephen Strasburg (6-9, 2.83 ERA, 153 Ks) – who finished July with losses in three straight decisions, Gio Gonzalez (7-5, 3.42 ERA, 146 Ks), and Jordan Zimmerman (13-6, 3.10 ERA), apparently forgot…that they were Stephen “freaking” Strasburg, Gio “freaking” Gonzalez, and Jordan “freaking” Zimmerman! 

Game over…try again next year. Sign some hitters in the offseason.

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.

(41-50, 4th place) – They have a keeper in ace pitcher Matt Harvey (7-2, 2.35 ERA, 147 Ks). In fact, their starting rotation is respectable. Their middle relief is still trying to find its identity, but is not a bad collection of experienced pitching talent. The problem is not on the mound. It’s just about everywhere in the field. They don’t hit the ball well. However, their power hitting, while not imposing, is not vomit-inducing either. The key to this team developing this year and improving next year will be in the development of their pitching staff, which features a very young and inexperienced starting rotation

(54-63, 3rd place) – This team may have something to look forward to…next year. Their pitching is almost “good enough” to compete for a Wild Card spot. Young gun Matt Harvey (9-4, 2.23 ERA, 181 Ks) is the “real deal” and could be in line for the National League Cy Young Award. They have “mediocre” to “average” power in their lineup.  However, they lack the power (and contact hitting) in their lineup to be able to strike out as much as they do and expect to be competitive over course of a 162 game season.

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.

(48-48, 3rd place) – The Phillies are heating up a little. All-Star left fielder Dominic Brown (.273, 23 HR, 67 RBI) has been a pleasant surprise in this breakout year. The Phillies have a glaring weakness, however: middle relief. It’s actually a black hole. Jeremy Horst (0-2, 6.23 ERA), Raul Valdes (1-0, 7.65 ERA), and Chad Durbin (1-0, 9.00 ERA) – none of whom have pitched since June – had been black holes out of the bullpen (Durbin is no longer on the roster). Others have had to pick up the slack. Perhaps Roy Halladay’s (2-4, 8.65 ERA) return to the lineup from a shoulder injury will have a positive spillover effect in the pen. But the Phillies have no chance if they can’t shore up the middle relief cracks in their fa├žade.  

(53-66, 4th place) – Closing pitcher Jonathan Papelbon (2-1, 2.76 ERA, 20 SV) said a mouthful when he said, essentially, “This isn’t what I signed up for.” Neither did Phillies Fan. Still, when you point one finger, three point back at you. While Papelbon has held is own in his role, his colleagues in the bullpen are the single biggest reason that the Phillies cannot compete in the National League this year. The National League’s 800 pound gorilla of the late-2000s decade had fallen a L..O..N..G way.

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.

(35-58, 5th place) – They couldn't hit the floor with their faces at a frat party.

(45-73, 5th place) – Major League Baseball should have the Marlins play every remaining game against the Houston Astros for the rest of the year. The “Underworld Series” could decide whether the Marlins, the worst team in the National League, or the Astros, with the worst record in the majors, is the true pond-scum bottom feeder of Major League Baseball.
Clown season, bro....
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: mowing 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.

(56-37, 2nd place) –The Steel City has had more cause for optimism than at any time in the last two decades. The Pirates have been going back and forth with the Cardinals for the top record in baseball and hence the Central Division. I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, but the Pirates are the first-half standout team that I think is least sustainable in the second half. 

The Pirates are living and dying by their bullpen. That is not a long term recipe for success. The wear and tear on those arms over the course of the season is bound to catch up to the relievers. Their starters have to (and can capably) step it up in the second half. One reliever that I expect to continue at a high level, however, is closer Jason Grilli (0-1, 1.99 ERA, 29 SV, 63 Ks). He is arguably the best closer in the National League and is a big reason that the Pirates are so successful at home this year.

(70-48, 1st place) – The Pirates' return to the playoffs for the first time since 1992 is a virtual certainty. The question is whether or not they will go as Central Division champions or as a Wild Card team. I have had reservations about the Pirates over-reliance on their bullpen all year long, but through mid-August, what they are doing seems to be working.

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.

(57-36, 1st place) – The Cardinals have played as well and had as good a record in the first half of the season as any team could ask for. Their reward for having the best record in baseball? They have a one game lead on the team with the second best record in the majors. Still, I think Cardinals are built to last through the end of September.  

This is an experienced, well coached team that does not make mistakes at the plate or on the mound. Second baseman Matt Carpenter (.321, 9 HR, 45 RBI) would be a shoe in for team MVP on most other teams, but he is just another valuable cog in a Redbirds’ machine with five everyday players batting over .300. Keep an eye on ace Adam Wainwright (12-5, 2.45 ERA, 130 Ks) in the National League Cy Young race.

(68-50, 2nd place) – I expect St. Louis to be in a dogfight for the division going into the final week of the season. They are mixing it up in a critical series with Pittsburgh right now. Unfortunately, catcher Yadier Molina (.330, 8 HR, 54 RBI) is not eligible to come off of the Disabled List (knee) until tomorrow and left fielder Matt Holiday’s (.293, 15 HR, 59 RBI) status (ankle) is touch and go. In a division that could be very conceivably be decided by a one-game playoff, these absences could prove to be difference making by the end of the regular season.

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. 

(53-42, 3rd place) – Outside of the Central division, only the Atlanta Braves have a better record than Cincinnati. They are just middle-of-the-pack in their own division. Still, I think this team is better built than the Pirates to make a surge in this division. This team is lights out from top-to-bottom on the mound and very well disciplined at the plate. They hit well for power. What this means is that they are rarely out of any game. Cincinnati has not lost by more than three runs to a National League opponent in almost a month.

(62-52, 3rd place) – Don’t sleep on the Reds. With all of the attention focused on the Pirates and Cardinals, the third place Reds have been steadily lying in wait in third place. They will probably be in the Wild Card game, but don’t count them out for a late season surge. They have all of the ingredients to sneak up on the division leaders in September. They are disciplined at the plate, have lights out pitching, and middle-of-the-order players like former M.V.P. first baseman Joey Votto (.319, 17 HR, 55 RBI) and right fielder Jay Bruce (.271, 24 HR, 80 RBI) who can break any close game open with one swing of the bat. The Reds aren’t going away.

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.

(42-51, 4th place) – We spent some time discussing how this team is positioning itself well for the future. Their biggest weaknesses are in the execution of fundamentals: plate discipline, relief pitching, pitch selection in key situations…. The Cubs are a young team and these things improve with experience. Watch out for this team in the second half to possibly play spoiler.  

(52-67, 4th place) – This improving team hit a pretty hard wall in August, but I am still looking forward to watching them compete next year. I expect the 2014 Cubs to be like this year’s Kansas City Royals. In spite of having no shot of the post season this year, the Cubs are fun to watch again, especially rising star first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.234, 18 HR, 65 RBI).

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.

(38-56, 5th place) – It doesn’t matter that they can hit the ball. If you can’t pitch, you can’t win. And they CAN’T PITCH!

(52-67, 4th place) – Ryan Braun’s P.E.D. suspension for the remainder of the 2013 season slammed the door on any possibility of a late season rally from the Brew Crew. That said their pitching is dramatically improved since the All-Star break. Tom Gorzelanny’s (3-4, 2.51 ERA) recent promotion to the starting rotation has been a breath of fresh air for the Brewers. The improved pitching and Braun’s return, is something to build on heading into 2014.

Bad news for Ryan Braun: he's done for the year. Good news: he has more free time to hammer out his extended offseason plans with his significant other, Larisa Frasier (above). 1

N.L. West

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. 

(47-47, 2nd place) – The Dodgers are the hottest team in the majors. For all of the hub-bub over overnight superstar rookie right fielder Yasiel Puig (.391, 8 HR, 19 ERA, 1.081 OPS), the yearlong excellence of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (.297, 14 HR, 59 RBI) and the absolute dominance of All-Star ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw (8-6, 1.98 ERA, 139 Ks, 0.91 WHIP) has given the Dodger Blue the huge push it has needed. This team is built to surge and surpass Arizona in the second half. Magic Johnson and company are on the cusp of a payoff of their grand experiment – spending money like it grows on trees.

(69-50, 1st place) – Calling them “hot” or even “on fire” is a gross understatement. I can’t remember a post All-Star Game surge like this in my lifetime. L.A. is experiencing a six alarm blaze. The numbers are staggering:  they have won 22 of 25 games since the All-Star break. They have allowed two runs or less in 16 of those games, all wins. 

Ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw (11-7, 1.88 ERA, 174 Ks) is the front runner for the N.L. Cy Young right now and is on a tear. He has not surrendered more than three earned runs in a game since June. This Dodgers season went from “grasping for straws” in the first half of the year to “World Series or bust”.

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.

(50-45, 1st place) – This is a good team with quality hitting and good starting pitchers. The bullpen will need to kick it into overdrive to keep the Snakes ahead in the wild, wild, N.L. West. I like the emergence of first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (.313, 21 HR, 77 RBI) as one of the leading hitters in the National League. Also, keep an eye on Pat Corbin (11-1, 2.35 ERA, 109 Ks) in the National League Cy Young watch.

(61-57, 2nd place) – The D-Backs were in first place for the majority of this season, but the Dodgers have breezed past them and I don’t expect the Snakes to recover. Arizona is a team that could be expected to have a winning record good enough to win a weak division, which is what the N.L. West looked like early in the year. As it stands, the defending World Series champions are in the cellar of the division, but only 14 games under .500. Only the A.L. East has a shallower cellar in the majors (the Toronto Blue Jays are 54-65). 

The Diamondbacks are solid, and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (.296, 29 HR, 93 RBI) has a shot at National League M.V.P., but solid won’t catch the Dodgers, Cardinals, Reds, or Pirates in any of the applicable playoff races. Their bullpen, while competent, ultimately isn’t strong enough to get this team over the top. For example, closer Heath Bell (3-1, 3.86 ERA, 15 SV, 54 Ks, 49.0 IP) has let enough games slip this year to close the gap between the Snakes and the Reds in the Wild Card race. The D-Backs are on playoffs life support.

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.

(46-50, 3rd place) – The Rockies are overachieving by being in third place at the All-Star break, albeit with a losing record. They simply do not have the pitching staff to make a run to overtake anyone in this division.

(56-65, 3rd place) - Pitching is king in baseball. The Rockies have good hitters but their pitching, while not dead in the water like last year, is just bad, even adjusting for the high altitude in which they play their home games. Left fielder Carlos Gonzales (.302, 26 HR, 70 RBI) and right fielder Michael Cuddyer (.324, 17 HR, 66 RBI) have turned in All-Star worthy seasons, but they cannot help generate enough run support to give the Rockies a chance to seriously contend.

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.

(42-52, 5th place) – The bullpen is unreliable. The back end of their starting rotation should not be allowed to take the mound.  Edinson Volquez (6-8, 5.74 ERA) is in an arbitration-eligible contract year and is due nearly $6 million this season. I hope he has been saving his money!

The batting is also awful. However, shortstop Everth Cabrera (.291, 4 HR, 25 RBI, 34 SB) is having a breakout year. He should break out of San Diego as soon as his contract is up.

(54-65, 4th place) – This team is mediocre across the board. A fourth place standing is right where they belong. However, one of their few standouts and best scoring threats, shortstop Evereth Cabrera (.283, 4 HR, 31 RBI, 37 SB, 54 R), will miss most of the rest of the season with a 50 game P.E.D. suspension. I expect the Friars to plummet into last place before the end of the year.

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. 

(43-51, 4th place) – The defending World Series champions are in one of the most rapid mid-season free falls that I can recall. Before taking 3 of 4 at the hapless San Diego Padres before the break, the Giants had lost 14 of 16. This team is built on its pitching, playing in a pitcher’s park. 

They have no trouble finding the strike zone, second in the National League in strikeouts. The downside is that opposing batters haven’t had much trouble finding the ball when they aren’t being sat down. In my view, it is simple: Barry Zito (4-7, 4.88 ERA) and Matt Cain (5-6, 5.06 ERA, 103 Ks) have to get back to their former selves, the guys who helped win two World Series championships in the last three years, or this season is over.

(52-66, 5th place) – How in the hell did the defending World Series champions end up in the cellar with a month and a half to go in the season? I’ll tell you the “what”, but the players need to spend the offseason figuring out the “why”.

What happened is that a Giants team that does not hit for power in a pitcher's park rose to the top with strong starting pitching. Their rotation has never had any kind of rhythm this year and their bats completely vanished after the All-Star break. Whether it’s physical, mental, or a team chemistry issue, Manager Bruce Bochy has a serious problem on his hands and has serious decisions to make heading into next year.

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