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Thursday, July 17, 2014

2014 Major League Baseball - National League - All Star Break

At the beginning of the season, we discussed expectations of the 15 National League teams. The All Star Game has passed. It's time to evaluate and, in a few cases, reevaluate where the boys of summer are!

Beginning of the year comments are in black. Post All Star Game comments are in blue. Teams are listed in the order in which I expected them to finish in April.

National League

N.L. East

Washington Nationals – The Nationals, anchored by Stephen Strasburg, are loaded in their starting rotation. This year, provided they stay healthy, the Nats should have enough pop in their batting order to give their arms the (relatively minimal) run support needed to win against most opponents. Last year was a bitter disappointment resulting from one bad break after another. Expect D.C. to put the train back on the track in 2014.

So far, so good in D.C. The pitchers are pitching as expected - mowing down everything in sight like a John Deere - and the batting lineup shows signs of life. In spite of left fielder Bryce Harper's (.244, 2 HR, 11 RBI) early season injury, which cause him to miss most of the first half, the emergence of third baseman Anthony Rendon (.287, 13 HR, 53 RBI)  in the lineup has further bolstered the Nats' bats.

Atlanta Braves – What a surprise! The Braves are expected to contend again. Arguably one of the National League’s two best run franchises in the past 20 years, the Braves are not rebuilding after coming up short in the playoffs last year. They’re reloading. And they are loaded with power in their batting order.

Losing longtime ace starter Tim Husdon to the San Francisco Giants is going to remove some reliable stability from the rotation. Still, Atlanta has a lot of youth with a lot of upside in waiting, starting with new ace Julio Teheran. The Braves also went young in the bullpen. How that plays out remains to be seen. What is fairly certain is that if they can get to the 9th inning with a lead, closer Craig Kimbrel should nail it down 9 times out of 10.

It's the same old story with the Braves: their pitchers are money; their position players are mediocre at the plate. What the Braves' hitter do have in their favors are experience and clutch hitting ability. But, make no mistake, this team is going to go as far as their rotation, arguably the National League's best (certainly top 5), can carry them. A one-game playoff following Game 162 of the regular season between them and the Nationals to decide the N.L. East champion would not surprise me.   

Miami Marlins – To paraphrase Charles Barkley, they won’t be “turrble”. This team has a ton of young talent that I expect to demonstrate an exponential degree of development since last season. Jose Fernandez is on his way to establishing himself as one of the bright, young, future superstars on the mound. Giancarlo Stanton brings something the Fish haven’t had since trading Hanley Ramierz: a young star-potential player with some pop in his bat. Finally, picking up Jared Saltalamacchia from Boston behind the dish was a good move; the 2 position won’t be a black hole in the batting order.

I swung and missed with several early season predictions, but not in the N.L. East. The Marlins are no exception. Giancarlo Stanton (.295, 21 HR, 63 RBI) is as good as advertised. Their pitching rotation was average and with the loss of 2013 National League rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez (4-2, 2.44 ERA, 70 Ks, 51.2 IP) for the season from Tommy John surgery the rotation is mediocre at best. That won't get it done in the pitching-heavy East division.

Philadelphia Phillies –With this roster, you may as well hand the N.L. East division title over to them now…five years ago. They are long in the tooth from top to bottom.

Father Time: undefeated and untied.

New York Mets – This team’s opponents would already need to have their maple bats replaced with plastic whiffle ball bats just to keep the playing field level. Notwithstanding the crippling loss of ace Matt Harvey for the season (Tommy John surgery), the Mets have a respectable starting rotation. Their bullpen, however, appears to be an afterthought, with the big turd in the punch bowl being overweight, washed up Jose Valverde as the closer.

They have done very little to offset the anemic hitting that plagued them last season. They did acquire former All-Star centerfielder Curtis Granderson. But at age 33, coming off of an ineffective, injury-riddled season, I’m of the opinion that “♪ The Grandy Man can’t ”!

Terry Collins and his staff deserve a lot of credit for piecing together a quality starting rotation that one may have thought to be unknowns or over-the-hill pitchers. Still, they have no power in their bats in a park that isn't hitter friendly to begin with. Their hopes and dreams are on hold until 2015 when Matt Harvey returns to the rotation and they an possibly introduce some more power to the lineup via offseason transactions.

Bryce Harper, left, and Justin Upton, right, and their teams will be slugging it out through the final week of the regular season. 3

N.L. Central

Pittsburgh Pirates – Losing A.J. Burnett to the Phillies cost the Bucs some experience, but also with his departure left some unreliability in big moments for which Burnett was becoming infamous in recent years. The rotation is reasonably solid. If Endison Volquez, now age 30, can turn it around – being the strikeout machine he was with the Cincinnati Reds while limiting the number of critical runs given up – the Pirates could put some distance between themselves and the rest of the Central division by the All-Star break. In spite of having reigning MVP centerfielder Andrew McCuthchen, this team is going to live and die with its arms.

After a slow start to the season, the Pirates have inserted themselves into the four way dogfight that is the N.L. Central race. Buoyed by a resurgent bullpen and a lineup full of sluggers, their key star is still reigning N.L. MVP Andrew McCutchen (.324, 17 HR, 61 RBI). Their starting rotation still leaves a lot to be desired if this team is to embark on a serious run for the pennant.

St. Louis Cardinals – This team is loaded in the field. Their seasoned and (mostly) accomplished rotation is intact and healthy this season. Cardinals fans should keep an eye on the bullpen, however. They are very young with little experience relative to other bullpens. Still, last postseason showed us that “age ain’t nothing but a number” with the breakout performances of starting pitcher Michael Wacha and relief pitcher Carlos Martinez, both age 22.

This team is built for marathons, not sprints. This is why there was no sense of panic when the Milwaukee Brewers left the starting gates like a flash of lightning. A balanced team with some of the best firemen in baseball coming out of the bullpen, the Cardinals have coolly and gradually caught up to the Brew Crew in the Central race. Closer Trevor Rosenthal (28 saves/32 attempts) effectively makes a nine inning game into an eight inning game when the Cardinals are winning.This team is best set up to come out on top in this tightly contested race.

Cincinnati Reds – This is a Big Red Pitching Machine. The big equalizer for the Reds is closer Aroldis Chapman, who will miss a few weeks after being hit in the head recently by a line drive. The sooner he returns, the sooner Cincy can race at full speed. Their lineup will be very dependent upon middle-of-the-order sluggers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to provide adequate run support, though.

The Reds came back from the dead to pull into the thick of the division race. Cy Young hopeful Johnny Cueto (10-6, 2.13 ERA, 141 Ks) leads a pitching rotation that, top-to-bottom, is more likely than not to be favored each night. The Reds power in the middle of their batting order has provided more than enough run support for their starters to rack up W's. 

Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers went from, just a few years ago, having the best position players in the National League but underwhelming pitching, to having a good pitching rotation (perhaps “very good”) but a cast of unknowns playing every day. Former MVP outfielder Ryan Braun’s return from a PED suspension will give the Brew Crew an offensive lift over last season.

I completely whiffed on the Brewers. After getting off to a gangbusters start, their division peers have caught up to them. Still, the Brewers remain at the top of the division. All Star catcher Johnathan Lucroy's (.315, 9 HR, 44 RBI)breakthrough has been a pleasant surprise for Brewers fans. The question is: can their starting pitchers continue to dominate and keep pressure off of the bullpen through the September stretch?

Chicago Cubs – A collection of unknowns and has-beens in the field plus some never-will-be’s on the mound equals another finish in the cellar for the Cubs. I'm not sure where General Manger Theo Epstein is taking the Cubs.

Their mascot outfit is terrible.

Don't forget to throw in a towel! Whenever you're living up to low expectations and are hopelessly out of the race by the All Star break, don't forget to throw in the towel!

The defending Central Division champions Matt Adams and the Cardinals are built for the home stretch. That remains to be seen for the other three suitors for the division crown. 2
N.L. West

Los Angeles Dodgers – Let’s see. This team was in last place at the end of last June. They get some key players back healthy, such as shortstop Hanley Ramirez, call up a rock star in right fielder Yasiel Puig, and their pitchers all begin hitting their strides at once. Voila! L.A. runs away with the division.

I wonder what will happen this year with those key pieces in place on Opening Day. They have one obvious weakness, at the catcher position. They brought in veteran Drew Butera to call the signals behind the plate. I don’t know much about his defensive scouting report but he must be really good: he has hit below the Mendoza line for his career.

Otherwise, this team has no soft spots on its roster. This is a pennant or bust year for the Dodgers and they are set up to reach their goal. 

This is a two team race and the dominance of the Dodgers' starting pitching is going to make it very difficult down the stretch for the Giants to catch, and pass, L.A.. All Star right fielder Yasiel Puig (.309, 12 HR, 52 RBI) is not experiencing a sophomore slump and reigning N.L. Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA, 126 Ks) is on his way to winning the award for the third time in four years. This is the Dodgers' best chance to return to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

Arizona Diamondbacks – All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is the real deal. The Snakes also added some significant power to the order in trading for Mark Trumbo from the Angles. Otherwise, the rotation is average. The bullpen is average. Their closer is average, perhaps a notch below average. Expect the result for the D-Backs to be average.

The Snakes rolled the dice on a questionable pitching rotation and have come up snake eyes.

San Francisco Giants – Picking up starting pitcher Tim Hudson was a step forward for a team that struggled with previously accomplished but underachieving pitchers last year. Still, the Giants did little else to turn their play around on the mound. This is a team whose pitchers struggled in a pitcher’s park to defend their 2012 World Series title.

They need run support to compete. Picking up left fielder Michael Morse was a plus for the power in the batting order. Still, the roster remained otherwise largely unchanged in terms of hitting talent. They aren’t built to drive in runs in bunches.

The guys have demonstrated that they can hit for power when they need to, in spite of not playing is a power-friendly park. As long as their starting pitchers continue to be the monsters on the mound that they have been all season, the Giants will continue to be in the playoff picture. I simply do not think this team is going to have enough firepower to pass the Dodgers by the end of the season. The Wild Card is not off the table, though and then their pitchers are going to be tough nuts to crack in a postseason situation.  

Colorado Rockies – Their hitters are all studs, but that advantage is hedged off somewhat by playing in the thin air at Coors Field, where every hitter can get a little better. They brought in a lot of new pitchers and they are all lousy as a group. That disadvantage is heightened by playing in the thin air at Coors Field, where every pitcher has the scales tipped against them when facing power hitters. Their pitcher is 41-year-old LaTroy Hawkins, who is in the twilight of a long, competent, but unremarkable career.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer in the Mile High City.

This team had a pulse in May and June. They're flat-lining. Major League teams with great pitchers but light hitters can remain in contention. The opposite does not hold true. Not finishing last will be a victory for this squad.

San Diego Padres – Their pitchers are okay but their lineup looks like they may as well come to the plate with rubber hoses. If this were the NFL, I would say that this team could be on the clock.

"With the first pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, the San Diego Padres select, _____." It could still happen! 

Clayton Kershaw, right, is going to run out of space on his trophy shelf soon. 1

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