Last week, we took a look at the AL, this week we’ll look at the Senior Circuit division by division, starting out west.
Division Leader: LA Dodgers (51-42) and SF Giants (50-41) virtually tied
Most surprising team: Giants (+21 Run Differential; 76-86, -62 RD in 2013)
Most disappointing team: Arizona (39-54, -64 RD; 81-81, -10 in 2013)
Most surprising players: 2B Dee Gordon (.300 with power for the Dodgers after years of struggling); SP Josh Beckett (2.26 ERA and 95 K’s in 103 IP after two poor seasons); Lf Mike Morse (.275 w/14 Hrs for the Giants); SP Tim Hudson (2.53 ERA and 113 IP after breaking his ankle last season); LF Seth Smith (.510 slugging% despite playing in Petco Park); SS Troy Tulowitzki (.350, 20HRs, by far his best season yet); 1B Justin Morneau (.313 with power at age 33, and not just at Coors Field)
Most disappointing players: 2B Aaron Hill (.241 with no power after three good seasons); entire Dbacks rotation (staff ranks 14th in NL in ERA and hits, 13th in HRs); OF Carlos Gonzalez (.255 with reduced power, injured now); 2B Jedd Gyorko (.162 after signing a multiyear contract); SS Everth Cabrera (.218, no power or walks); SP Matt Cain (4.18 ERA and 13 HR in only 90IP)
Overview: After busting out of the gate, the giants are coming back to earth – and the Dodgers are shaking off a slow start. This division is clearly LA’s to lose, they have the best pitcher in baseball in Grienke and a host of stars both on the mound and at-bat. The Dodgers could use some bullpen help, but otherwise I expect them to cruise into October from here. San Fran is leaking oil and could use another starter – they have big names, but only Bumgarner and Hudson are actually pitching well (despite his no-hitter, tim Lincecum is nowhere near what he was a few years ago).
The rest of the division is a mess – the Padres cannot hit a lick, while the Rockies and DBacks cannot pitch. All three will be sellers at the deadline, but there isn’t much of value for them to part with – assuming the likes of Tulowitzki and Goldschmidt are untouchable.
Conclusion: LA wins the division going away, while the Giants struggle to stay above .500 despite making a splashy deadline move. The other 3 teams fight it out for last, with Rockies eventually ‘winning’ that race due to their horrendous pitching.
Division Leader: Washington Nationals (49-40, lead Atlanta by 1 game)
Most surprising team: Miami (44-47, -4RD despite the loss of Jose Fernandez; 62-100, -133 a year ago)
Most disappointing team: Most would say Philly, but since I predicted they would be the worst team in the NL I don’t see a TRULY disappointing team here.
Most surprising players: Washington pitching staff (all 5 starters and top-4 relievers are above average; the Nats have the #1 ERA in the NL); SP Julio Teheran (2.57 ERA, 129IP at age 23); 3B Casey McGehee (.320 average, 41 walks after playing overseas in 2013); 1B Lucas Duda (20 doubles, 13HR for the Mets); RF Marlon Byrd (19 doubles, 18 HRs)
Most disappointing players: LF Domonic Brown (.224 with no power after 27 HR in 2013); SP Zack Wheeler (4.07 ERA, 44 walks in 100 IP); RF Jason Heyward (.365 slugging %); 3B Chris Johnson (empty .273 average with no walks or power)
Overview: Aside from the quick resurrection of the Marlins, this division is playing out about as expected. After an unsustainable start, the Braves’ lack of offense/depth is catching up to them, and the Phillies and Mets were never likely to be factors. The Nationals got off to an unexpectedly slow start, but their pitching is SO deep that they were able to rebound and take the lead before the all-star break.
I have to give the Braves a lot of credit here -after losing their top two pitchers for the season, I all but wrote them off. Their ability to hang in this race speaks well of their organizational depth, and they should be a factor again in 2015.
Conclusion: This is still the Nats’ division to lose, they have the most talent both at bat and on the mound. If Harper ever wakes up and starts mashing, this could be the NL’s true juggernaut. Atlanta’s pitching keeps them in the race for a wildcard to the end, while the Marlins hang around.500 and the Phils/Mets start fire sales by 7/20.
Division Leader: Milwaukee (52-40, lead Cardinals by 2 games)
Most surprising team: Milwaukee (+25 RD; 74-88, -47 RD in 2013)
Most disappointing team: St. Louis (50-42, +22 RD after 97-65, +187 in 2013)
Most surprising players: C Jonathan Lucroy (.323, 31 doubles); RP Zach Duke (I don’t normally list relievers, but Duke has had an amazing renaissance – 1.23 ERA, 47 K’s and only 6 walks in 36 innings); 1B Matt Adams (all he does is rake – .336 average, tons of power, quickly becoming one of the top 1B in all of baseball …my concern is only 8 walks against 56 strikeouts); C Devin Mesoraco (.305 avg, 15 HRs in less than 200 at-bats); SP Alfredo Simon (12-3, 2.70 ERA, 116 IP after converting from relief); C Russell Martin (.273 with a .418 on-base%); UT Josh Harrison (.297 with power as a super sub); C Russell Martin (.273 with a .418 on-base%); UT Josh Harrison (.297 with power as a super sub); 1B Anthony Rizzo (.277 with 20 HRs and plenty of walks); SP Jake Arrietta (70 innings, 1.79 ERA, 79K and only 19 walks)
Most disappointing players: SS Jean Segura (.232, no walks or power after a strong rookie season); OF Allan Craig (.243 with low walks after batting over .300 the past three seasons); SP Francisco Liriano (1-6, 4.60 ERA after winning comeback player in 2013); RF Nate Schierholtz (.204 with no power after 21 HR a season ago)
Overview: This is BY Far the most wide-open division in baseball, and it figures to get even tighter down the stretch. The odd team out here is Chicago, who are in the midst of a major rebuild and just traded two of their top starters to Oakland. The Cubs have a top-tier farm system and a ton of cash, though, so look out for the Cubbies in 2016. The other four teams all have legitimate playoff aspirations, led by the resurgent Brewers. I expected a big rebound from that team with their revamped rotation and the return of Ryan Braun, and they’ve delivered on that – albeit with some issues of late. The Cards are still a good team, but they have very little power and their amazing .330 average with runners in scoring position last season was never going to repeat itself, leading to more offensive struggles. Injuries to Wacha, Garcia and now Molina have left the Cards vulnerable.
The Reds are in even worse shape – an offense that was already struggling has lost Joey Votto AND Brandon Phillips to the DL. Their pitching has been great, and it will have to be even better for the Reds to claim a playoff berth.
That leaves the Pirates, who have a chance to swoop in and steal this division. The Bucs are still a good team, but what surprises me is how quickly they have changed their identity. Last season they won on pitching and defense – they were at or near the top of the league in both categories, while struggling mightily all season at bat. This year the pitching has regressed quite a bit, primarily due to the woes of Francisco Liriano and other injuries…but the Bucs are suddenly a reasonable facsimile of the ‘70’s “Lumber Company”. As of Friday, the Pirates lead the league in on-base percentage. That’s an AMAZING turnaround in one season for a team that couldn’t buy a walk much of last year. They are top-5 in average, home runs, runs, and stolen bases as well. With Mercer now hitting and Polanco’s arrival, they are average or better now at every offensive position. With everyone looking to be healthy after the All-Star break, the Pirates are well-positioned to pass the Cards and Reds and charge at the Brewers for the division title.
Conclusion: The Cubs are playing for last and the better draft position. The Reds are done unless they swing a major trade for a bat – Mesoraco will cool off and he’s the whole offense right now. The Cards, likewise, need to swing a trade to jump-start the team – Price would be a good fit, but I expect a smaller deal. The loss of Molina REALLY hurts this team. Milwaukee has a barren farm system, so they can’t make any major deals, but I expect a minor trade of some kind. The Pirates desperately need a shutdown reliever, and maybe a starter if Liriano and/or Cole can’t get healthy for the second half. Joakim Soria is having an EXCELLENT season for the Rangers, and they will definitely be sellers at the deadline. Pittsburgh has plenty of minor-league assets – the time is now, the Bucs HAVE to make a run at this division title. Chances like this don’t come along that often.
I think the battle will be between the Bucs and Brewers, and much will depend on health and what moves each team makes. I’m normally not big on deadline deals, but this year the right trade could make all the difference in the rough-and-tumble NL Central.
The Eye will be off until August, when NFL previews get rolling.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.