If you thought the American League was crazy, wait until you hear about the NL. With injuries abound, the defending World Champs floundering, and a few dark horses emerging, it’s anyone’s guess what the second half of the season will hold. Luckily for you, I think I can help sort through the mess. Let’s take a look at what’s happening in the National League.
We start with the best division in baseball, and we’re not even talking about the Giants. The top 3 teams in the National League at the All-star break all hail from the NL West. While it’s no surprise that this was going to be a competitive division, until game 162 I never expected the race to be this high-profile.
I knew last year that the Diamondbacks were primed to shake up the MLB, and if it wasn’t for A.J. Pollock’s injury during 2016 Spring Training, they may have been in this position sooner. In any case, the stars are aligning in Arizona. The Zack Greinke of old has returned, Paul Goldschmidt has a chance to capture MVP honors, and most importantly, they’re healthy. I’m eager to write more about my preseason dark horse as the trade deadline approaches, as I expect them to continue to push the pedal down and try to make a run in the NL that’s completely up for grabs. So until then, do yourself a favor and keep an eye on the Dbacks.
UPDATE: The Diamondbacks have acquired slugger J.D. Martinez from the Tigers to beef up their roster. Awesome. Keep it up, Arizona.
Not-so-lost in Arizona’s ascent has been the Rockies’ rise. Nolan Arenado and the Mile-High city have matched the Dbacks step-for-step as they chase down the Dodgers atop the division. I credit this climb to a host of breakout arms. All 5 starters have exceeded the loftiest of expectations, and even the veteran Greg Holland is playing like he’s in his prime again. Despite surrendering about 4 runs per game in a hitter-friendly park, Colorado’s bats seemingly always outmuscle their opponents’. If it wasn’t for Carlos Gonzalez’s season-long slump, I don’t think the Rockies would be looking up at anyone. As for now, I anticipate a tight Wild Card race among the Rockies, Cubs, and Brewers. I’m interested to see if the Rockies will sacrifice some prospects to win-now, or if they’ll throw in the towel if things get rough and go for it next year.
Finally, we focus on the best team in the MLB, the L.A. Dodgers. Currently boasting a 65-29 record along with a 10-game win streak, L.A. sent a league-best 6 All-stars to Miami. Headlined by perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time in Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers saw rookie Chris Bellinger, and stellar infielders Corey Seager and Justin Turner take at-bats during the Midsummer Classic. To complete the overall dominance, closer Kenley Jansen has been as perfect as can be by carrying an incredible 0.90 ERA into the second half of the season. The only question surrounding L.A. right now is…Can anyone stop the Dodgers??
Shifting gears to the NL Central, the main headline is, “What happened in Chicago?” The answer… nothing. Chill. No, the Cubs aren’t going to win an MLB-best 103 games again, and they’re only on pace for a 84-78 record. While I’m fairly certain the champs won’t repeat, I’m equally confident they will make the playoffs. The World Series hangover is real. No one has been able to repeat since the Yankees won 3 in a row from 1998-2000. Among the reasons for this are the shortened offseason. Not only did the Cubs play an extra month of baseball, but they spent most of the winter on a world celebration tour with the trophy. Before they could breathe, it was time for spring training again. So it’s no wonder that the Cubs struggled out of the gate. The odds are stacked against them. Not only do they have a huge target on their back, but what do they have to play for? They just won the first title for Chicago in 108 years. All of their dreams came true. The value of a 2nd Commissioner’s trophy is far less than the first.
Now, as we get deeper into the MLB season, the Cubs are hitting their stride. Therefore, I’m not worried in the least about their chances of getting back to playing in October. In fact, just 2.5 GB on the division-leading Brewers, Chicago can easily win the division. Regardless, everything resets in the playoffs, so all they have to do is get there. And if you think a team as stacked as the Cubs is won’t squeak in… you’re crazy. I don’t even expect any moves late in July. The Cubs can just play at this pace and wait for the Brewers to drop down a little bit.
But wait.. will the Brewers drop? We’ve been waiting and waiting… but they’re still in first place. Milwaukee has fought off injuries in their starting pitching and continue to get great outings by their rock-solid bullpen. Not to mention… where did Travis Shaw come from?? Probably the biggest snub, I would’ve loved to see him instead of Justin Turner get an invitation to the All-star game (the 6th Dodger voted in). How a team in first place only gets to send one player (well-deserved closer Corey Knebel) is beyond me. Anyway, the world waits to see if this unpredictable production will last the remaining 65ish games, or if it will finally succumb to the Cubs’ pressure. Don’t hold your breath.
There’s really only one team worth discussing in the NL East and that’s the Washington Nationals. But before I get into that, here’s a snapshot at the rest of what used to be the best division in the National League. The Braves, Marlins, Mets, and Phillies need to be sellers at the deadline and hope for better luck in the coming years. I love the Phillies’ and Braves’ potential, so look for them to continue to add to their youth. Meanwhile, the Mets have a strong team that was ravaged by injuries and is left wondering what could have been. So New York might be content holding their cards and hoping for better luck in 2018.
As for the Marlins, there are rumors swirling about Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna being up for sale, and I’m all for it… for the right price. Obviously with the unexpected and tragic loss of Jose Fernandez, the Marlins were looking at a tough year. It shouldn’t be time to sell your stars unless you can get proven young talent in return and set a strong base for years to come. If the deal isn’t there, be content to pack up and go at it again next year. There is always the offseason to look forward to, and…mark my words… it’s going to be wild.
And last, but far from the least… the Nationals. There is a clear two sides to this team. First, batting. The Nats lead the NL in runs, hits, doubles, total bases, RBIs, OBP, SLG, and OPS. Wow. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, they only trail the Astros in each of those categories for best in the MLB. In other words, no one hits better than the Astros or the Nationals.
However, while the dominance of the Nationals’ starting rotation is unquestioned, their bullpen has been a huge point of focus for the doubters, and rightly so. Washington’s relievers rank last in the MLB with a 5.26 ERA, only 237 strikeouts, and opponent’s batting average of .277. What really sticks out to me though is the fact that they’ve pitched a league-fewest 258.1 innings, a full 18 innings fewer than the 29th team. While that seems like a good thing, it actually means that most of the innings are being chewed up by the starters. With the likes of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez expected to go 7+ innings every outing, it’s easy to assume they’ll run out of gas when the games matter the most late in the season. Unfortunately, the bullpen woes have left manager Dusty Baker with no choice but to force his stars to go deep into ball games regardless of the score. Hopefully the trade for the Athletics’ Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle can ease some pressure off the rotation, but is the damage already done?