Diamond Clarity: The National League Mid-season Report

By: Chris Dagonas and Dan Grant

Dan: Well, I’m glad that’s over!

Chris: What?

Dan: Our mid-season review! I think it went really well too.

Chris: Uh, man…?

Dan: What? You didn’t like it?

Chris: No, it was fine! Your Kipnis pick was a bit suspect, but other than that—

Dan: So what’s the problem?

Chris: We only did the American League?

Dan: And?

Chris: Now we have to do the National League, you putz.

Dan: Well hello Shirley! Let’s get into it!

National-League-Logo

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

SO FAR

Dan: The National League East has gone from one of the toughest divisions in baseball to a division in flux. The Atlanta Braves hold a healthy six game lead over the Washington Nationals (with the Phillies just a half game behind them), which is what many (myself included, no big deal) predicted before the season started. However, the things that got them there aren’t necessarily what you would expect. Much was made of the Braves acquisition of the Upton here, Upton there outfield; paired with young stud Jason Heyward, they were supposed to form the best trio in the game (according to me anyway). However, an electric start from Justin Upton notwithstanding, the entire outfield has been a major disappointment. Heyward has been hurt and hasn’t hit well when healthy. Justin has not just cooled since his April, he’s been downright chilly and BJ has been the biggest disappointment in baseball, still hitting well below the Mendoza line, which hasn’t allowed him use his best weapon: his legs.

So how are the Braves doing it? Their starting rotation has been solid, with veteran Tim Hudson, year-after-splash Kris Medlen, young upstart Julio Teheran, the serviceable Mike Minor, and the surprising Paul Maholm. With fireballing lefty Brandon Beachy set to return soon from Tommy John surgery, they might face the delightful problem of having six quality Major League starters on their roster. In addition, they’ve received contributions from All-Stars Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann (McCann replaced the now injured Freeman, but whatever) and the usual destruction at the back-end from Craig Kimbrel. The Braves also walk a ton. They’re currently 8th in MLB in OBP, despite being 18th in batting average. This has allowed them to be 11th in runs overall, even with the middle of the order struggling so much. If those big names can pick it up in the second half, look out.

As for the rest of the division? Washington has stalled out due to regression nearly across the board, but particularly in the power category (you heard it here first!) that hasn’t been helped by an injury to young superstar Bryce Harper. The rotation of 2012, once so formidable, has looked average at best and the Nationals are somewhat lucky to be competing in such a weak division, where a hot second half might get them back into contention.

The Upton brothers, hanging out.

The Upton brothers, hanging out.

OUTLOOK

Dan: The Phillies have stayed relevant through smoke and mirrors; it says here they go into firesale mode and juicy pieces Chase Utley, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and even Cole Hamels have new homes before the season is over. The Mets have a young stallion in Matt Harvey who we’ll hear about later, David Wright and not a whole lot else. The Marlins get no press from me.

The Braves should run away with this division, as there’s no way that both Upton’s and Heyward will continue their futility at the plate for the rest of the season. Look for them to win a first round series and wind up in the NLCS.

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

SO FAR

Chris: The Milwaukee Brewers are in big trouble. They carry the second-worst record in the National League, only better than the fire-sold Miami Marlins. Their best player, Ryan Braun, is once again under the microscope of Performance-Enhancing Drugs probing, and could be suspended for the remainder of the season. On the plus side, shortstop Jean Segura has been a revelation this season, in his first full season of MLB service. In fact, Segura and center fielder Carlos Gomez offer some consolation that the Brewers might be able to move forward without Braun.

I say might, because the Chicago Cubs are showing that a hot season does not necessarily translate to a big-time career. More specifically, shortstop Starlin Castro, who was in Segura’s spotlight one mere season ago, is scuffling through a very average campaign. His batting average has dropped 40 points and his on-base percentage has gone down 50 points. We all knew the Cubs would be bad, but we expected more from Castro and highly-touted first-baseman Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs have already begun to make moves with an eye to the future, trading Scott Feldman to the Orioles and placing Matt Garza on the market as well. But, come on, they’re the Cubs. I’m sure they’ll screw it up.

Now, what a division race this is shaping up to be. The Cincinnati Reds are good enough to lead at least two other divisions in baseball right now, but they sit in third place in the NL Central, 5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, with a winning percentage of 558. No real surprises here: Joey Votto (Canadian!) and Jay Bruce continue to slug the ball, while offseason addition Shin-Soo Choo has been an on-base machine. The Reds also boast an outstanding starting rotation. Four starters have ERA’s under 4, and WHIP numbers hovering around 1.10 – 1.30. How is this team in third!?

Joey Votto does this a lot.

Joey Votto does this a lot.

Last season, I remember writing about the Pittsburgh Pirates and their shocking position at the top of the NL Central. I predicted that they wouldn’t hold it together through August and September, and they indeed ended up falling to fourth place and a sub .500 record. Has that experience sharpened this team and prepared them for the slog of late summer baseball? I think so. Consider that last season, Andrew McCutchen led the team in every major offensive category; average, home runs, RBI, OBP, and hits, among others. This season, the offense is spread out more, with third-baseman Pedro Alvarez and left-fielder Starling Marte picking up the slack. This shows that Cutch does not have to be great every night to give the Pirates a chance to win. The emergence of fringe Cy Young candidate Jeff Locke (very fringe) and re-emergence of Francisco Liriano have created an imposing starting rotation. This season, I think the Pirates can go the distance.

Finally, we come to the division leaders, St. Louis Cardinals. They are an offensive juggernaut. They lead the National League in team on base percentage and team OPS, and have scored almost 40 more runs than the next-best team so far. If this squad has a weakness, it may be in their starting pitching beyond Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh both outrank the Cards in opponents’ batting average and WHIP. As the season wears on, pitching will become more and more important, and this could be a stumbling block for the Cardinals, particularly if they incur injuries or slumps to some of their sluggers.

OUTLOOK

Chris: It seems simple to predict that all three of the top teams in this division will make the playoffs, given the new two wild-card team rule, but that’s exactly what I’m about to do. I will call the Pirates to win out the division, but crash out of the playoffs in the first round, while the Cardinals top the Reds for the first wild-card spot. The Reds will also make it to October baseball, and the winner of a Cardinals-Reds wild-card game will be a very dangerous team to play against in October.  All three teams should be looking to shore up their rosters over the next few weeks.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

SO FAR

Dan: The National League West has been one of the more interesting divisions in baseball so far this season. Chris and I both agreed before the season that the San Francisco Giants would be a threat – what we didn’t realize is that they would be a threat to be one of the worst defending World Series champions! At 8 games under .500, the Giants are on pace for to win roughly 72 games, an atrocious defense of their title. Tim Lincecum (no hitter aside), Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong. These names used to inspire fear. Now they inspire home runs. The Giants pitching used to be their calling card and now it’s fallen apart in the worst way imaginable. Only Madison Bumgarner remains elite, and he can’t pitch every day.

The Arizona Diamondbacks were widely panned for trading young star Justin Upton before the season started, but it turns out they might have known what they were doing. Their haul for Upton (Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and spare parts) has yet to pay dividends, but the addition by subtraction has allowed the D-Backs to play Gerardo Parra more regularly, and he’s excelled, while providing gold glove defense. Paul Goldschmidt has continued to establish himself as one of the elite first basemen in the game (including the rare one who can run). Aaron Hill has just returned from a season long hand injury and should provide a boost to the order and the rotation has been solid, if unspectacular. Ian Kennedy, Wade Miley and the surprising Patrick Corbin, as well as the recently called up Delgado, have given the D-Backs a chance in nearly every game.

OUTLOOK

Dan: That said, Arizona has benefited from some ineptitude as well. The Padres, as we established before the season, have some nice young pieces. Everth Cabrera was leading the majors in steals before he went down to injury. Despite this, the Padres are still pretty far from contending and will use the rest of the season to see what they’ve got on the farm. The Colorado Rockies nearly made Chris look like a genius when they came roaring out of the gates and led the division early, but the yearly Troy Tulowitzki injury and some schedule based regression later and they’re cruising below .500 (though still just 4.5 games out).

And then we get to Los Angeles. The struggles of the Dodgers bloated payroll- struggles to stay healthy (Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford), struggles to hit for power (Adrian Gonzalez) and struggles to play baseball (Andre Ethier) have been overshadowed lately by one man. Yasiel Puig has taken the Major Leagues by storm, winning Player of the Month for June and batting well over .400. He nearly made his first All-Star game despite having been in the league for just over a month. He’s the biggest story in baseball this season. Unfortunately for him, the rest of team (minus Clayton Kershaw, who has been stellar) is the most mediocre team 200 million dollars can buy.

It's gotta be nice to be Puig.

It’s gotta be nice to be Puig.

The D-Backs will probably win this division, though they’re not exactly a dominant leader. The Dodgers sit only 2.5 games back after Puig-mania and it would sure be fun to see that guy in the post-season. We’ll see if he can keep it up once he faces the league a second time.

AWARD PREDICTIONS

NL BREAKOUT PLAYER

Chris: Boy, oh, boy, Andrelton Simmons was a name on a lot of people’s lips back in the spring, but he has regressed worse than Eric Hinske. He’s down about 50 points in both average and OBP from last season. He’s still a great fielder, but much more was expected from Simmons on offense.

Rookie of the Year accolades should go to Shelby Miller of the Cardinals. I know Yasiel Puig is garnering all the attention right now, but the summer is long and in a couple of weeks he will be come back down to Earth with his BABIP and low walk rate. Miller has gone half a season as the second best pitcher on his team, and perhaps in the top 5, definitely top 10, in the National League.

Dan: My Todd Frazier pick hasn’t really panned out here. He’s been half decent for the Reds, but his strikeout rate is high. I think the breakout player for the National League this season is the aforementioned Matt Harvey. The guy only threw 60 innings last season, which is enough that he’s no longer eligible for Rookie of the Year, but not enough that anyone saw this coming.

Harvey has a 2.35 ERA and a sub 1.00 WHIP. He leads the National League in strikeouts with 147, throws 100 MPH on occasion and apparently challenged 6’11, 290lb Jon Rauch to a fight at some point last season when he didn’t care for a prank played in the locker room. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline ‘The Dark Knight of Gotham’. He just started the National League All-Star game and was called the most dominant pitcher in the game by many who were present.

NL CY YOUNG

Chris: Right on the money, Clayton Kershaw has delivered in a big way for the Dodgers this season. He leads the NL in ERA, WHIP, and OBA among starting pitchers. How’s that Strasburg pick looking, Dan?

Dan: About as good as your Bryce Harper pick in the next category Chris! Strasburg has been a victim of his team’s inability to hit the baseball as much as anything. He’s averaging over a K per inning and has a 2.99 ERA. That said, he’s not a viable Cy Young candidate at this point. Chris is probably bang on with his Kershaw pick, but I’ll go for broke and stick with Harvey here. He’ll probably run into an innings limitation at some point that will kill his case, but he’s the only one with a chance of catching Clayton.

Matt Harvey cares not how big you are.

Matt Harvey cares not how big you are.

NL MVP

Chris: OK, I think I reached a little bit on the Bryce Harper pick. He will win it one year, but it won’t be this year. He was injured for about six weeks, which usually doesn’t help one’s candidacy. When healthy, he was showing improvement with getting on base and taking walks. He probably would have been at about 20-25 home runs right now had he stayed healthy.

At this point, I have to say I’m leaning towards Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks. He’s been able to help bring the D-Backs back to prominence with his slugging, and if they can hold off the charging Dodgers, he should get some serious attention.

Dan: Justin Upton looked so good. I felt so good. In April, Upton hit 12 homers and had an 1.136 OPS and looked like he was finally having the massive breakout everyone has anticipated since he was taken with the first overall pick back in 2005. He then totally crapped the bed in May and June, as his power completely disappeared. He only had 3 moon shots in those two months combined! Unless he has a monster second half, he’s completely disappeared from this conversation.

Chris’ Paul Goldschmidt pick is a sneaky good one (almost as good as my Kipnis pick yesterday – seriously, neither of us picked Chris Davis?) but I’m going to have to go with Carlos Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies. He’s hitting .302/.370/.610, leads the NL in dingers with 25, and runs with 68. If he can hold down the fort until Troy Tulowitzki comes back and the Rockies are anywhere near the playoff picture with the team they have, CarGo deserves this year’s MVP award.

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