The All-Star Game is over and it’s time to turn our attention to the second half of the season. All of the teams still in contention face questions as games get underway on Friday. We will take a look at those questions in two posts. Today, we’ll discuss what to look for in the National League when play resumes. On Thursday, we’ll address the American League.
The NL East is a four-team race. The Nationals are the leader in the clubhouse at the break, with a four-game lead over the Braves (five in the loss column) and a four-and-a-half-game lead over the Mets (six in the loss column). The Marlins are nine back with the Phillies in last place fourteen games behind the Nats. For the Marlins, that is a lot of ground to make up, but the NL East teams will play a lot of games against each other just after the All-Star Break. That could solidify the Nationals’ lead or tighten the race even further.
The Braves and Mets are essentially tied with the Giants and the Cardinals for the two wild card spots, just behind the Reds, who trail the Pirates by a game in the Central. The Diamondbacks, Marlins and Brewers sit three-and-a-half, four-and-a-half, and five-and-a-half back, respectively.
In April, the Nationals were winning with superb pitching from the rotation and the bullpen. The offense was just enough. But with the addition of Bryce Harper, the return of Michael Morse and the unexpectedly good production from Ian Desmond, the Nationals runs scored per game jumped from 3.4 in April to 4.5 in June. The pitching, in turn, has weakened a bit, with runs allowed per game going from 2.7 in April to 3.7 in May and June.
The big issue for the Nationals in the second half when and how to shut down Stephen Strasburg. General manager Mike Rizzo has said that Strasburg will be limited to 160 to 170 innings this season. If he stays in his rotation slot and pitches at the same pace, Strasburg will top out in early September, just as the stretch run begins. He’s been a huge part of the rotation’s success and replacing him will not be easy. The Nationals will also welcome Jayson Werth back to the team, likely some time in August. Werth’s production, or lack of it, following wrist surgery will change the dynamic in the team’s improved offense.
The Braves entered the season with what looked like a surplus of very good starting pitching, but that strength has turned into a weakness. Brandon Beachy was quietly leading the league in variety of pitching stats when suffered an elbow injury and had Tommy John surgery. Tim Hudson has pitched well but the rest of the rotation has underperformed expectations. Ben Sheets is trying for a comeback with the Braves and will start on Sunday. The rotation remains a work in progress. Same, too, for the bullpen which is showing signs of overuse. Eric O’Flaherty has dealt with elbow soreness and Jonny Venters is now on the disabled list with an impingement in his left elbow.
In the field, shortstop continues to be the big question mark for the Braves. They started the season with Tyler Pastornicky but when that wasn’t working, called up uber prospect Andrelton Simmons in June. In 33 games, Simmons posted a .296/.336/.452 line and played spectacular defense. Then he broke his pinkie finger sliding head first into a base. He’s expected to be out at least four weeks. It’s unclear if the Braves will call-up Pastornicky or go with veteran Jack Wilson.
The Mets exceeded all expectations in the first half, but face some tough questions as the second half gets underway. Four-fifths of the rotation has been very good, led by R.A. Dickey, Johan Santana, Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee. But Gee is now on the disabled list after doctors discovered a blood cot in his shoulder. His prognosis is uncertain. Chris Young, making yet another comeback, has filled the fifth starter spot since June and pitched pretty well. With Gee out, Young’s health and performance become even more crucial for the Mets. There are also questions about the Mets’ bullpen which has been inconsistent, particularly closer Frank Francisco.
On offense, the story has been the resurgence of David Wright but Wright’s phenomenal year won’t be enough. The Mets have a lefty-heavy lineup and have not performed well against left-handed pitching, with a team line of .246/.312/.372. They’ll need to turn that around, or trade for a right-handed bat, in order to stay in the thick of it down the stretch.
Where the Mets have defied expectations, the Marlins have significantly underperformed theirs. Well, at least in April and June, when the Marlins won total of 16 games and lost 32. In May, they were 21-8. Closer Heath Bell‘s problems are well known, but that only accounts for a small part of the Marlins’ overall inconsistency. Mark Buehrle is the only starter with an ERA- under 100, although Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez, in addition to Buehrle, have better than league-average FIPs. That bodes well for better performance in the second half.
On offense started the season quite slowly, posting a .290 team wOBA in April. That jumped to .320 in May but fell back to near April levels in June. With the addition of Justin Ruggiano in center field and Carlos Lee at first, the offense was just starting to click when Giancarlo Stanton went down with a sore knee, requiring surgery. That’s a big hit for the offense. If the Marlins can stay close in Stanton’s absence, then they can make things interesting down the stretch.
The NL Central looks much like the East, with three teams clustered near the top and a fourth, the Brewers, hanging around at eight games back. The surprise division leader at the break is the Pirates, with the Reds a game back and the Cardinals two-and-a-half off the lead.
What to make of the Pirates? My colleague Bradley Woodrum has been tracking the Bucs’ offense all season. He explained last week that the Pirates’ improved offensive output in June and early July had pushed them from the worst offense in the majors to the third-worst. Andrew McCutchen has been other-worldly for several weeks now and will regress from his .616 wOBA so far in July. But if he can sustain his .465 wOBA from May and June, it will go a long way toward keeping the Pirates afloat. Whether McCutchen’s supporting cast will build on their recent success at the plate is one of the big unknowns.
On the pitching side, James McDonald has been the star of the rotation, as my colleague Ben Duronio discussed yesterday, and A.J. Burnett has been surprisingly effective as well. But overall, the Pirates starters in the bottom half of the National League in K/BB (2.38) and sit just below average with a 101 FIP-. It’s the same story with the bullpen. With an offense that’s likely to regress, the pitching will have to improve for the Pirates to stay competitive in the second half.
The Reds, on the other hand, need the offense to catch up to its very good pitching. Johnny Cueto‘s performed well all season (not surprisingly), as has Bronson Arroyo (surprisingly). Mat Latos and Mike Leake have turned it up over the last month, leaving Homer Bailey as the weak link among the starting five. Still, the starters are tied for second in the league with a 3.25 B/KK. The bullpen’s been even better, led by Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall.
On offense, it’s been the Joey Votto show. Too often, however, Votto comes to the plate with the bases empty and leaves having not scored. So while he leads the NL in doubles with 35, those doubles aren’t always driving runs in. He also leads the NL in walks with 65 and intentional walks with 13, yet he’s only scored 50 runs. Votto’s supporting cast, particularly Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, will need to pick up the pace in the second half if the Reds are to win the Central.
The Cardinals have been hit hard by injuries to position players. Only Matt Holiday, Carlos Beltran, Rafael Furcal, Yadier Molina and David Freese have had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. And yet, the Cardinals lead the NL in runs scored, with 426. The offense is not the problem.
Neither is the starting rotation. Yes, Chris Carpenter is out for the season, and Jaime Garcia is out until August with a shoulder injury. But the starters are, collectively, second in the NL with a 3.48 FIP and fifth with 2.82 K/BB. The bullpen, however, is another story. Collectively, the Cardinals’ relievers are second-to-last in the NL in FIP, at 4.39 and 11th out of 16 teams in K/BB, at 2.24. Righty Victor Marte and lefty Marc Rzepczynski, in particular, have not been effective. The Cardinals will need to shore up the bullpen in the second half.
The Brewers are hanging by a thread and are expected to move into sell mode if they don’t improve their position in the next few weeks. Milwaukee has the ingredients for success, but haven’t been combined those ingredients in the right recipe so far this season. Injuries to starters Shaun Marcum and Chris Narveson weakened the rotation. Injuries to Alex Gonzalez and Jonathan Lucroy weakened the lineup and the defense. And the bullpen has been erratic, particularly closer John Axford. The Brewers need a winning streak to kick off the second half, or they could be saying goodbye to Zack Greinke by the July 31 trade deadline.
And, finally, the NL West, where a three-team race is heating up among the Dodgers, Giants and Diamondbacks. Just a few weeks ago, Arizona looked to be out of it, and rumors starting circulating that the Snakes would consider trading Justin Upton. But the Dodgers and Giants limped into the All-Star Break, leaving the door open for Arizona.
The Dodgers kept their offense afloat for quite a while after losing Matt Kemp to a severe hamstring injury, but with additional injuries to Mark Ellis, Andre Ethier and, recently, Dee Gordon, the patchwork lineup could only take them so far. Kemp and Ethier are expected back just after the All-Star break, but it remains to be seen how long it takes them to produce at their pre-injury levels. The Dodgers are looking to upgrade offensively at either first base, third base, or both. A trade to acquire Carlos Lee fell apart a week before the break.
Los Angeles’ pitching has been good across the board, although the rotation — particularly Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano — seems headed for a fall. Nathan Eovaldi stepped in when Ted Lilly suffered a shoulder injury, and has been a decent fifth starter, but the Dodgers could use an upgrade. The bullpen is starting to show wear and tear after pitching very well in April and May. Lefty Scott Elbert and righty Josh Lindblom, in particular, were much less effective in the weeks leading to the All-Star break. Don’t be surprised to see the Dodgers add a bullpen arm before the deadline.
The Giants, too, could use help in the bullpen, although Brad Penny‘s recent arrival — after an unsuccessful few months in Japan — has stabilized the Giants’ long-relief needs. The much, much bigger pitching issue for San Francisco is what to do with Tim Lincecum, who has been one of the least effective starters in the National League so far this season. So far, the Giants seem prepared to keep Lincecum in the rotation, but if he doesn’t start to turn things around, all options will be on the table: skipping starts, disabled list, even a trip to Triple-A. The Giants’ pitching depth in the high minors is thin, so it’s unclear who would even take Lincecum’s place in the rotation. San Francisco should be looking to upgrade at shortstop and second base but are more likely to add a right-handed bench bat. But it all comes down to Lincecum. The Giants are 4-13 in his starts this year. What once was an automatic win for San Francisco with Lincecum on the mound has become an automatic loss. That won’t work to get the Giants back to the postseason.
Unlike the Giants, the Diamondbacks have tremendous pitching depth in their farm system, and they’ve already put that depth to use. With Daniel Hudson out for the season and Joe Saunders out until mid-July, Arizona called up uber pitching prospect Trevor Bauer. He’s off to a shaky start but has the tools to put together a good second half . Trevor Cahill and Ian Kennedy have both regressed from very good performances in 2011. Rookie Wade Miley has been a pleasant surprise, and was Arizona’s lone representative to the All-Star Game.
The offensive stars for Arizona have been Aaron Hill, Jason Kubel and Paul Goldschmidt. Justin Upton, Chris Young and Ryan Roberts — who had career years in 2011 and powered the Diamondbacks to the NL West title — have not provided similar production in 2012. Shortstop Stephen Drew is just now back from a severe ankle injury suffered in mid-2011 and hasn’t quite gotten his legs under him at the plate, so to speak. For the Diamondbacks to make a run, they’ll need to offense to kick into high gear across the board.
Today we’ve laid out the challenges facing the National League teams hoping to contend for a spot in the postseason. Tomorrow we’ll look at the contenders in the American League.