Friday, August 12, 2011

MLB Landscape: Dog Days - National League

Granted, that title's hopefully inaccurate seeing as how if we get heat anywhere near as bad as most of July, I might become a serial killer. And I know I'm not alone. Alright, I hope I'm not alone. Let's just move on to baseball.

It's funny how similar Major League Baseball has become to the English Premier League, which I will have a post or two about later tonight before I head to bed in anticipation of the season kicking off tomorrow morning. You have a few superpowers with all the money - Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies and Manchester United/Liverpool/Chelsea - and they win everything. Then there's everybody else. You've got your second tier teams that can usually compete with the big boys but hardly ever beat them - say Rays/Rangers/Central team du jour in the AL and Braves/Brewers-Cardinals/West team du jour in the NL. Those would be your Spurs/Everton/Aston Villa types. And then there are the bottom feeders who never have any hope: Orioles, Royals, Pirates (other than for a couple months), etc. being your Wigans and West Broms of the world.

The point here is that you can watch 162 games and track anything and everything but at the end of the day, three teams have a shot at the title. Okay, if the Giants pitching can discover itself or Justin Verlander starts doing angeldust and throwing no hitters then it could be a different story but honestly, probably not. Going in to the weekend, only three teams have topped 70 wins. I'm guessing you can figure out who they are.

Then again, if Billy Beane and the sabermetricians are honestly and truly correct about the postseason being a "fucking crapshoot," maybe the tagline of not being able to script October will ring true after all. But for now, let's take a look at how things stand going in to the weekend of August 12th. With a month and a half to go, the stretch run is starting to kick in to gear. Things won't start to really get serious until after the calender turns to September but last weekend's Yankees/Red Sox series as well as Arizona's shocking series victory in San Francisco to ring in August and this week's Brewers/Cardinals battle have already had playoff-like atmospheres and feeling. By this point, most of the pretenders (we're looking at you, Bucs and Twins) have been weeded out and the actual pennant races are starting to take shape. Let's look at them.

NOTE - There won't be much analysis of wild card races here. We'll wait until September to get in to those as well as whatever division races remain (example - there won't be an NL East section next time.) For now, we're just going division by division for a true "landscape."

The Philadelphia Phillies are 8.5 games ahead of the Atlanta Braves. The Atlanta Braves are two games clear of the rest of the National League. Hell, the Phillies are five wins clear of the rest of baseball. Despite a lineup that struggled to some degree before getting Chase Utley back and some hiccups here and there from Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, the starting pitching is just as ridiculous as we all thought it would be. Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels might be 1-2 in the Cy Young race and Lee has rebounded to the point where his ERA is sub 2.9. In fact, Vance Worley's 2.85 is the highest ERA among the top four right now, which isn't even human. Even Kyle Kendrick has a 3.26 ERA, which means that everyone who's made at least 11 starts for the team has a sub 3.3 ERA. I honestly don't even know what to say to that and neither does the rest of baseball. We'll go through the charade of this division's race but the Braves are going to need a series of miracles to make this interesting.

At present... See above. The Phillies just swept the Dodgers to complete a ho-hum 9-1 west coast swing. The Braves are coming off a road sweep of their own in Florida and have won 6 of 7 since dropping 2 of 3 in the nation's capitol to start their 9 game interdivisional road trip.
This weekend... Philly hosts the Nationals with Hamels, Oswalt and Lee going so anything less than a sweep would be a disappointment for this team who has raised the bar to unfathomable heights.
The Braves at least get a similarly easy series as they host the Cubs. Granted, the North Siders have been playing some good baseball lately but this still needs to be a victory at the least, if not a sweep. Problem is there's no Jurrjens or Hanson this weekend while they have to deal with both Zambrano and Garza. If they're not careful, they could lose this series and...well, drop even further behind the Phillies but still. If nothing else, this series is big for wild card purposes.
And going forward... The Phillies conclude their brief homestand with an interesting series against Arizona. That'll be a measuring stick for the Diamondbacks, who have had a terrific month to pull in to first in the NL West and who might have the best pitching staff outside of Broad Street in the NL right now. Then they go to Washington in what might be a decent chance for me to finally go to Nats Park and then it's another six game homestand, this time against divisional foes New York and Florida. A four game NLDS rematch in Cincy ends the month but with 12 of the next 15 at home, the lead should only grow.
Atlanta kicks off a ten game homestand this weekend with seven MONSTER games next week against the Giants and Diamondbacks. Then it's seven on the road against lighter competition with four in Wrigley and three in Citi before coming home to close out the month with three against the Nats.
Next meeting... Not until September 5-7 in Philly, a Monday-Wednesday joint. Their only other meeting the rest of the way is a three gamer to end the season in Atlanta.
And the rest of the division... It's actually been a successful season for the Mets with Jose Reyes' MVP caliber season, a nice first half from Carlos Beltran to turn him in to top prospect Zack Wheeler and fine performances from young guys like Daniel Murphy and Dillon Gee. Terry Collins has done a hell of a job getting a .500 record so far out of a team that on-paper shouldn't challenge for one. The Nationals were actually looking good back in June with an 8 game winning streak, but then the Jim Riggelman mess happened and they haven't been the same since. Still, one can only wonder if their start would have been as messy if Ryan Zimmerman didn't get hurt. The Marlins are a surprising last place team in some respects, considering that they surprisingly went 3/3 with Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison all panning out. The pitching still isn't there (the Javier Vazquez experiment failed miserably) and Hanley Ramirez's colossal bust of a season certainly hasn't helped.

It's the division so bad, the Pittsburgh Pirates led it in July! Fine, that's not fair to the Brewers, who have gotten red hot since the end of July and actually look like a formidable playoff team. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun continue to tear the cover off the ball and they have a sneaky good pitching staff if consistency can be found. They also might have one of the most dangerous 8th/9th inning combos in Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford. The Cardinals continue to hang around because that's what the Cardinals do. They've survived the Albert Pujols injury and subsequent underachievement, as well as some disappointing starting pitching to prevent the kind of slippage that the Pirates and Reds have faced. They have the MVP caliber season of Lance Berkman as well as Holliday's continued production when he's not suffering from some minor injury or another to thank for that. Pittsburgh was always a fraud but it's still not fair how their season pretty much imploded after the Jerry Meals disaster. The Reds have been one of the National League's biggest disappointments, having never really made much noise in the race over the past couple months and now having backslid out of it for the time being. Both are 10 back and we'll give them the same long leash we gave the Twins for the AL Central since the division's so bad but for now, it's down to two.

At present... The Brewers have a semi-comfortable 4 game lead after going in to Busch Stadium and taking two of three. This following up the series victory in Wisconsin last week has given Milwaukee its breathing space.
This weekend... Milwaukee hosts the Pirates, a team they absolutely own at home dating back years. Jeff Karstens has regressed lately but it's still a plus to not have to face him. They need to think sweep with the form they're in, Pittsburgh's in and the history in this series.
St. Louis hosts the Ubaldo-less Colorado Rockies with the final game being Sunday Night Baseball for some reason. This is a crucial series on the back of blowing the home set against Milwaukee earlier this week.
And going forward... The Brewers welcome in the Dodgers for four next week before a seven game trip to the Empire State and then to Pittsburgh. The Cubs then come in for three before the month-ending three gamer against the Cards.
St. Louis goes to PNC for three before Wrigley for three next week. Then they come home for a seven game homestand against the Dodgers and Pirates before the trip to Milwaukee. If Pittsburgh stays dormant, that's a cupcake rest of August until the big Brewers battle. The Cards would be wise to take advantage of it.
Next meeting... End of the month, same as above. There are three more in St. Louis from Monday, September 5 to Wednesday, September 7. Unsurprisingly considering all of the recent games, the two don't meet again after the 7th.
And the rest of the division... Everyone knows the Pirates story. Surged in to the race and even in to first on the back of pitching that overachieved to some epic degree. That stopped happening, the lineup never found some consistency behind Andrew McCutchen and they went splat after the Meals atrocity and a weekend sweep in Philly in what was a measuring-stick series. Then the nightmare continued, getting swept by the Cubs AND Padres at home with some horrific performances mixed in and the clock struck midnight. As for the Reds, there's not much on offense behind Joey Votto (Drew Stubbs has been a big disappointment apart from weeks when he faces me in fantasy) and Edinson Volquez and Bronson Arroyo have been gas fires at the top of their rotation. Very disappointing defense of the division title from them. And the Astros and Cubs might be 1-2 for worst franchises in baseball (Orioles and Mariners are also in this conversation.) Chicago couldn't offload any of its awful contracts and hasn't had a lot to feel good about this season aside from Stalin Castro. And the Astros...well, they got nice return from Hunter Pence. They somehow have *TEN* more losses than the Orioles, which means I'm not going to bother going on further about them.

Well hasn't this been something. Since the fading of the Pirates, the Arizona Diamondbacks have stepped in as the surprise story in the National League. They've actually been in the race pretty much all year but only recently have they turned heads, most specifically so with a series win in San Franciso last week. They've got a very dangerous top three of Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Josh Collmenter and their offense continues to produce, led by Justin Upton who has been going ballistic the past few weeks. But the defending World Champions aren't going to go away quietly. They've had a wild season with the Pablo Sandoval injury early on, the Buster Posey season-ending injury and subsequent debate about plays at the plate, the Carlos Beltran acquisition which has been a gigantic bust thus far and even the overarching tragedy of Bryan Stow, the Giants fan who was senselessly beaten at Dodger Stadium by a pair of Dodgers fans and suffered brain damage. But they too have ridiculous pitching and it's even better than Arizona's. Tim Lincecum is Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain is Matt Cain, but the real stories have been last year's playoff sensation Madison Bumgarner and the first, second and third choice for Comeback Player of the Year Ryan Vogelsong filling out a dominant rotation. If you like pitching, this is your race to follow.

At present... The Diamondbacks took over first place on Wednesday and continue to hang on to it, albeit by only one game. The Giants couldn't shake their hangover from dropping 3 out of 4 to Philly over the weekend and inexplicably dropped 2 of 3 to Pittsburgh this week. Meanwhile, Arizona took 3 of 4 from Houston to take pole position.
This weekend... Arizona hosts the Mets, whom they have yet to beat this season in just three games at the end of April. Kennedy and Hudson pitch Friday and Saturday while new acquisition Jason Marquis, who has struggled mightily in his new digs, caps things off Sunday.
San Francisco, who has now lost 10 of 13, goes to Miami (or hours outside of it, if Marlins fans are to be believed.) Lincecum/Vazquez on Saturday is a game that absolutely cannot be lost and Vogelsong will need to bounce back from his disaster against the Pirates on Sunday. Cain goes tonight.
And going forward... The Diamondbacks have their NL East road swing coming up, with the measuring-stick three gamer in Philly to open before Atlanta for three and the Nats for four (side note - maybe this should be my introduction to Nats Park since one of my roommates is a D'Backs fan.) They close August with six at home to divisional foes San Diego and Colorado.
The Giants continue an SEC roadtrip with the Braves for four and then the Astros (hey, Texas counts as SEC now!) for three. Then they finish out August at home with a weird nine game homestand against the Padres for two, Astros for four and Cubs for three. Very similar schedules between the two teams with whoever does better against the Braves and/or screws up less against inferior competition holding the advantage going in to...
Next meeting... September 2-4 in San Fran, the first weekend of the month. Three more in the desert in the penultimate series of the season is all that's left after that.
And the rest of the division... The Rockies were in the hunt for a little while but Carlos Gonzalez's injury was a real setback to them and once it became apparent they didn't have the horses to compete, they dealt Ubaldo Jiminez to Cleveland for four players. Apart from Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise is a mess by almost any definition. The Frank McCourt saga couldn't have been much more of a disaster and now picking up the pieces will be immensely difficult. And the San Diego Padres are performing like the San Diego Padres are supposed to perform. Their late season slide and shipment of far-and-away team MVP Adrian Gonzalez to Boston make this season's outcome unsurprising.

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