Breaking down the NL East at the All-Star break
The Miami Marlins, losers of 100 games last year, threatened the status quo by flirting with the division lead through June’s midway point. Order has since been restored as the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves are tied for first.
Expected near the bottom of the standings, the New York Mets have instead jumped between third and fourth. The aging Philadelphia Phillies look destined for both the cellar and trade market.
Other than the AL East, the NL East is the only division with each team within 10 games of the top. Last year, the Nationals were expected to win but the Braves ran away with the pennant. The season before, Washington snapped its postseason drought and surprised Atlanta.
Even with arms Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy out for the season with Tommy John surgery, others have emerged. All-Star righties Julio Teheran (Braves) and Henderson Alvarez (Marlins) have become de facto aces on their respective staffs.
There is just one NL East All-Star starter in Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and eight overall. Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton was named the NL’s designated hitter and is a strong MVP candidate with two-thirds of the Triple Crown.
Washington Nationals (51-42)
Reason for optimism: For the first time all season, the Nationals have their Opening Day roster healthy. Outfielder Bryce Harper, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Adam LaRoche, catcher Wilson Ramos and right-hander Doug Fister — just to name a few — have returned from injuries. Despite missing key components of the lineup and rotation, Washington heads into the break tied with the Braves for first having won seven of 11. Washington ranks first in the NL with a 3.08 ERA and has a plus-61 run differential (tops in the NL and third in MLB).
Reason for concern: Not much. If anything, staying injury free. Perhaps Washington’s luck is changing. Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, the club’s initial All-Star representative, exited his start on Friday with a biceps cramp. He had an MRI performed and the results showed just a strain, meaning he will likely avoid the disabled list.
Buyers or sellers? Depends. Missing from this nearly complete squad is a solid bench player. Washington ranks 26th in the majors with a .155 pinch-hitting average. After the Marlins designated Greg Dobbs for assignment, he went just 2 for 15 in Washington before the Nationals did the same. Nate McLouth (.189) doesn’t intimidate as the lefty option. Kevin Frandsen is is batting .269 as a pinch-hitter but .239 as the extra outfielder.
Atlanta Braves (52-43)
Reason for optimism: Lose two starters to Tommy John surgery during spring training and get no production from second baseman Dan Uggla. One would assume things weren’t going well for said club. Yet the Braves are tied with the Nationals for first. Rookie Tommy La Stella is batting .292 in Uggla’s place. Chris Johnson, last year’s batting champion, is starting to heat up after a cold start. He had three home runs in his past two games after just three through the first 90. He has also recorded 30 multi-hit contests.
Reason for concern: Can veterans Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana, signed during the spring to replace Medlen and Beachy, continue to be consistent on the mound? Santana has a 3.82 ERA in his past five starts after a 6.44 ERA in the previous six. He opened 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA. After boasting a ridiculous 0.85 ERA through five starts, the Marlins lit Harang up for nine runs. Since then, he has allowed four runs or more four times. Evan Gattis is eligible to come off the DL once the second half starts, but how quickly and fully does a bulging disk in the upper back actually heal?
Buyers or sellers? Depends. Atlanta doesn’t have much money to spend after giving Santana $14.1 million for one year of service. The Braves’ offense is middle-of-the-pack and could use an extra bat. A left-handed reliever is missing from an otherwise solid bullpen with a 3.21 ERA (fifth in the NL). Luis Avilan, who posted a 1.52 ERA in 75 appearances last year, has a 4.85 ERA in 47 games.
New York Mets (45-50)
Reason for optimism: Who expected the Mets to be third in the division? New York closed out the first half by winning eight of 12 games in July, including three straight against the Braves and the Marlins. Without Harvey, righty Dillon Gee and lefty Jonathon Niese have posted sub-3 ERAs. Jacob deGrom has eight quality starts in 12 outings since earning his call-up May 15. Oh, and second baseman Daniel Murphy made the All-Star team and is third in the NL with 113 hits.
Reason for concern: New York’s outfield has been a disappointment even with the free-agent additions of Curtis Granderson and Chris Young. Young is flirting with the Mendoza line (.199 average) with just eight home runs and 25 RBI in 71 games. After four seasons (two as an All-Star) with the Yankees, Granderson took the 7 train and got lost at Citi Field. He is batting .233 with 14 home runs and 42 RBI in 91 games, all of which top an injury-plagued 2013 but are not on pace with his 2012 numbers of 43 dingers and 106 RBI. Eric Young Jr. has taken a back seat to Juan Lagares, who has shown promise with a .293 average in 59 games.
Buyers or sellers? Sellers. The Mets won’t win this season — although David Wright stated on Sunday that the club could surprise teams. Their young rotation will be dangerous in the future. The lineup needs some upgrades. Look for veterans right-hander Bartolo Colon to be valuable trade bait.
Miami Marlins (44-50)
Reason for optimism: A year ago, the Marlins were 35-58 en route to a 100-loss season. Miami no longer has the worst offense in the league thanks to Stanton’s 21 home runs and 63 RBI. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna is a streaky hitter with more home runs (15) and RBI (53) than All-Star Yasiel Puig. Alvarez leads the majors with three complete game shutouts. Unlike 2013, Miami has competed in nearly all of its games.
Reason for concern: After jumping four games above .500 (32-28) on June 5, Miami has gone 12-22 since. The club went from tied for first to 7.5 back. The bullpen, which struggled in the latter innings earlier in the season, has reared its ugly head again of late. Kevin Gregg, who signed with the team in June, has posted a 7.00 ERA. Cishek has blown two saves and lost a game over the past two weeks. The bats have cooled off a bit — Stanton has not homered since June 26. The rotation, with no help from the absence of Fernandez, has a 4.12 ERA for the third-worst mark in the NL, Last year it set a franchise low for ERA.
Buyers or sellers? Depends. If the Marlins continue to flirt with .500 but find themselves out of reach for the postseason, they won’t make any moves. The rotation could use a veteran arm, particularly one under control for more than just a rental, amongst talented yet inconsistent young guns. A second baseman would be helpful. The Rafael Furcal Experiment has been a failure (just nine games played), though he has begun rehabbing another hamstring injury.
Philadelphia Phillies (42-53)
Reason for optimism: Utley hasn’t shown signs of aging, making the All-Star team for the sixth time — first since 2010. He is batting .293 with eight home runs and 46 RBI in 91 games. First baseman Ryan Howard has shown he should still be feared. Although he entered the All-Star break 3 for 35 (.086) over his past 10 games (.220 average overall), his 15 homers and 56 RBI have already surpassed his totals of the past two years. Light-hitting Ben Revere not only leads the club with a .298 average but he also knocked his first long ball in his 1,466th at-bat. It was the longest stretch since the 1970s (Boone Logan).
Reason for concern: Philadelphia is still an older team that now has to play catch-up with the four younger and talented clubs in the division. Outfielder Domonic Brown hasn’t lived up to his potential, hitting just .227 with six home runs and 46 RBI. His WAR is -1.4, which puts him near the bottom for the league. The 26-year-old needs to be part of a younger, developing core with Revere and third baseman Cody Asche.
Buyers or sellers? Sellers. Left-hander Cole Hamels’ name as well as Papelbon’s have already crept up in trade rumors. Philadelphia finds itself in the cellar and continues to age. Veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd could also be on the move. Something must be done to get prized prospects and begin righting the ship.
All-Star Break NL East MVP
Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins) — Stanton enters the Midsummer Classic with two-thirds of the NL Triple Crowd, leading in home runs (21) and RBI (63). He has appeared in all 94 games after playing in just 116 and 123, respectively, in 2013 and 2012. His 4.7 WAR (wins above replacement) ranks fifth in the majors. Without him, the Marlins don’t become 2014’s early-season surprise.
All-Star Break NL East Top pitcher
Julio Teheran (Braves) — When the Braves lost two-fifths of their rotation during spring training, they signed a pair of veteran arms (Harang and Santana) to help out. Turns out they already had it in the 23-year-old. He is 9-6 with a 2.71 ERA, sixth in the NL, earning a spot on the All-Star roster. Atlanta is 13-7 in his starts (8-3 against divisional opponents). Other candidates include Alvarez, who was an injury replacement in the All-Star Game and is 6-4 with a 2.63 ERA (fourth in NL) with a major-league best three complete game shutouts. Washington’s stellar bullpen has a 2.67 ERA, which trails just the San Diego Padres.
Biggest surprise in the NL East at the All-Star break
Casey McGehee (Marlins) — Exiled to Japan. Deemed a stopgap as a top pick develops. Instead, Casey McGehee is an early frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year. Though he was snubbed from the All-Star team, he ranks first among NL third baseman in average (.319) and RBI (52). His .385 average with runners in scoring position paces the majors. He is tied with Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star Andrew McCutchen for the NL lead in hits (115), becoming just the second Marlins player (Luis Castillo the other) to achieve that feat. Clubs continue to pitch around Stanton, and McGehee has taken advantage and made them pay. The quietest of Miami’s three key offseason moves (Garrett Jones and Jarrod Saltalamacchia), McGehee’s veteran presence in a young clubhouse cannot be understated.
The NL East will be the expected two-team race between the Nationals and Braves for the division. New York and Miami will vie for that third spot while also showing the promise of next season. The Phillies, meanwhile, are possibly looking at their first last-place finish since 2000. Early on, the division appeared mediocre but of late has shown its potential with solid pitching and tough lineups.