Thursday, July 16, 2009

First Half Recap: National League

Unlike the American League, there are questions all over the National League. The Dodgers are running away with the West, holding a seven-game lead on San Francisco and a nine-game edge over Colorado. They have the best record in baseball through the season's first half, and that was without leading slugger Manny Ramirez for 50 games. With Manny back in tow, Los Angeles is the class of the NL (maybe even all of baseball) and likely the league's only surefire playoff team at this point in the season.

The Phillies have struggled through the season's first half due to the 14th-best pitching staff in the NL. The struggles of ace Cole Hamels have to come to an end sometime and the recent acquisition of Pedro Martinez and a potential trade for Roy Halladay show the Phillies are trying to patch their pitching holes soon. There's nowhere to go but up for the reigning World Series champions and their top-ranked offense in the second half. The Marlins, Braves and Mets are all within 6.5 games of first but if they couldn't overtake the Phillies at their worst, who's to say they can make up that ground in the second half. The Mets will be 10 games out by the time Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado all return from the DL, the Braves can't hit and the Marlins have fallen off since their hot start. The NL East is Philadelphia's to lose.

Things get interesting when you look at the NL Central. St. Louis leads the division at 49-42, but the Brewers, Cubs, Astros and Reds are all within five games of the Cardinals. The Cards are the most balanced club in the division, ranking sixth in the NL in runs scored and third in ERA. But teams are bound to start pitching around MVP favorite Albert Pujols eventually and Chris Carpenter is always one pitch away from another injury. The Cubs and Astros struggle to consistently score runs, although the Cubs could turn things around if Alfonso Soriano starts hitting and Aramis Ramirez provides the punch the middle of their order lacked while he was injured. Milwaukee can hit with Home Run Derby winner Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and is solid in the bullpen, but will need to make a move at the deadline for a starting pitcher. Young ace Yovani Gallardo can't do it all, and none of the Brewers' other starting pitchers have an ERA under 4.50. If they pick up a solid second starter, they could overtake the Cardinals.

At this juncture, the Wild Card looks like it will come from the West, where San Francisco holds a two-game lead over Colorado and four-game cushion over Florida and Milwaukee. The Giants have a weak lineup but their 3.51 team ERA leads the National League. With young studs Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain leading the rotation and veterans Barry Zito and Randy Johnson anchoring the back end, this team may not need to score runs to hang on to their slim lead. The Rockies have gone 29-13 under Jim Tracy after an 18-28 start with Clint Hurdle as manager, and they seem to be the major contender to the Giants Wild Card lead. If they combine their solid pitching over June and July (3.73 ERA) with their third-ranked offense, they can find a way into the playoffs. And once you're there, everyone knows that anything can happen.

NL East - Phillies
NL Central - Brewers
NL West - Dodgers
Wild Card - Rockies

First Half Awards:
MVP - Albert Pujols, Cardinals: Was there really any question? Pujols continues to amaze fans and pundits alike with every passing season. His .332-32-87 line at the break gives him the lead in two of the three Triple Crown categories, trailing just Hanley Ramirez (.349), Carlos Beltran (.336) and Pablo Sandoval (.333) in batting average. His only real competition there is Ramirez, so we could see the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastremski in 1967 and the first in the NL since 1937.

Cy Young - Dan Haren, Diamondbacks: The choice was hard between Haren and Lincecum, but check the numbers on Haren. In 130 innings he has walked just 16 batters and allowed 89 hits (.189 opponents' batting average). He may not strike out as many batters as Lincecum, but that doesn't matter when you put less than a runner per inning on base (0.81 WHIP). His ERA is also lower (2.01 to 2.33) and he has one less win on a 38-51 ballclub. Watch for a possible second-half regression, though (3.08 career ERA before the break, 4.12 after).

Rookie of the Year - Colby Rasmus, Cardinals: If Pablo Sandoval had 16 less at-bats last season, he would be a no-brainer pick right here. Instead, Rasmus is a worthy candidate. Tommy Hanson could be the pick by season's end, but he hasn't logged enough innings for me to consider him just yet. Plus, a .278-11-34 line with 46 runs scored is impressive for a player who doesn't turn 23 until August. Many were high on Rasmus before last season, but he spent the entire season at Triple-A due to a logjam in the Cardinals outfield. That logjam is still present, but Rasmus has come on recently as the most consistent player in that crowded outfield. A 25-home run season isn't out of the question for this up-and-coming star.

C - Brian McCann, Braves
1B - Albert Pujols, Cardinals
2B - Chase Utley, Phillies
3B - Mark Reynolds, Diamondbacks
SS - Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
OF - Ryan Braun, Brewers
OF - Raul Ibanez, Phillies
OF - Jayson Werth, Phillies
SP - Dan Haren, Diamondbacks
SP - Tim Lincecum, Giants
SP - Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
SP - Josh Johnson, Marlins
SP - Matt Cain, Giants
RP - Ryan Franklin, Cardinals
RP - Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers
RP - Heath Bell, Padres

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