If pitching depth is the determining factor in the National League East, the Braves will be awfully difficult to beat.
The Braves rank sixth in the league in ERA, second to the Mets in the NL East. But their staff only figures to get stronger.
-- Right-hander Jair Jurrjens, who made his first rehabilitation start Tuesday night, could return from a strained right hamstring within two weeks.
-- Right-hander Kris Medlen, 3-0 with a 3.59 ERA in seven starts, has emerged as a viable alternative to righty Kenshin Kawakami, who is winless in 12 starts.
-- Right-hander Chris Resop, 5-2 with a 1.84 ERA as a starter at Class-AAA, is expected to join the Braves as a reliever shortly, preventing him from exercising an opt-out clause.
In other words, options abound.
The Braves could use their pitching surplus for trade purposes -- they've been poking around for a right-handed hitting outfielder. Or, they could keep their depth intact and await the return of Matt Diaz from thumb surgery around the All-Star break.
Resop figures to replace one of the two pitchers on the bottom of the Braves' depth chart, right-hander Jesse Chavez or right-hander Christhian Martinez.
The return of Jurrjens also would force Medlen or Kawakami to the bullpen -- and Kawakami has pitched better than his 0-8 record and 4.48 ERA indicate, working at least six innings in his last five starts.
The right side of the bullpen, then, is on the verge of an upgrade, and will further improve when Takashi Saito returns from a strained left hamstring. The left side of the 'pen -- Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters, Billy Wagner -- might be the best in the game.
Lefty Mike Dunn, who has a 0.65 ERA in 27 2/3 innings at Class-AAA, probably would be in the majors with any other club. But Dunn, acquired from the Yankees in the Javier Vazquez trade, represents mere insurance for the Braves, despite throwing 94 to 96 mph with a terrific slider.
The other NL East contenders are not in nearly as good shape.
The Mets, 1-1/2 games back, are short a starter and an eighth-inning reliever.
The Phillies, 3-1/2 back, are pleasantly surprised by their starting pitching, but their mood could change due to the inconsistency of lefty Jamie Moyer and righty Joe Blanton, even after J.A. Happ returns.
The Marlins, 5-1/2 back, are actively seeking bullpen help. The Nationals, six back, await the returns of four injured starters -- lefty Scott Olsen and righties Jason Marquis, Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler -- but currently rank 13th in the NL in rotation ERA.
The Mets could make a big move for a starter. The Phillies should snap out of their offensive doldrums. The Marlins will at least hang around, and so might the Nats.
But right now, no team looks as well-positioned as the Braves.
NL CENTRAL'S MISSING LINK?
So far, most of the Cliff Lee speculation has centered around the Yankees. But Lee, whose days with the Mariners look increasingly numbered, figures to draw attention from at least three teams in the NL Central, as well as the Rangers, Mets, Dodgers and every other club with a pulse.
The Cardinals could put together an incredible rotation if they added the left-handed Lee to right-handers Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter and lefty Jaime Garcia. Problem is, the Cardinals have traded seven prospects for Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa and Khalil Greene since Dec. 2008, and their farm system ranked 29th in the majors at the start of the season according to Baseball America.
The Reds' system is in better shape, and besides some advanced starting pitching (right-hander Matt Maloney, lefty Travis Wood), they could offer Class AAA first baseman Yonder Alonso, who is stuck behind Joey Votto, or third baseman Juan Francisco, who is stuck behind Scott Rolen.
Then there are the Brewers, the former team of Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik.
The Brewers, nine games out, would want Lee only to flip him for younger pitching in a three-way deal. They could offer Zduriencik immediate offensive help -- right fielder Corey Hart, the NL leader with 17 homers. Or, they could build a package around a young third baseman -- Mat Gamel, who has an .884 OPS at Class AAA. Zduriencik, the Brewers' former scouting director, drafted both players.
The Hart scenario might not be as radical as it sounds -- Hart, 28, is under control through 2011, and probably would be open to signing long-term. This season, assuming he stays hot, might prove to be his outlier. But power hitters are increasingly difficult to obtain.
The Mariners do not want to rebuild. Hart and another piece or two might be more valuable to them than any pure prospect package -- and more valuable to them than the two draft picks they would receive as compensation if Lee left as a free agent.
The Brewers would lose a lot of offense if they traded Hart and then first baseman Prince Fielder this winter. But they could use Gamel to replace Fielder, and they also are high on second baseman Brett Lawrie, who is playing in Class AA at age 20.
AND IF THE CUBS SELL?
As poorly as the Cubs have played, they are not yet ready to concede the season.
They are only 7-1/2 games back in the Central, and all but three of their games through July 4 will be in Chicago. The stretch includes an interleague series at the White Sox's home, U.S. Cellular Field.
For now, the Cubs would love to clear a spot for Tyler Colvin by trading right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, who is earning -- ahem -- $13 million this season and $13.5 million next season.
Come July, if the Cubs become sellers, they also might entertain offers for left-hander Ted Lilly and, of course, first baseman Derrek Lee.
Lilly, like Fukudome and seemingly every other Cub, has partial no-trade protection. But he also is a potential free agent -- like Lee, who possesses a full no-trade clause.
While the Cubs seemingly would want to re-sign Lilly, 34, they could replace him with younger pitchers -- lefty Tom Gorzelanny is under club control through 2012, and righty Andrew Cashner leads their next wave of prospects.
Lilly also could prove too pricey; he likely will be the second-most coveted lefty on the market behind Cliff Lee. Andy Pettitte, who turns 38 this month, likely would return only to the Yankees. The Rockies' Jorge De La Rosa, while only 29, lacks an established track record.
The Yankees, heavy favorites to sign Lee, also could pursue Lilly if Pettitte retires and club officials deem right-hander Javier Vazquez unworthy.
Lilly's biggest success has come in the NL. He will be four years older than he was when the Yankees snubbed him as a free agent to sign Japanese lefty Kei Igawa after the 2006 season. But Lilly vs. Vazquez would be an interesting choice; Vazquez also is 34.
As for Derrek Lee, he has been adamant about wanting to stay in Chicago, and his OPS ranks ahead only of Todd Helton's among NL first basemen. Still, a trade would be in Lee's best interests if he revived and wanted to enhance his free-agent value.
SHORTAGE AT SHORT
Remember the days when the American League had a glut of potential All-Stars at shortstop?
Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra formed the so-called holy trinity, and Miguel Tejada and Omar Vizquel weren't too shabby, either.
Well, try finding a worthy backup to Jeter now.
The Rays' Jason Bartlett, an All-Star last season, wasn't hitting even before he went on the DL with a strained right hamstring. The Red Sox's Marco Scutaro has been more solid than spectacular.
The Blue Jays' Alex Gonzalez figures to be the choice behind Jeter -- he leads all AL shortstops with 13 homers and an .823 OPS -- but many will rightly view his breakout at age 33 as fluky.
The Rangers' Elvis Andrus, a brilliant defender who is batting .295 with a .377 on-base percentage, also is a legitimate candidate.
But that's about it.
Even in the NL, the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki and Marlins' Hanley Ramirez are performing below their usual levels. Slugging shortstops are few and far between.
STUFF THAT DIDN'T MAKE IT ON TV
Leftover notes from last weekend's Red Sox-Phillies series . . .
-- As the Red Sox churn through middle relievers, they eagerly await the return of right-hander Josh Beckett to their rotation, a move that would enable them to bump righty Tim Wakefield back to the bullpen.
The Sox also could promote a Class AAA starter such as Michael Bowden or Felix Doubront to pitch in relief. Sox GM Theo Epstein hates trading for relievers, but chances are he probably will be in the market for one come July.
-- Phillies closer Brad Lidge finally is looking more like himself; his average fastball velocity is 92.8 mph, down more than 3 mph from 2007, but he again is relying heavily on his slider, according to the PitchFx data on Fangraphs.com.
The difference in Lidge is that he finally is confident in his health after undergoing off-season surgeries on his right elbow and right knee.
"If closing is about confidence, when you're healthy and you know you are healthy, you feel very confident," Lidge said. "Being able to push off my back leg again is huge for me."
-- The Phillies actually have three separate World Cup pools going, and it's not simply their foreign players who are involved.
Right fielder Jayson Werth said there is so much down time in baseball, the players routinely start pools on NASCAR and anything else that strikes their fancy.
Catcher Brian Schneider said of the World Cup, "It lasts a month. Might as well pay attention."
ONE MORE THING ON THE BRAVES . . .
As if the Braves' major-league pitching isn't impressive enough, their organizational depth extends deep into the minors.
-- Right-hander Julio Teheran, 19, is a combined 4-3 with a 1.39 ERA at Single A Rome and High A Myrtle Beach.
-- Right-hander Randall Delgado, 20, is 2-5 with a 2.42 ERA at Myrtle Beach.
-- Right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, acquired in the Vazquez trade, earned a promotion to Myrtle Beach after going 9-3 with a 2.34 ERA for Rome.
-- Left-hander Mike Minor, 22, is 1-6 with a 4.32 ERA at Double A in his first full season of pro ball; he was the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft.
AROUND THE HORN
-- One evaluator initially said that the Marlins made a "huge mistake" promoting outfielder Mike Stanton at age 20, but changed his opinion slightly after watching Stanton play last weekend.
The evaluator said that Stanton, 6-foot-5 and 233 pounds, ran better than he expected and carried himself like a veteran. Earlier, the evaluator had noted that Stanton was vulnerable to sliders and fastballs high in the zone.
"But pitch him down," the evaluator added, "and you are done."
-- Brewers outfielder Jim Edmonds could be a decent pickup for some contender.
Edmonds, who turns 40 on June 27, probably should not play more than three days in a row, but his OPS is .784 and his defensive instincts remain impeccable.
He would be an upgrade over Randy Winn for the Cardinals, but a reunion with former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty in Cincinnati would appear unlikely -- Laynce Nix is performing adequately as a left-handed hitting outfield reserve.
-- Mets left-hander Johan Santana is a fantastic competitor. His ERA is an impressive 2.96 ERA. But his peripheral stats are alarming.
Santana's strikeout rate and percentage of swinging strikes are at career lows. His walk rate is the highest it has been since 2002.
-- Get used to the idea: Alex Rios, All-Star.
Rios, the White Sox's center fielder, ranks sixth in the AL with a .951 OPS and sixth with 19 stolen bases (in 24 attempts.
-- Right-hander Vicente Padilla was less than impressive on his rehab start at Class AAA on Sunday -- 5-2/3 innings, six runs, four earned -- but the Dodgers still expect to promote him to face the Red Sox on Saturday.
-- Indians closer Kerry Wood is a candidate to be traded, but a scout was bothered by his passive demeanor during a recent outing.
"His stuff is fine," the scout said. "But as a closer, you've got to will the final three outs. You don't walk out there like you're getting your work in during spring training. And that's the impression I got."
-- OK, Diamondbacks closer Chad Qualls is sporting an 8.46 ERA, but can we concede that he has been at least a tad unlucky?
Qualls is averaging more than a strikeout per inning -- better than his career rate -- but his opponents' batting average on balls in play is .468, tied with the Reds' Nick Massett for the highest among major-league relievers.
The league average generally is around .300.
-- Outfielder Dexter Fowler eventually figures to re-enter the Rockies' mix -- he has cooled slightly since getting off to a hot start at Triple A -- and the team also could turn to second baseman Eric Young Jr. once he returns from a fractured right tibia.
Young's defense is wobbly, but the Rockies could use his bat. Only four NL teams are getting worse production from second base.
-- Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of outfielder Daniel Nava before his major-league debut: "He's a little nervous. Actually, a lot nervous. He's making me nervous."
Nava's grand slam in his first major-league at-bat settled everyone down.
-- Catcher Lou Marson batted only .191 before the Indians demoted him in favor of Carlos Santana, but club officials still view him as a potential everyday player.
Marson, 23, is athletic, and he threw out a major-league best 35 percent of his opposing stealers, including the Yankees' Brett Gardner twice in one game.
-- And finally, here's David Ortiz on the possible fan reaction to Manny Ramirez's return to Fenway Park this weekend:
"Manny don't care," Ortiz said. "He'll be having fun. He said before that he loves the fans in Boston. He made it clear."
And if he gets booed?
"That might make him mad and go deep," Ortiz said, chuckling. "Don't boo him."