Published July 16, 2013
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – Think back to late March, just before the National League baseball season began.
If you recall, the consensus picks for division championships were the Washington Nationals in the East Division, the Cincinnati Reds in the Central and either the Los Angeles Dodgers or defending world champion San Francisco Giants in the West.
None of those teams stand in first place at the All-Star break, but none is out of the division title hunt yet, either (OK, maybe the fourth-place Giants would need a minor miracle to repeat).
The intrigue surrounding the second half of the NL season will be whether the somewhat unexpected division leaders can hold on, or whether the preseason favorites eventually figure everything out and live up to their early expectations.
Let's examine the three division races and make updated predictions for the division crowns.
Atlanta has the biggest lead of any of the three division leaders, yet this is in some ways the most difficult race to forecast.
On one hand, Atlanta has been far and away the best team in the NL East. The Braves have a run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) of plus-78. The second-place Nationals' run differential is minus-14. Third-place Philadelphia's is minus-45.
On the other hand, the Braves opened the season 12-1. Since then, they are a pedestrian 42-40.
Then, on one hand, Atlanta leads the division in runs scored by a comfortable margin (415; the fourth-place New York Mets are second with 376). On the other hand, the Braves have already been shut out 11 times, or in 26.8 percent of their losses.
The Braves hit plenty of home runs and strike out plenty of times. That's bound to lead to streakiness, although they have not lost more than four games in a row at any point this season. The Braves have the league's second-best team ERA behind only Pittsburgh, so a long losing streak, and a complete collapse, is unlikely.
Washington has had to battle through injuries to standouts like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa. Its record is not nearly as good as would have been expected, but the Nationals are just six games out of first place, and they still have the best talent in the division on paper.
Philadelphia is kind of in no-man's land with the trade deadline two weeks away. Being 6 1/2 games out of first, it's hard to say that a division title is hopeless. However, it's unlikely, and one can argue that it would help the franchise's long-term prospects to clearly fall out of the race and turn some its trade chips into young prospects. Saturday's injury to center fielder Ben Revere should be taken as a sign for the team to be a trade-deadline seller.
The presence of Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler at the top of the rotation makes the New York Mets an intriguing team of the not-too-distant future. That future won't begin in the second half of this season, though.
The only interesting thing about the rebuilding Miami Marlins in the second half of the season will be seeing what they can get back in trades for some of their veterans.
THE PICK: The Braves have outplayed the Nationals significantly. This comes down to whether you think the ultra-talented Nationals will eventually win it because the Braves haven't buried them yet.
Atlanta, however, is 7-2 in head-to-head action against Washington and it's on pace for 92 wins. Washington would have to play .656 ball to get to 92 wins, and only two teams in the majors are above .600 for the year - none better than St. Louis' .613 winning percentage. Everything points to ATLANTA, so that's the selection here.
If things continue to play out like they have in the first half of the season, three of this division's five teams are likely to get to the postseason. If the campaign ended right now, St. Louis would win the NL Central title and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati would be the wild cards.
If that holds true, it would in some ways take pressure off those three teams in their quest for a division crown. However, wild-card berths only guarantee the teams a one-game playoff, so there is still plenty of incentive to win the division.
St. Louis has been remarkable this season, overcoming the loss of ace starter Chris Carpenter and closer Jason Motte to still have one of the NL's top pitching staffs. The Cardinals lead the league in runs scored by a huge margin - they've scored 462, compared to 426 for the runner-up, Colorado.
Pittsburgh hasn't had as much as a winning record since 1992. It would appear likely the streak will end this season, although Pirates fans aren't necessarily counting their chickens; after all, they finished 79-83 last year, even after being 63-47 on Aug. 8.
The biggest obstacle to a division title for Pittsburgh could be the team's unlikelihood to add high-priced talent at the trade deadline. The Pirates could use another big bat in the middle of the order, but the team might opt for more modest additions like it made last year when it traded for Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez.
Cincinnati might still have the division's best talent on paper. Ace starter Johnny Cueto just can't stay healthy, though. The Reds also could use more consistent production from third baseman Todd Frazier and shortstop Zack Cozart.
It has hurt the Reds that Ryan Ludwick, the opening day cleanup hitter, got hurt in the first game and hasn't returned since. He might make it back sometime in August.
The Milwaukee Brewers came into the season hoping to contend, but they look like a 100-loss team that might sell some key pieces at the trade deadline.
The Chicago Cubs weren't expected to contend, and they haven't. Still, here's an interesting stat: Despite a 42-51 overall record, the Cubs have a respectable run differential of minus-10. It's a sign that maybe they're not all that far away.
THE PICK: This should be a great three-team race into September, but ST. LOUIS seems poised to hang on and win it. The Cardinals have the majors' best road record (30-20) and they're a solid 6-3 against Cincinnati. It's far from over, though. The Cardinals have 10 games left against the Reds and 14 against Pittsburgh, which holds a 3-2 edge in the season series against the Cardinals.
This is probably the best of the three NL races, primarily because all five teams are within striking range of the lead. Arizona has led most of the way, but the hard-charging Dodgers, who were 30-42 on June 21, have caught fire. They have gone 17-5 since, moving just 2 1/2 games behind the Diamondbacks.
Los Angeles has had numerous injury woes. The Dodgers entered the season with eight formidable starting rotation candidates (Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly). Harang was traded, Beckett and Billingsley suffered season-ending injuries, Lilly has been hurt for most of the year and Capuano has spent time on the DL.
Their supposed offensive leader, Matt Kemp, is on the DL for the third time this year. Hanley Ramirez has spent a big chunk of the season on the DL, too. He's back now and hitting like crazy. In fact, Ramirez and Cuban rookie sensation Yasiel Puig, who was called up early last month, have spearheaded the team's resurgence.
Los Angeles looks like a completely different team now, and its fans' biggest worry right now must be whether the four-day All-Star break will rob the team of its momentum.
Arizona won this division in 2011, so it's not all that shocking that it has become a strong contender again. The good things in the Diamondbacks' favor will be the eventual return of injured starting pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Trevor Cahill. They also last week benefited from the season debut of center fielder Adam Eaton, one of the preseason favorites for NL Rookie of the Year honors before his injury in March. Additionally, after missing injured second baseman Aaron Hill for most of the season, he has come back to provide some sock in the lineup.
One big thing not to like about Arizona is a volatile late-inning relief situation, as the Diamondbacks' bullpen has blown a staggering 19 leads already this year. Also, the team has won 20 games in its final at-bat. It indicates Arizona has found a way to pull out numerous games that could have gone either way in the late innings. Odds are that the Diamondbacks' luck won't remain the same in the second half.
It's easy to overlook Colorado in this race. The Rockies' biggest advantage is the fact that shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is back from injury, ready to join forces with Carlos Gonzalez to give the Rockies' the best 1-2 offensive punch in the league.
Conversely, Colorado pitching has gone into a tailspin over the past month, and the Rockies rank 14th in the NL in ERA. Playing half their games in Colorado makes that somewhat understandable, but it's still tough to win a division title with a 4.22 ERA. Recent addition Roy Oswalt is on the DL with a hamstring injury, but he wasn't performing well prior to getting hurt.
San Diego began the year 2-10, then battled back to pull to within a game of first place on June 21, with a 36-34 record. The Padres went into a free-fall after that, going 6-20 since then and probably dismissing themselves from any surprising division title hopes.
It's harder to count out the Giants, even though their recent performance has been just as poor. San Francisco was tied for the division lead as late as May 26, and its record stood at 23-15 on May 12. Since then, the Giants are 20-36.
The Giants have a lot of veterans who know what it takes to win, but it really doesn't look like it's going to happen this year. Despite Saturday's no-hitter against San Diego, Tim Lincecum has struggled for the second year in a row, and Matt Cain is having his worst season. Before getting injured, Ryan Vogelsong was putting up some of the worst stats of any NL starting pitcher.
Offensively, Pablo Sandoval has been slumping. Center fielder Angel Pagan is probably lost for the season with a torn hamstring. The Giants have a run differential of minus-40, which is the ninth-worst figure in baseball.
San Francisco is not completely out of contention yet, but that's more because of NL West mediocrity than anything else. This won't be a playoff team.
THE PICK: LOS ANGELES has been the division's hottest team. It has already added Ricky Nolasco in a pre-trade deadline deal, and it's a team not afraid to spend money. Expect more improvements later this month, and don't be surprised if the Dodgers win this race by more than five games.