NL East updateby Brad Johnson
August 15, 2011
(All statistics through Saturday, Aug. 13.)
The playoff bound
The Philadelphia Phillies are sitting pretty with the best record in baseball and a 7.5 game lead on the wild card-leading Braves. The club's biggest concerns at the moment are Placido Polanco's sports hernia and Cole Hamels' recent complaint of dead arm. Neither obstacle is likely to affect the club's playoff run.
The Phillies' plan for the remainder of the season should be pretty simple—stay focused, stay healthy, and figure out the playoff roster. Focus shouldn't be an issue, but health might be a problem.
Polanco's sports hernia could linger and reduce his availability or skill set come playoff time. Center fielder Shane Victorino isn't the kind of player who can hold back for health's sake. The Phillies' backup center fielders—John Mayberry Jr. and Michael Martinez—are cringe-worthy, so the training staff will have to pay close attention to Victorino.
As for the playoff roster, it should be a straightforward affair. Barring injury, the rotation will consist of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Hamels or Oswalt may provide an assist out of the pen at some point, too.
The bullpen will include Ryan Madson, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes and Brad Lidge. Three of Kyle Kendrick, David Herndon, Vance Worley, and the rehabbing Jose Contreras will likely round out the unit. If Contreras manages to return, expect Herndon to miss the cut.
That leaves 14 position players, which happens to be the exact number the club is carrying now. The only player who should be worried about his job security is Ross Gload. He's been battling a hip injury all season and cannot play in the field or run much. He's had a particularly poor season as a lefty pinch hit specialist, batting .253/.273/.307. The Phillies recently signed Jack Cust and assigned him to Triple-A. A solid September with the club could earn him Gload's place as resident lefty pinch hitter.
The Braves have to feel pretty comfortable, as well. They're six games up on the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals in a three-team wild card race. With Brian McCann making his return, the only major piece on the disabled list is Jair Jurrjens.
The Braves training staff has plenty of work. Keeping Chipper Jones on the field is always difficult. The Braves lack position player depth, so if scuffed up players like Jones, McCann or Jason Heyward hit the skids again, the offense will suffer.
There aren't too many tough decisions for the Braves to make regarding their playoff roster. The biggest call probably will be whether to carry 11 or 12 pitchers, who the fourth starter will be and if Nate McLouth gets a spot.
The rotation will be the toughest decision the team makes. Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson are locks, but the remaining two slots could end up going to the hot hand among Brandon Beachy, Derek Lowe and Jurrjens—if he can return from his sprained knee.
The bullpen is very deep, which is why the Braves may consider carrying eight relievers. Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, and George Sherrill will be on the roster. Arodys Vizcaino and Scott Linebrink are likely to join the unit, too, and a long reliever like Beachy, Lowe Jurrjens, or Mike Minor probably will have a spot. The Braves will have to decide whether they prefer a position player to Anthony Varvaro or Cristhian Martinez.
As for McLouth, assuming he can recover from his sports hernia in time, he might be the guy battling Varvaro or Martinez for that last roster spot.
The New York Mets are clinging to third place in a fairly tight fight at the bottom of the division. They're also in fourth place in the wild card race, although that belies their 11.5-game deficit.
Heading into the season, it appeared the Mets could be a particularly bad team thanks to an utter dearth of reliable pitching. Instead, the rotation has been solid top to bottom, and the bullpen has had its share of highlights, too.
Looking forward, the Mets have to be happy with Jonathon Niese's solid season, which includes a 3.92 ERA and 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. R.A. Dickey has put together a nice response to his 2010 breakout performance. The pair will provide two reliable arms to build around in 2012.
The Mets have also received a solid performance from Chris Capuano. They could try to bring him back next year as a fourth starter, although he'll be more costly than his 2011 price tag. Dillon Gee has stepped in as a nice swing man option. The Mets may be forced to rely on him as a regular contributor next season, but they should look for a better option if they want to compete in the tough NL East.
The big letdown has been Mike Pelfrey. The Mets may want to look into selling low while they still have the option of selling at all. Despite ERA fluctuations throughout his career, his peripherals seem to indicate he's a mid-fours ERA pitcher.
The differences among his last four seasons can be almost exclusively attributed to the number of home runs he has allowed. A team like the Padres with their massive ballpark or the Cardinals with their mastermind pitching coach might be interested in him.
Of course, the Mets hope Johan Santana will be healthy again in time for 2012. He keeps experiencing setbacks, so nothing is certain. The Mets really need him back and healthy in order to anchor an otherwise very ordinary rotation.
The bullpen is a bit of a mess and will need to be completely revamped. Bobby Parnell and Taylor Buchholz should be a good start, but few of the current crew should be asked to return. Ryota Igarashi is talented and certainly deserves another chance to get his walk rate in check (5.82 walks per nine innings). Tim Byrdakhas done a fine job as resident LOOGY but is pretty ordinary in that role. If he's cheap, the Mets should bring him back.
Manny Acosta and Jason Isringhausen should be allowed to walk. Acosta has simply struggled. Isringhausen has performed well but is a risky investment.
The position side of the roster will be what decides the Mets course over the offseason. Currently, the roster is Jose Reyes, David Wright, Angel Pagan and roster glue. If the Mets fail to re-sign Reyes or acquire other impact players via free agency, they ought to look into trading Wright, Pagan and Santana.
The Nationals are also pushing for .500, but they have been looking forward to 2012 all season.
They have to be pleased with most of what they've learned this season. The best development has been Michael Morse, who has put together a .395 wOBA this season. With that kind of offense, they can slot him in at first base next season and send Adam LaRoche packing, or they can hire from outside and deal with Morse's poor outfield defense. Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos have also solidified long-term roles with the team after putting together solid seasons.
Not all has gone swimmingly for the Nats. Jayson Werth was not paid $126 million to be a league average player. The only thing that has really changed in Werth's peripherals are his Isolated Power (down .080 points from 2010) and his balls in play average. Hopefully, Werth can tap back into that power stroke and return to being a star performer.
The other disappointment of 2011 has to be Ian Desmond. Prior to this season, he had shown a nice mix of power and speed for a shortstop. The power has all but vanished: His Isolated Power is a middling .094. His strikeout rate has also climbed nearly four percentage points.
For Desmond to become more than just a placeholder, he will need to cut that strikeout rate and find a little more power. Encouragingly, his defense has greatly improved this season, enough that he is still a solid role player.
Of course, the Nationals and their fans are really waiting on two players—Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
Strasburg has put in two minor league appearances in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, with his latest outing lasting three innings. The Nationals will probably bring Strasburg aboard for about three September starts as part major league rehab, part promotional ploy. He remains one of the most exciting pitchers in baseball, and the Nationals must be very pleased with his recovery.
Meanwhile, Harper has had a strong season and could be ready to contribute sometime in 2012. Double-A has provided a more difficult challenge for Harper. His .244/.308/.395 line isn't impressive until you consider that this is his age-18 season.
His plate discipline has been solid at the level. He has struck out in about 18 percent of his plate appearances and walked in about nine percent. A hitter of his profile could stand to walk a little more often, but that's a skill he will learn as he ages. His performance has exceeded the hype.
The Marlins are the surprise trailers of the NL East, though they could easily finish third. The club has been hard hit by Josh Johnson's continual setbacks and Hanley Ramirez's lost season (he's back on the disabled list).
Something always "feels" wrong about the Marlins' club culture. The Saga of Hanley has continued this season. He's been repeatedly called out for lackadaisical play. At this point, his career might benefit from a change of scenery to a club where he isn't the center of the universe. Or perhaps now that Manny being Manny is lost forever, we can start pushing Hanley being Hanley.
Twitter star and outfielder Logan Morrison was recently demoted, ostensibly to work on his hitting. His .249 batting average isn't amazing, but he has put together a .344 wOBA on the season, which is 15 percent above league average.
Morrison hinted to the press that the demotion might have been for an unrelated issue. Reading between the lines, it might be that the club is not a fan of his use of social media. Or the Marlins could actually believe that a hitter who is 15 percent better than league average could benefit from more minor league seasoning.
Looking forward, Mike Stanton appears to be a lineup centerpiece in the way that Ryan Howard is for the Phillies. With Gaby Sanchez, Morrison and Ramirez under long term control, the Marlins should enjoy a fairly potent offense.
On the pitching side of the ledger, things haven't changed for quite a few years. Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez will almost certainly be asked to anchor the rotation again in 2012. With Chris Volstad also in tow, the Marlins have a strong front end of the rotation.
In the pen, the Marlins always seem to find just enough to get through the season. The 2011 unit will likely return pretty much intact in 2012. The Marlins may pursue trading Leo Nunez in the offseason, since a market for his services didn't arise this past July.
Follow Brad on Twitter @baseballAteam. Email him at pitchin432 AT Yahoo.com