By James Bailey
The contenders (Phillies, Mets, and Braves) are separating from the pretenders (Marlins) and the neverminds (Nationals). Philadelphia is in the lead for the moment on the strength of a six-game winning streak, but they face a challenge if they hope to ride the league’s second-worst pitching staff into the postseason. The Mets are dealing with injuries to several key players. If they can stick close until Jose Reyes returns, they might make a spurt of their own. But don’t overlook the Braves, who made some bold moves this week that just might have given them the most balanced roster in the division.
Philadelphia Phillies (31-20)
There’s no place like the road for the Phillies. The defending champs are baseball’s best road team, with a 19-6 record away from home. They’re just 14-16 in front of their own fans, however, making them baseball’s only division leader with a losing home record. Philadelphia’s pitchers have struggled all season, and currently rank 15th in the NL in ERA with a 4.88 ERA. There’s no secret winning formula here. It all boils down to offense. The Phillies lead the NL with 5.6 runs scored per game. They’ve hit 14 more home runs than the next closest team, led by free agent signee Raul Ibanez, who ranks second in the league with 19. He blasted 10 in May alone, putting him on pace to top his previous career high (33 in 2006) sometime around the All-Star break. With a .337 average and 52 RBIs, he’s in the top five in all three triple crown categories. That’s more than the Phillies could have expected when they signed him to replace Pat Burrell over the winter. Ibanez isn’t carrying the entire load, however. Second baseman Chase Utley (.298, 12 HR, 36 RBI, 38 R) and first baseman Ryan Howard (.266, 16 HR, 45 RBI, 36 R) are both doing what Phillies fans have come to expect. Center fielder Shane Victorino (.300, 38 R) and right fielder Jayson Werth (8 HR, 35 R) are scoring in bunches as well. If shortstop Jimmy Rollins (.229, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 33 R) starts producing the rest of the division will have a lot to overcome.
The pitching staff has been nearly as bad as the offense has been good, however, allowing 254 runs through 51 games. Lefthander Cole Hamels, the team’s ace last season, has recovered from a poor start that threw a scare into the organization in April. Hamels was 3-0 with a 4.06 ERA in May, and those numbers were inflated by a six-run showing in his last start. Inconsistent Brett Myers leads the staff with a 4.66 ERA, but he’s likely done for the year with baseball’s fashionable new hip injury. Myers is scheduled for surgery to repair a labrum tear Thursday. The most optimistic outlook has him returning in September. His 63.2 innings and six quality starts are tops on the club, and he’ll be missed. Veteran Jamie Moyer is going to have to perform better than he has thus far. The 46-year-old lefty has gone 4-5 with a 6.75 ERA and has allowed at least four earned runs in seven of his 10 starts. Rookies J.A. Happ (4-0, 2.47 ERA) and Antonio Bastardo (1-0, 1.50) are pitching well thus far, but it’s early yet for both of them. The key to the entire staff is closer Brad Lidge, who has settled down over the last week, reeling off five consecutive scoreless outings to drop his ERA to 7.40. Five straight scoreless appearances isn’t generally cause for celebration when discussing closers, but considering he allowed at least one run in six straight games in the first half of May this is significant progress.
This team is definitely good enough to win the division, but they need to make life easier on their lineup by reining in the opposition. The staff is largely the same as it was last year when the Phillies ranked fourth in the NL with a 3.89 team ERA. Expect the pitching to improve over the next four months. If it does, this team will be in the race until the end.
New York Mets (28-23)
With first baseman Carlos Delgado, shortstop Jose Reyes, and right fielder Ryan Church on the DL, the Mets have had to look for help elsewhere. Gary Sheffield, released by the Tigers in spring training, has been huge, hitting .379 with four homers and 15 RBIs over the last three weeks of May. He’s battling through a knee injury, however, and is unlikely to keep up at that torrid pace. Carlos Beltran (.352, 6 HR, 31 RBI, 31 R) is carrying the bulk of the offensive load, with third baseman David Wright (.321, 3 HR, 30 RBI, 31 R) pitching in. Wilson Valdez, acquired from the Indians last week, has flashed some leather at shortstop, where he’ll see action until Reyes returns. The biggest disappointment lately has been second-year man Daniel Murphy, who hit .176 in May after a .324 April. He’s seen plenty of time in both the outfield and at first base. Delgado may be done for the year, so if Murphy can’t figure things out, the Mets may look outside the organization to plug that hole.
Johan Santana must hate his teammates. Oh, he’ll never admit it, but they never show him much love. The Mets have scored two or fewer runs in five of his 11 starts, and the team has committed 12 errors while he’s been on the mound (including one by Santana himself). He’s 7-3, but has allowed just five earned runs in his three losses and one no-decision. With a league-best 2.00 ERA, he should have 10 wins in the bank by now. Mike Pelfrey hasn’t earned the right to complain yet, but he’s got some of the same beefs. The 25-year-old righthander posted a 2.93 ERA in six May starts, but walked away with only two wins for the month. He’s 4-1, 3.88 overall. John Maine (5-3, 3.75) and Livan Hernandez (4-1, 4.33) are doing their part as well, and the rotation is the key to the team’s 3.87 ERA, third best in the NL. The bullpen, while improved compared to the past couple of seasons, is still leaky. J.J. Putz (1-4, 4.76) is losing his grip on the setup job after a series of shaky outings. Putz hasn’t recorded a baserunner-free appearance since May 16 and has walked as many as he’s struck out (19). Fortunately, flame-throwing rookie Bobby Parnell looks ready to replace him.
Atlanta Braves (26-26)
Unhappy with their place in the standings, the Braves made a couple of significant moves on Wednesday, acquiring center fielder Nate McLouth from the Pirates for three minor leaguers and releasing veteran Tom Glavine, who was expected to make his 2009 debut this weekend. Instead the Braves will call up top prospect Tommy Hanson to start on Saturday. This shakeup comes a day after Atlanta sent underperforming rookie Jordan Schafer to Triple-A. McLouth will take his place in the field, though he’s a significant upgrade to the lineup. Schafer batted just .158 in May and hadn’t homered since belting his second long ball in the season’s third game. Atlanta’s lineup has lacked thunder all season, with four players tied for the team lead with five home runs. Brian McCann has helped since returning from an eye injury. The Braves catcher hit .394 in May with three homers and 11 RBIs. Veteran Chipper Jones (.322, 5 HR, 23 RBI) and shortstop Yunel Escobar (.295, 5 HR, 27 RBI) have been the team’s other top threats. McLouth had nine homers and 34 RBIs for the Pirates, better numbers than any of his new teammates.
Hanson joins a rotation that ranks 5th in the NL with a 4.04 team ERA. He’ll take over Kris Medlen’s spot in the order, with Medlen, who earned his first win on Sunday, moving to the bullpen. Sophomore Jair Jurrjens leads the club with a 2.59 ERA, sixth best in the league. He’s 5-2 in 11 starts. Veterans Derek Lowe (6-3, 3.40) and Javier Vazquez (4-4, 3.58, 86 K’s) have been solid additions.
These aggressive moves make Atlanta as good as either of the teams ahead of them. If Jeff Francoeur (.251, 4 HR, 25 RBI) starts hitting, their lineup will have the depth to contend. If not, he could be the next one moved.
Florida Marlins (25-29)
After unloading several of their higher-salaried players over the winter, the Marlins didn’t look to contend in 2009. Then they started off 11-1 and made us all wonder if we’d overlooked them. Nah. Florida is just 14-28 since that hot start, a pace that puts them only slightly ahead of the Nationals (13-26 since a 1-10 start). Their young pitching has cooled, with Ricky Nolasco, a 15-game winner in 2008, trying to warm up in Triple-A New Orleans after going 2-5 with a 9.07 ERA in nine starts. Josh Johnson (4-1, 2.66 ERA) and Chris Volstad (4-4, 3.71) have been strong, but the rest of the rotation has disappointed. Matt Lindstrom, who inherited closing duties when Kevin Gregg was dealt to the Cubs over the offseason, has done a poor job, posting a 5.82 ERA in 24 outings. Two of the best relief outings the club has seen have come from position players Ross Gload and Cody Ross, who each have a scoreless inning to their credit.
The Marlins moved Hanley Ramirez (.344, 8 HR, 25 RBI, 34 R) to the third spot in the order to better take advantage of his power, but he hasn’t had many runners to drive home. Emilio Bonifacio, the leadoff hitter for much of the early part of the season, owns a .298 on-base percentage and has been dropped to second in favor of Chris Coghlan, who doesn’t look like the answer. First baseman Jorge Cantu (.278, 9 HR, 40 RBI) and Ross (.258, 8 HR, 33 RBI) have been solid behind Ramirez, and Dan Uggla has hit for power despite a poor average (.215, 10 HR, 38 RBI). Until the Marlins find some production from the first two spots in the order, they’ll have trouble overcoming their generous pitching staff.
Washington Nationals (14-36)
Believe it or not, the Nationals can score runs with just about any team in the league. Washington boasts three hitters who carry a .322 or better average (Nick Johnson, .328; Cristian Guzman, .327; and Ryan Zimmerman, .322). Cleanup hitter Adam Dunn (.269, 16 HR, 42 RBI) ranks among the league leaders in homers and RBIs. Elijah Dukes has driven in 25 runs in just 116 at-bats. Offense is not their problem. It’s those kids on the mound who are to blame for the worst record in the minor leagues.
Washington pitchers own a 5.67 team ERA, more than three quarters of a run worse than the next poorest club, first-place Philadelphia. With Ross Detwiler (0-1, 4.80 ERA in three starts) joining the rotation, the Nats are now offering up four rookie starters for the league’s hitting pleasure. At least they’re no longer kidding themselves by trotting Daniel Cabrera out every fifth night. Whatever struggles Detwiler might endure, at least he has some upside. The same can be said for fellow rookies Jordan Zimmermann (2-2, 6.07), Craig Stammen (0-1, 5.71), and Shairon Martis (5-1, 5.62). (That Martis has somehow managed to steal five wins despite his ERA is one of the bigger mysteries of the season.)
The only drama left for the Nationals this year is how long it will take to sign Stephen Strasburg, who they should take with the No. 1 pick in next week’s draft. At this pace they’ll sew up the top pick in the 2010 draft by mid-July. Eventually with that many prime prospects something has to turn around.