As June comes to a close in the National League, it's reasonable to say that there's a different kind of race going on in each of the three divisions. The East has a clear first-place team, a contending but underperforming second-place team, a mediocre third-place team and two also-rans. The Central is a three-way race at the top, with the bottom half of the division already thinking about to whom they can sell their assets at the trade deadline. The West is a five-way free-for-all. Instead of exhaustive team-by-team breakdowns of the divisions and what happened in June, as we approach the midpoint of the season, we'll focus more on the races, how they've evolved over the month and where they're going from here.
The midseason anarchy in the NL West has made for perhaps the most interesting division in the entire league right now. The tightness of the race mirrors what's going on over in the AL East fairly well, with the last-place Dodgers only six games behind the first-place Diamondbacks, except that everybody's shifted back about five wins. That means that unlike the AL East, which stands a decent chance of producing one of the two wild card teams, the division race in the NL West is shaping up to be win-or-go-home in October. What's more, the Dodgers are already indicating they're going to be buying this year -- they're the prohibitive favorite in the Ricky Nolasco sweepstakes at the moment, needing to supplement an injury-sapped rotation that was supposed to be their strength coming into the season. Who else has Ricky Nolasco been linked to? Just the Giants, the Diamondbacks, the Padres, and the Rockies -- the other four teams in the West, all whom need starting pitching at the moment. In an odd inversion of recent baseball history, the Rockies have probably the best staff in the division, followed by the Diamondbacks -- the two most hitter-friendly parks in the division, with Coors the best hitter's park in the majors by a wide margin -- while the Giants, whose rotation seemed set through the middle of the decade just a couple years ago, bring up the rear.
The team to watch is the Padres, however. They're the only NL West team that's over .500 so far in June, going 14-11, with the Dodgers at 12-12 going into Thursday's action. There may be problems with the Padres sustaining this moving forward due to injuries, however. Up the middle, Everth Cabrera and rookie Jedd Gyorko were having fantastic seasons for San Diego until the two were injured, though both should be back this season. Outfielder Carlos Quentin, too, is having a great year at the plate -- between trips to the disabled list. None of them should be gone for the year, or even more than a month, but it's not good news for a team already fighting to stay afloat. The real story is 33-year-old starting pitcher Eric Stults, who after a disastrous first month put up a 2.66 ERA in May and a 1.98 ERA in June, across 77 combined innings. It's a gamble whether or not that sort of production will continue from a journeyman guy, whom the Padres were willing to give a shot only because of the park they play in. If San Diego were out of this thing, he'd be on the trade block -- a lot of teams will take a starter with Stults' 3.49 road ERA -- so it'll be interesting to see how the rest of his season, and the Padres' season, unfolds.
Chicago and Milwaukee still have a lot of string left to play out, but with identical 32-44 records going into Thursday's games, they're both 15 games back and essentially out of the playoff picture. That leaves the NL Central a three-way race between the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds. The Pirates and Cardinals are tied for the best record not only in the Central, but in all of baseball (again, going into Thursday), while the Reds -- arguably the preseason favorites, though no one would've blamed you for picking the Cardinals either -- nip at their heels, 3.5 games back after a disappointing, sub-.500 June. As Jay Jaffe notes, the Reds are struggling against quality competition and generally not hitting the ball well right now, which is a problem even good teams can have over a couple weeks of the season without being cause for overreaction. Still, they've probably got their eyes on the trade market for bats more than they did at the start of the month.
At this point, there's not much more to say about the Cardinals. Top to bottom, they're probably the best organization in baseball, combining great scouting, drafting and player development with sustained success at the major league level, yielding one of the best minor league systems and best major league rosters in the game.
The real surprise out of the Central is the Pirates, who looked like a .500 team on paper coming into the year. (I actually thought the Cubs might narrowly edge them out for third place, before all the injuries started in Chicago.) But thanks to solid production from the top of the order to the bottom -- plus great pitching from reclamation projects and castoffs like A.J. Burnett (whom the Yankees are still paying $8.5 million this year), Francisco Liriano and Vin Mazzaro (Vin Mazzaro?!) -- the Pirates are one of the best teams in baseball.
This month has been rather special for Pirates fans; they've seen not only Starling Marte bouncing back to be the guy he was at the start of the year after a disappointing May, but also the often-frustrating Pedro Alvarez going on an unholy tear against right-handed pitching, putting up an 1114 OPS in June. In the past, Alvarez has had streaks like this but then been completely unable to sustain the success -- he had a very good summer last year, too, before collapsing with the rest of the team in September. Maybe this time, some of the success will stick, but even during this ridiculous month, he's still lost at the plate against left-handers.
As fans in Pittsburgh and all around baseball are well aware, the Pirates doing really well in the first half is not a new story -- it's almost the same script from 2011 and 2012 at this same point in the season, just even more bombastic and ridiculous in its highs. Those seasons ended with collapses that well overshadowed their storybook beginnings; if it happens a third time in a row -- and there are certainly a lot of regression candidates on the roster right now, including most of the pitching staff -- then one would think people have to start losing jobs, starting with the manager who presided over the last two disasters. Hopefully, the improvements the Pirates made to their bullpen, along with anyone they pick up at the trade deadline, will stave off the worst kind of three-peat.
At the end of June, the NL East looks like a "normal" playoff race, with a favorite (Atlanta), a contender (Washington) and a dark horse (Philadelphia). The third-place Phillies are just one more game out of first in their division than the last-place Dodgers are in theirs, going into Thursday's action. The explosion onto the scene of Matt Harvey (and to a lesser extent Zach Wheeler) might help the New York Mets climb back into the realm of vague credibility, but the playoffs are all but beyond their reach; meanwhile, I'm fairly certain the Marlins were eliminated from postseason consideration before they even played their first game.
Philadelphia has hung around longer than perhaps is wise for the long-term health of a team run by Ruben Amaro Jr., who has told the press that he will not be trading any assets at the deadline -- not closer Jonathan Papelbon, not second baseman Chase Utley, not anyone. Given his track record, and the beliefs that have informed his tenure to date, there's no reason not to believe him. It doesn't help that after his mini-fire-sale last year, shipping Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino off to the West Coast, the Phillies played good enough baseball that their general manager might look back and think his team could have made the playoffs, if only he'd stood pat.
June was a mixed bag for Philadelphia; despite the continuation of outfielder Domonic Brown's breakout season -- he had an 898 OPS for the month, going into Thursday's games -- and Cliff Lee's continuing outstanding year, the team hovered around .500 for the second straight month and are still outperforming their Pythagorean win expectancy by about four wins. The roster is poorly constructed, and the Phillies have come to rely on Tyler Cloyd and Kyle Kendrick over Cole Hamels, who is having the worst season of his career so far. Hamels should get a bit better (unless he's pitching hurt), but the Phillies' inability either to score runs for him or to prevent runs behind him isn't something he can fix. Nothing about this team, in short, screams that it's going to turn it on in the second half … unless Philadelphia is a buyer at the deadline and chooses to mortgage even more of their future for short-term gains.
Atlanta and Washington have their own problems to worry about, however. For the first couple months of the season, Justin Upton's outrageously hot bat carried his brother B.J. and rightfielder Jason Heyward. Now that Heyward and B.J. have had modest success in June, Justin's fallen off the face of the planet, putting up just a 595 OPS since the end of May. The Braves continue to win games thanks to their pitching staff and bullpen, with Kris Medlen putting up a 2.14 ERA in 33.2 IP in June, and Mike Minor even in a rough month (for him) keeping his ERA under 3 for the season.
The Nationals are still fighting with .500, and while they'll have to make some moves at the deadline -- because they have holes, and making moves is what teams in the Nationals' position do -- the biggest impact may have already been made, with the promotion of Anthony Rendon and his transition to second base. I still think this is dangerous for Rendon, considering his history of lower-body injuries and the wear and tear that comes from playing second, but it's hard to argue with a guy hitting .354/.402/.485 on the year, almost all of that coming in the month of June. The Nationals' offense needed a shot in the arm, and they got one without having to give anything up. Combined with the imminent return of Bryce Harper, who missed all of June with a knee injury, and the Nationals just need … oh, three more bats or so. Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth have worked out even worse than the pessimists thought they would, and Denard Span has been a dud so far in center with no end in sight. Span only put up a 527 OPS in June, and there's no clear plan to fall back on in centerfield.
That said, if the Nationals do figure out their offensive situation through the trade market, the pitching will be there waiting for them; Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez have been lights-out for two months now, with Gonzalez's season line marred only by a poor start to the year. The team did just send Dan Haren on a much needed trip to the DL, and with injuries at the bottom of the rotation, they could use perhaps a backend starter along with some bullpen help, but the pitching is the least of the Nationals' concerns at the moment. If they don't start hitting, the Braves might cruise to a division win regardless of any concerns about their outfield.
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The true stretch run of summer is only beginning, and once the trade deadline passes, teams should start to distance themselves from the pack -- no one truly expects a situation like the one in the NL West, for example, to continue through to the end of the season, no matter how entertaining it might be. Until then, though, for all but four teams in the National League, this thing is far from over.