Wednesday, August 22, 2012
The Quarter Pole: National League
(and click here for my take on the American League)
Since the end of May, the Giants and Dodgers have spent every single day within 5 games of one another. Since June 22nd they've spent every day within 3 games of one another. The Giants have spent most of August in front, but not by much and it will be interesting to see how they respond to Melky Cabrera's suspension, which will keep him out for the rest of the season. At one point in mid-July it looked like the Dodgers might fade out of the race, but they recovered. Their new ownership group has not been afraid to throw some money around and their trade for Hanley Ramirez has paid off handsomely, he has a 148 OPS+ since joining L.A., which matches his number from 2009, the best season of his career. Whether it's been the move back to shortstop, a change of scenery, or just random fluctuation from a small sample of appearances, he's been a beast for them. Arizona had crept within 2 games of 1st three weeks ago, but they've fallen back again now and at 6 games back of San Francisco and 5 games out of a wildcard spot, they're only fringe contenders for the postseason
Before the season I thought this was the toughest division to call, with three very real playoff contenders. Instead, Cincinnati is running away with the division (their 7.5 game lead is the largest in baseball) and while there are three playoff contenders, Milwaukee has been replaced by Pittsburgh in that bunch. The Reds play in a hitters' park, but their bullpen has the best ERA of any team in baseball and their starters have been solid too. The Pirates haven't made the playoffs, or even had a winning season, since 1992, but, led by a fantastic season from Andrew McCutchen, they're currently sitting on the second wildcard spot, which would be pretty, well... wild. That said, Pittsburgh was tied for 1st five weeks ago, but has been fading. They're 8-12 in August and if that trend continues, they're going to fall behind St. Louis (and maybe a couple others). Speaking of St. Louis, the Cardinals are a half-game out of the playoffs right now, but they have the best run differential of any team in baseball. Teams with the best run differential tend to make the playoffs and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Redbirds make it. Milwaukee has been a disappointment and the Cubs have been about as bad as expected. Then there are the Astros. They started a respectable 22-23. Since then they're 17-61. They are 7-41 since June 28th, which barely computes in my mind.For those curious, that would work out to a 24-138 record over a full season. Good times!
So, the Phillies have sure had a great season! Washington has taken control of the division as Philadelphia's mini-dynasty seems to be ending (or at the very least, it's on a hiatus).Bryce Harper was called up earlier than expected and has been good. Stephen Strasburg and the rest of the starting rotation have been great, far and away the best unit in baseball this year. Before the season, Nationals brass talked about Strasburg being on an innings limit, having returned from Tommy John surgery only very late in 2011. If the team were running at .500 or so, that wouldn't be a big deal, shutting him down for the last three weeks of the season or so. With the best record in baseball though, the playoffs are a near certainty; the notion of a healthy Strasburg sitting on the bench for the playoffs seems crazy to many, but the Nationals are still claiming that will be the case, once he hits 180 innings (he's at 145, so he probably has 5 or 6 more starts in him, unless the plan changes). I respect a cautious approach to recovering from a major surgery, but I can't get on board with holding healthy players back from the playoffs when they're this good. The Braves seem to be headed to the playoffs too (though a 3.5 game lead is far, far, far from a sure thing). Chipper Jones has been great in his final season, Jason Heyward has gotten back on track after a poor 2011, and they've got the third best record in the league.
The Dodgers fall just short of the Giants in the West and of Atlanta and St. Louis for the wildcard (then they spend a lot of money in the off-season). The Reds and Nationals both win their divisions comfortably. The Pirates continue to fade and finish a few games back of the wildcard teams, but they do manage to finish above .500, ending that awful streak. The Nationals then decide they can't possibly let Strasburg ride the bench all postseason.
Wildcards: Braves and Cardinals
MVP Contenders: McCutchen, Buster Posey, David Wright, Ryan Braun, Jason Heyward, Yadier Molina
Cy Young Contenders: Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, R.A. Dickey, Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann