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Gary Armida's Blog
The National League Stories of the Second HalfPosted on July 12, 2012 at 07:09 AM.
As Major League Baseball takes a breath before starting its second half on Friday, there are so many things to look forward to during the seasonís final two and a half months. While most teams have played at least 84 games and the season is starting to take shape, the simple fact is that nothing has been decided. The National League holds so many possibilities in the second half. Two of the three division races are separated by one game or less. The Nationals hold a four game lead, but there are several issues that could complicate their second half. The Pirates enter the second half as a division leader, but have one of the better teams--at least on paper--just a game behind them. The Dodgers are getting Matt Kemp back and will try to fight off a Giants team that is continuing to search for the Tim Lincecum who was the best pitcher in the game.
With so many games to be played, the two trade deadlines on the horizon, and that mysterious quality that Baseball has over every other sport makes this second half so intriguing. And, to give Bud Selig some credit: the second Wild Card spot in each league has allowed even more teams to have hope in the second half. There wonít be as many trades as more teams will wait before cashing out their season, but there will be plenty of speculation as to who will make the first bold move.
The second half will most definitely be shaped by the key decisions made by the teams in front. The Nationals will have the most difficult decision in how they guide their ace, Stephen Strasburg, through the rest of the season. While it has been widely reported that the Nationals will put a 170 inning limit on the 23 year old who is in his first full season since Tommy John Surgery, there has to be some struggle with what to do if the race is so close down the stretch. Strasburg is at 99 innings through his first 17 starts, which is slightly under 6 innings per start. If he makes another 13 starts at the same rate, heíll pitch another 75 innings or so, which takes him right to his limit. Will the Nationals factor in post season innings and back him off a bit more? Or, will they do like many teams have done and simply just not ďcountĒ the playoff innings? In all, the Nationals have actually regulated his innings quite well thus far and if they continue on the same path, they should be fine in staying within their goal.
The Nationals may also face a bit of regression from their pitching staff. Their bullpen is just two innings behind from being the third most used group in the National League. They have performed incredibly--3.45 FIP, 8.39 K/9--but given their workload and a chance that rotation falters a bit from their league leading 3.37 FIP, some regression seems likely. Considering they are just 9th in the NL in runs scored, the Nationals may have a bit more of a difficult second half.
The Braves will need strong second halves from Brian McCann, Dan Uggla, and Jason Heyward in order to maintain their runs scored pace, which is fourth in the NL. They have suffered some significant injuries, especially to their pitching staff, and will now turn to Ben Sheets as a starting pitcher. Their 46 wins puts them in the Wild Card race and they are just 4 games behind the Nationals. The real key for them, aside from maintaining their pitching--6th best ERA in the league--is to keep Chipper Jones healthy. Jones, even at 40, is their best hitter and leads the team in OPS.
The Mets will hope their magic ride continues as they enter the second half with 46 victories as well. This is the first time in a while that the Mets will face some expectations in the second half. Johan Santana and RA Dickey have to continue to lead, especially with the news that Dillon Gee may need to undergo surgery to repair artery damage. There is a real possibility that his season is over. Despite being one of the least powerful teams, the Mets have scored the third most runs and lead the league in walks. Their main storyline will be whether or not they can add some help with all of their financial restrictions.
The Marlins will be without Giancarlo Stanton for a while which severely hurts their offense. The team can rebound in the standings, however, if Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes can actually produce as expected and Stanton can return within a month.
The Phillies may be the most interesting team in the second half, even if they enter it with one of the worst records. With the core of the team finally getting healthy, the Phillies have to get hot quickly to show that they have enough to get back into the race. If they donít, expect Cole Hamels to be traded and, possibly, Shane Victorino. But, they could provide the seasonís greatest second half story if the battle tested veterans can put together a historic run.
The Pirates should be looking to add another bat to bolster an improving offense. But, their real need may just be another arm or two. With their bullpen taxed, regression can be expected. They will also have to deal with pressure for the first time in quite some time. The story really isnít about the playoffs for the Bucs; it is more about them ending nearly two decades of losing baseball. For the first time in a while, Pittsburgh has our attention.
Only a game behind the Pirates, the Reds may be the most disappointing team, outside of the Phillies, of course. The Reds havenít played defense like they did two seasons ago when they were the best in the league. And, despite all of the offensive talent, they rank just 8th in runs scored. Mat Latos looks to be rounding into the ace they thought they were getting. If he does, the Reds have enough talent without adding anyone to win the division by double digits. They have to avoid being that underachieving team in the second half. The story of the Fighting Vottos and whether or not Latos can team with Johnny Cueto to be that dynamic duo will determine their fate. They are the most dangerous team in the NL if they can get it all together.
The Cardinals are hanging around, but injuries are mounting. Both the offense and the pitching staff have performed well thus far. The question will be how much regression there will be in the second half. Their talent base is so thin that any injury is a severe blow.
The Brewers Cubs are only relevant insofar as to who they are going to trade. Zack Greinke should be dealt, which could land the Brewers a gaggle of prospects. The Cubs have Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, and Alfonso Soriano all ready to be dealt.
The Dodgersí key to the second half lies within the ability of Matt Kemp to come back and pick up where he left off. At the start of the season, only Josh Hamilton was more dangerous at the plate. If Kemp can get back quickly, the pitching staff can remain consistent in spite of their injuries, and if new ownership can add a bat, the Dodgers can hold off the Giants.
The Giants have been keyed by Melky Cabrera, who is coming off his All-Star Game MVP performance. But, the NL hits leader isnít all that disciplined and his .388 BABIP suggests some regression. With an average offense, the Giants will still need all the pitching it can get. Their success lies on whether or not Barry Zito can continue to give decent innings and if Tim Lincecum can rediscover at least a portion of who he once was. If not, the Giants likely fade out of all races.
The rest of the NL West is really all about trade impact. The Diamondbacks are struggling to stay at the .500 mark and have seen both Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy regress and get injured. Things are further complicated by Justin Uptonís bizarre poor season. Now, Kevin Towers is said to be listening for offers. In the the right place, an addition of Upton would impact the pennant race greatly.
The Padres will decide whether or not to trade Carlos Quentin, who most definitely has the kind of difference making power. Third baseman Chase Headley could also be dealt. If one looks at Headleyís statistics outside of Petco, they show an above average offensive third baseman.
Sadly, like the Astros, the Rockies are irrelevant in the second half.
And, of course, there are the yet to be discovered storylines. Thatís what makes the sport so great.
BORN: April 17, 1975 (38)
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