by Robert Ferringo - 06/07/2005
Right about now in Major League Baseball, there's about as much stability atop the National League East as there is in a South American government. Over the course of 48 hours this past weekend, Florida went from first-to-worst, dropping three straight games to the Washington Nationals (aka the Montreal Ex-patriots), to go from the penthouse to the basement. Currently all five NL East teams are within a game-and-a-half of one another, and the log-jam is setting up what could be a very exciting summer.
The move made by the Nationals, who took six of seven games from Atlanta and Florida, was historic. The last time the city of Washington had a first-place ball club was the Senators back in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term (1933). Also, this is the latest in a season that a division with more than five teams has seen all of its members above .500 since it happened in the AL West on June 12, 1994. Incidentally, the AL West in 1991 was also the last division in which everyone finished the season with 82 or more wins.
Anyone who claims that the NL East is mired in mediocrity simply hasn't been paying attention. The Phillies and Marlins, both tied for last place in the East, would be in no less than third place in any other division. Also, while the Nationals wouldn't be leading any other division, you have to consider that they've played against deeper, more talented clubs within their division, which makes their record more impressive. There is no Houston or Tampa Bay to beat up on.
Interleague play begins this week, and will dominate the rest of June. Only one-third of the season is done, but it's great for baseball and great for fans of these five teams that the scoreboard watching has begun so early. There's still a lot of ball left to be played, and more than any other sport, baseball wears down and weeds out all non-hackers with the shear magnitude of its schedule.
As we stand right now, the surprising Nationals are in the driver's seat in the NL East race. However, I expect the Chinese fire drill that's taking place to continue over the rest of the season. Each of the teams currently involved in the race for the division title has clearly defined strengths and advantages. But they all also have some glaring weaknesses. Here's a quick breakdown of all five NL East teams, and what to look for out of them over the next few months:
(Stats and records as of 6/6)
Washington Nationals (31-26, first place in NL East race)
Why they'll win: They're solid in the one area that's a huge weakness for all of the other contenders - the bullpen. They've come from behind in 21 of their 31 wins, mainly because they can rely on the 'pen to keep them in it until the bats wake up. Chad Cordero (14 saves, 1.29 ERA) has been a gem, and their relievers' 13 wins is second in the NL. Also, they have a solid core of once-promising youngsters - Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen and Brad Wilkerson - that are now entering their primes.
Why they won't win: Why in god's name did Frank Robinson leave Livan Hernandez out there for an astounding 150-pitch game against Florida last Friday? Hernandez is the one proven arm that Washington has in its shaky rotation. I mean, Estaban Loaiza and Tomo Ohka have had moments over their careers, but are those the horses of a playoff team? No way.
X-factor: Robinson. We know he has a great baseball mind, and has been one of the nicest guys in the business for 30 years, but can he continue to coax this much out these overachievers? Ohka was just fined for showing up Robinson after getting pulled from a game, Marlon Byrd may be fined/suspended for plowing over an umpire, there's the Hernandez head-scratcher, and Jose Guillen is always one missed Prozac away from a meltdown. Can Robinson hold this crew together?
Final analysis: They've found their way to first place without their best player, Jose Vidro, who they'll get back around the All-Star Break. That should be a huge boost for a lineup ranked 14 out of 16 in run the NL in runs scored. However, I think their weak starting rotation and thin bench will turn a potentially amazing first season in D.C. to a very good one.
Atlanta Braves (30-27, 1.0 games back in NL East race)
Why they'll win: Because they're the Braves. Seriously. That's all they have going for them, but that may be all they need. Thirteen straight division titles is one of the more ridiculous stats in baseball history, and is a huge mental block for other teams in the division to overcome. Case in point: they're 18-14 against their NL East foes this year, best in the division.
Why they won't win: Everything else. Chipper Jones used the words "excruciating pain" and "surgery" on Monday when talking about his injured foot. If he's out for any extended time, forget about it. Their team batting average is .246 and they're 12th in the NL with runners in scoring position. Mike Hampton and John Thomson are on the DL, and after the resounding failure of the Danny Kolb Experiment, their bullpen is one of the worst in baseball. Also, they've been horrid on the road, posting a combined 6-13 on the last two road trips.
X-factor: If youngster Wilson Betemit (.333 average, .593 slugging, .455 OBP) continues to play well at 3B and SS, that could turn Rafael Furcal into trade bait. Furcal, whose contract is up at the end of this year, could be a valuable chip for John Schuerholz to play with as the trade deadline nears.
Final analysis: Chipper said it: "These young guys could be real exciting, or it could be a huge disaster." I'm hoping for a "How about we give Britney Spears her own reality show"-type disaster. Their lineup over the next month will feature Brayan Pena, Kerry Johnson, Julio Franco and Ryan Langerhans. Not good.
New York Mets (30-27, 1.0 games back in NL East race)
Why they'll win: Because they have the most well-rounded team, and the fewest weaknesses. They are 8th in runs scored, 9th in team batting, 3rd in HR's, 6th in team ERA, 6th in bullpen ERA and 4th in team WHIP. They have the deepest starting pitching (by far) in the division, and they haven't had a lineup this well constructed, and with this much pop, since 1999.
Why they won't win: They've been horribly inconsistent this season. They lose five in a row, win six in a row. They were under .500 as recently as two weeks ago, but then win 7 of 10. Also, they're 14th in the NL with runners in scoring position (.231). Finally, can Pedro and Glavine not just hold up, but be effective into August and September?
X-factor: This is Mike Piazza's swan song as a Met. His contract is up and he may consider retirement. His numbers (.253, 6 HR, 28 RBI) have continued their steady three-year decline, but he remains in the middle of the New York lineup. If he can find some of that 1998-2002 magic, that could be enough to but this team over the top.
Final analysis: I really like where this team is at right now. They've been out of the race at this point the last couple of years, but are in the thick of it now despite up-and-down play. I could definitely see the Mets ripping off 17-of-20 wins at some point in July, and that's the type of run it's going to take to win the division, but they could also drop 17-of-20. Also, the age and fragility of some key players leaves them susceptible to injuries down the stretch.
Philadelphia Phillies (30-28, 1.5 games back in NL East race)
Why they'll win: Because when the middle of their lineup - Bobby Abreau, Jim Thome and Pat Burrell - is healthy and producing, they have an offense that rivals St. Louis' in the NL. Abreau (.332, 14 HR, 42 RBI, 14 SB) is having an MVP season thus far, and just the fact that this team is in the race after its sluggish start could energize them.
Why they won't win: They're built like an AL team, and they don't have nearly enough starting pitching or middle relief to get it done. They're 12th in the NL in team ERA, and their bullpen's ERA (5.76) is the second-worst in the league. They could mash their way through June and July, but everyone knows that pitching gets it done in the fall.
X-factor: Like Abreau, Brett Myers has quietly been having one of the best seasons of any starting pitcher in the NL. He's 5-3 with a 2.24 ERA and 82 Ks. Florida has Josh Beckett, New York has Pedro, Atlanta has Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, and Washington has Hernandez. Myers would have to perform at that type of Ace level for Philly to have a chance.
Final analysis: This team has spoiler written all over it, and I see them playing a major role in the fate of this division. However, with too few reliable arms in the rotation and in the bullpen, I don't think they'll be the ones to come out on top.
Florida Marlins (28-26, 1.5 games back in NL East race)
Why they'll win: They have the most talent (1st in ERA, 2nd in batting). This team has a great front end of the rotation with Beckett, AJ Burnett and Dontrelle Willis. They also have experience, with many principles from the 2003 World Series champs remaining. They play very good defense, and once their All-Star laden lineup gets hot, they could pull away.
Why they won't win: Who's going to get clutch hits? Over their last 12 games, the Marlins have left an astounding 98 men on base, and they're 13th in the NL in runs scored. Mike Lowell and Juan Pierre have been hovering around the Mendoza Line all year, and Carlos Delgado hasn't had the colossal impact that he was supposed to when they signed him in the off season.
X-factor: The Palm Beach Post reported that the Marlins are running out of patience with Guillermo Mota, who was supposed to be the team's closer this year. Mota had a heated verbal exchange with manager Jack McKeon on Saturday night, and the inconsistency at a position that has been manned effectively over the last three years by Braden Looper, Ugueth Urbina and Armando Benitez has clearly had an effect on this team.
Final analysis: Over the last two weeks they've been in contact with the agent for Danny Graves, Cincinnati's former closer. If they can pick up a reliable arm (Graves or someone else) to stabilize the bullpen, then I see no reason why the Marlins can't pull the ol' first-to-worst-to-first. I see them battling with the Mets for the rest of what should be an exciting season.