Is The NL East Up For Grabs?

Cole Hamels

The Phillies have struggled in Interleague Play, but are still the favorite to win the National League East, says Tyler Hissey. While the club, currently 43-38, has just a one-game lead over the Florida Marlins in the division, it has outscored opponents 411-337. The Phillies' run differential of 74, in fact, is one of the best in the majors.

After a torrid start, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, batting .247/.354/.457 in June, has cooled down at the plate as of late. The majors' home run leader entering the month, Utley has hit only three homers in 81 June at-bats. From May 28 to June 2, he homered in five consecutive games, as Philadelphia won four of five. But Utley's last home run came nearly three weeks ago in the Phillies' 20-2 thumping over the St. Louis Cardinals on June 13. During his slump, his NL East second base counterpart, Dan Uggla (23 homers entering Saturday), has surpassed him for the major league lead in home runs.

Throughout the month Utley has continued to play excellent defense--he does not get enough credit for his achievements with the glove--at second base. It is no coincidence, however, that his offensive struggles have coincided with the Phillies' recent slide. While Interleague Play has not been friendly to many teams on the Senior Circuit, the Phils' are 2-9 since they put up 20 runs in St. Louis. During that period, Utley posted a line of .143/.245/.238, as he has collected only six base hits in his last 42 at-bats.

As a team in the month of June, Philadelphia is batting .233/.325/.395, for a putrid OPS of .716, and has scored 103 runs. Utley is the key bat for Phillies, who are still the favorite to win the National League East. While the club, currently 43-38, has just a one-game lead over the Florida Marlins in the division, it has outscored opponents 411-337. The Phillies' run differential of 74, in fact, is one of the best in the majors.

Led by Utley, his double-play partner, Jimmy Rollins, and the surging Pat Burrell, Philadelphia ranks fourth in the majors in runs scored. Despite the swoon this month, the club still boasts one of the most dynamic offenses as Major League Baseball enters the second half of its season. The Phillies also sit 10th in team ERA, 3.90, led by young left-hander Cole Hamels.

Hamels has posted an opponents' line of .210/.262/.377, striking out 95 while only walking 29. Overall, he is 7-5 with a 3.27 ERA and the second-lowest WHIP (1.03) in the National League in 113.0 innings pitched.

Kyle Kendrick has a low batting average on balls in play, pointing towards regression. However, Kendrick, a savior for Philadelphia down the stretch last season, is coming off arguably the most dominant outing of his career. On Wednesday, he stopped the bleeding for the Phillies against the American League, tossing eight four-hit, shutout innings in a win over the Oakland Athletics. While he has received his fair share of run support, he is 7-3 in 16 starts, with the 10th-highest winning percentage in baseball.

Jamie Moyer is an ageless wonder. Moyer has been solid, going 7-5 with a1.36 WHIP.

Brett Myers' return to the rotation was supposed to give the Phillies a huge boost. Myers' once-plus velocity has eluded him this spring, however, and he has struggled with his command at times. If he can get it going post-break, the Phillies will add an impact arm before the trade deadline, by default.

Francisco Rodriguez may be on pace to break Bobby Thigpen's single-season saves record, given how plentiful save chances are for the low-scoring Los Angeles Angels. Still, one could make the case that Phillies closer Brad Lidge has been the better ninth-inning stopper this season. Lidge was acquired in a deal with the Houston Astros this offseason in exchange for speedster Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary and a minor leaguer. Labeled as a "head case with lights-out stuff," many applauded Pat Gillick for pulling the trigger on the deal, because it allowed Myers to convert back to a starter. Lidge, however, has been invaluable to Philadelphia, limiting opponents to a line of .157/.258/.185 while picking up 18 saves in as many chances. In 30.1 innings pitched, he is 1-0 with a 0.87 ERA and 1.03 WHIP.

With such a balanced attack—despite its recent struggles against teams from the superior league—Philadelphia is still the favorite entering the season's final 81 games. At the same time, the Marlins--with a starting rotation consisting of mediocre starting pitchers such as former NBA player Mark Hendrickson--have actually been outscored by the competition, with a -15 run differential. This indicates that Florida has had its fair share of luck this season.

After being swept by the Tampa Bay Rays this week, the Marlins appear to be a pretender at this juncture, while their in-state rival established themselves as legitimate threat in the American League East. Florida is batting .252./.318/.441 as a team. Every starter in the Marlins' infield--Jorge Cantu (14, .811 OPS), Mike Jacobs (18, .785 OPS), Hanley Ramirez (.17, .904 OPS) and Uggla--has reached double digits in home runs.

The pitching staff down in Miami, however, has been a cause for concern. Thus, it is unlikely that the team will maintain its current win/loss record.

Josh Johnson is on his way back to majors, getting ready to make one of his last rehab appearances.

Ricky Nolasco is 8-4 with a 66-to-28 K/W ratio.

Andrew Miller, 5-6 with a 1.60 WHIP, has had some issues with command, but has flashed brief glimpses of his tremendous potential.

Scott Olsen has rebounded from a tumultuous '07 campaign, posting a 3.44 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in his first 16 starts.

Regardless, the Marlins' starting rotation, which has posted an opponents' line of .276/.347/.345, will not be an area of strength for the club down the stretch. Thus, as the bats cool off, the Marlins could fall too far out of contention to make a realistic push for the postseason.

The Atlanta Braves are on pace to set a record for the most one-run losses in a single season; if the team won half of those contests they would perhaps be atop the standings right now in the division. Cleary, Atlanta has had its fair share of bad luck, as their +47 run differential indicates.

Still, at 40-41, the Braves are only three games back in the East. Despite all of the losses in close games, they are a legitimate threat--perhaps the Phillies' most realistic competition--to reach the postseason, especially if the breaks start to bounce their way in the second half.

Brian McCann has the highest OPS, .921, among all catchers in the majors.

Chipper Jones is enjoying arguably the strongest first half of his career, batting .394/.485/.630, for the majors' best OPS (1.115). While eclipsing the .400 plateau seems unlikely, Atlanta needs Jones' bat--assuming he can stay healthy, which is a big if--to continue to carry them following the All-Star break. If he can remain on the field and the Braves are playing meaningful games in September, he has a strong chance to add an MVP award to his stellar resume.

Coming off a three-homer game, soon-to-be free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira seems destined to have a strong second half. With a long-term, $100-million deal awaiting him this winter, Teixeira--currently batting .271/.365/.471--has plenty of motivation to put up lofty numbers after the break. With Atlanta still in the hunt, it is unlikely that the organization would consider dealing him before the trade deadline, though the club is reportedly interested in adding another bat to solidify their lineup. Pittsburgh outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady have surfaced in rumors, and--at the right price for GM Frank Wren--either outfielder could be the right match.

Even with the absence of veterans Mike Hampton, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, Atlanta still boasts a formidable pitching staff, and seems set on starting pitching.

Jorge Campillo, 1.02 WHIP in eight starts, has been a solid upgrade, missing bats to the tune of a 53-to-12 K/W ratio.

Tim Hudson, as usual, continues to anchor the staff. Hudson, 8-5, has registered a 2.96 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 109.1 innings pitched.

Jair Jurrjens has been the premier rookie starting pitcher through the midway point, going 8-3 with a 2.94 ERA. Jurrjens, acquired this offseason in the trade that sent Edgar Renteria to Detroit, is a strong candidate to take home NL Rookie of the Year honors in a deep class of newcomers. He has posted an opponents' OPS of .666, 1.32 WHIP and 69-to-37 K/W ratio, surrendering only 32 earned runs and 92 hits in 98.0 innings pitched.

Another youngster, Charlie Morton, will get a crack in the second half as well. Morton, who established himself as a solid major league prospect with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League in 2007, has had an up-and-down stint in the minors since the Braves selected him out of Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Connecticut back in 2002.

After Philadelphia, it seems, Atlanta has the most realistic chance of winning the division crown.

The New York Mets, 39-40, have a -2 run differential, and are unlikely to emerge as a realistic contender in the second half.

Manager change or not--honestly, will Jerry Manuel make that much of a difference?--this club seems destined to miss the postseason for the second consecutive year. There has been a lot of talk about how New York has underachieved. But have they, really? Like the myth that the Seattle Mariners are underperforming--solely because they added Erik Bedard this offseason to a team that was lucky to remain in postseason contention last summer--many people view the Mets' poor first half as a surprise. After all, they added All-Star left-hander Johan Santana--the best starter in baseball from 2004-to-'06--to the starting pitching mix this offseason.

Still, though, the New York appears to be headed towards a .500 season, which really is not all that much of shock.

The Mets' chapter in the 2008 Baseball Prospectus handbook ends like this: "The Mets endured a shocking last-minute disappointment in 2007. Unable or unwilling to undertake a needed rebuilding of their aging roster, the Mets will suffer more disappointment in 2008, only this year it will start on Opening Day."

Omar Minaya's job seems safe, but should it be? He has thrown far too much money at aging stars on the decline--some players whom have never been stars; Luis Castillo at four years, $25-million, for example. Yet again, the '08 version of the Mets proves that a high payroll does not guarantee success.

Jose Reyes and David Wright (.844 and .874 OPS, respectively) have not provided as much offensive production as they are capable of. Outside of the talented left-side of the New York infield, though, most hitters on the roster are staying in line with their pre-season projections.

Carlos Delgado needed a nine-RBI performance on Friday night to improve his OPS to .734. Delgado, an aging 36-year-old who inches towards replacement-level caliber with every passing day, is batting .233/.313/.422. It is no secret; his days as a productive offensive player are long gone.

While the offense has struggled--as a team, the club ranks 13th in runs scored, 19th in home runs (71) and OPS (.728) and 21st in batting average--the club's veteran starting rotation is equally as concerning.

Can Pedro Martinez stay healthy over the next 81 games? Martinez is 2-2 with a 7.12 ERA in six starts.

Oliver Perez is consistently inconsistent, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impersonator out on the mound. He has struggled with his command as well, currently ranking second in the National League with 52 walks. Overall, the 26-year-old southpaw is 5-5 with a 5.29 ERA, opponents' OPS of .802 and 1.56 WHIP. Hitters are batting .252/.374/.427 against him in 83.1 innings pitched.

Santana no longer has the same dominant stuff that he had in Minnesota a few years ago, but has still been the most effective New York starter. While he has given up 14 home runs--he allowed 33 in '07--he has been a lot more effective than his 7-6 record indicates, posting a team-best 2.93 ERA.

Still, with the Mets' pitching staff and anemic offense, odds are against a repeat of last season's historic September collapse. Unfortunately, though, the reason is that the club will not have a division lead to give away, as a third-place finish appears likely for Mr. Minaya's overpaid bunch of veterans.

The Washington Nationals, currently 11 games back, do not have the personnel to make a late-season charge. With Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge, though, there is still entertainment value from the baseball team in DC.

There is a great deal of baseball left to be played, and the NL East is still wide open. At this point, though, Atlanta and Philadelphia appear to be the most realistic contenders in the division.

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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