The NL East: Pholdin’ Phils, floundering Fish, Strasburg’s cap

Will Stephen Strasburg still be making deliveries in September? (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

Will Stephen Strasburg still be making deliveries in September? (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

It’s not the best division in baseball — that’s still the American League East — but the National League East is the most intriguing. The reigning champ of five years’ standing is in last place. A franchise that has never finished above .500 since moving from Montreal holds first place by a four-game spread. A team that doubled its payroll is in fourth place and just lost its best everyday player to knee surgery. A team based in the nation’s biggest market bears the look of a plucky underdog. And then there are the Braves.

And everywhere there are questions. Will the Marlins give up on their season? Do the Mets have any money to spend? Will the Phillies trade Cole Hamels? Will the Braves land Zack Greinke? Will the Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg? A look at each team, starting at the bottom.

Philadelphia Phillies (37-50, 14 games behind): Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have finally returned, but too late. Even the great rotation has come undone.Roy Halladay is on the disabled list, Cliff Lee has won one game and Hamels, who’ll become a free agent at season’s end, could be traded this month. (That doesn’t, however, mean he might be gone from Philly for good. Over the weekend he left open the possibility of re-signing with the Phillies over the winter even if he’s traded before the deadline.)

Even more troubling: Charlie Manuel, the manager everybody likes, removed center fielder Shane Victorino from the lineup an hour before Sunday’s. Manuel told reporters he spotted Victorino, who’s also a free-agent-to-be but who’s hitting .245, looking glum in the clubhouse. “He was down,” Manuel said. Moral of this story: It’s never easy when a team accustomed to winning big falls to pieces.

Miami Marlins (41-44, nine games behind): The Miami Herald reported that owner Jeffrey Loria, whose team moved into its glitzy new stadium this spring after spending big over the winter, is saying he won’t give up on the season. Sure enough, the Fish just spent a little more to acquire first baseman Carlos Lee from Houston. But right fielder Giancarlo Stanton had arthroscopic knee surgery and will miss a month.

Closer Heath Bell, imported as a free agent over the winter, has blown six of 25 save chances. Shortstop Jose Reyes, bought as a free agent for $106 million over six seasons, is hitting .264 with an on-base percentage of .336. (By way of comparison, that OBP is lower than Dan Uggla’s.) Hanley Ramirez, moved to third base to accommodate Reyes, is hitting .248 with an OBP of .323 and cut his finger Sunday after smacking a cooling fan in frustration. Manager Ozzie Guillen called the injury “stupid,” and Ozzie, who was suspended by the team for five games after expressing admiration for Fidel Castro, hasn’t had the smartest of seasons, either.

New York Mets (46-40, 4 1/2 games behind): The Big Apple’s other team has had a giddy half-season. Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter, albeit an umpire-aided one, in franchise annals. R. A. Dickey should have been the National League’s All-Star starting pitcher. David Wright could be the league’s MVP. That said …

Beyond Wright, the everyday lineup isn’t imposing, and the bullpen has posted the league’s worst ERA. (Even worse than Miami’s!) Ordinarily a New York team would seek to buy its way out of a deficiency, but it’s unclear if the Mets, whose farm system was laid bare during Omar Minaya’s years as general manager and whose finances were roiled by the Madoff Ponzi scheme, can afford to do much ahead of the deadline. They’re said to be looking at relievers, which isn’t quite the same as buying a big bat.

Atlanta Braves (46-39, four games behind): You know about this bunch. They need starting pitching. (Although Ben Sheets’ second outing for Class AA was better than the first, and he could be summoned soon.) Shortstop Andrelton Simmons will miss a month with a broken finger, and the bench was already overmatched. Still, the Braves managed to nose ahead of the Mets on the first half’s final Sunday, and they’re positioned nicely in the wild-card race.

Washington Nationals (49-34, four games ahead): They hold the league’s best record, and they’ve achieved it with the league’s best pitching. The rotation is terrific, and the bullpen has been nearly as good. But the Nats have maintained they’ll cap the innings of Strasburg, who’s coming off Tommy John surgery, somewhere around 160. He has worked 99.

The Nats have already persevered through injuries to outfielder Jayson Werth, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Wilson Ramos. Zimmerman has been tearing it up since receiving a cortisone shot in his shoulder, and Werth is due back early next month. But can a team desperate to win something really afford to shelve its most dynamic pitcher in September, or will it get creative and have him skip a start or two in August?

By Mark Bradley

66 comments Add your comment

todd grantham

July 10th, 2012
1:57 pm

SO HERE WE ARE AGAIN

RG1

July 10th, 2012
1:57 pm

todd grantham

July 10th, 2012
1:58 pm

The Braves’ bench is what worries me the most. Could Brooks Conrad be an upgrade for the present cast?

Stinger 2

July 10th, 2012
2:04 pm

Mark: Good assessment of each team at the All Star break. The Braves
are not in bad shape but they need to get the right replacement for Simmons as well as a starter to fill the gap. Not sure Sheets is the answer
but maybe he can help. Another bat off the bench won`t hurt either.

Weyman C. Wannamaker Jr (A Great American)

July 10th, 2012
2:04 pm

Dang… 4th.

And nothing to show for it.

BigGTMike

July 10th, 2012
2:04 pm

Go get a real Ace instead of the King (Hanson) and Queen (healthy Hudson) that we have! Should have traded all those young arms before they had a chance to see Dr. Andrews.

And a serviceable shortstop. We can’t go another month with Pastornicky and Wilson; we decided that much a month and a half ago.

Weyman C. Wannamaker Jr (A Great American)

July 10th, 2012
2:05 pm

Or fifth, even

Hillbilly D

July 10th, 2012
2:10 pm

The Phillies got old in a hurry; the Fish are an implosion waiting to happen. If I were a betting man, I’d pick the Mets to fade. The Braves are knocking along and the Nats look like the class of the division, if they stay healthy. Always put your money on the team with pitching.

A lot of baseball left to be played and as a pretty good baseball man once said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”.

Joe Bling

July 10th, 2012
2:16 pm

The Nats will fade. They have the pitching, but those arms are going to get tired. You heard it here first.

The Braves are in a good spot to win the division. But the loss off Simmons is going to hurt badly. They cannot replace him with Wilson and Pastornicky. That’s not going to work. We know that already, so it looks like they will have to make some kind of move.

Marlins will finish in second place, five games behind the Braves.

wayn-o

July 10th, 2012
2:18 pm

todd, I believe Brooks Conrad is on the Rays

Mark Bradley

July 10th, 2012
2:25 pm

Kudos to todd.

stew

July 10th, 2012
2:28 pm

Maybe we should get Brooks to play SS.

GT Alum

July 10th, 2012
2:30 pm

It’s not Simmons the Braves need to replace, it’s Wilson. Get a back-up SS that’s good as more than a 9th inning defensive replacement and the Braves will be fine until Simmons gets back. Once he does get back, the bench will also be improved. Trading to rent a starting SS would be a waste of resources.

GT Alum

July 10th, 2012
2:32 pm

Had to laugh at the description of the Fish, especially since I can’t think of an owner more deserving of having a team blow up in his face.

Abnerish

July 10th, 2012
2:34 pm

I think Dempster is a much better fit for the Braves, if he’s healthy. And I agree that we need to upgrade the bench if possible. Hinske is just not cutting it this year.

Herschel Talker

July 10th, 2012
2:36 pm

MB:

FIRE FREDI GONZALEZ!!!!

HT

Jean Claude Killy

July 10th, 2012
2:39 pm

I too think the Nats will fade,,, but thats what everyone thought about the 91 Braves, Ya just never know…

Brent

July 10th, 2012
2:40 pm

Where’s Troy Glaus?

Jean Claude Killy

July 10th, 2012
2:41 pm

One thing is for sure,, we know this Braves team is capable of “Epic” Fade,,,,,,

Brendan

July 10th, 2012
2:51 pm

I mean this in the nicest possible way, but Charlie Manuel is going to split that unform right down the seams waddling out to the mound, if someone doesn’t order him a larger size pants. It’s no wonder he’s gaining weight. Gotta be that ‘nervous’ eating, watching the Phillies phone it in, every game. And does anyone need a bigger ‘wake-up’ call that being swept by the Braves, in Philly? Or having Atlanta steal four bases, including HOME, in the same inning?

Charlie Manuel may have lost the room. It’s that, or the Phillies aren’t worth their large payroll anymore. But I’m not ready to blame this all on Father Time, just yet. The Phillies either have to fire Manuel, or make a trade, right after the All-Star break. It’s hard to believe it was only 2008 that the Phillies won the World Series. Feels like a decade ago. In Philly’s shoes, I’d still try to salvage the season. We saw what Tampa Bay did last year. We saw what St. Louis did last year. While that’s hardly the norm, Philly has the talent to get to # 5 in the NL. They just have to WAKE UP.

The wake up call might be the departure of Charlie Manuel.

TOo Tough44

July 10th, 2012
2:51 pm

I like Matt Diaz..but he needs to go! Too inconsistent lately…… Henskie, I like him, but his productivity DOWN, we need pitching and a bench….go Braves

ATL Fan

July 10th, 2012
2:53 pm

Phunny stuph.

Skokie Dog

July 10th, 2012
2:54 pm

Two words: Rafael Belliard. He’s got the glove to cover the SS position for the next few weeks, then he’d be a semi-big bat coming off the bench in September. And we won’t have to sacrifice any of our young pitchers to get him.

Schadenfreude

July 10th, 2012
3:06 pm

So very sarcastically sad at the fates that have befallen the billion-dollar Phillies and Marlins. (Ozzie Guillen had better watch it; managers get fired in Florida for daring to criticize the franchise darling, Hanley.) And if the Nationals insist that Strasburg’s innings clock is ticking, how about we let him pitch all nine for the National League tonight? Here’s hoping for a Braves resurgence in the second half! (Only 10 more Monday games left!)

Babe Ruth's old sock

July 10th, 2012
3:10 pm

Why don’t we put Prado at SS and platoon Diaz/Henskie in LF for a few weeks and trade for two really good pitchers? Seems a bit more reasonable than trading for one pretty good pitcher and one bench man. But alas I am just an ignorant fan who pays his hard earned money to watch what Frank Wren puts on the field. Many more seasons like last season and there will be thousands of us who do not go to the ballpark and pay good money to watch this team.

Brent

July 10th, 2012
3:11 pm

Enter your comments here

Orin

July 10th, 2012
3:13 pm

The Braves are not going anywhere as long as Freddi remains the manager. Trust me if Venters had not gone in the DL, he would have appeared in at least two of those games in Philly and certainly we would not have gotten the sweep. And how can Uggla be an All-Star? Guy is batting .221. Sorry but these guys are to inconsistent and not managed well at all to be considered a World Series threat. JMO.

Hankie Aron

July 10th, 2012
3:23 pm

Babe Ruth’s old sock—for the last time, Prado is not and will never be a shortstop!

Hankie Aron

July 10th, 2012
3:24 pm

He doesn’t have the range. Shortstop is a much different position than any other in the infield.

Glenn

July 10th, 2012
3:41 pm

They need real Batting Coach…

Babe Ruth's old sock

July 10th, 2012
3:46 pm

Hankie…did I say move him there permanently? No. What I was merely speculating on was the idea of playing him there for a few games in a season. Way to over react there big dog. However, I bet he would play a pretty damn good SS.

Greg

July 10th, 2012
3:55 pm

Say what you want about pitching, but the Braves still suffer from the same thing they always have – a lack of clutch hitting. Freeman and McCann are batting under .200 with runners in scoring position and Uggla is under .220 in those situations. It never has ceased to amaze me how Braves hitters have continually choked over the past 20 years in the moments that have mattered most. Even when they won their one and only title, they needed the pitching staff to throw a shutout to win 1-0 in the clinching game.

Brendan

July 10th, 2012
3:57 pm

Sage, you have quite an admirer.

Brendan

July 10th, 2012
3:58 pm

Sage, wasn’t Keith Brooking the BEST! Just, the BEST!!

My favorite thing about him were the tackles 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage, that sent him to the Pro Bowl.

fuzzybee

July 10th, 2012
4:11 pm

The Nationals are like the guy who buys a shiny new car but are afraid to drive it because it might get a scratch. 5 years later it is worth nothing and they never got to enjoy it.

Yogi

July 10th, 2012
4:13 pm

It’s over.

Ken Stallings

July 10th, 2012
4:17 pm

It should be very easy for every Atlanta Braves fan to recognize the Washington Nationals. The Nats are the new Braves! They have dominant pitching, good and steady defense, and enough hitting to win games. They won’t go on any long-term losing streaks because of their pitching and defense, and will likely end the regular season with about 95 victories and win the NL East.

Then, the lottery of the post season where individual plays in the most random of all games decide your fate and leave you open to oversimplistic plaudits from the uninformed, or if you don’t win it all, equally uninformed condemnations that you choked.

The Nats built their team the same way the Braves built their dynasty — through excellent drafting and minor league development, using years of futility to draft excellent prospects and spending on scouts and minor league instruction to convert the talent.

It is no accident that when the organization moved from Montreal to Washington, they wanted men with the Braves stamp on them. They brought the formula and proved once again that it works!

keith

July 10th, 2012
4:20 pm

How do these people blame Freddi for Venters. If Venters keeps telling the manager that he is fine than what do you suggest he do. Freddi is not the trainer and cannot be responsible for Venters lying to the team.

Brad

July 10th, 2012
4:22 pm

Hey mark… What do you think the chances are that the Braves will make a move for Cole Hamels or Ryan Dempster before the trade deadline.

GwinnettDad

July 10th, 2012
4:26 pm

Visited the baseball pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently. Some of the sour pusses there sound a great deal like the sour pusses here, except with their record and all those sellouts, the bellyaches are currently far more severe there. Oh well, that’s baseball! And at least those bellyachers are whining on blog rather than kicking their dog or beating their wife!

Heisenberg

July 10th, 2012
4:26 pm

If the Nats truly want to limit Strasburg’s innings they will have to do more than skip a start or 2. I would move him to the bullpen for 3-4 weeks and put Wang back in the rotation as the # 5 during that time. And if they plan to use him during playoffs, that inning count is going to approach 180-190 even with some time off. Reality is I would be surprised if they are able to stick to the 160 innings.

1eyedJack

July 10th, 2012
4:28 pm

“5 years later it is worth nothing and they never got to enjoy it.”

Sounds like my first wife.

Tomahawkin

July 10th, 2012
4:30 pm

I warned people about the Curley W’s on O’Brien’s Blog and I was told I needed to learn the Game by some of the Early AM know it alls on there

Point is the Only way we make the playoffs is If we can beat both the Curley W’s and the Phillies Going down the stretch

It seems as if since 2009 both of those teams have handed our (Exepletive) to us during the months of August and September?

Hillbilly D

July 10th, 2012
4:32 pm

GwinnettDad

You can find that on most any baseball blog, for most any team. I think baseball fans are only truly happy, when they’re unhappy. ;-)

Heisenberg

I think when they came up with that 160 inning limit for Strasburg, they didn’t expect things to go quite as well as they have, this soon in their plan. Unless, they have an Epic Collapse, I expect to see the inning limit go right out the window. I think moving him to the pen would be a mistake. Look at how many guys have injuries from moving back and forth from the pen to the rotation. I wouldn’t take that chance, if I were them.

Bill

July 10th, 2012
4:37 pm

Babe Ruth’s old sock –

I doubt that Prado would be a better defensive SS than Pastornicky. By moving Prado to SS and having Diaz/Hinske in LF, we weaken the defense at both SS and LF. The gain in terms of offense would be Diaz/Hinske instead of Pastornicky. While the sample size is small, Pastornicky’s offensive numbers from April and May are just as good as Diaz’ & Hinske’s numbers. Martin is great in terms of versatility, but you ask too much.

I expect the Braves will recall Pastornicky — unless they think Simmons is gone for the whole year. Pastornicky is below average defensively, but I don’t know who the Braves could get who would put up much better offensive numbers (without giving up a lot in terms of a trade). Perhaps the Rockies would part with Marco Scutaro, who would be an offensive upgrade.

Babe Ruth's old sock

July 10th, 2012
4:40 pm

I agree about the defense Bill 100%. His offense would be much better though. LoL who knows we may all be surprised and find ourselves with Prado at 3rd, Simmons at Short, Josh Hamilton AND Michael Bourn in the OF next season. Very unlikely but man that would be nice!

duronimo

July 10th, 2012
4:41 pm

Sliding head first can be avoided is somewhere along the way a player is taught to slide properly. I knew this was coming after a really scary slide in to first some games ago.

By the way. Code officer. Just look up the word “Nazi” in the dictionary. But it’s a new stream of income for our oppressive governments.

Bill

July 10th, 2012
4:45 pm

BRos — But you need to compare more than Prado vs. Pastornicky in terms of offense. By moving Martin, you end up with Diaz/Hinske in the lineup, both of whom aren’t doing so well this year (and, quite frankly, neither Diaz nor Hinske had good offensive seasons last year). Overall, I would rather have Martin in LF and the Rev at SS over what you propose — both in terms of total offense and total defense. Leave Diaz and Hinske on the bench for pinch hitting at the right time.

Scoots

July 10th, 2012
4:51 pm

Not sure why people think the Nats will fade – they’ve been steady all year. I still think the Braves could overtake them if they get hot, and definitely expect them to get a wild card. But there’s nothing I see that shows me the Nats are not for real.

It is satisfying to see the Phillies in the cellar. I take great pleasure in that.

Scoots

July 10th, 2012
4:51 pm

Also, Prado is not a shortstop