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