And we’re off: Cincy Unscripted’s breakdown of the MLB… part 3

Join us all week as Jim Bianchine sounds off on MLB at the break.  Closing out the NL with the NL EAST

WASHINGTON NATIONALS (49-34)

Washington Nationals LogoTo some the Nationals are the biggest surprise in baseball. Afterall they have the top record in the NL. To others, not so much due primarily to the pitching potential this team showed at the outset and it has been as advertised as they head the NL East.

It all starts with pitching in the nation’s capitol and for some it all starts with Stephen Strasburg ( 9-4, 2.82) and for others, this season, former Oakland All-Star acquisition Gio Gonzalez (12-3, 2.92), now an All-Star in both leagues and tied for the NL lead in wins.

The Nationals expected big things too from Jordan Zimmerman and the hard luck hurler, despite little support and a 5-6 mark boasts a stellar 2.61 ERA. Toss in Jackson and .. Ross Detwiler and that is quite the five-man rotation, one worthy of leading its division as the Nats lead all of baseball with a 3.20 ERA.

Washington’s middle of the pack hitting (.251, 8th) should get a boost from Ryan Zimmerman once he regains his form following injuries as well as slugger Michael  Morse who was their main power source a season ago but has missed much of this season.

The guys who have carried the offensive load and carried it well are All-Star Ian  Desmond (.285-17-51) and steady Adam La Roche (15-53), but the infusion of potential superstar Bryce Harper should give a booster shot to the offense, already an All-Star at the tender age of 19 and appears to be the real deal.

Once hitters get healthy, Harper continues to mature and with the continued success of the starters, the Nats could be  hard to catch. If that isn’t enough add outstanding  reliever Tyler Clippard (14 SV, 1.93) and the Nats solid bullpen, should more than makeup for the loss of injured slugger Jason Werth and make them hard to beat.

ATLANTA BRAVES (46-39 – 4)

Few teams in baseball have been as hot and cold and thus as puzzling than the Braves who have to overcome the loss of starter Brandon Beachy and would like nothing
better than to send retiring star Chipper Jones out a winner.

Beachy, at the time of his injury, was atop the NL leader board with a 2.00 ERA. But the Braves can turn to a pair of solid starters in Tim Hudson (7-4, 3.56) and Tommy Hanson (10-5, 3.71) and are hopeful that once crafty Jair Jurjens can return to former star form. So much depends on the latter.

The Braves boast one of the finest bullpens in baseball led by lights out closer, All-Star Craig Kimbrel ( 1.36, 25 SV) and a host of good middlemen.

While the Braves rank eighth in the NL in pitching (3.91), they rank sixth in hitting (.259) despite a number of question marks.

Jones remains solid at the plate at 40 and speedy All-Star outfielder Michael Bourne (3.11) has already swiped 25 bases.

Former All-Star catcher Brian McCann (.238) is trying to regain form after injuries, Freddie Freeman has thus far been disappointing and has to turn it up and Jason  Heyward, once a can’t miss kid is finally starting to show that world of that promise (.272-14-41) but has to continue to make strides.

All-Star second baseman and main power source Dan Uggla has hit 12 homers, but is hitting only .221 and the lineup has to see continued improvement in many spots in the chase of the Nationals.

NEW YORK METS (46-40) – 4 ½)

Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets 11 Sept 2010Once a bit of an afterthought in a division with the perennially powerful Phillies and the promising young Nationals, manager Terry Collins has done a good job in the Big Apple keeping his team close in the race.

One can point to a pair of players largely responsible for the Mets success beginning with All-Star hurler, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, a reclamation project at 38, who not only is 12-1 but is tied for the NL lead in wins and sports a 2.40 ERA.

The rest of the staff has not produced such eye-popping numbers but Johan Santana (6-5), Jonathan Niese (7-4) and Dillon Gee (6-7)  round out a decent rotation combining to go 19-16.

However solid the starters have been and they have for the most part, the bullpen has gone the other way. Although Frank Francisco has 18 saves he sports a 4.97 ERA and is customarily an adventure as the Mets staff ranks 9th in the NL with a 3.96 ERA.

The lineup is far from fearsome, but All-Star David Wright is the anchor and is tearing it up. Ranked third in hitting (.351) and fifth in RBIs with 59, he gets little help around him. Lucas Duda, Scott Hairston and Ike Davis all have hit 12 homers, but none is hitting .250.

MIAMI MARLINS (41-44 – 9)

The Marlins, sporting a brand new ballpark, were the cool pick of many a preseason prognosticator. But it seems they have just enough talent to tease fans and not enough to be that tempting a pick frankly.

After a slow April they caught fire in May, primarily thanks to the slugging exploits of man-child Giancarlo Stanton who is an All-Star but is also now on the DL and that is a big blow for the Fish. His 19 homers ranks third in the league and he has the numbers (.284-50 RBI) but take him away from a lineup that ranks next to last in the NL in hitting (.242) and the Marlins are in big trouble.

Miami expected big things from Gabby Sanchez who was a bust and went out and got slugger Carlos Lee from Houston which has to help. But they need a return to form from Hanley Ramirez who is an enigma. He is hitting .248 following a sub par season when at one time not long ago he ranked among the game’s elite players.

Many thought pitching could be the team’s strong point and keep them in contention especially after landing lefty Mark Buehrle who has been solid (8-8, 3.25) and had hope for a return from injured Josh Johnson (5-5, 4.06) to his former status as one of the league’s top pitchers, but he isn’t there yet.

Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco lead what was expected to be a fine rotation, but both sport an ERA in excess of 4 runs a game.

The bullpen was to be solidified with the addition of Heath Bell. But the once effective closer of Padres fame has been nothing short of a disaster with a 6.25 ERA and a litany of blown saves.

Then of course the Marlins have to deal with the temperament of manager Ozzie Guillen and starter Carlos Zambrano and things, all in all, are a bit of a mess in Miami.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (37-50 -14)

Philly_6450Who would have thunk it? The five-time defending division champs are toast at the All-Star break.

Sure the offense was expected to take a hit with the absence of injured star slugger Ryan Howard who missed nearly the entire first half, having only eight at bats to date. And the team was without another perennial All-Star minus Chase Utley (34 AB) most of the first half too, but the once thought of Super Team’s troubles go well beyond those two absences.

While All-Star catcher .Carlos Ruiz is playing even beyond his potential (.350-13-46) and Hunter Pence is rock-solid as always (.285-16-50) catalyst Jimmy Rollins (.256) has struggled like the rest of the team, though the Phillies are fourth in the NL in hitting (.262), it is the once star-studded staff that has in large part let the team down.

Roy Halladay, one of the games very best  is out with an injury. Cliff Lee (1-5) didn’t win a game until July 4th.  Joe Blanton has been largely ineffective and Roy Oswalt is long gone. Only All-Star Cole Hammels is keeping the team from an even worse fate at 10-4 (3.20). Subtract his record and do the math. Yikes!

The bullpen, at least the back-end, is being held up by All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon, but the Phillies have dug themselves a hole in the dirt even Lazarus would not rise from.