Yesterday, I dove into the biggest storylines in the American League now that the MLB season has reached the quarter mark. Today, we take a closer at the National League.
East: Phillies relying heavily on a weak division
The Philadelphia Phillies were flush with payroll flexibility this past offseason, and they went out and spent big. They beefed up their outfield by adding Andrew McCutchen (3 years, 50 million) and Bryce Harper (13 years, 330 million). They shored up their bullpen by adding David Robertson on a two-year deal. The front office wheeled and dealed, adding Jean Segura and JT Realmuto in trades.
Harper has struggled, and as a result, the Philadelphia offense has been stuck in neutral. The Phillies rank just 7th in the NL in runs scored, 11th in homers, and 9th batting average. That’s not very good considering what they went out to get this offseason. Pitching has been marginally better, with Zach Eflin establishing himself as the best starter in this rotation. Jake Arrieta (4.02 ERA) and Aaron Nola (4.86) need to step up if the Phillies want to win this division in the long run.
But for right now, who am I kidding? The Phillies have a lead in the East, with only the Atlanta Braves currently over .500. Even they haven’t played with any consistency, going over and under that line like a yo-yo. The New York Mets continue to play like, well, the New York Mets. Down in the nation’s capital, the Nationals are struggling to hitch up the wagons, as the departure of Harper and the injuries sustained by the likes of Trae Turner, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman (no shock on the last two) have sapped the Nationals of whatever power they have. Do I really need to mention the Marlins? Miami has one bright spot in one of the ugliest rebuilds in recent memory, and that is lefty Caleb Smith, owner of a 2.25 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 48 innings of work.
Central: Gonna be an interesting summer
Anyone could guess that this division would come down to the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers. And while these two teams have been duking it out, you can’t rule out the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, or, dare I say, the Cincinnati Reds.
Let’s start at the top. The Chicago Cubs had an awful start to 2019, going 2-7 with everyone talking about their horrendous pitching and defense. That definitely felt like ages ago, as the Cubs now boast the second-best ERA in the National League behind Cincinnati (more on them later). Milwaukee is still sticking around though, relying more on a heavy hitting lineup (NL leading 74 homers) to offset their ho-hum rotation and bullpen. Christian Yelich is raking right now, trying to make a push at a Triple Crown season (he leads the majors with 18 homers, but sits behind Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger in average and runs batted in).
St. Louis has seen a rebirth from Marcell Ozuna (13 homers, 38 RBI’s). Paul Dejong (.331 average, 23 extra-base hits) has taken another step forward in his development. And who can ignore Yadier Molina, putting up 30 RBI’s to lead all catchers? The problem is that the starting rotation is prone to the long ball. Dakota Hudson has given up 9 big flies, and Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas have each allowed 8.
Pittsburgh has been a really weird team to figure out. The Bucs have scored the second-fewest runs in the NL, ahead of only Miami. The pitching has been okay, with the fifth fewest runs allowed, but when your offense can’t get anything going, and Jordan Lyles (3-1, 2.09, 35 strikeouts) is your leader in WAR, there’s a problem. You can’t ask Josh Bell, as great a year as he’s had at the plate so far, to do everything.
Now we get to Cincinnati. The Reds pitching, usually a bane for them, has been one of their strengths in 2019. Luis Castillo continues to excite, posting a 1.90 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 61 innings. Sonny Gray, while not exactly lighting it up, has started to regain his confidence and has found the ace-like stuff (at times) that he had in Oakland. The bullpen has built a nice bridge to closer Rasiel Iglesias, who has more than proven that he is capable of ninth-inning duties. If they can keep pitching the way that they are, and the bats get going, this Cincinnati club is going to make things really interesting.
West: The Padres are close
Let’s be real: the Los Angeles Dodgers were not going to have any real competition in the NL West. Arizona was tearing it down, Colorado’s 2018 pitching stats were an aberration. San Diego, even with signing Manny Machado to a 10-year, 300 million dollar deal (a year after throwing 184 million over eight years at Eric Hosmer) were still a year away. As for my San Francisco Giants, well, it’s time. Tear it down.
However, the Padres have a legitimate shot of taking down the Dodgers. Obviously, a lot of factors go into this take, most of which are not in San Diego’s control. Let me explain:
It is true that the San Diego offense hasn’t taken off just yet. They still sit 12th in runs scored and average less than four runs a game. This isn’t going to cut it, especially against Los Angeles. But it’s important to note that this team is young. They only have one regular player, Ian Kinsler, who’s over the age of 30. Fernando Tatis Jr, when he comes of the disabled list, is only 20. These guys are going to take their lumps at the dish.
The youth movement continues in the rotation, with their oldest starter being Matt Strahm at 27. Waiting in the wings is Mackenzie Gore, who’s also only 20. Just like the lineup, the pitching staff is going to have to take their lumps. Joey Lucchesi has an ERA of 4.57. Eric Lauer’s sits at 5.24. On the plus side, Strahm and Chris Paddack have been ridiculously good, posting ERAs of 3.07 and 1.99 respectively.
Overall, the more these young guys get to play, and the more they improve, the better off San Diego is going to be. Who knows? they might accelerate the timeline and knock the Dodgers off their throne sooner than anyone thinks.
It’s been a wild first quarter of the season, and it will be interesting to see what the rest of the summer brings.