QuickPitch: NL Division Races will be Fights to the End
The dog days of the baseball season may be more like the dogfight days this year. No divisional races are considered locks, especially with two months left in the season. The addition of the second wild-card spot has certainly made things more interesting with several contenders making moves to upgrade their squads at the deadline. Let’s look at how the flurry of trade activity on Monday affects the NL pennant race moving forward.
With respect to the NL Central, the East is the National League’s best division this year with the Nationals, Mets, and Marlins all legitimate playoff contenders. The Nationals at 62-44 currently hold a 5-game lead over the second-place Marlins and are 7.5 games up on the Mets. All three teams were active at the deadline, engaging in some of the most high-profile transactions of this year’s trading period.
After losing out on the Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller sweepstakes, the Nationals secured the bullpen help they needed by dealing two pitching prospects for Pirates closer Mark Melancon. Leading the majors last year with 51 saves, Melancon has converted 30 of 33 save opportunities this year with a 1.51 ERA. The addition gives Washington the ability to move Jonathan Papelbon, who has struggled with a 4.28 ERA and 2-4 record in the closer’s role this season. With a solidified bullpen backing up the Nationals’ stellar staff, Washington should be able to fend off Miami and New York for the division crown, but don’t expect its lead to exceed a range of 5-7 games.
Fighting for a spot in the wild card playoff game, Miami added to its depleted pitching staff by trading for Padres starters Andrew Cashner and Colin Rea. While Cashner is a solid addition as a number 3 starter, Rea was injured in his first start for the Marlins and immediately traded back to San Diego. Don’t be surprised if Miami looks to offset the bad break by being active on the waiver wire in the hopes of picking up a veteran starter to eat some innings down the stretch.
The Mets are the most intriguing of the remaining wild card teams and put themselves in a better position to compete for a playoff spot through their moves at the deadline. The team’s once-feared pitching staff has suffered several setbacks this season with a season-ending injury to former ace Matt Harvey, injury concerns with young star Noah Syndergaard, and inconsistent performances from the back end of the rotation. The bigger issue for the Mets, however, has been the team’s anemic offense that currently ranks 28th in baseball in runs scored and 29th in batting average. New York picked up a big bat in Reds OF Jay Bruce who has hit 25 home runs with 80 RBIs and a .265 batting average in what has been one of the best years of his career. While there are questions regarding his fit defensively in a current Mets outfield that includes the aging Curtis Granderson in center and injured Yoenis Cespedes in left, Bruce’s offensive prowess should certainly help the Mets make a run at the second wild card spot.
For as much as Cubs fans will hoot and holler, the NL Central isn’t a runaway race. Yes, Chicago currently holds the largest division lead at 8 games ahead of the second-place Cardinals. And yes, the Cubs bolstered their bullpen by acquiring one of the top closers in the game in Aroldis Chapman and additional relief help in LHP Mike Montgomery and RHP Joe Smith. Coming off Sunday’s wild, comeback win over Seattle, the Cubs seem to carry some positive momentum going into August. However, a large factor in Chicago’s lead has been the underperformance of the Cardinals and Pirates thus far this season with both teams being hit hard by the injury bug.
While the Pirates appeared to wave the white flag at the deadline, dealing Melancon and LHP Francisco Liriano, the Cardinals appear ready to make a run down the stretch. Infielders Jhonny Peralta and Matt Carpenter are currently on rehab assignments and should join the big league squad within the next two weeks. St. Louis looked to solve its bullpen woes by acquiring LHP Zach Duke, currently boasting a 2.63 ERA, from the White Sox. Skipper Mike Matheny and the Cardinals’ front office has gotten more from less before, and I fully expect them to draw some extra wins out of this scrappy team throughout the last two months of the season. While the Cubs are a World Series favorite, past experience has taught us to never count St. Louis out.
The Wild West is about to get bloody. Old rivals San Francisco and Los Angeles are at it again, and this year’s sprint to the division title carries significant postseason ramifications. San Francisco was arguably the best team in baseball through the first half of the season, taking a 8-game lead on the Dodgers in late June after a historic 31-9 stretch. However, LA has come roaring back to within two games of the Giants and hadn’t lost ground in the division from July 3 until this past Saturday. The competition extended off the field to the trade deadline, as both teams added much-needed pieces in what amounted to an NL West arms race.
The Dodgers picked up OF Josh Reddick and SP Rich Hill from Oakland and RHP Jessie Chavez from the Blue Jays to address the team’s biggest areas of need. San Francisco quickly countered by acquiring relief help in the form of LHP Will Smith from Milwaukee and a number 3 starter in the Rays’ SP Matt Moore. The Giants bolstered their infield depth by adding All-Star Eduardo Nunez in a deal with the Twins earlier in the week. Both squads are looking for additional contributions from several key players coming off the disabled list. 2B Joe Panik returned from the DL this past week and looks to help a Giants offense currently tied for 13th in the majors in runs scored.
The injury concerns have been much more significant for the Dodgers, however, as four starting pitchers (excluding newly-acquired Hill, currently on the DL with a blister on his throwing hand) are lingering on the disabled list, in addition to outfield contributors Andre Ethier and Trayce Thompson. While Ethier may not see the field at all in 2016, LA’s division-and playoff-hopes lie with the health of ace Clayton Kershaw, who faces no timetable for a return from a herniated disk in his back. The Dodgers have weathered the storm well so far, playing well offensively and defensively since Kershaw went down in late June. However, if the Boys in Blue wish to avoid a one-game wild card playoff come October, they’ll need their franchise pitcher healthy and in top form by September. Los Angeles and San Francisco play each other six times in the final two weeks of the season.
The best of baseball is yet to come.