Thursday, August 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

NL East not quite following its preseason blueprint

These first few weeks of the season have once again proven that watching baseball be played is a far cry from imagining it being played in a fevered dream as a blizzard tears the world in half. Our predictions for how a season will turn out are generated by paper work, gut feelings, and winter madness.

Heading into 2014, the National League East was supposed to look something like this:

  • Braves: 657-3
  • Nationals: 20-15
  • Mets: 20-20
  • Marlins: LOL
  • Phillies: OLD

A month into the season, the NL East outlook is not quite what we'd assumed:

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  • It turns out that no one in this division is good enough to escape the others.

    Should it even count as “first” place when, at any second, the Braves’ lead could be snapped by a last place Marlins team, lagging a mere game and a half behind? All the Marlins needed, apparently, was another game or two and they would have replaced Atlanta at the top, finishing a three-game sweep of the Braves in which Atlanta’s dynamite offense hit .188 and their blistering rotation gave up 17 runs in 15.2 innings.

    To the Braves’ credit, they only accused the Marlins of cheating once, their evidence being that the Marlins were winning. Evidence to the contrary: the Braves are hitting .217 with runners in scoring position; and their savior in that regard, Freddie Freeman, has fallen – the first baseman with the dagger-like swing (short but effective) has six hits in his last 10 games, putting him at a mortal .143.

    As the Braves pull the rip cord, their rivals are on the ground, trying to out-outperform each other. The Mets, always considered a tepid franchise before giving everybody headaches in at least the season's first month, have enough going right to stay relevant as we enter May.

    Curtis Granderson had seven entire hits during the Mets’ recent trip to Coors Field, breaking free of the transparent cube in which he'd been trapped at the plate, hitting .136/.252/.216 in April; a slash line that seems to get worse each time you look at it.

    Most of the Mets' hitters followed suit and took well to the Rocky Mountain air, but none have been more productive than Daniel Murphy. (Except maybe Bobby Abreu. Abreu played outfield for the Mets the other day. He has three hits in eight plate appearances. Two were doubles. Bobby Abreu).

    Murphy is second in plate appearances behind David Wright, and is the only one in the lineup hitting over .300 (.314) with over 100 PA. (Murphy has become such a tandem with Wright they even get thrown out of games together.) His OPS is sagging below .750, but by hitting in the two-hole, he's been able to take advantage of Juan Lagares' OBP in the leadoff spot. Thanks to the introduction of strategic situation-reading into his repertoire, Murphy has also become a more effective thiever of bases than Billy Hamilton.

    It also helps when one of your formerly average starters begins forcing his name onto lists with Max Scherzer, Jose Fernandez and Clayton Kershaw. Dillon Gee has pitched more (46.2 IP) for the Mets than any other hurler this year, and of his four fellow starters, he's given up less runs (13) than three of them. Bartolo Colon may have the team's best SO/BB ratio, a profound 7.25, but Gee is getting more outs and keeping runners off base.

    It also helps when the runners don't run.

    Truly, each Mets starter, even the three of them with 5.00+ ERAs, have a strength: Colon isn't walking people, Zack Wheeler and Jon Niese aren't giving up home runs, and Jenrry Meija has the most strikeouts (but only by two; he also has the most walks with 17).

    The worst news for the Mets right now is that they are headed to Miami, where opposing teams are 5-14. 

    Go ahead, laugh at the Marlins. Laugh like Jose Fernandez.

    “Do you have brain problems?” people will ask, and not just because this is one of those coffee shops that takes issue with customers shrieking with insane laughter.

    They’re asking because the Marlins are 16-15, just took two out of three from the Dodgers (they may have destroyed Yasiel Puig in the process), and now we’re seeing articles like this.

    “WHO'S CRAZY NOW?!” screams Ricky Doyle from his desk at NESN. Also possibly screaming is this guy, who arrived two years early to the 2014 Marlins Party.

    I’ll be honest. A Google search of the exact phrase “picked the Marlins” leads to at least one instance of “picked the Marlins’ bones clean.” So it was not a cool trend to start the year. No, the sexy pick this offseason was the Royals, who just capped off a four-game losing streak by allowing Justin  Verlander to Verland the hell out of them and can’t seem to climb over anybody in the AL Central.

    Anything in April can be classified as “luck,” whether that’s Aaron Harang killing it or the Marlins having the NL East's top run differential (+24). But pushing that concept aside, we can spy a few bits about the Fish that have led to good things.

    Their non-Jose Fernandez starters are being taught to assault the strike zone and let the other team do the dirty work. Pitching for contact has gone the Marlins’ way thus far, but obviously, in the wrong hands, such a strategy can end in rapid fire baseballs spraying into the outfield grass. It's on Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, as it has been in the past, to not miss bats accurately.

    They have also smuggled Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich into the lineup without letting their accolades get carried too far by the trade winds.

    Ozuna faced the Nationals’ Great Young Pitching Thing in early April and the result was what Fangraphs called “gratuitous baseball porn.” Ozuna is slashing hard, .280/.328/.449, and not just because his OPS hit all lucky 7s. Last year, Ozuna’s emergency call-up to replace Giancarlo Stanton went something like MAY!!!-JUNE-July-thumb injury. So far, he is an improved model of himself in the Miami outfield, walking more, striking out less, and realizing that a home run in the first row is worth as much as a home run out of the stadium.

    And the best thing about anybody on the Marlins’ with a hint of talent is that they are most likely under 25 and still capable of listening to advice and getting better.

    The same goes for the youthful Nationals, whose biggest problem seems to be that they expected to win. It was widely assumed the Phillies, Mets and Marlins would have to be dragged out of the clubhouse to play nine, and even then, they'd just complain the whole time. But these teams all remain within first place by a low margin. It's just the Nationals were supposed to be.

    But Washington is taking its turn being the team cratered by injuries, with Ryan Zimmermann spending some time at his summer home on the disabled list and Bryce Harper joining him for some thumb surgery.

    Still, Anthony Rendon is raking .291/.326/.496, enough for him to gain the support of the entire city of Houston (where he is from).

    Veterans Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche are leading by example, both in hitting and beards.

    From the mound, Gio Gonzalez has been as advertised. Stephen Strasburg has slipped in terms of sheer dominance but that still makes him better than most pitchers. Rafael Soriano has yet to allow an earned run in 11 innings. And very soon, the best trade acquisition of the offseason, Doug Fister, will be making his debut.

    Which brings us to the wild card – the Phillies, demented old coots. How dare they do anything other than displease us. HOW DARE THEY.

    Their 15-14 success comes down to several factors:

    What can we conclude from this? Along with the AL East, this division is the most feverishly competitive in the sport. Hopes have risen and shackles unchained, and we can all take joy in the Braves' six-game plummet from dignity.

    Most importantly, the NL East may have taken a swan dive in terms of quality, but as long as the teams are all the same brand of mediocre, they'll spend chunks of the summer scrambling over each other like rats. Which is baseball at its best, but isn't always the sort of prediction that fits into a grid of analysts' picks.

    Justin Klugh Philly.com
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