Here we are coming into the first turn of the season and, as we mentioned in the last installment of the NL Beat, the divisions are starting to take shape. The Central Division is being led once again by the St. Louis Cardinals and the West Division has the Los Angeles Dodgers, last week’s focus, occupying the top spot. Both of these are slight surprises to me but the division that is the most surprising to me is none other than the East Division.
Prior to the season, the Philadelphia Phillies, in most circles, were expected to once again win the title. Even though there were injuries to slugger Ryan Howard and standout second baseman Chase Utley, the team was expected to rise to the top based on the strength of their starting pitching led by the big three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Add in free agent acquisition Jonathan Papelbon to anchor the ninth inning and the Phillies were poised to repeat as division winners. But things haven’t gone as planned for Philadelphia as, surprisingly, they are languishing in last place in the division five and one-half games out of first and two games under .500.
Just ahead of the Phillies in the standings are the New York Mets, only three games out of first place and three games above the break even mark. They have gotten to this point led by David Wright’s .403 batting average and R.A. Dickey’s six victories – tied for the most in the National League - out of seven decisions. Daniel Murphy and Kurt Nieuwenhuis have been key contributors as well.
Next up the standings ladder in third place are the Miami Marlins. Moving into a new stadium, they were big players in the free agent market this year in an effort to be winners and attract a lot of fans to the ballpark. The Marlins are five games over .500 and only two games out of the lead. The team started out slowly going 8-14 in the month of April but has turned that into a 16-5 record so far in May. Omar Infante is hitting .326 with six homeruns; Emilio Bonifacio has 20 stolen bases, and Giancarlo Stanton now has nine homeruns after breaking the scoreboard with one of his blasts. Miami has gotten good pitching from Carlos Zambrano, Anibal Sanchez, and Mark Buehrle. Especially of note is Ozzie Guillen has managed to keep Zambrano’s temper in check.
Second place is occupied by the Atlanta Braves, eight games over .500 and only one-half game out of first. Brandon Beachy is quickly becoming one of the best starting pitchers in the league even though he isn’t a big strikeout pitcher. Tommy Hanson has struggled a bit walking more hitters while striking out fewer. Craig Kimbrel hasn’t been the monster he was last year but has still been very good. Freddie Freeman is leading the team with seven homeruns; Michael Bourn is doing what he’s supposed to – getting on base, hitting for average, and stealing bases; Martin Prado is providing a good batting average and has hit three homeruns and stole four bases, his total for all of last year.
This brings us to the Washington Nationals – the leaders of the East Division and the only team besides the Los Angeles Dodgers with a better than .600 winning percentage. That’s right, the Washington Nationals. The same Washington Nationals that haven’t had a .500 season since 2005 (their first year as the Nationals) or a winning season since 2003 when they were still the Montreal Expos.
Washington is leaning heavily on its pitching to get them to where they now are. They are the only NL team with a sub 3.00 ERA (2.87) and lead the league with 275 strikeouts. The team also is tops in the league with a .615 OPS, .217 BAA, and have allowed the fewest total bases. The starting rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler has been superb. Gonzalez has an 11.36 K/9 and 1.98 ERA, Strasburg a 10.87 K/9 and 2.21 ERA, Zimmerman a 2.47 ERA, Jackson an 8.01 K/9 with 0.97 WHIP. Even Detwiler has contributed a 3-3 record with 1.20 WHIP and 3.65 ERA, not bad for a number five starting pitcher. Gonzalez and Strasburg have done what a one-two punch should do with a combined 10-2 record.
On the hitting side Ian Desmond has been better than expected as he’s hit for a solid .280 average and has already smacked eight homeruns, his total for all of 2011, and has stolen five bases. Jayson Werth has raised his batting average over 40 points to .276. Adam LaRoche is hitting .298 and has seven homeruns after an abysmal injury shortened 2011. Prospect phenom Bryce Harper was called up and hasn’t been totally overmatched at just 19 years of age, hitting .264 with two homeruns and two stolen bases.
But there are definitely some things to worry about for Washington. Werth, who was having a nice bounce back season, is now out until at least early August after breaking his left wrist making a play in the outfield. Catcher Wilson Ramos is done for the season with a torn ACL. Michael Morse is still on the DL and hasn’t played in a game yet this year for Washington. Ryan Zimmerman, who missed time earlier this year to the DL with a bad shoulder, is again having problems with the joint. Brad Lidge is on the DL after surgery for a sports hernia. Closer Drew Storen has been out for the year and had surgery to remove a bone fragment from his right elbow (especially troubling since replacement closers have blown six saves to date). Then there’s the innings limit that management says Strasburg will have after coming off Tommy John surgery.So while it is good to see the Nationals back in the winning column, they have had to contend with quite a few obstacles and bumps in the road in getting to this point and there are still some ahead. But Washington has put themselves in the position of possibly being buyers instead of sellers when we start talking trade deadline and that’s a good thing. I think they’ll be buying.