July 10, 2011

Nothing to fear?

It's the All-Star break, and the Philadelphia Phillies have the best record in baseball (57-34). Can any other team in the National League compete with Charlie Manuel's boys? Let's take a look.

Milwaukee Brewers: Quietly, this might be the most interesting team in the NL. While Zack Greinke, Shawn Marcum and Yovani Gallardo are no Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the Brewers are one of only a few teams with the potential to match the Phillies' aces. But while Prince Fielder (.300/.417/.580), Ryan Braun (.320/.402/.559) and Rickie Weeks (.278/.348/.485) are all in their hitting primes, the rest of Milwaukee's lineup is pretty sad. Yuniesky Betancourt? Carlos Gomez? A back-to-earth Casey McGehee? If Chase Utley stays healthy and Ryan Howard heats up this summer, that's closer to a wash than you might think.

St. Louis Cardinals: Lance Berkman (.291/.405/.604) has kept this team afloat while Albert Pujols recovers/struggles, Chris Carpenter's back on track (3.27 FIP) and Colby Rasmus and Matt Holliday provide outfield offense that few other teams can match. But Kyle Lohse (3.32 ERA, 3.68 FIP) has pitched a bit over his head -- plus, he's Kyle Lohse -- and Jaime Garcia has yet to taste the playoffs. It's a good team, but they're going to have trouble winning the division, let alone taking down the Phillies.

Cincinnati Reds: The fourth-best offense in baseball is going to continue to mash all summer -- especially now that Jay Bruce (three homers in four games) is re-heating up -- but with Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto "anchoring" a subpar-at-best rotation, the Reds will have no choice but to out-slug everyone. Which, as the pre-2008 Phillies showed, is not the easiest way to win championships. There probably won't be many aces available in-season; the Reds might have to wait another year to make a serious run.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Yep, the Pittsburgh Pirates are only one game back in the NL Central. Led by Paul Maholm (3.08 ERA), Jeff Karstens (2.55 ERA) and thoroughly mediocre All-Star Kevin Correia (11 wins, 4.01 ERA), the Pirates have unexpectedly been surviving with their arms. Joel Hanrahan's the best reliever in baseball (26 saves, 1.34 ERA) and Andrew McCutchen is becoming a superstar before our very eyes (.289/.391/.495). I don't expect them to beat out the Reds or Brewers, but it sure is fun to have Pittsburgh looking passable again. If Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez live up to their potential, the Pirates might evolve into a force to be reckoned with.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Another surprising team that still hasn't faded away. Justin Upton (.297/.379/.512) has reasserted himself as perhaps the game's premier young slugger, while Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson (nine wins each) have really profited from trades that brought them over to the National League. Plus, Paul Goldschmidt might be the next Mike Stanton. But when it comes down to it, Arizona won't go any further than the Division Series. Nice little story, but they're a few pieces from serious contention.

San Francisco Giants: Once again, this is a team that the Phillies want -- and need -- to avoid at all costs. Jonathan Sanchez has regressed in a big way (a horrifying 5.9 BB/9) and Phillies killer Cody Ross is back to being an slightly-above-average part-time player (6 homers, 25 RBIs in 222 at-bats). Pablo Sandoval, however, is in the middle of a 20-game hitting streak, and Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain remain legit aces (2.72 FIP and 2.90 FIP, respectively). The Giants can't hit (328 runs, 27th in baseball), but on the right night, the Phillies offense can slum with anyone. Philadelphians should really start rooting for Arizona.

Atlanta Braves: The strongest competitor by far. Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, and Brandon Beachy are the only starting foursome that can compete with the Phillies. Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel are an incredibly fearsome late-game duo. And they've done it all without Dan Uggla (.620 OPS, 185 points lower than his previous low point) and Jason Heyward (.719 OPS, down 130 points from last year). If those two enjoy improved second halves and Chipper Jones attains even moderate health, Atlanta will be tough to beat. Hell, they're only 3.5 games back right now.

Are the Phillies a lock to win the National League? If they get/stay healthy and score a few more runs, the sky's the limit. But nothing's ever certain in Major League Baseball -- especially with 71 games to play -- and Atlanta's going to be nipping at their heels all year. All we know right now is that the Phillies are very, very good; unfortunately, they don't give out trophies for that.

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