Contender or pretender? Which NL teams can stick around?

The Hot Corner Column: With the Cubs battling it out with Atlanta since Monday, one thing has been brought to my frontal lobe, the Braves have the best record in the NL. 

No seriously. 

The Braves have tallied 25 wins for a .610 winning percentage—which is fourth best in the league, as of press time. Atlanta is not the only team in the National League turning heads. 

The Phillies, Mets, Nationals, Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, and Pirates all join the Braves with a record above .500, as of press time. Of the four teams with more losses than wins in the NL, one is the Dodgers, (16-25) who have gotten back all-star third-baseman Justin Turner, and could make the argument they will rebound from their early season struggles. 

So this begs the questions in the jam packed National League, who are contenders, and who are pretenders? 

Contenders: 

Cubs and Nationals, these two teams are in the same boat. Both teams show signs of heating up—the Nationals more so than the Cubs. And both teams have big time star power littered throughout their pitching staffs and lineups. Baseball may be a funny sport, but giving players such as Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Trea Turner and Bryce Harper a full season worth of chances to prove themselves, and they most certainly will. 

 

Atlanta Braves, will the Braves win their division? No. The Nationals 8-2 record in their past 10 games along with their dominance and proven success in the NL East over the past few season will support my argument. The Braves may be good but Washington has already made up a fair chunk of ground and are lingering 1.5 games back. 

But the Braves are still no joke. Lead by Freddie Freeman and the up-and-coming Ozzie Albies, this Atlanta offense has scored the third most runs in the league. Couple that with their 3.53 team ERA and you get one of the best run differentials in all of baseball. 

The Braves have answers at some of baseball's biggest questions. Do you have young talent? Yes. Do you have a veteran presence in the clubhouse? Yes. Do you have a quality closer? Yes. 

Atlanta's young guns may soon cool off, but veterans such as Freeman, Vizcaino and Ender Inciarte have proven track records to push the team into the playoffs.  

 

Philadelphia Phillies, Philly has a top of the line pitching staff and an offense that is not punchless. They are not amazing, but they have the pitching to run with the best of them, including Jake Arrieta who has proven he can pitch when it matters. 

The team may have young talent, but those players have been itching for a time to prove themselves for years. Maikel Franco and Odúbel Herrera have a perfect combination of veteran experience, while still having a high upside. 

There will be a lot of jostling for the two NL Wildcard spots—as I do not believe the Fighting Phils can capture the division title—and the Phillies seem capable of handling it. The Phillies are knocking on the door of first place in the NL East, which will offer fiercer competition than any wildcard race could.  

 

 

Arizona Diamondbacks, who has the second best team ERA in the league you ask? The Arizona Diamondbacks. Top tier pitching should never be underestimated and if AJ Pollock can stay healthy, he and Paul Goldschmidt could lead the charge offensively.  

But AJ Pollock is not healthy and has had health issues last season as well. The Diamondbacks may be leading the division currently, but the Rockies are not to be slept on, and provide a much more balance offense. 

 

 

Pretenders:

Pittsburg Pirates, the Pirates have the bats to be contenders, as their offense is top five in the league for batting average, on base percentage, OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) and are tied with the Cubs and Astros for fifth in runs. 

However, the Pirates rotation is rather unsightly. Jamison Tallion, Chad Kuhl and Ian Nova all have ERAs above 3.97. Nova's ERA has even ballooned to 5.01, as of press time. We may be a quarter of a way through the season, but teams who have up to 60 percent of their starting staff struggling to keep a sub four ERA, do not make the playoffs. 

To fan the flames more, both Tallion and Nova have ERAs over 5.00 in their last 30 days. 

The Pirates are getting contribution from the usual suspects such as, well...Starlin Marte. Otherwise, we see a couple players who are over preforming. Breakout seasons are possible, but the 32-year-old catcher Francisco Cervelli has an OPS .234 points higher than his career average, that will fall as the season drudges on.  

Cervelli is not an outlier. Outfielder Corey Dickerson's batting average in 2018 is .318, a whopping 36 points higher than his career average. The Pirates are also enjoying contributions from Colin Moran, a 25-year-old corner infielder, that they may not get throughout the season. 

The Pirates are going to get run out of a playoff race after the trade deadline when real contenders bulk up, and wipe them away. 

 

Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies, similar to the Cubs and Nats these teams all find themselves in the same boat. Bobbing back and forth, adrift in the waters of the unknown. Each team has flexed its muscle and proven they can win the division. The Brew Crew and the Red Birds have even spent time leading the NL Central. 

But there are cracks in the armor. Each team ranks 20th or worst in runs scored, Milwaukee (23rd), St. Louis (26th) and Colorado (20th). Despite Nolan Arenado, Dexter Fowler, Christian Yelich and company these teams can not seem to put runs on the board. 

The more you dig the worse it looks offensively for all three squads, including the Cardinals who are last in the league in hits. 

Luckily, there is a but. Moves made at the trade deadline can propel these teams past their divisional counterparts and put them into the playoffs. And as I said, you should never underestimate quality pitching, which the Brewers and Cardinals have. 

But, there is another but. With the deep talent pool last offseason offered, I expect a limited number of major trade pieces available at the trade deadline. Hence them being unable to move past their division foes.  

 

 

San Fransisco Giants, ok come on, this one if obvious. San Fran is doing an amazing job keeping their head barely above water, but come July they will not be aggressive in acquiring talent. They do not have the fire power on their roster to leap frog anybody, nor do they have the capability to make the moves required. But you can enjoy this highlight if that makes you feel better. 

 

New York Mets, I am not explaining this one either. The Mets started off hot, and as I expected, they fizzled off. The team was not ready to compete and it shows. 

 

For additional coverage tune into the May 17 edition of The Sports Bark Podcast with Blaise Mesa and Christian Peshek.