Pitcher perfect: Looking into a crystal ball with 216 red stitches

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We've hit the three-day breather known as the All-Star Break (did you know Monday and Wednesday of this week are the only two days of the entire year where an MLB, NFL, NBA or NHL is not played?), and you take stock of your team. And since there's no box score data to stream through your brain, you crunch your team(s)' -- admit it, you have at least three teams, right? -- numbers and determine which categories you need to pursue in the second half (for me, HR and RBI). Unfortunately, shining that much light on your team might reveal that it's as bad as you think, and this year's league might be a lost cause. If you're in a keeper league, it's probably time to think about that $41 Albert Pujols for $5 Casey McGehee trade.

But now that you've analyzed your league standings, let's look at the MLB league standings and see what they can tell us about what to expect in the second half and how that might affect your fantasy team. This week we'll review the NL and next week we'll look at the AL.


1. PHI: The Phillies are putting it all together, but also trying to improve. Signing Pedro Martinez may not be an improvement, but with this team being so strong, he's worth the risk in all leagues. The Phightin' Phils are 26th in the majors in SP ERA, but they're still the NL East leader in the standings. If you get Pedro, keep him benched for a game or two until he shows he can pitch at this level again. If he does, then having a pitcher who can get a win and only pitch 5-6 innings will help those of us who burned too many innings in the first half. Cole Hamels could have a monster second half, but don't assume it will happen. His wins may hurt your ratios. And last call for J.A. Happ is he's available (in my readers' leagues he shouldn't be).

2. FLA (4.0 GB): They're tied for 3rd in errors in the NL, but somehow they're in second place. Some think it's the rotation, but only Josh Johnson has any value, and is the only one with an ERA under 4.00 (Burke Badenhop's one start doesn't count). Sean West has created a lot of buzz, and on a better team might have more wins, but his 28 BB against 29 K was a major reason for his demotion. I'd like to see Ricky Nolasco traded to a contender, even if he won't be a free agent until 2013.

3. ATL (6.0 GB): Having already made a big trade, the Braves will neither be sellers nor buyers this July. They do have a solid starting pitching staff, which has improved now that Rafael Soriano has nailed down the ninth inning (hmm, now what columnist called that back in April?). The only trouble is he's not strong on consecutive days, but that should come with increased workload. Expect the entire staff to be strong in the second half (including, gulp, Tommy Hanson), but only Javier Vazquez will give you good strikeouts.

4. NYM (6.5 GB): While other teams will be fighting for the division title and the wild card spot, the Mets will be fighting the Cubs for the title of Biggest Disappointment of '09. As much Mets haters like to blame the club in general, they've been hit with big-time injuries. Jeff Francouer is not the answer to their needs, but another trade or two could make him an integral piece. The only two pitchers good for the second half are Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey. Unfortunately the former will stay well below preseason value and the latter will feel the effects of having a bad defense behind him. John Maine could contribute when he returns next month, but unless this team gets serious about improving, he's not worth the roster spot.

5. WAS (22.5 GB): Having written about baseball most of this decade not much surprises me, but seeing a team play .300 at the break does. The Nats would be sellers (homophonic pun intended) if they had anything to sell, but their staff is made up of young guys they should keep. John Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann deserve better, and have served you well as an SP5 or SP6, but long unsuccessful seasons have a way of draining the talent out of young starters, and the two will likely see their ERA's jump towards 5.00, if not above. And those about to FAAB Garrett Mock, he'll meet the same fate.


1. STL: The Cards sport such talent as Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse and Joel Pineiro, but when one or more of them goes on the DL ("when" not "if"), the rotation is in the hands of Todd Wellemeyer and Brad Thompson. The Cardinals have to be looking for another arm, and have the outfield bats to trade for him. I imagine they'll be in the Roy Halladay sweepstakes, but may have to settle for a convalescing Jake Peavy or Cliff Lee.

2. MIL (2.5 GB): The Brewers' bold move last year paid off and are within striking distance of the Cardinals this year. They also know they need to make a move before the Cubs do. Like the Cards, the Brewers have some bats to trade for an arm. Perhaps Halladay goes the CC Sabathia route and goes to the small market team that won't be able to sign him next year and treats it as an audition for a bigger team (but does he really need to audition?). The key to this rotation will be if Manny Parra returns as the pitcher he had been hyped to be. His first start back was a step in the right direction, but I give him a couple more starts before I believe.

T3. CHC (3.5 GB): The answer is a cartoon drawing of a cow, the dairy's address and the Cubs offense. The question? Name three things you'll find on a milk carton. The Cubs are second only to the Padres in the NL in terms of least runs scored. Getting Aramis Ramirez back should help, but Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley have been awful and Derrek Lee has only recently caught fire. On the pitching end, their rotation has been solid, but Rich Harden is a mess (I admit I wrongly touted him in March). Expect them to be in the Halladay hunt, but their more pressing need is a big bat, which may cost them an arm (but not a leg).

T3. HOU (3.5 GB): Like the Cubs, the Astros' offense is asleep, but they are in the business of winning games by one run, not five like the Cubs think they can. The back end of their rotation has ERA's over 5.00, but Wandy Rodriguez has been brilliant and Roy Oswalt has been serviceable. In addition, Oswalt's ERA is going in the right direction (May: 5.34; June 3.14; July 2.57), and he should have good value unless the Astros start selling off pieces like Miguel Tejada. The real story, though, has been the Astros' ability to make Mike Hampton relevant again (note I said "relevant" not "someone to go pick up"). If this team becomes a buyer rather than a seller, it could steal this division and increase the value of all rotation members.

5. CIN (5.0 GB): The fifth-place Reds see themselves as buyers, but losing Jay Bruce for a couple of months will hurt an offense that's just as bad as the Cubs (man, I hate the NL Central this year). They should fill the gap with Jonny Gomes and Chris Dickerson (love both the rest of the way) but the onus is on Dusty Baker to use them correctly. The rotation is good but not great, likely because of the Reds' 59 errors. Johnny Cueto was terrible in his last two starts, so the real value in that rotation may be Homer Bailey, who needed to be humbled by the game before succeeding. His latest callup has been strong and if you need pitching help in mixed leagues, go ahead and pick him up. And in case you're pining away for Aaron Harang to get traded, keep in mind this year he has a 2.83 ERA at home, and a 5.09 ERA on the road.

6. PIT (9.5 GB): I'm starting a petition to get Pittsburgh's team name changed. Pirates are supposed to do the plundering, not the other way around. The team might have set a record for the earliest "playing for next year" trade, and doesn't seem to be content with giving away just some of their talent. None of the Pirates' rotation yields enough strikeouts to overcome the team's allergy to winning, and only Zach Duke has good value in mixed leagues. Just keep in mind he's trending the wrong way (May: 2.98 ERA; June: 3.83; July: 4.50), which makes sense as this team sells off its best parts. But I do have to give them props for having the second fewest errors in the NL behind only the Phillies.


1. LAD: The Dodgers are commended for playing so well without their biggest bat, but they haven't won the World Series yet. Most disturbing is how part of their rotation is going in the wrong direction. Both Hiroki Kuroda (June: 4.10 ERA; July 8.18) and Chad Billingsley (June: 3.76; July: 5.54) have shown signs of deterioration while Randy Wolf (June: 5.23; July: 2.19) has been inconsistent. The only SP stud for the team lately has been Clayton Kershaw (June: 2.36; July: 0.53), who may be finally meeting his hype. Look for Kershaw to continue pitching well, but likely not that well, which means the Dodgers could be in for some rough sailing. Look for them to acquire another arm, and if they do, snap him up. Also, hold onto Juan Pierre as he's likely part of the deal and will get playing time in his new city.

2. SF (7.0 GB, NL Wild Card by 4.0 Games): Pundits claim the Giants' success has been a surprise, but back in March I picked them to be second in the NL West based on their strong rotation. They're currently first in the majors in ERA. Sure Jonathan Sanchez won't pitch a no-hitter all the time, but he may be the most talented SP5 in the majors. That's how strong they are. Tim Lincecum will continue to dominate (sorry, Tim, but Dan Haren should have started the All-Star Game) and Matt Cain's injury just appears to be a bad bruise (note that Cain and Lincecum have more wins together -- 20 -- than the entire Nationals' rotation has -- 18). Continue to ride this horse all season long as the offense will only improve (look for John Bowker to make more of an impact this year). Having said that, I'm not on the Ryan Sadowski bandwagon.

3. COL (9.0 GB): The Rockies have three SP with ERA's below 4.00, which likely doesn't hold up in the second half of the season. Unfortunately, the pitchers who can consistently give you wins will hurt you in strikeouts: Jason Marquis, 11-6, 4.23 K9; Aaron Cook, 8-3, 4.56 K9. The rest only have value in NL-only leagues. Even if either Marquis or Cook were traded to contenders, they'd still yield the same results.

4. ARI (18.5 GB): For almost a month, this team only won games started by either Dan Haren or Max Scherzer. The D-backs have an awful defense, a spotty offense and an epically bad bullpen. Things get worse from here. From '06-'08 Haren averaged 6.55 IP/GS each season. In '09, he's at 7.22 IP/GS because he's afraid to let his bullpen blow another game. His efficiency is better this year, but the increased workload will soon take care of that. He's signed through 2012, but unless he's dealt to a contender (St. Louis could pursue him in a bout of deep-seeded seller's remorse), his second half will be tougher, and may even lead to the DL.

5. SD (20.0 GB): The Padres have the worst rotational ERA in the NL and will be sellers this July. The only problem is, whom will they sell? Their top four starters are all on the DL (Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Cha Seung Baek, and Shawn Hill) and the rest of their staff is well, last in the NL. They are more likely to trade a big bat away (think Adrian Gonzalez) and even if they get an arm in return, it won't be yielding many wins in the second half.