- Looking for some of the best baseball in the entire league? Turn your attention to the National League West, where the three of the best teams in the league reside.
At a certain point in the season, we need to start treating Cinderella teams as more than harmless little surprises. We’re nearing the midpoint of the season, and the underdog Brewers and Rockies remain in first place, with the upstart Diamondbacks in hot pursuit.
Is it time to label these three teams as true contenders? We answer that question, and many more, in the NL edition of The 30. Enjoy.
Note: Rankings are based on a combination of records, run differential, strength of schedule, recent performance, team health, and overall talent. “Last Time” reflects the rankings from the most recent edition of The 30, two weeks ago. We’ll be running The 30 every two weeks all season long, alternating between profiles of all American League teams, and all National League teams.
You should never expect too much in a rebuilding season. Wins will be tough to come by. Playoff contention? Forget about it. The one thing you hope to see when your team is bottoming out and looking toward the future is progress from your most promising young players.
The Phillies have had no such good fortune. Odubel Herrera, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Aaron Nola have all fallen short of expectations this season, due to poor performance, injuries, or both. The most infuriating of the bunch, though, has been Maikel Franco.
Ace Phillies beat writer Matt Gelb has the details on Franco, and they’re not pretty: The league as a whole hits like Joey Votto when ahead in the count...Franco hits like a pitcher in those situations. Hitting coach Matt Stairs said the team grew so frustrated at one point with Franco taking weak swings at bad pitches when ahead in the count, the Phils actually considered giving him the red light on 2–0 counts. But hey, there’s a silver lining: Franco falls behind on the first pitch more often than all but 15 National League hitters, so he’s getting fewer opportunities to turn those 2–0 counts into four-hoppers to third.
Still just 24 years old and coming off a 25-homer season, Franco still offers hope for a better tomorrow. But he’s also been the eighth-worst hitter in the NL this season, taking up residence next to hitless wonders like Jose Peraza and Orlando Arcia. Lacking Peraza’s blazing speed, Arcia’s excellent glove, and the middle-infield-manning abilities of both, Franco will need to solve his ahead-in-the-count woes quickly, or he’ll become one of the worst players in the entire league.
As the Giants sit mired in last place in the NL West, the flickering embers of their 2010–14 mini-dynasty dying out, they might want to consider drastic measures. The Giants own the worst offense in all of baseball this season. They also field the second-oldest group of position players in the game. So the offense’s future looks just as bleak as its present.
That’s where Jeff Samardzija comes in. Sure, he just got strafed for eight runs at Coors Field on Friday night. But the Shark also made a bit of history, launching a home run 446 feet—the longest shot by a pitcher in the Statcast era. His Isolated Power mark (slugging average minus batting average) actually tops Hunter Pence this season. Give the guy a glove and send him out there every day. At the very least it would be entertaining to watch...something nobody can say about the Giants in 2017.
Hot on the Giants’ heels for worst offense in MLB are the Padres, sitting pretty at 29th. Unlike the Giants, though, the Friars have a stable of hitting prospects they can blend into the lineup as the season wears on, offering valuable playing time on a team with its eye on contention at the start of next decade. The latest kid to join the party? Franchy Cordero.
The 22-year-old Cordero has played in just 19 games this season (and in his major league career), yet he leads all Padres position players in Wins Above Replacement anyway, which is what happens when you bat .294/.351/.529 while playing your home games in a pitcher’s park. Scouts have long viewed Cordero as a power prospect with a strong arm who might struggle in other ways, with a shoddy batting eye holding him back; Baseball America didn’t even rank him among the Padres’ top 10 prospects heading into this season. Cordero’s plate discipline has been as bad as advertised, with the lanky outfielder striking out 29 times and walking just six times in 74 plate appearances (he went 0 for 4 on Sunday, taking a golden sombrero). Still, he’s done serious damage when he’s connected, cranking three homers, two triples, and three doubles.
His batting line will look very different once his small sample-induced .472 batting average on balls in play comes down to Earth. Still, one of the advantages of playing for tomorrow is giving your kids a chance. Multiple injuries to Pads outfielders have accelerated that opportunity. Twenty-five-year-old Hunter Renfroe is the big power threat in right field who needs to bump up his on-base skills to become an impact hitter. Manuel Margot is the raw talent who’ll need to grow into becoming a multi-dimensional threat in center, though the tools are most definitely there. Even when some of his injured teammates return to the field, there’s little reason for the Padres to do anything but give Cordero a shot in left, if only to see what they have.
Joey Votto is one of the greatest hitters to ever walk the face of the Earth. With a massive .304/.415/.599 batting line, he ranks fifth in the National League in park-adjusted offense. By that same metric, since Opening Day 2015 he’s been the best hitter in the NL and the second-best hitter in the majors, trailing only Mike Trout. Even as a bit of a late bloomer, Votto’s still on his way to a Hall of Fame career, and he’s been one of the lone bright spots on a Reds team that’s probably going to finish below .500 for the fourth straight year—especially after reeling off nine losses in a row.
Incredibly, impossibly, Votto being a hybrid of Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, and Ted Williams might only be the second-most noteworthy thing about him. More than just a hitting savant, Votto’s also the most interesting man in baseball.
Gare Joyce’s recent feature on Votto for Sportsnet paints the picture of an introvert, a quiet and private man who’s “the sport’s most unknowable superstar.” All of that might be true. But it’s also true that Votto rivals Zack Greinke for the driest wit in baseball. Until recently, Votto’s turn on MLB Network’s Intentional Talk dressed as a Mountie was the gold standard for the Canadian’s kookiness. Or maybe it was his unrivaled ability to troll fans.
Now comes a new submission for the greatest Votto video. Jim Day of FOX Sports Ohio sat with the Reds superstar and learned the following:
—Votto still reps the youth team who played on growing up in Etobicoke, Ontario.
—Votto doesn’t “have the Internet.”
—Votto will buy Zack Cozart a donkey if Cozart earns the starting shortstop nod on the NL All-Star team.
—Fans can help name the donkey if Cozart makes it.
26. Oakland A’s (31–38, minus-71, LT: 27)
Quick, name the most frustrating player in Major League Baseball. The answer may well depend on which team you root for—nothing is more frustrating than when one of your guys fails to live up to expectations. Hometown bias aside, though, I’m thinking of a player dripping with talent, someone who’s flashed that talent at times and looked ready to break out, only to have the anvil of regression fall on his head. I’m thinking of Mike Foltynewicz.
The 25-year-old right-hander wields some absolutely filthy stuff: a fastball that sits mid-90s and often touches 98, along with a hammer curve. He’s a 6-foot-4, 220-pound former first-round pick, he’s made it to age 25 without the litany of injuries that often whacks developing pitching prospects, and he was a key component in the Evan Gattis trade the Braves made with Houston two and a half years ago, one they hoped could produce a talented and reliable force for their rotation.
That breakout looked like it might be coming, after Foltynewicz carved through the Reds and Phillies lineups in consecutive starts June 2 and June 7. He went seven innings in each of those starts, allowed a combined six hits and four walks, punching out 14 batters and allowing not a single run. Against Cincinnati, Folty dominated with his four-seam fastball, generating eight whiffs with that pitch. Against Philly, he leaned on his sinker, throwing strikes with that pitch nearly 68% of the time, with eight of those getting hit in play, and just one of those eight falling for a hit.
Then in his next start, the bottom dropped out. Facing the Nationals on June 12, Foltynewicz couldn’t get anybody out. He lasted just 3 ⅓ innings, surrendering eight runs on 11 hits, walking two, serving up three home runs, and registering just three swinging strikes. Then just to make everything a little more confusing, he landed somewhere in between against the Marlins on Sunday: two runs, seven hits, two walks, and four strikeouts in six innings.
So what can we expect from Folty going forward? A lack of obvious patterns makes that tough to say. Maybe we should have expected the league’s best offense to tear him apart. But then how do you explain the worst offense in the league (the Giants) manhandling him for five runs in four innings May 27? Or his third start of the season, in which he allowed just two runs on five hits in one of the four outings this season in which he lasted seven innings...this one coming against that same loaded Nats offense?
At the risk of oversimplifying, the answer may very well be pretty simple: When the big right-hander commands his smoke-inducing fastball, he can slice through any lineup, no matter how talented. When he doesn’t, he won’t. Having just made his 50th MLB start on Sunday, the hope is that more experience could help him take that next step.
You could read a good book (or 12) in the time it took you to go over every Mets injury this season. Losing star players like Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes for extended stretches is a great way to torpedo a team’s playoff hopes. Losing talented complementary players like Jeurys Familia, Neil Walker, and most recently Matt Harvey (again) and Juan Lagares (again) only makes matters worse. Still, in a lost season for Mets, the recent back injury suffered by Michael Conforto carried an extra level of cruelty.
Conforto’s been the biggest bright spot for an otherwise miserable 2017 Mets squad...by far. After a disappointing 2016 campaign that dulled the impact of 56 exciting games in a flashy 2015 rookie season, Conforto’s broken out in a big way this year, hitting .289/.410/.569, and even playing passable defense in center field, a position the Mets were reluctant to give him until injuries forced their hand. Those numbers come despite a recent two-week rough patch in which Conforto hit just .176 with no home runs. Mets fans have to hope this recent slump is just the byproduct of that back injury, and that Conforto’s health problems don’t spiral into disaster, the way they have time and time again with many of his teammates lately.
Even with that recent downturn, Conforto’s indicators are all pointing in an optimistic direction. He’s made hard contact more often than all but four other NL hitters this year (trailing stars like Paul Goldschmidt and Corey Seager). He also ranks among the league leaders in line-drive percentage, on-base percentage, and slugging. He’s done all that despite playing in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball.
The Mets might still need to fire their entire training staff or stage an exorcism if they hope to contend again in 2018 and beyond. But if the end result of this season is a young, lefty-swinging star to complement the team’s stable of young, very-good-when-healthy pitchers, maybe 2017 won’t look so bad in retrospect.
Andrew McCutchen, first 45 games of 2017: .200/.271/.359, six homers in 188 plate appearances
Andrew McCutchen, next 22 games: .380/.457/.696, six homers in 92 plate appearances
The Pirates suddenly have the hottest number-six hitter in the league on their hands. Whether they opt to keep the former MVP in the hopes of building a big second-half run (and/or a bounceback 2018 season), or to trade McCutchen with a year and a half to go before free agency, Cutch’s surge has been a rare source of good tidings for one of the league’s most disappointing teams.
Marlins, first 41 games: 4.0 runs scored per game, 14–27 record
Marlins, next 26 games: 5.9 runs scored per game, 16–10 record
The Fish still employ a shaky rotation, with Miami starters ranking just 21st in the majors in both park-adjusted ERA, and park-adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching. But the Marlins finally have all hands on deck, with Justin Bour back off the DL and mashing, and the best outfield in the National League tearing the cover off the ball. Miami will still has plenty of work to do this winter to build a starting five around underrated right-hander Dan Straily, as the loss of Jose Fernandez lingers over the team in multiple ways. But the building blocks for success are here, and a bit of shrewd off-season shopping could make the Marlins interesting sooner than you might think.
21. Kansas City Royals (33–35, minus-33, LT: 25)
20. Baltimore Orioles (34–34, minus-45, LT: 12)
The Cardinals offense has disappointed for much of the season, with injuries and unexpected performance dips waylaying several players projected to be major contributors. But lately, they might have hit on an answer to their problems. Granted, the move the Cards made and the resulting surge by the two players affected is almost certain a matter of correlation rather than causation. Still, if flipping Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler is going to turn both of them into sudden Triple Crown contenders, there’s no way manager Mike Matheny’s going to do anything other than let it ride.
On June 6, the Reds annihilated the Cardinals 13–1. Leading off that game, Fowler went 0 for 2 before getting taken out early, in the process dropping his season line to .222/.317/.423. Batting second in that game, Carpenter fared even worse, going 0 for 4 and sliding to .209/.341/.396. Both those batting lines were well below what the Cardinals hoped to see, and well below each player’s historical norms. A shoulder injury helped explain some of Fowler’s struggles, while Carpenter seemed like the only hitter on Earth who’d gotten worse in the everybody-swing-for-the-fences era...possibly because he’d started swinging for the fences sooner than almost everyone else. Whatever was going on, Matheny figured a change was in order. So the skipper had his two top-of-the-order hitters switch spots, with Carpenter climbing to leadoff and Fowler (after a day off) settling in at number two.
The gambit has worked beautifully. In 12 games since making the switch, Carpenter’s batting an off-the-charts .405/.528/.857, with four homers, 11 runs batted in, 10 walks, and 12 runs scored. Over that 12-game span, Fowler’s batted .410/.477/.872, cranking five homers and knocking in 15. The Cards’ 1–2 punch suddenly looks like one of baseball’s best symbiotic relationships: Carpenter and Fowler are tied for the team home-run lead with 13, and trail only the Brewers and Cubs for most homers from the top two spots in the order this season. Fowler is particularly scorching hot right now, homering in four straight games, with two of those blasts driving in Carpenter.
The newly rejuvenated dynamic duo hasn’t helped the team’s overall fortunes, with the Cards going 5–7 during this 12-game experiment. But for a ballclub looking for any kind of spark they can get right now, having the top two hitters in the lineup raking every night certainly doesn’t hurt.
18. Chicago White Sox (31–37, plus-4, LT: 19)
17. Detroit Tigers (32–36, minus-9, LT: 13)
16. Minnesota Twins (34–33, minus-44, LT: 11)
15. Los Angeles Angels (36–37, minus-3, LT: 20)
14. Seattle Mariners (34–37, minus-12, LT: 16)
13. Toronto Blue Jays (33–35, minus-17, LT: 14)
Power-hitting leadoff men are all the rage! The mad tinkerer Joe Maddon moved Anthony Rizzo into the leadoff spot, hoping to kickstart an offense (and a team) that’s fallen well short of expectations this year. In those five games, which are also the first five times in his career that Rizzo’s led off, the lefty-swinging slugger went 9 for 22, launching three homers, scoring six runs, and driving in eight. The Cubs have erupted for 37 runs over those five games, starting this mini-run with a 14–3 shellacking of the Mets that included a homer, a double, a walk, two runs scored, and three RBI for Rizzo.
As with the Cardinals and Matheny, there’s no way Maddon’s going to change anything while both Rizzo and the team are hitting like the ‘27 Yankees. But here’s something more fun to consider: a healthy Rizzo is one of the best hitters in the league no matter where he bats, and if the Cubs’ younger hitters can get going, this is a team that could continue to mash for a while. Could we see Rizzo still batting leadoff in the throes of a pennant race, as he closes in on a 40-homer season? And if the Cubs finally start playing like the 2016 version of themselves and surge back to the playoffs, could the PA announcer at Wrigley Field find himself introducing leadoff man Anthony Rizzo in October?
11. Texas Rangers (34–34, plus-13, LT: 18)
10. Tampa Bay Rays (37–35, plus-17, LT: 17)
The Brewers have already been full of surprises on their way to an unlikely romp to the top of the NL Central standings.
Eric Thames has been the biggest surprise of all. After coming over from Korea on a dirt-cheap three-year deal, the man who looks more like a WWE superstar than a baseball player has hit a gigantic .265/.399/.607 while blasting an NL-high 20 home runs. That gaudy homer total included game-winners in back-to-back games, with both of those last-inning shots doinking off the top of the outfield wall, then bouncing over.
Jimmy Nelson’s starting to turn into the pitching version of Thames. Yes, he’s a former second-round pick, a drafted-and-developed Brewer once considered the team’s top pitching prospect, but the early returns on Nelson’s major league career were underwhelming, with a 4.62 ERA and even worse defense-independent numbers last year keeping expectations low for 2017. No longer. Nelson’s blossomed into a legitimate staff ace, punching out a batter an inning and lowering his ERA to a career-best 3.39 (with a 3.13 FIP fully supporting his stellar results). On Sunday, Nelson gave the Brewers’ busy bullpen a breather in dramatic style, twirling a complete game against the Padres, with 10 strikeouts and just one run allowed.
Here’s another reason Milwaukee’s success might actually be sustainable: More young talent keeps arriving, seemingly by the hour. The Crew just called up four top prospects in the span of a week, led by five-tool outfielder and potential future star Lewis Brinson. Even with Brinson off to a slow start, the added depth that he and Milwaukee’s passel of rookie pitchers provide could loom large. If the kids can give an already young and exciting Brewers team a lift, we could see a lot more celebrating this summer in Milwaukee.
8. Cleveland Indians (36–31, plus-38, LT: 8)
7. Boston Red Sox (39–30, plus-29, LT: 7)
6. New York Yankees (38–29, plus-108, LT: 2)
Read this Washington Post accounting of the Nats’ offseason, and try not to gnash your teeth in frustration.
How and why ownership would approve a megatrade for Adam Eaton, only to stop short on a trade for David Robertson, or even worse a relatively low-cost signing of high-upside closer Greg Holland (now dominating in Colorado) is a huge mystery. Granted, there’s far less urgency to fix Washington’s worst-in-the-league bullpen when the rest of the division consists of a pack of one-legged raccoons, and the Nats can win the division by 20 games without breaking a sweat. But everyone in the league also knows that Matt Albers-and-pray-for-rain will end in disaster come October, making one (and probably more) moves for impact relievers a must between now and the July 31 trade deadline. Here’s hoping ownership isn’t so stingy and stubborn this time around.
Not only is the battle between the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers the best three-way race in the majors this season (by far)—it could go down as one of the best ever, the way things are shaping up out west. The three best records in the National League over the past month all belong to these NL West contenders: 20–10 for the Rockies, 20–8 for the D-Backs, and 20–8 for the Dodgers.
And while proponents of fair play at all costs might argue against unbalanced schedules, the stretch run of this season looks absolutely delicious if all three clubs can keep the good times going, given all the times these three meet in the season’s final month. To wit: The Rockies start September with a stretch of 11 of 14 games against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, then end the season with three at Coors Field, again against L.A.
For a Rockies club that’s finished no better than third in each of the past seven seasons, and below .500 for each of the last six, the Rocktober possibilities are almost too much fun to imagine.
As much as the baseball media has become more enlightened about awards voting, some old biases die hard. Greg Holland and Jake McGee and a whole bunch of young starting pitchers are suddenly kicking ass in Colorado, so only now can we start thinking of Nolan Arenado as a legitimate MVP candidate? The Diamondbacks turn their own pitching staff from terrible to really good, and suddenly Paul Goldschmidt’s own MVP candidacy needs to be taken seriously? That kind of argument makes no sense.
On the other hand, the consolation here would be to see a phenomenal player finally rewarded for perennial dominance. In Goldschmidt’s case, that would be rewarding an All-Star first baseman who’s batting an incredible .324/.442/.596, on pace for 37 homers and 30 steals. Goldy’s numbers look even more spectacular when you consider the bigger picture.
Less than three months away from his 30th birthday, he could become just the 11th first baseman ever to end his 20s by hitting .300 or better, with a .400 or better on-base percentage, and a .500 or better slugging average. Six of those 11 players are already in the Hall of Fame, one (Jeff Bagwell) gets inducted next month, another’s a lock whenever the time comes (Albert Pujols), and another (Joey Votto) needs just another couple of years of excellence to clinch his case. That leaves only Todd Helton, an offensive machine who’s got a pretty decent Hall of Fame case but might fall a bit short because he played at Coors Field his whole career, as a Hall outsider in that group that Goldy hopes to join.
As deep and talented as the Dodgers are at just about every position, one spot remains somewhat in limbo: second base. Even after blasting a two-run homer Sunday, Logan Forsythe’s still having an awful season. Acquired from the Rays for talented pitching prospect Jose De Leon over the winter, Forsythe’s batted an anemic .200/.331/.278, with injuries and a bloated 31% strikeout rate holding him to just two long balls in 36 games.
If Forsythe doesn’t start hitting soon, the Dodgers could consider going with superutility man Chris Taylor (.299/.384/.511, pretty much out of nowhere) at second, assuming the team’s outfield health improves enough for Taylor to no longer be needed there. But here’s something even weirder: After batting .098 (OH-NINETY-EIGHT!) in the first five weeks of the season, Chase Utley can suddenly do no wrong. Since May 9, Utley’s hitting .300/.395/.530. As fun as it’s been to watch 20-somethings like Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, and Alex Wood become young stars in Dodger Blue, the idea of a 38-year-old Utley coming out of nowhere to fill the biggest lineup hole for a team obsessed with youth and carefully calibrated decisions would be absolutely perfect.