Star-studded, well-balanced NL East is summer's must-see division
It's highly competitive. Three teams, maybe four, have a realistic shot at the postseason.
It's popular. Half of the position players who will start for the National League in next week's All-Star Game, including three-fourths of the infield, hail from this one division, as many as any division in the game.
It has a wealth of young talent. The game's most heralded young pitcher, top two young hitters and heavily-hyped recent No. 1 overall draft pick call the division home.
And when it's teams play each other, there's incredible parity. Three of the five clubs have an exactly even record within the division. The other two are either one game better or one game worse than that pace.
This is the National League East, and it is baseball's star-studded, well-balanced, headline-grabbing division of the moment.
First, the on-field results: If the playoffs were to start today, the Braves and Mets would both be in while the two-time NL pennant-winning Phillies are hot on their heels. The fourth-place Marlins are just a winning streak away from joining the race.
The parity is especially remarkable. The Mets are 18-18 against the rest of the division; the Phillies and Nationals are both 15-15. Only the Marlins (17-16) and the Braves (13-14) deviate from an exactly .500 record and only because they've played an odd number of games. And the runs scored by the Braves, Mets, Phillies and Marlins? 385, 387, 387, 384.
The pitching is noteworthy, too. The true No. 1 starter is a rare commodity in baseball, but every club in this division has one: the Braves'
There's also remarkable star power in and around this division, from
Between Valentine's dalliance with Florida and the arrival of Strasburg in Washington, even the bottom teams in the division have been in the spotlight in recent weeks.
What's next? Here's a team-by-team look at what to expect in the second half.
This could be the final season for two future Hall of Famers and mainstays of the Braves dynasty that ruled the NL East for years. Third baseman
The Braves have an excellent chance to make sure Cox's final season in Atlanta ends the same way 14 others did: in the playoffs. Like in the heart of the Braves' divisional dynasty, their pitching has carried them. Hudson has been sensational (8-4, 2.44 ERA), and the rest of the rotation has been sturdy in setting up a very good bullpen. The relievers' 3.31 ERA ranks fourth in the NL and is anchored expertly by 38-year-old closer
Offense will certainly be the Braves' biggest concern in the second half. Jones still reaches base at a prodigious rate, but his power has all but vanished, as he has just five home runs. Precocious rookie slugger Heyward had provided plenty of pop until injuring his thumb and won't be fully recovered until the offseason. First baseman
Atlanta has been winning by receiving just enough offense, keyed at the top of the lineup by deserving All-Star second baseman
"I don't know how long he'll be out, but Heyward is definitely the key to that order," an NL scout said. "They're not getting much from McLouth. Glaus can be pitched to. He's got holes in his swing, and I've not seen a lot of bat speed from him."
The Mets' season-long soap opera continues, on field and off. Earlier this season they went from last to first to last in 23 days, but now they've again been the NL's best team since June 4, going 18-9 through the bulk of their interleague slate to reach second place, just two games behind Atlanta, though they've lost their last two series against divisional foes Florida and Washington.
While other clubs will have to make a trade to add an impact player in July, the Mets need only promote from within, as center fielder
On June 11 Manuel suggested that Beltran would have been able to serve as designated hitter had New York's road interleague series been a week later. Immediately assistant GM
On June 24 Manuel hinted Beltran could return as early as June 28 in Puerto Rico; one unnamed Mets executive quickly shot that down as "too quick."
On June 27 Manuel admitted "impatience" in the process and said, "I just want to see a guy as quickly as possible." Speaking the next day, GM
While their pitching has been good, no one knows if knuckleballer
"Their bullpen might be an issue, and their starting pitching might be an issue," the scout said. "They've got a lot of right-handed strikeouts in that order. Reyes is the key. If he keeps playing well, they can contend."
Too many question marks surround the Mets, whose recent track record -- September collapses in 2007 and '08 -- doesn't inspire confidence either.
The three-time division champions raced out to a fast start, rising as high as 11 games above .500 with a 26-15 record on May 21 only to nearly compile the reciprocal record of 17-23 since then to fall four games back of the Braves. Philadelphia retained its core while adding Halladay and third baseman
Rollins missed 29 games with a calf injury; Utley is on the disabled list for eight weeks after having surgery on his thumb; and Polanco is also on the DL with triceps tendinitis. Until those players return, the Phillies are now a team placed on pause.
"If they get healthy, they're going to be a factor in the race," the NL scout said. With the trade deadline less than four weeks away, he said, "I'm sure they'll do something."
That "something" doesn't even include the return of the injured Happ. But the Phillies will investigate trading for starter
They're too good not to rise to the top.
The low-payroll and usually low-key Marlins may be in fourth place in the standings but they've led the division in highly-publicized controversy this season. First came the mid-May showdown between then-manager
The worst-kept secret in baseball was that Valentine was waiting in the wings to become the next Marlins' manager. Despite a half-hearted mid-May vote of confidence, owner
Offensively, the Marlins have one of the game's most talented players in Ramirez playing alongside
"They could get back into it because they have pretty good starting pitching," said the scout. That group is led by Johnson, who at 8-3 and with a 1.82 ERA is a strong candidate to start the All-Star Game for the NL.
Never mind that they are in a distant fifth place. As long as the Nationals are trotting out
The Nationals have a likely No. 2 starter to slot behind Strasburg in Zimmermann, who made his first rehab start on Saturday after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. The heart of their lineup --
"I think they want to keep the middle of their order together," the scout said. "They can hit."