There are facts in life that are 100 percent certain. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. April 15th is Tax Day and December 25th is Christmas. Men and women think differently. The Philadelphia Phillies are going to win the National League East.
Whoa … wait a minute! Something on this short list isn’t true. Yeah, that’s right. Tax Day in 2011 was April 18th.
Some “experts” would have you believe that on December 15, 2010, the Phillies surprise signing of free-agent Cliff Lee vaulted them to another NL East title and the National League pennant. It certainly made them better, but the National League East is anything but a cakewalk. As the first month of the 2011 season draws to a close, let’s take a look at how we got here.
Up until Easter, the ERA of the Phillies pitching staff was in the top five in the National League. However, it was third in the NL East. The Florida Marlins are 12-6 and their staff leads the National League in batting average against, have no blown saves and have allowed the fewest hits. Ace Josh Johnson has a 3-0 record and an ERA of 1.00. Anibal Sanchez just missed his second career no-hitter. Their pitching more than supplements an average offense that’s in the bottom half of the NL in runs scored, but when the offense comes around, the Fish will rise in the East.
The Marlins strong start is in direct contrast to the team that I see as the biggest loser in the division in April. The Atlanta Braves were picked by some to win the World Series, but they look nothing like world-beaters now. Only the Nationals and Padres have a worse team batting average, to date, and they are close to the bottom of the league in several offensive categories, including runs scored, OBP and slugging percentage. If Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla were hitting their weight, it would be an improvement. It took their bench several weeks to get just one hit. Fortunately, their pitching (ranked third in the league in ERA) and fielding (ranked second in fielding percentage) has been solid, but the Braves have been prone to team-wide batting slumps in recent years and if you can’t score, you can’t win. Looking up at the Nationals is not where anyone thought they would be as April winds down.
The strong pitching staffs in the National League East end with the Phillies, Marlins and Braves. The Mets pitching staff is among baseball’s worst, ranking near the bottom in most categories. Their middle-of-the-pack offense isn’t enough to make up for their pitching woes and the team’s front office problems compound the matter in one of the toughest media markets. Their brightest stars, Jose Reyes and David Wright, were once considered cornerstones and now are rumored regularly as trade bait in a rebuilding year. Injuries and bad contracts come together to form the perfect storm for a bad team. You can look for them near the bottom of the division all year long.
Currently in the middle of the division are the Nationals, but don’t expect that to last. Up to now, they have been a mirror image of the Mets. They have decent team pitching, but their offense ranks 29th in team batting average. Free agent Jayson Werth has had a slow start, batting near .200, and the team leader, SS Danny Espinosa, is hovering around .250. Losing free-agent Adam Dunn has set back a team with an already marginal offense. It will be tough for them to compete as well.
The Phillies round out the April review of the NL East. They sit atop the division despite key injuries to their best position player (Chase Utley), their prize rookie RF (Domonic Brown) and their closer (Brad Lidge). It’s no surprise that their starting pitching leads the way. They are in the top 10 in the league in team ERA, WHIP, quality starts and batting average against. As much as critics try to pick them apart, they remain the class of the NL East and one of the strongest teams in all of baseball.
It’s a good thing I’m not betting against them. I just might have better luck going against that “sun rising and setting” thing.