5 Things Each NL East Team Needs to Win the Title
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The NL East has quickly become one of the toughest divisions in all of baseball, with all five teams having a real shot at winning the division crown this season. In fact, just eight games separate the division leader from the team in the cellar.
While all five teams have a chance to win the division, all five teams have some questions that could prevent them from taking the division.
This article takes a look at the five things each team needs to win the title this year.
Jair Jurrjens will return to the mound for the Braves on Friday.
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A Productive Jason Heyward
One of the biggest keys for the Braves may be Jason Heyward's production.
Heyward is hitting .262/.340/.480 with 10 homers and 34 RBI on the year, but when he is on the Braves are extremely dangerous. All you need to look at is Heyward's .349 average during the Braves' early 10-1 run in April and him going four for seven with two homers and a triple in a recent pair of wins against the red-hot Yankees.
Heyward's ability to hit for average and power as well as his ability to get on base and come up with clutch hits make everyone around him better. As long as he is playing well, the Braves should be in the race until the end.
More Consistency From the Back of the Bullpen
One thing that has really hurt the Braves this year is the demise of their elite bullpen.
A year ago, setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty were almost un-hittable. This year, both have been much more average than great. To reach their maximum potential, the Braves will need these two guys to pitch like they have in the past.
No More Significant Injuries
The Braves have only suffered one significant injury, but that injury was huge.
When Brandon Beachy went down and was forced to get Tommy John Surgery, the Braves lost the guy tied for the ERA lead in the National League as well as the guy with the lowest batting average against in the league.
After losing a major piece of the puzzle, the Braves cannot afford to lose another key player for a long period of time.
Jair Jurrjens to Return to Form
A week ago, the Braves needed Jair Jurrjens to return to his old form in order to help stabilize a rotation that had issues at the back end. Now that Brandon Beachy is gone for the year, Jurrjens ability to produce has become even more important to the team.
The Braves don't need Jurrjens to pitch like the guy that was an All-Star last season, but if he can be solid and consistent, he would be filling a major hole. Of course, the Braves have other options, like young Julio Teheran, but Jurrjens is a veteran who could help a team that already has some young starters like Mike Minor and Randall Delgado.
A Healthy and Productive Chipper Jones
The Braves really need their leader to remain healthy and productive in the final season of his long and great career. The veteran is important for two reasons, the first being that he has already proven with his hot start and that his bat is still very potent. Chipper came off the disabled list and immediately went to work producing runs and snapping the Braves out of an early-season funk.
The other reason that Chipper Jones is an important piece for the Braves is because they have a bunch of younger players like Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman. Jones will provide veteran leadership for these players as they experience a potential pennant race.
Giancarlo Stanton needs to spread his production out.
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More Consistent Play As A Team
The Miami Marlins got off to a cold start to the year, making many believe that this team wasn't going to live up to the spring hype that had come with a huge off-season spending spree.
Then came a hot month of May, which got the club into a tie for first in the NL East, followed by a June slump which has seen the team cool off again.
The Marlins need to be a more consistent team in general if they want to compete for the division crown. A cold spell at the wrong time could potentially cost them a playoff spot, especially with the division being much more competitive this season.
The Ability to Successfully Close Out Games
When the Marlins handed Heath Bell a big contract this winter, they believed that they were getting a major upgrade at the back end of their bullpen over the inconsistent player formerly known as Leo Nunez.
Bell hasn't lived up to his end of the deal though, with a 5.68 ERA and four blown saves in 18 opportunities.
The Marlins have a strong team but can't afford to be giving games away. It is important to note that Bell has been better in June, but he can't slip up and start to struggle.
Giancarlo Stanton Hitting More Consistently
Giancarlo Stanton has put up pretty good numbers this year, as he is hitting .269/.344/.514 with 14 homers and 42 RBI.
However, it is important to note that his season has really been a tale of three parts instead of consistent production.
Stanton started off the year hitting .247 with one homer and nine RBI in the month of April, causing many to worry about a nagging knee injury. Then came a ridiculous month of May where he hit .343 with 12 homers and 30 RBI. However since the calendar turned to June he has hit just .172 with one homer and three RBI.
For the Marlins to win this year, they are going to need their big young slugger to spread his production out. It's not a huge coincidence that the team has struggled at the same time as Stanton and also played great baseball at the same time as the slugger.
Josh Johnson Continuing to be An Ace
As one may expect, Josh Johnson struggled early on this year as he returned to the mound from an injury that kept him our for most of the 2011 season.
The ace of the Marlins had been one of the best pitchers in the game in 2010, and the Marlins need him to pitch like that this year.
The team has a solid rotation with Anibal Sanchez, Mark Buehrle, Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano, however, none of those guys would qualify as an ace. To keep pace in a division where everyone else has at least one ace, the Marlins need Josh Johnson to be at his best.
The good news is that he is 1-2 with a 2.18 ERA in his three June starts, and he also showed flashes of his old self towards the end of May.
Gaby Sanchez Hitting Again
Heading into this season, Gaby Sanchez had spent two full seasons in the big leagues. Sanchez hit .273 with 19 homers and 85 RBI as a rookie in 2010, and then followed it up by hitting .266 with 19 homers and 78 RBI last year.
Sanchez had proven to be a solid and consistent producer in his first two years in the big leagues.
Sanchez just hasn't been the same player this year. He's hitting just .188 with a homer and 15 RBI, and has already spent some time in the minors to try to fix his issues.
Sanchez isn't a big producer for first base, but he is a solid hitter in the Marlins lineup. Taking his 15-20 homers and 75-85 RBI away really puts a dent into the production of the Marlins.
New York Mets
The Mets need Ike Davis to keep hitting like he has recently.
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Ike Davis to Keep Improving
Ike Davis got off to a slow start to this year, as he is only hitting .190 after picking up his production recently.
The slow start wasn't totally unexpected as he missed almost all of last year to injury, but the Mets don't have a great lineup. This means they need one of the more promising young first basemen in the league to keep producing.
Davis is hitting .246 in June with an OPS of .798, which is by far his best month of the year. For the Mets to stay in the race, they will need Davis to at least produce at the rate he has during the month of June.
Johan Santana Staying Healthy
Johan Santana may no longer be the best pitcher in Queens, but his health is a major key. Coming off a shoulder surgery that kept him out for all of 2011, it is something that will be closely followed.
With Santana pitching well and RA Dickey having a career year, the Mets are getting better than expected production out of their rotation right now.
The Mets can't afford any setbacks for Santana as his innings totals start to add up.
The team has a decent rotation right now, but losing Santana would mean that they would need to count of a pitcher like Jeremy Hefner or one of their youngsters yet to make their big league debut. In the NL East that could make the Mets drop out of the race.
Add to the Bullpen
The Mets bullpen isn't very impressive.
Closer Frank Francisco has a 5.14 ERA, Bobby Parnell is at 3.38 and the team's next two most used relievers in terms of innings each have an ERA above 4.25. Considering the state of the bullpens for the rest of the division, this just isn't going to cut it.
The Mets need to go out and find a reliever on the trade market or get talented young pitcher Jenrry Mejia back into the fold. They can use a new closer, but even a solid setup man could help to solidify the unit.
Acquire a Bat
The Mets offense minus David Wright scares no one. Sure, Lucas Duda can hit some homers and Scott Hairston is having a big year, but this group isn't going to put many runs on the board in a playoff scenario.
The Mets don't really have any impact hitters in the upper minors unless you consider Wilmer Flores, who is 20-years-old and just promoted to Double-A in the last 24 hours. That means that the Mets will need to make a deal to get an impact bat in the lineup.
Now that the Wilpon family is done with their lawsuit, it's possible that the team will have some payroll flexibility to acquire a bat if they really believe this team has a chance.
Give the Young Arms a Look
The Mets have a trio of talented prospects in the upper minors that may get a look this year. Triple-A starter Matt Harvey, Triple-A reliever Jenrry Mejia and Double-A starter Zack Wheeler could all potentially help out the club in some role this year, even if it is only in the bullpen.
Mejia has already made his big league debut, but is recovering from an injury that kept him out for most of last year and part of this year. He could be up in the next couple weeks and could eventually become a strong setup guy.
Harvey is having success in Triple-A, and has little left to prove at that level.
The Mets already have Johan Santana, RA Dickey, Dillon Gee, Jon Niese and Chris Young, so he may need to help out of the bullpen this year. However, Santana is in his first year back from major surgery and Young is brittle, so he could also be needed for some starts.
Wheeler is dominating hitters in Double-A, and appears ready for a promotion to Triple-A. He is the one that needs the most developmental time, so his only role that could help the Mets could be out of the bullpen in a role similar to what David Price had at the start of his career.
The Phillies need Ryan Howard back in the lineup.
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Get Ryan Howard Back Into the Lineup
Obviously, the Phillies knew heading into the year that Ryan Howard was going to miss a significant amount of time. They believed they would be able to get production out of guys like Jim Thome and Ty Wigginton until Howard returned, but it hasn't worked out as planned.
Without a major power threat in the middle of the lineup, the Phillies offense just has not been very good this year. They desperately need Howard back, even if it is just to help add a threat to the lineup.
Get Roy Halladay Back
The Phillies need to get Roy Halladay back as soon as possible.
In a normal year, an injury to Halladay would hurt the team, but in a year with limited run support to begin with, losing one of the best pitchers of the game is magnified.
Get Chase Utley Back
The theme for the Phillies continues.
Chase Utley is another key player that has been out all year with an injury. Utley may no longer be a superstar, but if last year was any indication, he is still better than the league average at second base.
Utley will provide the Phillies a huge boost, as Freddy Galvis and the rest of the guys playing second this year just haven't hit much.
Utley's bat isn't the only way he will help the club, as his leadership will also go a long way to helping out a struggling club.
Trade For Another Bat
The way the Phillies are built today, they may not have enough juice in the offense to win the NL East. The organization has plenty of high-upside prospects and plenty of holes to fill, so they will likely have options in the trade market.
The Phillies can use an upgrade at third base, where Placido Polanco's on-base skills and power are well below-average for the position, or in the outfield, as Juan Pierre has next to zero power.
If the team can get their hands on a Chase Headley, Josh Willingham or Carlos Quentin, the offense could look average. An average offense may be just enough to get a team with a rotation led by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels another division title.
Better Defense From Hunter Pence
Hunter Pence, the big acquisition at the trading deadline last year, has had an up and down first full year in Philadelphia. While he is hitting .275 with 13 homers and 42 RBI for a team without much offense, his defense has been a bit of an adventure at times.
Pence has looked awful at times in right field, much worse than what we have seen in the past. The Phillies can't afford to take him out of the lineup, as he is by far their best hitter, so they will need to see his defense get better.
The Nationals may shut down Stephen Strasburg in September since he is in his first year back from Tommy John Surgery.
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The most important thing for the Nationals to win the NL East is the use of their dominant pitcher down the stretch. Strasburg is being limited to 160 innings this year in his first full year back form Tommy John Surgery, similar to Jordan Zimmerman last year. That puts him on pace to finish his season no later than the beginning of September.
Right now, Strasburg is 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 84 innings pitched. Taking a guy that dominant out of the rotation down the stretch just won't help the club win a division crown. Sure, it is best for his future to sit him, but for the team to win now he needs to be out there.
Mike Morse to Hit For Power
Mike Morse surprised many last year when he hit .303 with 31 homers and 95 RBI. He missed the first two months of this season with a lat injury, and since his return, he has only hit .219 with a single home run in 16 games.
Morse's bat is important to the Nationals, and with Jayson Werth out, Morse's bat is that much more important.
The Nationals lineup isn't much better than average, especially with Ryan Zimmerman struggling, so getting 20 homers or so out of Morse is a must.
Ryan Zimmerman to Turn Things Around
Ryan Zimmerman had a big year in 2010 when he hit .307 with 25 homers. That was when he was 25, when so many expected him to get even better as he really got into his prime years, but due to injuries, it hasn't happened yet.
Injuries limited Zimmerman to 101 games a year ago, as he hit just .289 with 12 homers and 49 RBI. He has struggled even more this year, as he has missed time to an injury and only hit .226 with three homers and 22 RBI in 52 games.
For the Nationals lineup to succeed, they need Zimmerman to play like the player we all know he really is and start producing runs. Otherwise, the offense may not be enough once Strasburg gets shut down.
The Return of Drew Storen
The Nationals have one of the best young closers in the game in Drew Storen, but he hasn't pitched yet this year due to an injury. That led to the Nationals trying Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez in the closer role, and neither of them found great success.
Tyler Clippard has been solid as the closer, but that takes him out of his setup role. That may not sound like much, but Clippard has averaged nearly 90 innings in the last two seasons. That means that the Nationals aren't able to use him in key situations or let him pitch multiple innings.
No matter how good Clippard is as a closer, the combination of a healthy Storen and Clippard at the back end of the bullpen makes the team much stronger.
Get Jayson Werth Back
Another injured National, Jayson Werth is desperately needed for the pennant race.
Werth failed to live up to expectations after signing a monster contract last year, but was looking much more like himself in the first 27 games of this year before injuring his wrist.
Werth has a potent middle of the order bat which will obviously give the team a much needed boost, but that is only the beginning of his importance.
The Nationals have a young and inexperienced club featuring Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Steve Lombardozzi, and need a player like Werth to help lead by example.
Werth was a key part of some of the very good Phillies teams, and played in a pair of World Series. Having his experience around will really help the Nationals youngsters in a pennant race.