It is hard to imagine, but we are just two short weeks away from the halfway point in the 2012 Major League Baseball season.
The National League East has clearly established itself as the best division in the Senior Circuit. With upstarts and surprising contenders like the Nationals and Mets leading the race to the postseason at the moment, the standings have been atypical of what we have become accustomed to.
With Labor Day in the rear-view mirror and the All-Star Break just around the corner, it seems like an appropriate time to grade these clubs on their first-half performances.
With equal records at home and on the road, the Nats (40-28) have been atop the East for the majority of the season.
Washington has relied heavily on the best pitching staff in the game so far, led by a starting rotation that includes phenom Stephen Strasburg (9-1, 2.46 ERA) and offseason acquisition Gio Gonzalez (9-3, 2.55).
Offensively, the Nationals have often been anemic, securely placed in the bottom third of the league in most measurable categories. Unfortunate injuries have caused Michael Morse and Jayson Werth to miss more than 90 combined games, leaving a large power gap in the middle of the order.
The slack has been picked up by rookie sensation and spark plug Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond and a surprisingly good first half from notorious slow-starter Adam LaRoche.
With a division leading 14-8 mark within the East, the Nats seem poised to make their first playoff appearance since their move to D.C.
The New York Mets
Coming off of three consecutive losing seasons, 2012 was expected to be more of the same for the Mets. Currently, though, they find themselves just a good weekend away from the division lead.
Aside from knuckleballer R.A.Dickey, producer of back-to-back one-hitters, and the return to prominence of ace Johan Santana, the pitching has been suspect. New York has the worst
bullpen in the game (5.32 ERA and 13 blown saves) leaving no lead safe for long.
Offensively, the Mets have held it together with a little bit of everything and a few names that, outside of the northeast, many have never even heard of. David Wright (.361) is making a push for the batting title and the emergence of Lucas Duda has helped to make up for a poor start from Ike
The loss of speed caused primarily by the departure of Jose Reyes to Miami has not hurt them as much as expected thus far.
The Atlanta Braves
Despite having three winning streaks of five games or more already, the Braves are only six games over .500 at this point.
Loaded with offensive talent, Atlanta’s offense has at times struggled. Chipper Jones has missed almost half of the campaign with various injuries and veterans Brian McCann and Dan Uggla have struggled to hit for average.
As has been the norm for years now, the Braves’ success at the plate depends heavily on the long ball. Just as Tim Hudson came back from the disabled list last week, unexpected ace starter Brandon Beachy (5-5, 2.00) was lost for the year.
Craig Kimbrel is once again among the best closers in the game, but the Braves will need someone other than Hudson and Tommy Hanson to step it up and be a dependable innings-eater if they are to stay in this race for the long haul.
The Miami Marlins
Just 4-19 in June, the most colorful team in the Majors has fallen quickly from contender status.
Aside from some amazingly thunderous home runs at the hands of Giancarlo Stanton, the offense has been anemic for the most part. The loss of Emilio Bonifacio to injury left the Fish short one of their best table-setters, and the losing soon followed.
Former standout starter Josh Johnson (4-5, 4.18) has yet to return to his 2010 form after being lost for most of last season, and the bullpen has only the Mets to thank for not being the worst in the league.
After spending a ton of free-agent money in the offseason and opening a new ballpark this spring, manager Ozzie Guillen and the Marlins have to be disappointed with their position right now.
Grade: C -
No team has been hit as hard by the injury bug than the Phillies.
Winners of five straight NL East titles, the void that is left by the loss of big hitters Ryan Howard and Chase Utley as well as DL stints from aces Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have been too much to overcome.
Catcher Carlos Ruiz (.347, 9 HR, 38 RBI) is having a career year and Hunter Pence has been dependable, but the overall lack of offense has made the loss of the two aces that much more significant.
Cole Hamels (10-3) has really been a leader, though, making up for the fact that Lee is winless in 11 starts. Former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon has been solid in the same role with the Phillies.
As bad as it’s been, Philadelphia is only 8.5 games back and, therefore, not out of it yet.
There are many questions that have yet to be answered in a division this tight.
Can the Nationals pitching hold up all season? When will the Braves’ talent take over? Do the Phillies have a run in them?
We do know one thing for sure, though. This is the best division in the National League and no one is out of the race just yet (yes, the Phillies have a chance). It’s going to be a long summer along the Atlantic coast, and anyone can come out on top.