This article is the second in a series of three, in which I pick the eight-playoff teams and then the World Series winner.
Today I will focus on the National League.
The pick: PHILLIES
There has not been a single team in the NL East that has seized control of first place and ran away with it. This race has been neck-in-neck all season long, as the Phillies, Mets, and Marlins have all taken turns leading their division.
Do I expect one of these three to eventually pull away from the rest?
The answer to that would be a resounding ‘no.’
Much like the AL East, the race to the finish line in the NL East will be an exciting one.
My pick here is the Phillies, even though I still believe it’s pretty much a crapshoot.
The Phillies have what is arguably the most dangerous lineup in the majors, leading all 30 teams in the home runs departments (the Marlins rank second).
They’ve got three guys with over 25 long balls – Ryan Howard (31), Chase Utley (27), and Pat Burrell (27) – and defending National League MVP Jimmy Rollins has been known to take pitchers yard as well.
Not to mention, Utley has been touted as one of the favorites to win MVP this season; if so, it would be the third year in a row that a Phillies player has won the award (Howard won it in 2006, Rollins in 2007).
With all that power, it’s no wonder that outscoring the Phillies is quite a formidable task. Among National League clubs, they rank second to only the Chicago Cubs in runs scored.
Therefore, their pitching doesn’t have to be superb.
Cole Hamels, their hands-down number-one starter, is a strikeout machine and more than likely a future Cy Young Award winner.
Jamie Moyer can still go out and get quality starts despite being a fossil of major league baseball.
Then there’s Joe Blanton, who the Phillies got from the Oakland A’s around mid-July before the trade deadline. Most would consider Blanton a ‘C-list’ starting pitcher, but, as I just said, their pitching is expected to be efficient; not exceptional.
In the closer’s role, Brad Lidge has found his swagger once again. Lidge has 27 saves on the season, second-best in the National League, and is looking more like the Brad Lidge of 2004 and 2005 that slammed the door shut for the Houston Astros. He is a perfect 27-for-27 on saves to this point.
Another reason why I like the Phillies to take the NL East is because there’s more that I don’t like about the Mets and Marlins.
The Marlins have been an offensive powerhouse this season, but their starting pitching is very suspect. They don’t seem to have that bona fide number-one starter that they can count on to go out and deliver an outstanding, clutch performance like the Phillies do with Hamels or the Mets with Johan Santana.
Perhaps they should’ve gone after a good, proven starting pitcher before the trade deadline instead of courting Manny Ramirez.
As for the Mets, on paper it would be a no-brainer to assume that they’ll be in the playoffs. However, after last season’s debacle, I’m still skeptical when it comes to declaring them a legit playoff contender.
Their starting pitching has been very hit-or-miss throughout the course of the season - even Santana has had his shaky outings here and there, while the two young guns in their rotation, John Maine and Oliver Perez, have been extremely erratic at times. Pedro Martinez isn’t what he used to be with the Red Sox, and I can’t really see him carrying this team down the stretch.
The Mets’ star-studded lineup has also been a big disappointment on many occasions this season, failing to produce at crucial times and having a hand in Willie Randolph losing his job as manager. Personally, I would take the Phillies’ lineup over that of the Mets any day of the week.
Simply put, the underachieving Metropolitans are not a team that I can see consistently winning games in September all the way through the beginning of October, especially against the top-tier clubs in the National League, and as a result, the Phillies will edge them out in the NL East.
The pick: CUBS
For the second year in a row, the Chicago Cubs will win the NL Central.
When the Milwaukee Brewers traded away some of their most valuable prospects to the Cleveland Indians for C.C. Sabathia, the defending American League Cy Young Award winner, it looked as though the power had shifted in the National League’s best division.
Yet, the very next day, the Cubs picked up Rich Harden in a deal with the Oakland A’s, and as a result, they were able to regain their status as favorite.
Harden is the type of pitcher who likes to go out and blow your doors off every single start, and you can automatically put him down for 10 or more strikeouts whenever he takes the mound.
He is also one of the many reasons why the Cubs will be a team to be reckoned with in the National League pennant race.
Without question, the Cubs now have the National League’s top starting rotation. Take for example Ted Lilly, who is currently their number-four starter. I can’t think of a better number-four than Lilly, who is 11-6 on the season with 129 K’s.
Above him, you’ve got Harden and Carlos Zambrano, who can both be flat-out dominating (and usually are!), and then Ryan Dempster, who never loses when he’s pitching inside the comfy confines of Wrigley Field.
However, the Cubs don’t win solely with their pitching.
They rank first in the National League in runs scored (593) AND team batting average (.280). On a lesser note, they are fifth in the league in the home runs category, trailing the Phillies, Marlins, Brewers and Reds – four teams that score all of their runs off of homers!
A lineup that includes the likes of Soriano, Lee, and Ramirez will make any opposing pitcher sweat.
Nevertheless, winning this division will not be a cakewalk for the Cubs.
The Brewers have a one-two punch of their own to match the tandem of Zambrano and Harden in C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, but unlike the Cubs, lack depth in their starting pitching.
Sabathia and Sheets are two of the most solid starting pitchers in major league baseball, and could potentially dominate a short series in the postseason, but beyond them, I would take the bottom of the Cubs’ rotation without hesitation.
With that being said, the Brew Crew is going to hang around until the very end.
Like the Phillies and Cubs, they’ve got a scary bunch of hitters and can slug with the best of ‘em.
Also, you’ve got to give a shout-out to the stalwart St. Louis Cardinals – don’t look for them to go down without a fight.
The NL Central might just have the three best teams in the league (at least by record!), and as many expect, it’s going to be a three-horse race that comes down to the nitty-gritty, with the Cubs prevailing over the rival Brewers and Cards.
The pick: DIAMONDBACKS
Contrary to popular belief, Manny Ramirez probably won’t instantly rejuvenate the entire Dodgers offense, one that ranks near the bottom of the National League in several offensive categories, including 15th in home runs and 13th in runs scored.
Manny will win the team home run title by a hefty margin (Ramirez currently has 21 on the season; the next-closet Dodgers player, Matt Kemp, has 12), but I cannot see one guy making such an enormous impact on such a weak offense.
The Diamondbacks, that other team competing to win the NL West, have nothing more than a mediocre offense themselves, and unlike the Dodgers, did not do a whole lot to improve their situation.
They did acquire former-D-Back Tony Clark, who, compared to Manny, gives them very little offensive output.
The kicker in this pennant chase is starting pitching (sound familiar?).
The Diamondbacks’ starting pitching is far superior to that of the Dodgers.
Ever since the Brewers revamped their pitching staff to include C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, and the Cubs stuck Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden on the same team, everyone has overlooked Arizona’s one-two punch of Brandon Webb and Danny Haren.
It still could be the best of any in the National League.
Combined, Webb and Haren have more wins (26) than any other dynamic duo that the National League has to offer, and find themselves tied with the Angels’ Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana and Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte of the Yankees for number of wins among two pitchers on the same team.
On top of that, their combined ERA averages out to 2.83.
Not too shabby!
Beyond the Webb/Haren juggernaut, opposing teams still have to face the Big Unit, who has some gas left in the tank for an old guy as he nears 300 career wins.
On the other hand, the Dodgers’ rotation is in shambles. Plagued by injuries, which include stars Brad Penny and Jason Schmidt (who are both currently spending time on the disabled list), their staff is anchored by Derek Lowe, who would not be considered a number-one starter on most teams.
Young Chad Billinglsey has proved to be a strikeout phenom and the Dodgers’ most feared starting pitcher, while Hiroki Kuroda has proved to be extremely inconsistent, with his starts ranging from a complete-game one-hitter to a couple in which he could not even make it out of the third inning.
Even their closer, Takashi Saito, is out injured. Joe Torre has left Jonathan Broxton to pick up the slack.
In other words, give me the Diamondbacks’ pitching.
It’s pretty likely that this particular race will be decided by many close, low-scoring games down the stretch, and the most important factor in those games is pitching, which the D-Backs have a lot more of.
One underrated factor in the whole equation is how well the Diamondbacks and Dodgers play against the other three really, really bad teams in the NL Worst…I mean, West.
Granted they won’t score many runs, the Diamondbacks will end up taking the division in yet another tight National League race.
After all, who is anticipating a slugfest from these two clubs?
That is, unless Manny erupts for a three-homer game.
WILD CARD –
The pick: BREWERS
The Milwaukee Brewers, a team that has not made the playoffs since the Reagan Administration (26 endless years ago!), punch their ticket in 2008.
* UP NEXT *
My World Series Pick!