The MLB season is just past its midpoint. For most teams, a little over 50 percent of the season has gone by. One of the main questions being asked at this point is, can the top teams match their first half performance in the second?
Here I'll list the top-six teams in the National League, talk about their strengths and weaknesses, say why I think they have won all of the games they have, and say whether I think they will be just as good in the second half.
The Philadelphia Phillies have been having a great year. They lead the MLB with a 57-34 record. Their three aces—Roy Oswalt, their fourth, is out—Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, are performing very well. Vance Worley has filled in for the injured starters and has been superb.
The Phillies bullpen has gone above and beyond the expectations. With Brad Lidge, the Phillies closer, out from the start of the season, no one expected the other relievers to come through like they have.
Jose Contreras filled in for Lidge at the start of the season and was great until his injury.
Ryan Madson, who is now injured, was the Phillies closer for a time and was just as good.
After his injury, pitchers like Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes stepped up. The Phillies bullpen was expected to be their weakness, but has now developed into an important strength.
The Phillies are currently first in the MLB with just three blown saves.
On offense, core veterans like Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino are great when they.are healthy, but each has been either playing hurt or out for an injury at one time or another.
When they don't have multiple core veterans playing good at the same time, the Phillies offense isn't capable of scoring more than one or two runs a game.
The Phillies have the ability to continue to win for the rest of the season if their core veterans can become—and stay—healthy. They have great relief pitchers, great starting pitchers, and some great veterans in their lineup. The Phillies had a lot of injuries in the first half of the season, and whether or not those injuries continue will be the deciding factor for the outcome of the National League pennant.
The Atlanta Braves are currently 49-36, second in the NL East. This season their pitching—starting and relief—has been their main strength. They have starting pitchers like Jair Jurrjens, who leads the league with a 1.89 ERA. Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are holding up the bullpen. They have a solid pitching staff to carry up the team.
Their offense, however, may be their main concern.
This year, the Braves offense isn't as good as everyone hoped. Chipper Jones has had some health problems, and his performance is one of the main things that factor into the team.
Dan Uggla was supposed to be a star, but is now hitting .175.
Brian McCann, the Braves catcher, has been their best player this year. He is hitting .314. The rest of the Braves' offense hasn't performed as well as expected.
I think the reason the Braves are winning is similar to the Phillies—their pitching. The bullpen of the Braves is vulnerable, as is the Phillies', because it is relying on youth and inexperience. The Braves will be able to keep winning for the rest of the season and have the possibility of overtaking the Phillies if they can keep their bullpen together, keep key veterans like Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson healthy and playing well, and get Dan Uggla anything close to his former self.
Have you noticed a trend here? The top teams seem to all be pitching-based teams. The San Francisco Giants are no different. They have starting pitchers Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Ryan Vogelsong. Brian Wilson, the Giants closer, has a 3.03 ERA with 24 saves. Their pitching is similar to last year's World Series-winning group.
On offense, the Giants aren't on top. Some of their key offensive players are out with injuries. Buster Posey, the 2010 Rookie of the Year award winner, is likely out for the season. He was a great clutch hitter for the Giants last year. His injury is a large blow to the Giants' offense and defense.
Other players like Pablo Sandoval, who has returned from an early season injury, have stepped up and filled the gap Posey left on offense. The Giants have had a lot of injuries on offense. Mike Fontenot, Mark DeRosa and Freddy Sanchez are a few of their key players.
The main reason the Giants have been winning so far this year is their great pitching staff and their reserves on offense. They have had a lot of injuries so far this year, and some of their players could return as the season continues. The second half, therefore, may be even better than the first.
At the start of the season, no one expected Milwaukee to make such a comeback, bouncing back off last year's 77-85. Their one main concern may be that they aren't really the top team in anything. Their hitting is average, and their pitching is mediocre. Yes, they are leading the division, but they are only five games above .500.
As I said in the title, a lot of their success can be attributed to Prince Fielder, who has a .300 batting average, 22 home runs, and 72 RBI. Ryan Braun is just as good, boasting 16 HR, 62 RBI, and a .320 batting average.
Luck has played a big role in the Brewers' success this year—the National League Central is probably one of the worst divisions this year. The Cardinals' best player, Albert Pujols, was out, but has returned. This may give the Cardinals a jolt forward, carrying them ahead of Milwaukee.
Can the Brewers keep it up? Maybe. The Brewers will make the playoffs this year only if the Cardinals slump—which the return of Pujols makes unlikely—because the Wild Card is pretty much clinched by the NL East.
The St. Louis Cardinals are 49-43, tied with the Brewers for first place. This year has been up and down for them. Albert Pujols, their first baseman, was out for some of the season, but came back sooner than expected.
Pujols and Berkman are really the main reason the Cardinals are tied for first place in the National League Central. The St. Louis offense isn't more than average beyond that.
In terms of pitching, Chris Carpenter isn't nearly as good as his best, and Adam Wainwright is out. The rest of the staff isn't too bad—good enough for the offense to hold up the team, at least.
Can the Cardinals keep winning? Them and the Brewers are both inconsistent teams, and only time will tell which of the two is more likely to hold out for the division title.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have been as much of a surprise as the Brewers this year. They are second in the NL West, behind San Francisco.
Justin Upton and Chris Young have led the team's offense—Young gives the power, Upton the consistency. The rest of the offense has been inconsistent and slightly under-productive.
The Diamondbacks starting rotation is below the line of superb, but their bullpen is close. David Hernandez leads with a 3.27 ERA. J.J. Putz helps out with an earned run average of 3.12. Sam Demel has a 1.80 ERA.
I think that Arizona's success should be mostly credited to the balance of the team's skills. They have some good offensive stars, and other stand-outs in the bullpen. Their starting rotation is good enough to win games, with a total ERA of 4.11. I think the Diamondbacks can continue to win only if they get a little more consistent—and if San Francisco starts to slump.