|National League Keys to Success|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on July 20, 2009
With the first half safely in the books, it's easy to see that not too many of the preseason picks for contenders are really out of the playoff races.Â That will change over the next 10 days or so as some teams opt to plan for next year and deal away some of their veterans for younger or cheaper talent and bow out of the playoff race.
But for those still in the mix there are keys, and often key players who need to step to the fore to help their team reach the postseason.Â Let's take a team by team look at who needs to do what, and what are the keys to success for each of the contenders and pretenders still in the mix.
National League East
The Phillies are the frontrunners here, but you wonder how much they've earned by their own play as opposed to the injuries which have decimated the Mets.Â The big concern is that the Phillies have a sub .500 record in their own ballpark.Â Being able to win at home and turn that home field into a home field advantage is something they had best learn to do if they want to repeat as World Champions.Â They'll also either need to add a quality starting pitcher, or get a much higher quality of starts from their own staff in order to do more than make a run at a playoff appearance.
That means that the Mets probably can't take on much in the way of additional salaries thus limiting their ability to acquire replacement players at the trading deadline.Â Because of that the keys to the Mets making a playoff run are fourfold.Â They'll need David Wright to step up and regain his power stroke, for either John Maine or Oliver Perez to return to the big team and become a winning pitcher again, for Mike Pelfrey to take a step forward and become a reliable No. 2 starter after Johan Santana, and for Reyes, Delgado and Beltran to come back from the DL soon and be productive right away.Â Â It might be time to pull the plug on this season and start rebuilding.
The Marlins have a surprising amount of talent and are playing far better than most experts considered them ready to.Â In this weak division where teams are struggling either to pitch or to find offense the Marlins could be a dark horse contender because of their balance which has them second in runs scored and second in ERA in the division.Â It would be a very un-Marlinlike play for the team to take on salary by trading for a big veteran before the deadline, but they certainly have the prospects available to do so.Â Adding a closer, perhaps Pittsburgh's Matt Capps (who shouldn't be too expensive) would definitely help them close the gap with the Phillies.Â The keys to their success however rest squarely on the ability of young starters Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Chris Volstad and Andrew Miller to endure a full season and the pressure of a playoff race and on the leadership of franchise player Hanley Ramirez (who leads the team in just about every single offensive category except steals, where he is second).
The team with the best ERA in the division, nearly half a run better than the Marlins staff, however is the Atlanta Braves.Â That has kept them in the mix thus far, but the Braves are hardly an offensive juggernaut.Â In fact only one Braves hitter has reached double digits in home runs (Chipper Jones has 11) which shows just how little power the team has.Â Even if the Braves manage to add a big bat, they won't be able to match the firepower of the Phillies or probably even that of the Marlins, but they can outpitch them.Â That will be the key to any Braves run at the playoffs.
National League Central
The Cardinals are currently poised atop the Central for two reasons, Albert Pujols and a trio of starters all who have ERAs of less than 3.25.Â That's barely been enough to keep them leading the division, but that is the key to their success so far and it will be the key to their success during any playoff drive.Â Pujols through 92 games has 34 home runs, 90 RBIs, 10 steals and a .334 average -- accounting for more then 20% of the runs the Cardinals have scored so far.Â Â He'll need to keep that up for this team, which is otherwise offensively a middle of the road team, in order for this team to contend.Â That middle of the road offense also means that the pitchers will have to be on the top of their game as clearly Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Joel Pineiro have been thus far.
The Cubbies have begun to heat up, not coincidentally at the same time that Derrek Lee started hitting.Â In July the Cubs have gone 10-5 and Lee has smacked four doubles, seven home runs and driven in 29 in that span.Â That's just what this previously anemic offense needed.Â Lee's bat could be enough to carry this team to the division title, but if a couple more of the Cubs big bats (Alfonso Soriano, Giovanni Soto or Milton Bradley) could find their groove, or Aramis Ramirez regains his power stroke the Cubs could still run away with this division.
Neck and neck with the Cubbies stand the Milwaukee Brewers who of all the contenders has had the most dismal of pitching so far this season.Â Thus far they've been carried by their offense which is ranked fourth in the NL at the moment.Â That will have to change if the Brew Crew wants to make a legitimate run at postseason glory.Â After Yovanni Gallardo their best pitcher has been Jeff Suppan, that's all you really need to know.Â Unless the Brewers acquire pitching help before the deadline they'll need Manny Parra and Dave Bush to come back and step it up.
The Houston Astros are not a team which is doing anything particularly well but move into Sunday's games poised at .500.Â A wide open Central could tempt management to take a stab at this division, but the truth is that of the teams considering contending the Astros would have to put the most on the line in order to succeed.Â They could use both pitching (they rank third in the division behind the Cards and Cubs) and hitting (where they rank third behind the Cards and Brewers).Â They also have some big contracts on the edge of free agency (Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins) all of whom could bring some good talent in return.Â For that reason they'll probably decide to be sellers in return for prospects in the upcoming days.
National League West
The Dodgers need to keep doing what they are doing -- winning games, getting timely hitting and solid pitching.Â They proved they could sustain a winning culture without Manny in the lineup and that bodes well for the NL team that is third in runs scored.Â Their real competition (sorry Giants fans) in this division is Colorado who ranks second in runs scored and who have had a great run and gone from 12 games under .500 on June 3 to seven games over heading into Sunday's games.Â Offensively the Dodgers are probably about even, maybe even better, than the Rox so long as they have Manny in the lineup and have dominated when it comes to pitching -- especially at home where the team is 29-15.Â Sustaining that will be the key to the Dodgers winning this division.Â The injury to Jonathan Broxton could be a concern.
Offensively the Giants rank only ahead of lowly San Diego within their division, but have the lowest team ERA in the National League.Â That's been enough to keep them afloat this season, but they aren't going anywhere without adding at least one, and probably two big bats.Â Unless they suddenly decide to bring Barry back, the Giants just aren't likely to find them (certainly they won't find them from within), as they won't trade the building blocks of their future for single season rentals.Â That being said, pitching is the key to any successful run at the playoffs the Giants might hope to make.Â It's a longshot, but they do lead the Wild Card race by 0.5 games over the Rockies who've made up a lot of ground in the last two months.Â Team leader Bengie Molina and future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson will both be free agents after the season and would have a lot of value to a contender and could bring the kind of bat (albeit as a prospect) which the Giants will need to have a brighter future.
The 2007 NL Champion Rockies seem to have regained their mojo and find themselves once again looking at a chance to qualify for the playoffs.Â They've gotten back into the mix with a mix of high powered offense mixed with middle of the pack pitching.Â It's the pitching that got them to the World Series back in 2007 and it's the pitching which will be the key to any serious playoff run once again.Â Â Thy key will be Jason Marquis keeping his dominating form, while Ubaldo Jimenez continues to improve as he matures.Â So long as ownership doesn't pull the plug and the pitching stays moderately stable the Rockies have a good chance to move into the Wild Card lead and possibly even make a run at the Dodgers.