Tuesday, May 17, 2016

MLB First Quarter: National League

Most MLB teams are playing their 40th game this week, which makes this the one-quarter point of the 162-game regular season. Today, a quick overview of the National League thus far.
Right at the top we have the Chicago Cubs, with the best record in all of MLB. I've been a Cubs fan for a long time, and I'm still mildly shocked to be saying that, even after more than a month to get used to it. The Small Bears are scoring plenty of runs and their pitching has been incredible. No Cubs fan wants to risk a jinx, but saying "this could be the year" actually looks likely!

The remainder of the NL Central doesn't look a whole lot different than last year. The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are making respectable showings, and the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds are bringing up the rear. Both the Pirates and Cardinals lost some key players from last season, so it's unlikely we'll see a repeat of three playoff teams in the division. Either one could get hot and challenge for one of the wild card spots, though. The Brewers don't have much in the way of bright spots this year, and that goes double for the Reds - they've already set a record for consecutive games with a run allowed by the bullpen.

The Washington Nationals have the second-best record in the NL, leading the East. Everyone picked Washington last year to be the best team in baseball, but outside of Bryce Harper (and Max Scherzer's two no-hitters) it was a disappointing campaign. So far this year, the whole team is playing the way it was supposed to last season. The New York Mets are following closely, almost entirely on the strength of their great pitching. Their offense has been mediocre, not yet showing signs of the way they scored runs at the end of last year. The Miami Marlins are close behind as well, following almost exactly the opposite formula as the Mets: good hitting, mediocre pitching.

Then we have the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves. Both of these clubs are rebuilding and are supposed to be terrible this season. The Braves are following the script, with the worst record in baseball. But someone forgot to tell the Phillies how bad they are, because they're finding ways to win. Most notably, they have a couple of really impressive young starting pitchers. It's unlikely that this kind of run will last all year, but at least for now Philadelphia is playing well above their potential on paper.

The NL West is the closest division in baseball, with all five teams within five games. Unfortunately, that's because they've all been pretty bad. The San Francisco Giants are leading largely because of a recent winning streak that took them above the .500 mark. The Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers are barely above .500, which is probably about right for the Rockies but a disappointment for the Dodgers. LA needs to get better offensive production to catch up to the Giants.

Below the .500 mark, we have the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres. Arizona's pitching has thus far been much worse than one would expect, which explains their struggles. If that changes, they could make up ground in a hurry. The Padres, on the other hand, aren't likely to see a lot of improvement. The roster hasn't improved much (if at all) from last year's 74-win team.

Jinx or not jinx, I have to say the Cubs look like an easy lock to stay on top of the Central. In the East, the Mets have a chance if they can figure out an offense, but I think the Nationals are likely to out-hit them. And it's really anybody's game out West, where the Giants, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks could all win the division - just a matter of which team figures out how to play up to potential.

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