Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Toast of the NL

As usual, while watching the ESPN show 1st and 10 this afternoon, my mind started working off of the arguments between Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. When the two weren't arguing their views based on their ethnic composition or when Smith didn't call out ESPN for being too gracious to Brett Favre (it's about time someone said it), they discussed the question as to whether or not the Brewers were the best team in the National League. I also want to talk about this question now too.
To me there are three teams in the National League that should be in this conversation and they are all in the NL Central: the Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals. I also wish that the NL West would be disallowed of having a team in the postseason since these three are all so capable.
1.) The Chicago Cubs Cubs; 59-42 (Division Lead)
The Cubs started off the 2008 season showing that they are a very strong team. With their strong start and unexpected contributions from Ryan Dempster, they had a very deep rotation before the addition of Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin from the A's. Now with Harden in the rotation, the Cubs have Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis in their starting rotation. It is so deep that Chad Gaudin has been moved to the bullpen despite having a very good season as a starter with Oakland and is pitching in relief for the Cubs. Now, Gaudin can bridge the gap between starters and Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood when healthy at the end of the game. They say that pitching wins, and this team is full of it.
Offensively, the Cubs have seen Ryan Theriot become one of baseball's best contact hitters this season with his average presently at .324; he has been a great surprise for this team and has really helped be a catalyst to the lineup. More importantly with Alfonso Soriano coming off the DL yesterday, this team gets much stronger contributions from wherever Lou Pinella decides to place him in the lineup and now the bench gets deeper with Reed Johnson no longer having to play everyday. Other starters Jim Edmonds, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Geovanny Soto and Kosuke Fukudome have all been all-stars in their careers and provides the Cubs with excellent veteran prowess throughout the lineup.
2.) The Milwaukee Brewers; 58-43 (-1 Behind Cubs)
Milwaukee made the biggest move of the season in acquiring CC Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians prior to the all-star game. Sabathia has paid immediate dividends; sending the Brewers into a hot streak of 9-3 since the trade pulling them to within one game of the division lead. Between Sabathia and Ben Sheets, the Brewers have the best 1-2 punch of starting pitching in the National League. After that, the pitching does get more difficult to defend with Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Manny Parra in their rotation. Suppan won a ring with the Cardinals and has a veteran presence while Bush had been inconsistent throughout his career and Parra has been good, but is still largely unproven with only 21 career major league starts. It is a shame that Yovanni Gallardo went down to injury, otherwise this would be a fantastic starting rotation. At this point, it is certainly still above average and will get the Brewers far behind Sabathia and Sheets. Their bullpen has been downright awful at points during the season, especially with Eric Gagne and they are looking to address the depth in the bullpen potentially with a trade, but the Brewers have found a secret with Salomon Torres as their closer. He has not been lights out, but he has converted 18 of 22 save opportunities this season. Eric Gagne has looked better since returning from the DL and Brian Shouse, David Riske and Seth McClung also around to provide some help in the middle innings. This isn't a great bullpen, but it might hold together through September.
Offensively they have had inconsistent production from everyone except Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, yet they are still very talented offensively. JJ Hardy has caught fire over the past month and has really led the offense. If things continue with that trend Hardy-Braun-Fielder-Hart is as good as it gets 2-5. Outside of that, Jason Kendall has really been a good addition to this club. He plays above average defense and has been a veteran leader for the pitching staff. After a hot April, he has cooled down to .257, but he still is a very valuable player to have around. Third-Base is an ugly position with Russell Branyan and Bill Hall splitting time there. The two should combine to provide good power, but not a great average. Hall can play some stellar defense no matter the position that he is in. They have a deep bench after acquiring Ray Durham to back up the underwhelming Rickie Weeks at second-base.
3.) St. Louis Cardinals; 57-46 (-3 Behind Cubs)
The previous two teams have added starting pitching via the trade in the last month of the season. The Cardinals have not added anyone, yet in August when Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainright it will have the same effect as the Cardinals adding two top end of the rotation starting pitchers. At the onset of the season, I told friends that the Cardinals starting rotation was going to perhaps be the worst in baseball, Joel Piniero, Braden Looper, Kyle Lohse and Todd Wellemeyer have been the glue that has kept the Cardinals together. In contrast to what I thought, the Cardinals pitching has the potential to become one of the best down the stretch with Carpenter-Wainright-Lohse-Looper-Wellemeyer. Much like the position that the Cubs are in, the Cardinals will have extra starting pitching, which can mean that Piniero can go to the bullpen and help out with an extended arm in the pen. While Jason Isringhausen has not been the same this year, Ryan Franklin has been effective enough as closer. Russ Springer and Kyle McClellan have also been great in the setup and middle relief roles, both with ERA's under 3.00. It may be ugly right now, but the Cardinals will have a lot to look forward to down the stretch.
Besides Albert Pujols this offense has no other huge names, but there has been some great contributions coming from everyone throughout the Cardinals lineup. Ryan Ludwick was an all-star this season and absolutely deserved the role hitting .294, 23, 69. Troy Glaus has had a better season hitting near .280. He has experience in the playoffs with the Angels and should be valuable to the Cardinals down the stretch. Rick Ankiel has been inconsistent this season, but he has been hot lately and has 22 home runs now. Mark McGwire did once say that Ankiel had 30 home run power, it appears as though he was right, not to mention his cannon from center-field. After looking at the statistics, Pujols, Ludwick, Glaus and Ankiel have combined for a better average and power numbers than the four best hitters for the Cubs or Brewers. They couldn't have done so more quietly. With those facts in mind, the Cardinals will be right there in September.
Overall, I love this division. Watching the Cardinals and Brewers last night was great. The fans in the NL Central have received a gift of some great competition in 2008 and have really supported their teams. I honestly think that the Cubs and Brewers will be the two to make it to the playoffs from this division. The Cubs are just so deep and the Brewers just are playing hungry. If the Brewers can pull ahead of the Cardinals by 4-5 games now, the Cardinals just won't be able to pick it up in September. This division will most likely be decided by 5 games or less between these three teams. Watch the NL Central!

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