Contenders vs. Pretenders: National League

The All-Star Game is fast approaching with every team having ample time to prove itself. At this stage of the season, with the help of analytics, we can begin to understand who is actually contending for a title, and who is simply pretending to have a chance.

National League East

The Atlanta Braves: Contenders

The Braves came into the season trying to repeat their 2018 regular season and check in on top of the NL East which is arguably the toughest division in baseball. Thanks to Freddie Freeman posting MVP numbers, Ronald Acuña becoming one of the top players in the game, and Dansby Swanson showing us why he once was a number one overall draft selection, the team has a .340 OBP and a .461 SLG, both top 5 in MLB. Oh, and don’t forget about the guy that makes it rain: Josh Donaldson. If he starts to post numbers similar to his Toronto stats, this team will become an offensive juggernaut if they’re not one already.

Even with Julio Teheran and Mike Soroka having outstanding seasons, the Braves still needed another arm. They got him; Dallas Keuchel will provide depth to this rotation and will be part of the 1-2-3 punch for the playoffs. If another arm is deemed necessary, the Braves have plenty of them in the farm. Guys like Kyle Wright, who is currently struggling in AAA but definitely has the talent to turn it around and Ian Anderson can be key additions to this ball club and  would help them grind through those dog days in September. Be aware of this Braves team; they are downright scary.

The Philadelphia Phillies: Contenders

The Phillies offseason was noisy and extravagant. I’m talking $403 Million extravagant.  Robertson, McCutchen, Realmuto, and as if that wasn’t enough, a super star in Bryce Harper. Now, have all those acquisitions worked out? The simple answer is no.  McCutchen got injured after a decent start but is now out for the year, Robertson has only pitched 6.2 innings, and Harper has been a shell of his best self. Realmuto does seem to be working out but one out of four does not mean a successful offseason. Their rotation has also been subpar, with Jake Arrieta posting a 5.01 FIP and Aaron Nola not even close to matching his numbers from 2018. Zach Eflin has been a nice surprise for them, but can a guy with a career FIP of 4.64 keep his ERA below three in the long run?

Yet, Philadelphia is still well over .500. That’s due to Rhys Hoskins continuing to play stellar baseball and Scott Kingery proving why he was worth the extension. If, and more likely, when, Nola and Harper find their groove, this loaded roster can surely make a deep playoff run.

The New York Mets: Pretenders

The Mets rotation might be one of the best in the game. deGrom is leading the way as of now while Thor and Wheeler are somewhat falling behind. Their respective FIPs are all below four so they will be fine sooner rather than later, as long as they stay healthy. Their offense, on the other hand, is nowhere near where expectations pegged it to be in the offseason. Robinson Cano has a 76 WRC+ and Amed Rosario has been a replacement level player with a 0.0 fWAR. However, I must say that Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, and Dominic Smith have lit up the league, while Michael Conforto has also been consistent. But will these young guys lead this Mets team to the playoffs in a tough division? Probably not. With a healthy Yoenis Cespedes, this conversation could have become more complex, but as it stands, this team is bound for a disappointing finish.

Washington Nationals: Pretenders

The Nationals were the king of the East for awhile, but it looks like that time is over. With possibly a top-five rotation on paper and an above-average offense, the Nats looked like a competitor in the division. The one thing impeding them from winning the NL East is what has always held them back: the bullpen. Even though they have been improving as of late, they still hold the last place in the MLB for reliever ERA.

Six of their eight starting position players have an OPS of .800 or above, but they are still a handful of games below .500. With two great teams leading the way in the East, the Nationals will either have to make some serious moves at the deadline if they want to have a chance at the Wild Card, or just blow it all up and try to start from scratch.

National League Central

Milwaukee Brewers: Contenders

Yelich, Yelich, and some more Yelich. This guy is in contention to be the MVP once again. I would say he is the clear choice to win it, but there’s a guy on the west coast also lighting up the world. Some may say Yelich’s road splits are not even close to his home splits, band that is definitely true—his road OPS is actually almost half of his home OPS—but that is completely fine when you have a whopping home OPS of 1.606.

Lorenzo Cain, who has a WRC+ of 76, has vastly underperformed this year. Last year he was a key piece for the Brew Crew, and if he can come slightly close to the numbers he posted in 2018 then look out, world. Jimmy Nelson has come back and provided depth for the rotation, but will that addition be enough? He has struggled in his two starts to date, showing that another starting pitcher should be a top of the team’s wishlist as we approach the trade deadline.

Chicago Cubs: Contenders

PECOTA? Never heard of it. PECOTA projected the Cubs to win 79 games. They might not be as good as last year, but to go from 95 flying Ws to merely 79 with basically the same core coming back seemed a little out of place. The Cubs’ offense holds the 6th-best OPS in baseball and the starters have the 6th-best ERA and 9th-best FIP. Their bullpen has been average as of now, but Craig Kimbrel is here to save the day, literally. A reliever signed during the season is definitely not commonplace, so it will be interesting to see how Kimbrel performs. The NL Central is shaping up to be one of the most entertaining divisions come September.

St. Louis Cardinals:  Pretenders

This is a tough one. The Cardinals have a decent bullpen, a great offense, and an above average rotation. The month of May was a nightmare for this team (record: 9-19.) They have bounced back in June, but several questions still hover over this team. Miles Mikolas is not having the year he had last year, FIP is up by 1.28 from that of 2018. Jack Flaherty has shown flashes of greatness but still hasn’t been able to put it all together. Paul Goldschmidt has a 110 WRC+, but we all know that he can do much more than that. Marcell Ozuna has been one of the only bright spots of this team, along with Paul DeJong.

The crazy start they had might have been a fluke. There is way too much talent in this organization for them not to be fighting for one of those five playoff spots. They will be in the conversation until season’s end but I don’t see them taking that next step to October, at least in 2019.

National League West

The Los Angeles Dodgers: Contenders

Ryu, Bellinger, Kershaw, Seager, the list goes on and on. The Dodgers’ pitching staff leads the league in ERA and FIP. Their offense has the highest WRC+ in the NL and comes in second (to the Braves) in hard hit rate and OPS. Will the third time around be the charm?

Colorado Rockies: Pretenders

The Rockies arguably have the best top of the lineup in baseball right now. Arenado, Blackmon, and Story all have a .900+ OPS and a WRC+ over 120.  But besides that, everything else has been subpar. Their rotation does not have a guy with an ERA under 4.00, and they optioned their ace, Kyle Freeland, to AAA around three weeks ago. Their starting pitching staff last year had a 4.17 ERA, and that propelled them towards 91 wins. This year, the pitching staff has a 5.85 ERA. They play in Coors field, but they need some pitching help if they want to have any chance at the playoffs.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Pretenders

Ketel Marte has broken out. The OF has a 129 WRC+ with 20 bombs under his belt. The D-Backs have surprised the league by even being above .500. Many thought that the loss of Paul Goldshmidt meant the start of a rebuild, but not so fast. A rotation led by Zack Greinke, a bullpen led by Archie Bradley, and now Marte destroying baseballs is a very solid foundation for this team. The D-Backs are a handful of games above .500 and have started well off in this “retooling” stage, acquiring guys such as Carson Kelly and Luke Weaver. But besides Peralta, Marte, and Greinke, the rest of the players are still average or are developing. Maybe we will see the D-Backs next year.

San Diego Padres: Pretenders

SPLASH! That’s what the Padres did during the offseason. Manny Machado, the $300-Million man, is having a decent first season in San Diego. Him, Eric Hosmer, and Hunter Renfroe form a solid middle of the lineup. The Padres might have also found their ace for the foreseeable future in Chris Paddack; unfortunately he’s under innings limits and is being treated carefully. Fernando Tatis Jr. is doing his thing up the middle and becoming the star we all knew he would become. But that’s it. After the Chris Paddack demotion, the Padres rotation has 9.24 ERA… and their left and center field production is ranked, by OPS, as the third-worst in the league. The Padres have had an incredible rebuild, but they’re not ready just yet.

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