July 15, 2010
The Reds have been the lone team giving the Cardinals fits atop the division, and while there is reason to believe that luck may run out, there is still hope for them to keep at it. Mike Leake has been excellent as a rookie (one sans minor league experience, to boot) but he's been a bit lucky and has faced a soft schedule thus far. The same can be said for Johnny Cueto and Bronson Arroyo, but fear not: the Reds have ways of dealing with this. Another rookie, Travis Wood, has been slotted into the rotation, and there's reason to believe he'll be of use. If things take a turn for the worse, Aroldis Chapman is still waiting in Triple-A, though his path to the majors for 2010 will most likely involve the bullpen, where the Reds are lacking in production outside of the ageless Arthur Rhodes. Things are even brighter on the hitting side, where the Reds rank second in the NL in True Average. Joey Votto has been one of the best hitters in baseball, a trend that should continue not just in 2010, but for years. Brandon Phillips has been himself after a slow start, up-and-coming star Jay Bruce has seen his development continue smoothly, and the resurgence of Scott Rolen has been a boon to club. Orlando Cabrera is the lone weak spot in one of the league's finest lineups—if the Reds are to look outward for help at any position by July 31, shortstop is the one, though giving Paul Janish more at-bats wouldn't hurt either.
It should be hard to find complaints about a rotation featuring Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and a rookie with an ERA in the twos in Jaime Garcia, but the Cardinals have had injuries at the back end and have had to rely on a castoff in Jeff Suppan as well as a bullpen piece in Blake Hawksworth. If the Cardinals are to overtake and remain above the upstart Reds, they are going to need to nail down a legitimate fifth starter—Brad Penny is on the disabled list, and should be back eventually, but with two holes to fill and Kyle Lohse on the 60-day DL, help may need to come to St. Louis by the trade deadline. Injuries are the reason the Cardinals have been unable to wrest first place from the Reds permanently, and if they continue to patch these holes with temporary band-aids, it will take its toll on their playoff chances—there are plenty of teams in the NL West that will fight them for the wild card and the NL East has its share of contenders as well. The Cardinals are dealing with injuries in the lineup as well, though third baseman David Freese should be back from an ankle bruise by late July, which frees up Felipe Lopez to move around the diamond. Ryan Ludwick's calf injury put him on the DL at the beginning of this month, but Jon Jay has filled in admirably (though his pre-season projections suggest he'll come down from this level, as does his sample size). Colby Rasmus picked an excellent time for his breakout campaign though, giving Albert Pujols someone besides Matt Holliday as help in the lineup.
Starlin Castro has been impressive for a 20-year old shortstop, Tyler Colvin has been destroying every baseball that approaches him, and Geovany Soto is reminding people of why he was considered an offensive plus behind the plate, but there are too many other things going wrong with the lineup and keeping it below average. Kosuke Fukudome has been a below-average hitter for right field, Ryan Theriot has been a replacement-level hitter—and is now at a more demanding offensive position at second base—Aramis Ramirez is just now starting to pick things up offensively after returning from the disabled list, and Derrek Lee has been an utter disaster with the bat. Despite a rotation whose fifth starter is the very productive Tom Gorzelanny—and he had to fight to get into the rotation, thanks to the existence of Carlos Zambrano (a pitcher who will remain among the missing until his anger problems are sorted out)—the Cubs have been unable to capitalize. Barring a major turnaround from the offense, or the Cubs suddenly fielding a defense that can actually help the pitchers on the mound—poor Randy Wells looks like he's having a much worse season than he is, thanks to that group—chances are good they won't get back into the race in the second half of the season. The reemergence of Ramirez is a step in the right direction, but Lee will need a similar revival if they want to start plating some runs.
If Milwaukee had pitched half as well as they hit in the first half—well, this blurb wouldn't be starting on such a negative note. The Brew Crew has posted the highest TAv of any team in the Senior Circuit and is second behind only the Red Sox overall, but thanks to a defense that looks good only when compared to the Astros, the Brewers pitchers have had to work overtime, which is not something they are built to do. Dave Bush—who is as average a pitcher as you can find even in his best years—has been their second-best pitcher behind the injured Yovani Gallardo, and Randy Wolf, who has been a disaster for much of the season, is their third-best starter. That doesn't sound like a playoff rotation, despite what is easily an October-caliber lineup. Doug Davis is back, and while he may stabilize the backend of the rotation, he's not a season changer. Manny Parra has been on-again, off-again all year, so it's hard to say he can change their fortunes, either. A team in need of a complete overhaul in terms of pitching is not one that will have much impact in the second half, even if they manage to promote or acquire some help. Milwaukee may look to sell to restock for the future, as names like Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart have come up in trade rumors. Dealing them won't make the team any better in 2010, but given the mess the pitching staff is in, they need to do something to reload. Take solace in the fact that 2010, at the least, did bring your team a relief pitcher with a fantastic mustache in rookie closer John Axford.
In any other division Houston would be considered a last-place club, given it cannot hit, field or pitch, but this is the NL Central, and the Astros have a free pass in that regard thanks to the Pirates. The Astros are a team who should be in sell mode, but who can they sell, and who will they sell on? Roy Oswalt is the name that continually pops up, but amidst rumors that the 'Stros would like the team picking him up to pay for his entire salary, they may be hard-pressed to move him for something that can actually help. Lance Berkman's name has come up as well, though given his first-half struggles they may not be keen on selling low on the first baseman. He has picked it up as of late though, so there could be something to it by month's end if they are serious about rebuilding. Brett Myers could be moved in a trade, as his price tag is low and he has a mutual option for 2011. Wandy Rodriguez is creeping towards free agency, but is still under team control and would be inexpensive after a down year in 2010. After that though, things thin out quick—a team giving Geoff Blum significant plate appearances isn't exactly overflowing with movable talent. The second half comes down to this: more bad baseball, but hope for the future thanks to trades and a conscious rebuilding effort by the front office and ownership, or more bad baseball, and a team that continues to run in the same circle it has the past few years.
Things are looking up in Pittsburgh, even if fans who have seen years of losing are having understandable difficulty recognizing this. The Pirates team now looks little like the one that opened the season, as many of the offensive ciphers have been replaced with promising youth. Neil Walker has learned to play second base, and has performed well on both sides of the ball. Pedro Alvarez is struggling early, but was one of the best hitters in the International League prior to his major league debut. Jose Tabata was hitting well in Triple-A, too, and while he's having some difficulty adjusting, he's another piece for the future and a potentially solid leadoff hitter. Andrew McCutchen has improved on the basepaths and is still a promising cornerstone piece for the Bucs. The main problem with the Pirates—though moving some of those same offensive no-shows out of the lineup has also fixed this—is that their defense is far too porous. A staff full of pitch-to-contact hurlers needs useful gloves behind it, but fielding is something the Pirates aren't very good at. That's not something they should spend any assets trying to fix either, as the Bucs aren't quite at the stage in rebuilding where they need to improve in the field significantly. They will need to be sellers at the deadline, but the shop's window is mostly bare. Ryan Doumit is an intriguing buy for many teams, as he is that rarest of creatures, the offensive-minded backstop. Lastings Milledge had little value when the Pirates bought low on him, and after a few seasons of failing to fulfill his potential, remains the kind of project that only the Buccos could love. Octavio Dotel, however, is probably the most valuable piece, given that there is always someone looking for bullpen help and willing to pay for it.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .