NL East: Contenders Or Pretenders?

Which teams are legitimate contenders? Here are my contender and pretender picks in the National League East.

The dog days of summer are fast approaching in the 2008 Major League Baseball season. With only 60 games left on the docket, around half of the majors' 30 teams are in striking distance in their respective division. Granted, this total includes nearly every club from the National League West, where the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers are tied for the division lead despite sub-.500 records.

So, which teams are legitimate contenders? Here are my contender and pretender picks in the National League East.

Florida Marlins: Pretenders—

Florida is leading the league with 140 home runs as a team, led by their dynamic middle-infield duo of Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. Uggla—whose Yankee Stadium All-Star dream turned into a nightmare—and Ramirez have combined to hit 47 homers between them, and each player has an OPS above .930. They are not alone in the homer barrage down in Miami, as four other Marlins regulars are already in double digits in home runs—Mike Jacobs (23), Jorge Cantu (18), Cody Ross (16) and Jeremy Hermida (12). As a direct result of the Marlins' power-hitting infield, the club finds itself fourth in its league with a .438 slugging percentage.

With such offensive firepower, it is perhaps surprising to see where the Marlins rank in the NL in runs scored, sixth, with 476 runs. The reason: Florida also ranks 13th out of 16 teams in the league with a team on-base percentage of .320. It is unlikely that the power will sustain itself at this level, so the inability to get on base will come back to haunt the Marlins, who are currently only one game back in the division.

More concerning, though, Florida struggles with run prevention, evident by its -29 run differential. Scott Olsen (3.84 ERA) and Ricky Nolasco (3.78 ERA, 1.19 WHIP) have been effective. The rest of the Marlins' starting rotation—which ranks in the bottom half in starters' ERA—is questionable, though, even with the addition of Josh Johnson and top prospect Chris Volstad. Volstad, who is 2-1 with a 2.16 ERA in his first three starts since getting called up to the majors, has been one of the best prospects in the organization since he was selected in the first round of the 2005 First-Year draft.

Despite overpowering stuff at times, command has been an issue for southpaw Andrew Miller, who was one of the key pieces acquired from Detroit in the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis blockbuster this offseason. If Miller and Volstad continue to develop, they have the ability to help keep their team afloat.

Dan Uggla (AP)

However, a poor team defense, which ranks 15th in the majors in defensive efficiency, certainly will certainly not add a boost as the young arms continue to get adjusted. Uggla, who made three errors in the All-Star game, has poor range at second base. As good of an athlete as Ramirez is, his defense leaves a lot to be desired as well. Cantu, who is has resurrected his career by regaining his power stroke, is also a butcher in the field, regardless of which corner infield position he is playing.

With an inexperienced pitching staff and poor defense, Florida is a pretender.

New York Mets: Contenders—

Omar Minaya has built this club around a core of several of the league's top players—especially on the left side of the Mets' infield—surrounding them with below-average, aging talent on the rest of the roster. In fact, this team brings backs memories of the Boston Red Sox in the Dan Duquette era, a team with several stars—Nomar Garciappara, Pedro Martinez—but a mediocre supporting cast.

Jose Reyes and David Wright are two of the premier players under the age of 25 in the majors, and each player is a candidate to break out in the second half. Wright (.899 OPS) had a monster '07 campaign, hitting .325/.416/.546 with 30 homers. He has not been quite as good this year, but has the chance to end up with a similar line if he can finish like he did last fall.

Whether or not Jerry Manuel is the reason, the Mets have surged to the top of the National League East with a tremendous past couple of weeks. Even without Ryan Church and Moises Alou, whose career is probably over, the club has been relying on a number of replacement-level outfielders. Honestly, who actually thought that Fernando Tatis still played baseball? The fill-ins will not continue to sustain their production, though, so Minaya needs to add another impact bat to the outfield.

Regardless, the Mets also have a solid defense, ranking fifth in the majors in defensive efficiency. This has helped an inconsistent pitching staff that ranks seventh in the NL with a 4.03 ERA and has posted an opponents' OPS of .714.

Johan Santana has pitched better than his 8-7 record indicates, John Maine and Mike Pelfrey have been getting it done this month and Oliver Perez has the ability to dominate a game when his command is on.

Despite some struggles here and there, closer Billy Wagner has remained effective at the back of the Mets' bullpen, picking up 24 saves while posting a 2.20 ERA. Wagner, however, was reportedly expected to have an MRI on his shoulder on Monday. Although he ended up foregoing the MRI, he is always a health risk at 36 years old.

There are definitely some holes on this roster—with several overpaid veterans inching near replacement-level—but the Mets are legitimate contenders in the division, even if Martinez does not stay healthy enough to make an impact. The recent surge has caused me to go back on my original stance on this team.

Philadelphia Phillies: Contenders—

Philadelphia has a potent offense, led by stars Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. The club, in fact, is currently second in the league with 492 runs scored and a .442 slugging percentage, third in OPS and sixth in on-base percentage.

Burrell has been the key, batting .280/.406/.594 with 25 home runs. In the walk year of his contract, he is picking the right time to produce, as he is among a handful of players in the majors with a plus-.1000 OPS.

Howard is on pace to set his single-season record for strikeouts, is hitting only .238 and has taken on the label as a Three True Outcome player. He is still leading the majors with 29 home runs, though, and provides protection in the middle of the Phillies' lineup.

Utley, an MVP candidate, is an excellent defender at the keystone and has hit 25 homers while posting a .963 OPS.

Outside of command specialist and ace Cole Hamels, the Phillies' starting rotation has left many analysts skeptical of the Phillies' chances. Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer, a pair that has been effective at times, are not exactly studs.

Philadelphia did upgrade its rotation to an extent last week by adding Joe Blanton in a deal with the Oakland Athletics. Blanton has struggled this year, and the transition to the inferior league is perhaps canceled out by pitching in hitter-friendly Citizen's Bank Park. Then there is Brett Myers, the Phillies' Opening Day starter who his currently working out his first-half struggles in the minors. If Myers can regain his velocity and form, though, the Phils' have a strong chance to defend their East crown.

Brad Lidge has been excellent in the closer's role, striking out 56 in 41.0 innings pitched while picking up 21 saves in as many chances. Lidge cannot possibly maintain his current performance, but appears to have resurrected his closing career in a new city.

The Mets appear to be the favorites, but Blanton should help if the bullpen can continue to shut hitters down. The East may produce the Wild Card, but odds are that it will come out of the Central, where the Milwaukee Brewers, the favorite, and St. Louis Cardinals will not catch the Chicago Cubs.

The Atlanta Braves, by the way, may not be out of it as well. If Atlanta had not lost so many one-run games, perhaps they would be the favorite right now. They are only six games out, at 47-52. The next few weeks will be important for them, as general manager Frank Wren has to decide whether or not his club should be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.

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