State of the Staff Overviews
The non-waiver trading deadline is approaching. A few teams have excess pitching (is that really possible?) and most, at least the teams still in the hunt, are beating the bushes looking for more. I thought it might be fun to take a really quick look at some key pitching rosters, seeing who has what, and maybe make some bold predictions on what you might expect to see from these teams the rest of the way. Let's take a look.
National League East
The Braves have one of the more comfortable leads in any division, but it's not because they have dominated. They are pretty much a .500 team since getting off to an exceptional start in April. Atlanta has some depth in starting pitching, especially if Brandon Beachy makes it back at full strength, but they lack the top-tier starters to put the rest of the division away. Tim Hudson, who is now injured, Mike Minor and even Julio Teheran have been solid, but they really need Kris Medlen to assert himself. Conversely, the Nationals do have the centerpiece of high-level starters with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, but an abysmal offense, and inconsistency have killed them. Dan Haren is broken, and they need Ross Detwiler back, but I can't see this team not making a run before it's all over. They have too much talent on the hill, so watch for Strasburg to catch fire. He's young, but this is his time to step up and be a leader; the guy that stops any backslides. On an interesting note, the Mets actually have the best record in the East since mid-June. It underscores what a mediocre lineup can do when the pitching steps up. Matt Harvey is the real deal, but they may start backing off on his workload, and Zack Wheeler is still adjusting, but I think he could shine soon.
National League Central
Unlike the East, this division is a dogfight, and there are three teams growling. The Cardinals have Adam Wainwright, and he is at least close to the most reliable pitcher around. A true ace, and he is, can make a huge difference, especially now that they will be without Matt Holiday in their lineup. The concern is what's behind him on the hill. Lance Lynn has not been the same pitcher he was early, and Jake Westbrook and Joe Kelly are basically back-of-the-rotation types, which leads us to their key for the race, Shelby Miller. He can be the big gun, and I think he will be. It's also possible Chris Carpenter will return, and he could be a big help, at least in short bursts, but his contributions are highly speculative, so a deal may be more likely. I don't think the Pirates have the depth to stay as close, but the Reds do have all the pieces. Mat Latos and Homer Bailey are both a little inconsistent - all right, in Bailey's case, a lot inconsistent - but they could get on a roll at any time. Then you have both Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo who have outperformed their stuff for most of the year, and could continue to do so. That leaves Johnny Cueto and Tony Cingrani. And, Cueto is the key. The Reds hope to have him back in early August. If he can stay healthy, that would give Cincinnati another legitimate frontline arm, and it would free up Cingrani for work in the injury-depleted bullpen where he is probably better suited to help in a pennant chase. It would only take a few of these components to fall into place for the Reds to make a serious run at St. Louis. This could be a great race.
National League West
This one is close, and there is a good chance it will remain so. I'm going to focus on the two teams on top now, because I think it will likely come down to one of them winning the division. The Dodgers and the Diamondbacks are in a virtual deadheat, but they have fairly different good news/bad news scenarios. The Dodgers have both Clayton Kershaw, a dynamic ace, and a much more settled bullpen now that they have handed the reins to Kenley Jansen, but they don't have as much depth in the rotation. They will need to stay healthy, and get significant contributions from the pitchers behind Kershaw, especially Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chris Capuano and Ricky Nolasco. I'll make Capuano and Nolasco co-keys, and I'd expect Capuano to help a great deal. Nolasco could, but I am admittedly not as fully confident. The Diamondbacks, if they could get Trevor Cahill and/or Brandon McCarthy back, will have a lot of depth. Patrick Corbin continues to make it look easy, and Tyler Skaggs could be a boost if he can step up. That said, I will make Ian Kennedy the key. I have always liked Kennedy's demeanor, and he is just a couple of small mechanical adjustments from being the top-tier guy they need to complement Corbin. So what's their bad news - a bullpen in complete confusion. Brad Ziegler is not the answer long term, Heath Bell probably isn't either. They really need J.J. Putz to get it all together, and very soon.
American League East
Boston is clinging to a short lead while the Rays are charging hard, and Baltimore looms menacingly. Jon Lester has been a bit erratic, but the Orioles have gotten a lot of help from Felix Doubront following some adjustments to his delivery and approach, and from a resurgent John Lackey. They need a couple of big months from all three, but I have my doubts about Lackey, so they also need Clay Buchholz to return with a solid kick, and he will be the key for them, barring any acquisitions. If I had to pick a team to win the division today, it would be the Rays. Matt Moore typically gets better as the season wears on, David Price is looking like the Cy Young winner he was last season, and Chris Archer has been a boost. They could use Alex Cobb back (eliminating room for Roberto Hernandez in the rotation), but Price is the key piece of their puzzle. Look for a huge August and September from him. The Orioles did acquire Scott Feldman and they did get Wei-Yin Chen back from the disabled list, but I am not sure it will be enough. Chris Tillman has been their leader, and Miguel Gonzalez and Jason Hammel are important too, but I see chinks in all that armor. They did just bolster the bullpen, and I fear they may need it.
American League Central
This one certainly appears easy to predict. I don't see any team in the Central providing a serious challenge to Detroit. Max Scherzer has been a big winner, and even though I am not certain he can maintain his pace, they have to hope Anibal Sanchez can stay healthy, and I do think Rick Porcello can continue to progress and become a stable force on the hill. Wait. What about Justin Verlander? He actually is the key. They can probably win the division without him at peak performance, but they really need him to be the ace he has always been in the playoffs. I do think Kansas City can play fairly well going forward - James Shields is due for some much better luck, and I think Jeremy Guthrie is capable of better, but it won't be nearly enough to run down the Tigers. And the White Sox can't really be as bad as they have been so far, can they?
American League West
Oakland leads the division, but Texas is the team to beat, especially with the acquisition of Matt Garza. In fact, I'll make Garza the key. It's still a dangerous ballpark to pitch in during the dog days of summer, so while his peripherals may not be pristine, he could be that additional big winner to go along with Yu Darvish and the emerging Derek Holland. They hope to have Matt Harrison back in late August, but I question how much he can provide following back problems. The A's won't hand the division to the Rangers, but they will need huge finishes from their whole staff to fend off the challenge. I don't think Bartolo Colon can keep it up, but Jarrod Parker can. He really struggled with his command early on, but he is looking better all the time. Maybe even Brett Anderson can contribute, but that's a big maybe. I'd rather see Sonny Gray take a regular turn to judge his readiness for the show. And now, my team to watch for the remainder of this season (and in 2014) is Seattle. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are a nice pair to draw to, and I think Erasmo Ramirez can help a bit, but I am eager to see where Taijuan Walker (probably the best young arm still likely to have an impact this year) is in his development, and it would be great to see Danny Hultzen put his shoulder woes behind him. They won't win it this year, but they do have the arms and a good mix of talented and enthusiastic position players to make things interesting.
In Boston, Koji Uehara is now, without question, barring injury, the closer. With the news that Andrew Bailey is done for the season, the job is his. ... Last week I said Pedro Strop could easily pitch himself into the consideration set as Kevin Gregg's replacement, because he has much better stuff than Blake Parker. The Cubs have confirmed that, and with the trade deadline looming, they have to be desperate to unload Gregg before he turns back into Kevin Gregg. ... It looks like Brian Wilson is close to returning after 15 months off. His fastball was clocked in the mid 90s, and his cutter was moving so he could be very useful to a pennant contender. ... Jason Grilli left a game earlier this week after experiencing forearm discomfort. That sounds rather ominous, and those with roster flexibility might want to grab Mark Melancon, just in case this becomes an even bigger issue. ... The Brewers sent Francisco Rodriguez to Baltimore so he ends up a set-up guy for Jim Johnson, and that should put Jim Henderson back in the closer's role for Milwaukee. ... The Rockies' Rafael Betancourt had appendicitis, and that has provided Rex Brothers to prolong his audition as their future closer. It will be interesting to see if they bring Betancourt back in a set-up role when he returns from the disabled list.