The Keys to the NL East

After a record May in which the Marlins won 21 games and Giancarlo Stanton homered more than every other day, the Fish still are not in first place in the National League East, nor have they ever been at any point this season. So what will it take to get to the top? Will the rest of the division have to slump? Will the Marlins simply not be able to do it this year? One thing is for sure: The NL East in this magical 2012 season will be decided by the stamina of teams through the summer, winners at the trade deadline, and clutch performances in September.

For the first time in 20 years, two divisions in Major League Baseball had all their teams above .500 at the end of May. It’s funny and somewhat annoying when something like this happens, and not by chance, one of them happens to be the National League East. Before the season even started, it seemed as if every team in the NL East claimed 2012 would be their year. The Phillies are still on their 2007-2010 high despite a playoff disappointment last October. The Braves are always ready to strike, and even after a sluggish May are still in the thick of things. The Mets, for some odd reason, always have high expectations for themselves yet no one has high expectations for them. We know that the Miami Marlins had extremely high expectations for this season, but that might not have been the healthiest thing for the team. And the Nationals, who everyone knows WILL BE GOOD, but nobody can say IS GOOD, are presiding over the penthouse of the best division in baseball.

Right now in early June, the Phillies are thankfully at the cellar of the East, but not by enough to suit me. They stand at just 3.5 games back after today and are in the midst of a crucial series with Miami. Atlanta is just 3 games back, and they are coming off a slump; therefore I don’t even want to imagine how lethal the Braves will be when they are hot. The Mets never do well, right? Well I guess anything is possible now for New York as their franchise just celebrated its first no hitter in its 50 year history. After a dismal April, Miami was the best team in Major League Baseball in May, and they stand just a game out of first. At the top of the division is Washington, who, lacking offense, has won 30 games already relying on the best starting staff in baseball.

In a scary way, there is a good chance that we have not even reached the apex of this division’s performance. Philadelphia is past its prime, but they still are chalked full of studs and are still awaiting the healthy returns of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Roy Halladay was also recently put on the DL to add to Philadelphia’s hindrance. The Marlins still have problems with their bullpen. The closer role has not been consistent, as Heath Bell has been bailed out multiple times this year before blowing saves. Washington has played just one game with Michael Morse, although he returning to the regular lineup this week DC. The Nats have not had a solidified backend of the bullpen this season as closer Drew Storen has been out the entirety of regular season play. It is inevitable that when these injuries and inconsistencies clear up teams will be just that much better.

The Marlins’ offense has been producing for most of the season, meaning the real uncertainty is the pitching staff. In the rotation, Josh Johnson has not regained his 2009-10 form, and he might not ever. JJ had his prime years coming off Tommy John surgery in 2008, but he might not be Miami’s saving ace. He might have already had his prime, and Marlins management may soon need to come to grips with that. Mark Buehrle was solid in May, but he is still yet to have that dominant performance to establish himself in Miami. Surprisingly, Carlos Zambrano has not had a Miami meltdown, and has luckily been solid for the team. Anibal Sanchez in my opinion is the backboard of the staff. He owns divisional teams such as the Nationals, and can be counted on for 6 or 7 innings every time out. In the bullpen, Heath Bell has given Marlins fans cardiac problems, and Steve Cishek is not completely reliable in the 9th inning either.

For the rest of the season, Miami’s bullpen will need to solidify. To make a best-case scenario, Heath Bell will need to lock down 96% of his saves, Steve Cishek will need to be reliable in a middle-late inning relief role, and Randy Choate, Mike Dunn, and Edward Mujica will need to continue doing what they do in order to help the ‘pen. The starting staff, particularly Johnson and Buehrle, will need to establish themselves as dominant starters in the National League. In my mind, one of three things will happen. 1) The Marlins’ starting rotation will get hot and dominant, starters will throw at least 7 innings on a nightly basis, and the bullpen, as imperfect as it may be, will subsequently not need to throw as many innings and will therefore not be exemplified as unreliable. 2) Despite the fact that the Marlins starters will only throw 5 innings per night, the bullpen will emerge as the pitching salvation and Miami will still win games. In both those situations, the Marlins have a great shot at making the playoffs, their main goal, and might have enough to go the distance. But in situation 3: neither the rotation nor the bullpen will solidify and Miami will drop games they should win and never have a chance in games they should be close to in: in this case, the Marlins should just pack it up for the season and try for 2013 because no team can make it anywhere near the playoffs, much less anywhere through the playoffs, without dominant pitching.

Whatever the key may be, it is clear that the team or teams that emerge(s) from the NL East will be prepared to go far in the playoffs, as regular season games will become playoff games for these teams.

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