Top Area of Need for Each NL Contender

With the All-Star Break upon us, more trades will begin to occur, so we now look at the top area of need for each NL contender. The top area of need for each AL contender will follow later.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Set-up Man/Closer

The Diamondbacks bullpen has been relatively strong this season with a 3.33 ERA, which ranks 6th in the NL. However, the Diamondbacks have had trouble late in games, especially when Heath Bell was the closer. The Diamondbacks have also blown the most saves in the MLB with 19 blown saves. Even though the Diamondbacks got their closer, JJ Putz, back from injury, they still need a late-inning reliever, as Putz is tied for the team lead with 5 BS’s. Unless the Mets make Bobby Parnell available, Kevin Gregg may be the best value of any late-inning relievers.

Los Angeles Dodgers: 2nd Base
The Dodgers have been hot of late and quickly climbed from the cellar of the NL West to being just 2.5 games back of the first place Diamondbacks. However, the Dodgers are still just a .500 team, and are 24th in the MLB in runs scored. One position really holding the Dodgers back is 2nd base, where their second basemen have slashed just .254/.315/.316. The best 2nd basemen that could be available is Chase Utley of the Phillies; however the Phillies have not yet decided whether to buy or sell, but are currently leaning towards buying.

Colorado Rockies: Starting Pitcher
The Rockies may choose not to buy, but the NL West is certainly up for grabs. Especially since the Rockies just got Tulowitzki back from the DL, they should consider acquiring a starting pitcher to help push them into the Postseason. The Rockies rotation ranks 12th in the NL in ERA with a 4.54 mark. It doesn’t seem that new addition Roy Oswalt will fulfill their expectations as he has pitched to a 7.64 ERA in his first 4 starts, and is now on the DL. If the Rockies are going to reach the playoffs, they must acquire another solid starter. While Matt Garza may be out of the Rockies’ price range, the Twins’ Kevin Correia may be more realistic.

St. Louis Cardinals: Shortstop
Shortstop has long been a position of need for the Cardinals, and this year is no different. They hoped that Pete Kozma would be able to step up this year and provide strong defense and adequate offense. Kozma has been able to provide value on the defensive side of the field, but his offense has not, as he has slashed just .232/.279/.293. The trade market for shortstops is pretty weak this season, which is why the Cardinals are hoping a platoon of Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma can hold the lineup together. In the unlikely event that the Indians make Asdrubal Cabrera available, then the Cardinals could pursue him.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Right Fielder
The Pirates sit just 1 game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, but most of that success is owed to the pitching staff, which leads the MLB in ERA. One position that could especially use an offensive upgrade is Right Field, where the starter, Travis Snider, has produced an underwhelming .224/.294/.332 slash line. One trade possibility is the White Sox’s Alex Rios, who is also under contract beyond this season.

Cincinnati Reds: Left Field
Ever since Ryan Ludwick landed on the DL after the first game of the season, the Reds have been looking for his replacement. Internal options have failed to solve the problem, with Chris Heisey struggling to stay healthy and few other internal options coming through for the Reds. If the Cubs are willing to deal Alfonso Soriano within their division, then he could be a fit for the Reds.

Atlanta Braves: Center Field
The Braves have no glaring need, except in Center Field, where free-agent signing, BJ Upton, has struggled mightily. The Braves may not want to bench or platoon BJ for an extended period of time, especially since he is in the first year of a 5 year, $75 Million deal. However, a .177/.266/.300 slash line is not enough production for a team looking for a playoff berth. Justin Ruggiano of the Miami Marlins may be a good fit, as he is cheap financially and the Marlins are clear sellers.

Washington Nationals: Starting Pitcher
The Nationals have struggled in many areas this season, but the one position they must improve is their 5th starter spot. The Nationals starters as a whole have been very good, but that is in large part due to the excellence of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. However, they are receiving horrible production from their 5th starter, Dan Haren, who was signed to a one year, $13 Million deal this past off-season. Haren is currently on the DL for the 2nd time, but even when healthy, Haren has compiled a 4-10 record with a 6.00 ERA. The Houston Astros’s Bud Norris may be a good fit for the Nationals, especially because he is controllable beyond this season.

Philadelphia Phillies: Right Fielder
The Phillies are right on the border between buying and selling, and in my last post I saw them more as sellers, but they have been hot of late and are currently leaning towards buying. If they do choose to buy, then many have speculated that they must shore up their middle and setup relief pitching, but their biggest area of need is in Right Field. Phillies Right Fielders have accumulated the 29th ranked WAR at -0.6. Free agent acquisition Delmon Young has failed to fulfill expectations, as he has slashed .268/.323/.419 with just 7 home runs. The Phillies do not have the prospects to acquire someone like Alex Rios, but a reunion with Raul Ibanez could be a possibility.

Anthony Cacchione

Don’t Count on the Nationals

Beyond the Pittsburgh Pirates’ tremendous start to the season, the struggles of the Washington Nationals have been arguably the most surprising story lines of the first half of the 2013 regular season. Going into the season, many pundits picked the Nationals to be the powerhouse of the National League and possibly all of baseball, but the Nationals’ offense has really struggled to this point. In 2012, the Nationals’ offense was one of the most powerful lineups in the National League, as it ranked 2nd in the NL in HRs, 5th in Runs Scored and 3rd in SLG Percentage in route to a 98-64 finish. However that production has greatly fallen off in 2013, as the Nationals rank just 10th in HRs in the NL, 14th in Runs Scored and 13th in Slugging Percentage in route to a 39-39 record thus far. Despite such a dramatic drop in production, most experts warn that once the Nationals find their groove they will be the team to beat in the NL and likely overtake the Braves as NL East leaders.
While the offense’s underproduction has drawn the most attention, the Nationals’ pitching statistics have also fallen off from 2012, despite strong performances from Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals have gone from a solid 3.34 team ERA in 2012 to a more average 3.61 team ERA. This drop in pitching is not very drastic overall, but it has been compounded by the Nationals’ inability to produce runs at their former rate.
When looking at a few of the players that make up the Nationals’ lineup, it is apparent they are performing right where you would expect based on the career numbers. Danny Espinosa began this season very poorly with a .158/.193/.272 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line before being demoted to Triple-A. Espinosa has never been a high batting average or high OBP hitter, but his power at a middle infield position has always made him a valuable asset. However, this season he has just 3 HRs in 158 ABs and his contact and walk issues have continued, as his K% sits at 28.1% so far this season and his BB% is at a career-low 2.4%. Rookie infielder, Anthony Rendon, has stepped in at 2b very successfully with a .354/.402/.485 slash line, but it remains to be seen if he will be so successful as the season continues. The real concern for Anthony Rendon is that his Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) sits at an unsustainable .420, which suggests he has been very lucky and will likely see his overall batting average decline. The Nationals have seen similarly poor production at catcher, where Kurt Suzuki has struggled to fill-in for the injured Wilson Ramos. Despite his $6.5 Million salary, Suzuki’s .214/.280/.305 slash line is no surprise, as his batting average has decline for four straight years and his OBP has dropped for five straight years. While Ramos is the superior hitter and owns a career .267/.331/.432 slash line, he has battled injuries his entire career, with just one full season at the big league level. The greatest reason the Nationals’ lineup has struggled to hit as many HRs this season is that they replaced power-hitting Michael Morse with light-hitting Denard Span. In 2011, Morse led the Nationals with 31 HRs, and in 2012, Morse hit 18 HRs in during an injury shortened season. However, in 2013, Span has hit to just a .257/.310/.344 slash line with no HRs; whereas, Morse has hit 11 HRs with a .251/.313/.454 slash line.
The Atlanta Braves currently lead the division by 5.5 games, thanks in part to having the best pitching staff in the Majors, based on ERA. There are no signs that the Braves will slow down, as they continue to hit HRs, with the 2nd most in the NL and the Braves’ strong pitching is also likely to continue as they were 4th in the NL in ERA in 2012. The Nationals certainly are not out of the race in the NL East or the Wild Card race, but they will need some quality additions at the Trade Deadline, and even then it will be a difficult run to the Postseason. It seems that the Nationals are performing where one would expect given the track record for many of the players.

Top 5 NL spring training battles

5. Washington Nationals, Catcher

The Nationals have two plus defensive catchers in Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki. Kurt Suzuki is the incumbent starter since being acquired from the A’s at the deadline last year after Wilson Ramos tore his ACL last May. Just because Suzuki is making $6.45 million this year does not mean he will get the bulk of playing time behind the plate as the Nationals view Ramos as their catcher of the future and he was playing well before his injury, posting a (.265/.354/.398, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 11 R) batting line before his injury. Ramos is clearly the more talented player and also has a higher ceiling. It would not be surprising to see Suzuki traded sometime this year as $6.45 million is a lot to pay a back up catcher as the Nationals have other viable options at backup.

4. Atlanta Braves, Third Base

After trading Martin Prado as one of the pieces in the Justin Upton deal, the Braves have a vacancy at third base that they will try to fill by using newly acquired Chris Johnson and former power prospect Juan Francisco. Rather than have one player win the position outright it seems that the Braves will use the two as a platoon. This could turn out to be a very cost-effective strategy because when you combine their 2012 stats they would have posted a (.258/.302/.442, 24 HR, 108 RBI, 65 R) slash line while making a combined $975,000 good for a 2.5 WAR (FanGraphs). This year they will make a combined $3,355,000. It is looking like it will be a 60-40 time share with Johnson getting the majority of the playing time and Juan Francisco getting a good chunk of at bats against righties.

3. Philadelphia Phillies, Right Field

The Phillies brought in former MVP candidate and top prospect Delmon Young to see if he could return to his former self this year while also providing power off the bench and pushing Domonic Brown. The Phillies need for Brown to live up to his former top prospect status as they must inject youth and speed into their lineup after losing Shane Victorino at the trade deadline this past season. Not to mention a duo of Domonic Brown and Ben Revere would be a pair of formidable table setters for a lineup, that when healthy, has the potential to score a lot of runs.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks, Center Field

Even after trading Center Fielder Chris Young and former MVP candidate Justin Upton this off-season, the Diamondbacks still have a surplus of depth with the signing of Cody Ross. Despite already being a three year MLB veteran Gerardo Parra appears to be the one who will start the year as the fourth outfielder as his defense and arm would play up at every outfield position. The club likes what they have in young prospect Adam Eaton who posted .259/.382/.412 slash line and scored 19 runs in a 22-game audition last September. He has worked hard to get his defense to the point where he would be an above average center fielder and has the kind of plate discipline and speed teams want in a lead off hitter as evident by his .445 OBP and 106 stolen bases over the course of 3 minor league seasons. Just because Parra is slated to be the fourth outfielder as of now doesn’t mean he won’t get playing time; he racked up 430 plate appearances last year while appearing in 133 games and posting a (.273/.335/.392) slash line.

1. St. Louis Cardinals, 5th starter

The Cardinals are the envy of many organizations throughout baseball as they have 3 young fire ballers ready to come in and compete for the 5th rotation spot. The returning starter, Joe Kelly, posted a 3.51 ERA and a 6.31 K/9 through 107 innings pitched last year and is also one of the most athletic players on the Cardinals roster who is often used as a pinch runner for what it is worth. The second candidate is top pitching prospect Shelby Miller, who after a rough first half in AAA in 2012, turned it around and ended up being called up during September and pitching out of the bullpen to the tune of a 1.32 ERA and a 10.54 K/9 through 13.2 innings while also making the playoff roster. As of right now Shelby seems to be the favorite to win the spot as he came into camp with a little extra weight to help him stay durable through the hot St. Louis summer. The third candidate is Trevor Rosenthal who spent the majority of 2012 at AA as a starter pitching to a 2.79 ERA and a 7.98 K/9. He was then called up in late August and impressed many while pitching out of the bullpen as he regularly topped 100 mph in his late inning appearances. He also pitched well enough at the end of the year to make the play off roster and gave up no runs and only allowed two hits through 8.2 innings off post season action.

Big Tony will be publishing the top 5 AL position battles later tonight.

Ryan Kiernan