Pitching will keep Phillies afloat, but rest of NL is ripe for shakeup

Last week, I detailed the misconception that being in first place on Memorial Day was the be-all, end-all in baseball. I then called my shots in the American League, forecasting that the Rangers (AL West) and Red Sox (AL East) would hold onto their respective division leads, while the Tigers would overtake the Indians in the AL Central and the Rays would hold off the Yankees for the wild card.

Well, a week later, the Rangers extended their lead from one game to 2½ (as of June 6), while the Tigers cut Cleveland’s lead from six games to 1½. That was the good news. The bad? The Yankees sped past the Red Sox in the AL East (going from one down to one up), while the Rays hit the skids and fell into a tie for third place in the wild-card race (2½ games behind Boston).

Long way to go, obviously, but let’s just say while batting .500 would make you the greatest hitter in baseball, batting .500 in the handicapping world will result in a monkey possibly taking your job (BTW, my bankroll remains at $7,286).

This week, I turn my attention to the National League, where I see only one team that was playoff-bound on Memorial Day going the distance. (Note that all division and wild-card leaders were as of May 30.)

NL East: Phillies lead by two games over the Marlins.

Prediction: Who cares that the Phillies’ offense—not long ago one of the most potent in baseball—is in need of a double shot of Viagra? When you’re running Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to the mound nearly every game, you could blindfold half your lineup and still win 90 games.

The Marlins have been a nice story, but ace Josh Johnson is on the shelf with a shoulder injury and it’s unknown when he’ll return. That leaves Atlanta as the only team that could give Philadelphia a scare, except its No. 3 hitter (Chipper Jones) came into the league around the time Al Gore was inventing the Internet, and its big free-agent acquisition (slugging second baseman Dan Uggla) entered the second week of June with a batting average (.172) far lower than his listed weight (207). Philadelphia will cruise to its fifth straight division title by at least five games.

NL Central: Cardinals lead by 1½ games over the Brewers.

Prediction: Who’s managing the Cardinals this year, Tony La Russa or David Copperfield? St. Louis’ two best pitchers have contributed virtually nothing (Adam Wainwright suffered a season-ending injury in spring training; Chris Carpenter had one win through 13 starts); former MVP Albert Pujols finished May with fewer home runs (nine) than Arizona second baseman Kelly Johnson (10); and closer Ryan Franklin got demoted three weeks into the season. And yet as of June 6, the Cardinals had the second-best record (36-25) in baseball, right behind the Phillies (36-24). However, St. Louis is about to be exposed as a fraud, particularly its starting pitching.

Conversely, the Brewers have three legit aces in their rotation (Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum), and three legit All-Stars in their lineup (Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks). I’ve got Milwaukee winning the division by four games, with St. Louis and Cincinnati slugging it out for second.

NL West: Diamondbacks lead by half-game over the Giants.

Prediction: Ever go into a hole-in-the-wall strip club at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday? Yeah, me neither. But I have to assume the stage would feature talent that’s flawed from top to bottom. Welcome to the 2011 NL West! Sure, this division is home to some of the game’s brightest young stars (Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers; Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Buster Posey of the Giants; Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Ubaldo Jimenez of the Rockies; Justin Upton of the D-Backs; and Mat Latos of the Padres). Unfortunately this is one case where the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts.

The best of the worst? Much as it pains me, I’ll side with San Francisco. Even though they lost their stud catcher Posey to a season-ending injury, the defending champs have the best pitching staff this side of Philadelphia. And since all five teams in this division are offensively challenged, pitching will prove to be the difference as the Giants hold off the Rockies.

NL wild card: Marlins lead by 1½ games over the Braves, 2 games over the Brewers, 2½ games over the Giants.

Prediction: With the possible exception of the AL East race between the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, this battle should be the most compelling, with as many as five teams within striking distance come the final week of September. I’ll go with the Braves because of starting pitching and their schedule (Atlanta closes with 15 straight games against the NL East, including three at home to end the season against the Phillies, who almost certainly will have already won their division).

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