Potentially fatal flaws: NL East

Potentially fatal flaws: NL East

May 17, 2013, 12:45 pm
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The Phillies are just 19-22, but the National League lacks a dominant, flawless team. In the AL, the Tigers are built to win it all with a tremendous offense and starting staff. But that team doesn't exist in the NL, which gives the Phillies hope even after 41 disappointing games. This weekend we'll look at each division and break down the weakness(es) that could prevent teams from making a deep run in October.

We'll start by saying the Phillies have obvious flaws of their own. The most glaring one is a lack of on-base skills. The Phillies are 25th in baseball with a .304 on-base percentage. That’s an ominous sign, considering only one of 53 NL playoff teams since the year 2000 has had an OBP under .320. That team was last year’s Reds, who had a .315 OBP but finished third in the NL in home runs. They had enough power to make up for it.

To overcome the lack of plate discipline and easy bases, the Phils will either need to start squaring balls up consistently the way they haven’t through 41 games, or start pitching significantly better, both in the rotation and from the bullpen. Weak offensive teams can win close games as long as their late relief holds up. The Pirates are an example – they’re seven games over .500 because Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli have been lights out in the late innings. The Phillies have a pair of elite late-inning relievers, too, but one is nicked up (Mike Adams) and one has gotten few save opportunities (Jonathan Papelbon).

Nearly every NL team has failed to live up to expectations through mid-May. We start in the East:

Nationals – Health, declines
It’s not even June yet and Bryce Harper has already dealt with injuries to his legs, shoulder, ribs, chin, hand and wrist. When you play the game 100 miles per hour, that’s the unfortunate side effect.

Jayson Werth is on the DL. The perpetually hurt Ryan Zimmerman has already spent time there this season (and he's also having trouble throwing the ball in a straight line to first base). Starting catcher Wilson Ramos’ hamstring keeps barking.

It’s not just health preventing Washington (22-19) from taking off, though. Gio Gonzalez’s control is back where it was prior to his career year of 2012. He's walking one full batter more per nine innings than he did a season ago.

Dan Haren and Adam LaRoche are both in decline. Danny Espinosa continues to be an offensive liability. There is no lefty specialist on the roster.

Everyone kind of just assumed that since the Nationals were a year older and more experienced, they’d be even better than last season’s 98-64 record. But sometimes we fail to realize that all the things that went right one year won’t just keep going right.

Braves – Whiffs, starting pitching
The Braves are on pace to strike out 1,506 times -- more than any team in major-league history except the 2010 Diamondbacks.

Atlanta (22-18) isn’t the team that turned heads in early April. The Braves used the best streak of Justin Upton’s life and unsustainably hot starting pitching to jump out to a 12-1 start. The Braves are 10-17 since.

In April they hit 19 more homers than their opponents. In May they’ve hit four fewer. In April they had a 3.15 ERA. In May it’s been 4.36. The ERA might not stay that high forever, but the Braves are closer to a 4.00 ERA staff than what they showed in April, when Paul Maholm was out of his mind.

The news that Jonny Venters will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery was terrible for Atlanta, which still has a strong bullpen despite the loss, but isn't as untouchable at the end of games as in years past. Eric O'Flaherty is a top-tier lefty reliever, but can he survive a heavier workload? He's on pace for 75 appearances for the third time in five seasons. Craig Kimbrel hasn't been and can't possibly be as lights-out as he was in 2012, when he struck out more batters (116) than he didn't strike out (115).

The boom-bust nature of this Atlanta team makes it a scary bet to finish in first place in the NL East. There might be some two-week stretches like in early April, but there will be an equal or greater amount of cold spells like they've had in May.

On Saturday: NL Central -- Cardinals, Reds, Pirates, Brewers

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