The play in the National League has been shocking, with just six teams in the league under .500 heading into last weekend’s action in Major League Baseball.
The Milwaukee Brewers are challenging for the top spot in the Central, and every team in the West is within a few games of each other, all hovering at or above .500.
But probably the strangest development in the Senior Circuit has been in the National League East. The Philadelphia Phillies have enjoyed the top spot almost all season, while the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets struggle to reach the break-even mark.
The Braves and Mets have been, arguably, the two strongest franchises in the National League over the last few seasons. They are the last two World Series representatives from the league.
Most considered them to still be among the elite in baseball heading into the season, but both are undermined by poor hitting and much shaky starting pitching.
In spite of having a slightly better record than the Mets, the Braves may be the more disappointing of the two teams.
With Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine at the top of the rotation, lefties John Rocker and Mike Remlinger in the bullpen and great players like Chipper and Andruw Jones in the lineup, the Braves have more than enough star-power to make a return trip to the World Series.
But Glavine has struggled so far this season. He is 4-2 heading into this weekend, but has a 4.53 ERA and has given up 33 walks, compared to 34 strikeouts in almost 56 innings.
Third starter Kevin Millwood was ineffective in his first seven starts, and found himself on the disabled list. A cyst was found in his shoulder, but it isn’t cancerous and should disappear as he regains his strength. He will still miss quite a bit of time, and the Braves have turned to starters like Odalis Perez, Jason Marquis and veteran John Burkett. The Braves’ team ERA of just over four isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible either. The real culprit behind the Braves’ slow start has been their inability to hit.
As a team, they are hitting just .246, and have hit just 41 home runs in their first 41 games. Chipper Jones has hit well. He leads the team in batting average, home runs, RBI and runs scored. Brian Jordan and Andruw Jones have been solid, but the rest of the offense has been atrocious.
The speedy guys at the top of the lineup, who did such a great job last season, Rafael Furcal and Quilvio Veras, have failed miserably to get on base. Veterans like Javy Lopez and B.J. Surhoff have also struggled this season, which has added to the woes.
The Braves do have a ton of talent in the minor leagues and could still make a move to get another hitter, but according to general manager John Schuerholz, they won’t be making a deal anytime soon.
"It’s way too early. If I were in a knee-jerk fantasy league, and we were talking about trading bubble gum cards and not team members that’s one thing," Schuerholz told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan are the only ones producing at about their level of expectation.
"We have a lot of hits and runs coming our way (from the other players)."
The Mets have similar problems with their offense. Going into Friday’s game, they were hitting just .243 and have hit just 36 home runs in 40 games. Edgardo Alfonso and Todd Zeile, two players who the Mets were counting on for offense, have both been terrible, with averages hovering around .240.
Mike Piazza has been hitting for power, but he is hitting just .257 with runners in scoring position, and the Mets don’t get that many runners in scoring position.
New York’s starting pitching, which was so strong last season, has been mediocre, as well. Al Leiter has been hurt, and ineffective when he was healthy.
Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel, both signed as free agents to replace Mike Hampton and Bobby Jones, haven’t given the Mets the kind of production they were expecting. Trachsel has been especially bad. He became the 19th player in Major League history to give up four home runs in one inning Thursday, against the Padres. He may not remain in the Mets’ rotation for much longer if he doesn’t improve dramatically.
New York’s bullpen is still solid, although closer Armando Benitez has been very inconsistent, and hasn’t had that many chances to close out wins.
Both of these teams still have the talent to make a run, and because no other team has been able to run away in the East, both teams still have a legitimate chance to rebound. The Braves, as Schuerholz said, should begin to start playing up to their potential. They have too many good veteran players to stay under .500 all season. Glavine will pitch better and Millwood will come back, and the Braves will be in the thick of the playoff race come late August or September.
The Mets, on the other hand, could be in for a long season. They don’t have the depth in the minor leagues to make a serious trade. Their lineup is a few hitters short, and their starting pitching, aside from Rick Reed and Leiter, is average at best.
But if Mike Piazza gets hot, he is one of the few players in baseball that can truly carry a team. That seems to be the only hope for the Mets.