The NL East was generally considered to be a one-team race before the season. It's just that most fans and experts figured the Nationals would be the division front-runner. Instead, it's been the Braves who have established an early lead despite an all-or-nothing offense. While the Nats certainly can't be written off in the division, they'll probably have to make a bold move to push them toward first place. However, the other three teams look more like trade deadline sellers that could deal some veterans away to playoff contenders in exchange for prospects.
Atlanta Braves, 48-34. First in division.
The Braves were expected to be a contender in the NL East and at least win a wild-card playoff spot. But strong pitching and a MVP-caliber performance from Justin Upton in April, Atlanta surged to an early first-place lead that it hasn't relinquished. The Braves haven't maintained that scorching pace, going 31-25 in May and June. However, the other teams in the division haven't been able to mount much of a challenge. As well as the Braves have played, they've done so despite several struggling hitters.
After his torrid start, Upton has tailed off badly. Rookie Evan Gattis provided an early spark, but a strained oblique has him on the DL. Jason Heyward is batting .231, Brian McCann has a .250 average (but an .850 OPS) and Dan Uggla is hitting .205. Freddie Freeman and the surprising Chris Johnson have been Atlanta's only consistent offensive threats. Yet there's no one spot in the lineup that is crying out for a replacement. Justin's brother B.J., batting .180, seems like a candidate. But sending a big free-agent signing to the minors seems unlikely.
The Braves' starting pitching has been excellent, led by a breakout season from lefty Mike Minor (8-3, 2.98 ERA). But injuries in the bullpen have created a priority for general manager Frank Wren to address. A setup man for Craig Kimbrel will surely be the priority. Someone like the White Sox's Jesse Crain would be a great fit.
Miami Marlins, 29-51. Fifth in division, 16 back of second wild card.
After gutting the roster by trading away virtually all of their veteran players, the Marlins were predicted to one of — if not the — worst team in MLB. Miami has lived down to those expectations, posting the worst record in baseball as of July 1.
Most of the interest surrounding the Marlins concerns which veteran players the team will deal off at the trade deadline. By the time you read this, pitcher Ricky Nolasco could already be with a new team. The Dodgers look like the early favorite to land Nolasco, but the Giants and Orioles are among the other playoff contenders in pursuit. Other pitchers likely to be traded are relievers Steve Cishek and Ryan Webb, who could be appealing targets for a team in need of bullpen help, such as the Tigers or Red Sox.
But what about Giancarlo Stanton? Could the Marlins' biggest fish be dealt during the season? Given the package of prospects Miami is presumably seeking in return, putting together that kind of package seems more likely in the offseason. But if a contender like the Texas Rangers or Pittsburgh Pirates decides they need a power-hitting outfielder, perhaps they'll take a shot.
New York Mets, 33-45. Fourth in division, 11 back of second wild card.
What a difference a year makes. At this time last season, the Mets were one of the surprises of baseball, holding second place in the NL East and tied for the second wild-card spot. But the team eventually found its level, going 28-48 in the second half.
There are no surprises this year. The Mets were projected to compete with the Marlins for last place in the division, and though they have a seemingly comfortable five-game lead for fourth place, Terry Collins' club isn't likely to move much higher in the standings. A decimated lineup doesn't offer many pieces to trade. Despite being in fourth place, the Mets seem more likely to add pieces — especially if they can upgrade perhaps the worst outfield in MLB.
The Mets have a young rotation, led by phenoms Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. The team probably wants to keep that staff intact, with the exception of Shaun Marcum. The 31-year-old could be a trade candidate if he stays healthy. Could a club like the Giants, Orioles or Rays be interested? Dealing some relievers seems more likely. Bobby Parnell and Brandon Lyon should draw interest from several teams seeking bullpen help. David Aardsma and LaTroy Hawkins provide veteran arms that could aid a pennant drive too.
Philadelphia Phillies, 39-44. Third in division, 7.5 back of second wild card.
Are the Phillies going to be buyers or sellers leading up to July 31? General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't want to give up on the season and trade away key pieces. But the Phillies are 9.5 games behind the Braves and 7.5 away from a wild card. Their chances don't look strong.
Amaro will likely realize over the next four weeks that his team doesn't really have a shot at the postseason. But trading players like Chase Utley and Cliff Lee could be a tough sell to a fanbase that's providing the Phillies with the fifth-highest attendance in MLB this year. With the demand for starting pitching, Amaro surely has to listen to offers for Lee. The Red Sox are often mentioned as a possible trade partner and is probably the one team willing to take the plunge. The Nationals, Orioles and Pirates would surely love to add Lee, but might wince at the Phillies' demands.
Meanwhile, the Royals have reportedly had some interest in Utley. Kansas City second baseman have hit a collective .242 this season, and their .605 OPS is second-to-last in MLB. Though Utley's health is always an issue, his .284 average and .866 OPS would be a massive upgrade for the Royals. Michael Young could be another possibility for K.C., as well as any team looking for an infield boost.
Washington Nationals, 41-40. Second in division, 4.5 back of second wild card.
Outside of Southern California, has there been a bigger disappointment in baseball this year than the Nats? Picked by many as a World Series favorite going into the season, Davey Johnson's team has fought injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and — most importantly — Bryce Harper. That's prevented the Nationals from putting together a consistent streak of success.
Dan Haren was the team's big addition to the starting rotation, but he's been a huge bust with a 4-9 record and 6.15 ERA. Opposing hitters have an .888 OPS versus Haren, the worst among qualifying pitchers. Fortunately for the Nats, Haren developed shoulder inflammation and the team could put him on the DL. But general manager Mike Rizzo has to fill Haren's spot in the rotation and finding a starter is a priority as the trade deadline approaches.
Could that make the Nats a player for Matt Garza? A player in the final year of his contract appears to be a good fit in the Nationals' rotation. Pitching for a contender before hitting free agency could help Garza's marketability in the offseason as well. Another Cubs pitcher, Scott Feldman, is another possibility if the Nats are looking for back-of-the-rotation filler. But Rizzo is probably aiming higher. Don't be surprised if he also dials up the Milwaukee Brewers, inquiring about Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse.