As the season reaches its mid-way point, let’s take a look at the top players in the division…
First Base – Michael Morse (Washington Nationals). It may seem automatic to hand this honor to Ryan Howard on an annual basis, and it’s entirely likely that he’ll be the top first baseman in the division when the season ends, but for now it’s all about the Monster (not sure if that’s really his nickname but it seems fitting). On a team that’s so in need of offense, Morse stepped up and filled in when Adam LaRoche went down with an injury. The Nationals had high hopes for LaRoche when they signed him this past offseason, but thanks to Morse, not many people noticed when they recently announced he’d miss the remainder of the year.
Second Base – Danny Espinosa (Washington Nationals). Espinosa is on pace to hit 30 homeruns and while his current batting average is an unimpressive .243, he does have 48 RBI’s and has hit almost .300 this month. Besides, with Chase Utley missing most of the first half with an injury, the rest of the division is pretty weak at this position.
Shortstop – Jose Reyes (New York Mets). Where do we begin? The numbers speak loudly: 119 hits, 15 triples, 30 stolen bases, 65 runs scored, as many walks as strikeouts (26), a .393 OBP and a .918 OPS. But, even more than the stats, it’s the circumstances that make the difference. Reyes is surrounded by a rotating lineup (even Ronny Paulino batted cleanup on Wednesday night) for a team missing some it’s best players (Wright, Davis, Santana) in a season that had low expectations to begin with. Yet, the Mets are above .500, their fans are taking notice and essentially Reyes has made them relevant again. At least for now.
Third Base – Placido Polanco (Philadelphia Phillies). Much like the second base situation, Polanco’s placement here has as much to do with his success as it has to do with the issues the rest of the teams have had at the position. Greg Dobbs was a consideration here as well but he’s…Greg Dobbs. With the injuries to David Wright (after a terrible early-season slump) and Ryan Zimmerman, the spot could have gone to Chipper Jones, but his play has been fairly pedestrian to this point in the season.
Outfield – Shane Victorino (Philadelphia Philles), Carlos Beltran (New York Mets), Mike Stanton (Florida Marlins). Despite missing some time with an injury (because that’s what Phillies players do), Victorino has already scored 50 runs at the top of a lineup that has had issues all season long. For the past few seasons Mets fans were left wondering what a full season of Carlos Beltran would look like. Coming into this season there was strong doubt as to how regularly he’d play and how effective he’d be. Halfway through the season and it seems that Beltran has answered those questions. He has played more games this year than any other Mets player, which is remarkable. He leads the team in homeruns and RBI’s, and is even on pace to drive in more than 100 runs. He may not be living up to Mets fans once-high (ridiculously high) expectations, and he’s not really tearing up the league, but he’s also not tearing up his knee and he’s producing quite consistently. Mike Stanton has been highly touted for a few years now but injuries and strikeouts have gotten in his way. Even this year, an early-season injury prevented him from being an everyday starter until the second week of the season, and even when he did return he struggled. However, a strong May (9 HR’s, .936 OPS) got him right back on track. In only his second season, Stanton has begun to live up to the potential that’s come with his name for the past few years.
Catcher – Brian McCann (Atlanta Braves). For all the press and hype that Jose Reyes has earned this year, the true MVP within the division is probably McCann. As you’ll see in a few paragraphs, the Braves pitching has been stellar. So stellar, in fact, that they haven’t needed too much offense in order to contend (and hold the top Wild Card spot). This is fortunate for the Braves as they haven’t gotten much offense. And this is where McCann comes in. He’s among the league leaders in batting average (.314), slugging pct. (.527) and OPS (.914). More than that though, the Braves pitchers have credited him with helping them get the most out of their abilities.
Starting Pitchers – Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee (Philadelphia Phillies), Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson (Atlanta Braves). With the seasons Annibal Sanchez, Dillon Gee and Jordan Zimmermann (the extra n is for “nasty”) have had so far, it says a lot that none of them made the list. It says even more that these 5 pitchers stand out in such a pitching strong division. It probably says the most though that all 5 of these pitchers come from the top 2 teams in the division, both of which have had season-long team struggles at the plate.
Middle Relievers/Specialists – Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flahery (Atlanta Braves), Tyler Clippard (Washington Nationals), Antonio Bastardo (Philadelphia Phillies). The Braves two lefties have been virtually unhittable this season. O’Flaherty has only given up 1 run in June and Venters, despite struggling a little this past week, is still considered by many to be the best non-closing reliever in baseball. Clippard’s minuscule WHIP (0.89) has helped him stand out as the highlight of a pretty strong Nationals bullpen. Recent struggles by Nats closer Drew Storen has Clippard positioned to become the team’s closer. Speaking of which, this season Antonio Bastardo has been a middle reliever, a lefty specialist and even a closer. And however the Phillies have used him, he’s excelled. Ryan Madson’s performance helped Philly forget about Brad Lidge. They’re hoping for a similar experience with Bastardo now that Madson is on the DL.
Closer – Craig Kimbrel (Atlanta Braves). The rookie closer was picked by many preseason prognosticators as the NL Rookie of the Year. Halfway through the season and Kimbrel seems on his way to proving them right. He may not be lights out just yet, but he gets those lights pretty dim pretty quickly. In 41 innings he already has 65 K’s and has yielded just one homerun. Most importantly for a closer, he’s first in the division (and tied for second in the league) with 23 saves, including 12 saves in his last 13 chances.
As you can see, the stories in the NL East this year have been pitching and injuries (and pitching injuries). Many of the division’s best have missed significant time already and some of the lesser-known hitters have gotten the chance to shine. Meanwhile, the standout pitchers have been less surprising but no-less impressive. As we head towards the All-Star Break, the only thing that’s certain is that the second-half of the year is shaping up to be an intriguing one.
Shai Kushner is a Senior Writer for BaseballDigest.com. Email Shai at: BaseballDigestShai@gmail.com. Follow Shai on Twitter at: @BD_ShaiKushner.