With the second half of the MLB season upon us, the contenders, pretenders, and sellers are becoming apparent. Each team has a key player or two that will put them over the hump in a pennant race, or give fans something to watch as their team barters off known assets for prospects.
We’ll be taking a look at each division race in a six-part series aimed at summing up the newsworthy plots for each MLB team, and singling out a key player to watch from each squad in this second half.
With our first installment, we look to the National League East. Long expected to be a runaway by Washington, two other teams have emerged as contenders in this race that figures to be a three-team sprint to the finish.
Philadelphia Phillies: (56-44, 1st NL East)
Key Player: Jake Arrieta
Ignorance is bliss.
The Phillies are the youngest team in all of Major League Baseball as of this writing (26.8 average age), so they are likely to be oblivious to the pressure of a pennant race. Also in their favor is the 9th easiest remaining schedule in baseball, as their future opponents have a combined .491 winning percentage.
One place where the Phillies could use improvement is in plate discipline vs. right-handed pitchers. They strike out a whopping 1/4 of the time vs. RHP, and the rest of their offensive stats are middling vs. that group, making an offensive regression seem likely.
Despite the youth of this roster, it is their 4th-oldest player that could spark the Phillies to a second-half playoff run. Thirty-two year-old starting pitcher Jake Arrieta has settled in as a solid starting pitcher after several years of dominance in Chicago. His 3.47 ERA is good, as is his 119 ERA+, but several peripheral stats indicate he is more likely to plateau than to return to his dominant 2015 Cy Young form.
His xFIP sits at 4.18, his highest mark since he was a Baltimore Oriole, thanks in large part to an eroding strikeout rate (6.26 K/9). However, if he can keep inducing ground balls at a 54% rate, he may have enough to give the Phillies two dominant starting pitchers down the stretch.
Atlanta Braves: (54-44, 2nd NL East, 2nd NL Wild Card)
Key Player: Ronald Acuña, Jr.
Everything hints toward the Braves fading away in the second half, including the tough schedule (.502 opponent win %), the expected regression of their starters, and an absolute disaster of a bullpen. The youth of this team (13th youngest) will keep them coming back for more every day, and that could be a real advantage for them.
But in order to stay in the race longer than anticipated, GM Alex Anthopoulos will need to make a trade for a bullpen arm or two. The Braves have been linked to Sergio Romo and several others in trade rumors.
This team has no real glaring holes in the lineup, despite the season-long consensus that they need an upgrade at third base. Johan Camargo has filled the spot in solid fashion, with above average marks in slugging (.427) and on-base percentage (.355), while posting a .341 wOBA and 113 wRC+.
The Braves have been carried by their offense all season, and a second-half surge from 20-year-old wunderkind Ronald Acuña, Jr. will ensure that trend continues. The rookie holds a sold .275/.335/.484 line after a torrid 6 for 9 start to the second half with 4 extra-base hits. His ascension could cover up expected xFIP regressions from each of the Braves’ four healthy regular starters.
Washington Nationals: (49-51, 3rd NL East)
Key Player: Bryce Harper
It should come as little surprise that the Nationals’ focal point of the second half is Bryce Harper’s performance. As Nats’ announcer F.P. Santangelo said during a game over the weekend, “As goes Bryce, so go the Nationals”. He’s not wrong.
The men from the Nation’s Capital are the consensus favorites to storm from 6.5 games down to win the East. The scariest thing about the Nationals, however, is the growing health of a lineup that looked like one of the best ever on paper this March.
A healthy Daniel Murphy plus protection from Anthony Rendon and 19-year-old Juan Soto means that Bryce Harper will be pitched to more often than not in the second half. Harper needs to tune out all the free agency noise and raise his batting average from an abysmal .216 and, if he does so, his team will be golden.
All of Harper’s other numbers are good, with a .365 on-base percentage and .470 slugging. His hard-hit % is in the top 25% in the league, so maybe there is something to his agent Scott Boras’ recent comments about how infield shifts are unfair to lefty hitters, even though listening to Boras is often like scraping sandpaper across one’s nether regions for an hour.
The health of Stephen Strasburg also earns a big asterisk when it comes to second half keys for Washington.
Miami Marlins: (44-59, 4th NL East)
Key Player: Justin Bour
The Marlins have usurped the Mets for 4th place in the division due to the latter’s abysmal play recently. They’ve also safely put themselves on pace to stay ahead of the ’98 Marlins as least favorite team in Marlins’ fans’ history.
With J.T. Realmuto the subject of numerous trade rumors, I feel more comfortable making Justin Bour the guy to watch in the second half of this forlorn season for Derek Jeter’s on-field concoction. There’s not a ton of reasons to be excited about baseball in Miami right now, except for the potential slugging impact of this young corner infielder.
Boar has slugged impressive ISOs of .218, .211, and .247 the last three seasons, but never racked up more than 446 plate appearances in any campaign. This year, he’s well on pace to exceed that mark. It’s been a down year, with the K% up over 25% from his career mark of 22.2%, and he didn’t cash in on his usual hot month of May this year.
There is good news, though, as August and September represent his other two most productive months in his career.
New York Mets: (41-57, 5th NL East)
Key Player: Amed Rosario
While the big news out of New York is trade talks surrounding starters Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, there are exciting young players both on the farm and on the current 25-man roster to keep an eye on the rest of 2018.
Amed Rosario is the big name, and the team has given him an extended look at shortstop all year. While he has slashed a subpar .248/.290/.376 this season with a wRC+ 21 points below league average, he never profiled out as a great offensive prospect. It’s on the defensive side where he makes his hay, and the Mets hope he can be an Andrelton Simmons-type that anchors their defense for a decade.
Also worth watching is the development of first baseman Dominic Smith. He’s struggled in his first season, and projects more like a John Olerud-type contact hitter rather than a slugger. A lot of Mets’ fans are already calling for his head, and he’s feeling the pressure at AAA from Peter Alonso.
Stay tuned for the next installment. Until then, who’s your favorite player in the NL East? Comment below.