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Midseason grades: National League

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The San Diego Padres? The Cincinnati Reds?

Midseason report

Danny Knobler
The first half had plenty of good to look back on, setting up a second half with plenty of promise. AL grades

It's the year of the unpredictable in the National League, and tell that to the Philadelphia Phillies. Two-time defending NL pennant winners, the Phillies are fighting for their postseason lives now, with Atlanta looking great, the Mets looking good and Chase Utley out for eight weeks. So much for Roy Halladay guaranteeing them a third straight World Series appearance.

The best race of the second half sure looks to be the NL West, where four of the five teams legitimately should hang in through September (sorry, Arizona). Can Cincy hold off St. Louis? Fasten your seat belts.

NL EAST

Atlanta Braves (52-36 at All-Star break)
Overall grade: A
Offense: B-; Pitching: A

In manager Bobby Cox's last year the Braves are threatening a return to glory. They haven't had pitching like this since Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz, and Tim Hudson predicted as much for himself this spring. Two years removed from arm surgery, Hudson said he felt the best he has in eight years. He has pitched like it, too. The Braves ranked fourth in the NL in staff ERA as the All-Star break approached and Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson haven't even pitched to their capabilities. Closer Billy Wagner has been a huge upgrade, and second baseman Martin Prado is the best player few have heard of. Nice comeback season from Troy Glaus, and phenomenal debut from Jason Heyward. Lots of drama left with Cox's final days, Chipper Jones' possible retirement plans and, oh yes, a pennant race.

New York Mets (48-40)
Overall grade: B
Offense: B+; Pitching: B

Don't look now, but the Mets have found consistency, heretofore more elusive than Oliver Perez's control, over the past six weeks. A fabulous June (17-9) allowed Jerry Manuel's club to regain its footing. The infusion of rookie Ike Davis brought energy. The return to form of David Wright brings swagger. The personality of Jeff Francoeur and the speed (and health, slowly) of Jose Reyes brings the special sauce. Understand, Reyes is probably the key in the second half -- when he plays and scores, the Mets win. Mike Pelfrey and Johan Santana give the Mets a solid chance to win two of every five days. Now, will Jonathan Niese's hamstrings stay healthy? And will R.A. Dickey's knuckler stay dangerous? CitiField has subtracted power from Wright and Jason Bay, but the Mets are figuring it out.

Philadelphia Phillies (47-40)
Overall grade: C
Offense: C; Pitching: C

Chase Utley's absence could leave the Phillies behind in the NL East race. (Getty Images)  
Chase Utley's absence could leave the Phillies behind in the NL East race. (Getty Images)  
Take Jimmy Rollins and Utley out of the lineup and this is what happens. The Phillies have sunk to third place and look like they're in for a battle with the Braves and Mets. But through 82 games, they were only two games worse in 2010 than in 2009: 42-40, vs. 44-38. So, can these Phils win another NL East title? Losing Utley through late August might make things impossibly difficult. And weird thing is, as good as a rotation led by Halladay, Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer is, the Phils need to beef it up at the trade deadline. Because with Utley out and the Phillies searching for their offense, run prevention is the one thing that could put them over the top.

Florida Marlins (42-46)
Overall grade: D
Offense: B; Pitching: C

On days Josh Johnson pitches, the Marlins look like world beaters. On other days, not so much. It's past time for Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez to step up, consistently. One of the most consistent bright spots this season has been first baseman Gaby Sanchez, who is a real nice player. But does uber-talented Hanley Ramirez really want to be a champion? Does he know what it takes? Old manager Fredi Gonzalez handled him well. How will he respond to interim Edwin Rodriguez? There's power here with Dan Uggla, Ramirez, Jorge Cantu and rookie Mike Stanton, but there is just no consistency. The Marlins' record has improved in each of the past three seasons. In 2010, though, there's a lot of running in place.

Washington Nationals (39-50)
Overall grade: C
Offense: D; Pitching: C

Stephen Strasburg is the first word out of everyone's mouth. And yes, he's the most important piece of the Nationals' future. But in Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Drew Storen and Nyjer Morgan, other key pieces are in place, too. The Nationals are more professional under manager Jim Riggleman than they've been since arriving in D.C. GM Mike Rizzo is sharp. The future is bright. Now, it's just getting there. Scoring runs has been more difficult than it should be at times for a lineup with Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham. Big question now is whether the Nats could cash in Ivan Rodriguez for more young talent. He might be too important in the development of young pitchers like Strasburg and, when he returns, Jordan Zimmermann.

NL CENTRAL

Cincinnati Reds (49-41)
Overall grade: A
Offense: A; Pitching: B-

What a nice team the Reds have put together, and it started last year. Acquiring Scott Rolen from Toronto last July when the Reds had no hope threw lots of folks for a loop. Well, those folks are un-looped now. That was the single most significant move GM Walt Jocketty made in shaping a 2010 contender. Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs ... now the young 'uns have an anchor. Mix in Orlando Cabrera, Ramon Hernandez and Mike Leake -- wait, he's not a veteran (but he sure pitches like one) -- and the Reds have their most intriguing team in years. Literally. This is the latest they've been in first place in the NL Central since October 1999. Here's to good second-half health to Leake, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey (out until late July) and the rest. Edinson Volquez should be back soon, too.

St. Louis Cardinals (47-41)
Overall grade: B
Offense: C; Pitching: A

It took awhile, but Matt Holliday is rounding into shape at the plate, which bodes very well for a hot second half -- both for Holliday and the Cardinals. They're at their best when Albert Pujols is hitting third and has protection behind him. For a time, neither was happening as Tony La Russa did the unthinkable and moved Pujols to fourth in an effort to get Holliday going. The inconsistency is unusual for St. Louis, but you still figure with Holliday, Pujols, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, the Cards remain the most dangerous team in the division. Colby Rasmus and Ryan Ludwick have been a joy to watch -- Ludwick is vastly underrated defensively. Injuries to Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny are a concern, as is rookie Jaime Garcia's workload.

Milwaukee Brewers (40-49)
Overall grade: C
Offense: A; Pitching: D

Boy was it fun the year Milwaukee made the playoffs. First time in a quarter of a century in 2008, and those fantastic Wisconsin fans clicked the turnstiles in record numbers. Where have you gone, CC Sabathia? (Don't remind us). This is still an enjoyable team to watch -- Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Casey McGehee all can rake. But once you get past Yovani Gallardo, try as GM Doug Melvin might, he hasn't been able to fix the rotation. Memories of Sabathia are deepened when you watch Randy Wolf, Doug Davis and Chris Narveson (13.50 ERA in the first inning). Shortstop Alicedes Escobar is going to be a whiz, but the Brewers are still figuring things out at catcher. Trevor Hoffman? Never have 600 saves seemed so far off (he's still at 596).

Chicago Cubs (39-50)
Overall grade: D
Offense: C; Pitching: B

Tough times in Wrigley Field: The Cubs have played themselves out of the race. Attendance is down. Manager Lou Piniella seems resigned to being a short-timer. Who will the Cubs target as a new skipper this winter? And will GM Jim Hendry survive as the Ricketts family begins to shape the Cubs? These are the questions they'll ponder in Chicago during the dog days of August. The club has reached the point of no return with Carlos Zambrano. Nice of Aramis Ramirez's bat to awaken in time for the July 4 fireworks. And Derrek Lee ... hello? Is anybody in there? Clearly, that 97-win window from 2008 closed quickly, and what the Cubs need are more Starlin Castros and Tyler Colvins. Remaking the Cubs as the out-of-patience Wrigley faithful howl will not be for the faint of heart.

Houston Astros (36-53)
Overall grade: D
Offense: D; Pitching: D

Ugh. The Astros haven't been this ugly since wearing their orange-yellow rainbow uniforms circa 1975. More and more, it's apparent that Carlos Lee is a waste of air space. Lance Berkman is not the same hitter he once was. Michael Bourn can run, but even he isn't fast enough to chase down those long drives surrendered by Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and Brian Moehler. Roy Oswalt? Let the trade offers begin, but under owner Drayton McLane, good luck. One thing about those Rangers rumors: Trading Oswalt there will be next to impossible, because McLane sees them as the University of Texas views Oklahoma gridders. As a mortal enemy. Oswalt isn't going to Texas unless the Rangers badly overpay. Hope first-year manager Brad Mills bought the extra warranty. Patience, skip, patience.

Pittsburgh Pirates (30-58)
Overall grade: F
Offense: F; Pitching: F

Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum ... is just about the only way anymore to get through a Pirates season. Just when you look for improvement, the Bad News Pirates suck you back in. If Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutcheon, Neal Walker and Brad Lincoln aren't the beginning of a new, winning young core, baseball may have to hold a burial at sea. After all of the offseason pub, Ross Ohlendorf didn't win his first game until July 2. Bets are being waged as to how much longer John Russell will be managing this crew because there is no improvement and little inspiration. Erstwhile ace Zach Duke is hurt now, but regressed before that. This will be the Buccos' 18th consecutive sub-.500 season. Have mercy.

NL WEST

San Diego Padres (51-37)
Overall grade: A
Offense: C; Pitching: A+

Baseball's biggest surprise has blossomed from a nice early-season story into must-watch hardball. Bud Black has managed his double-knits off now that he finally has some speed (Tony Gwynn Jr., Everth Cabrera, the Hairston brothers) and defense to work with. And, oh, that pitching. Top to bottom, rotation to bullpen, the Padres have the game's deepest pitching. Biggest concern in the second half is that club must monitor the innings of young starters Mat Latos, Clayton Richard and Wade LeBlanc, which is why they might need to trade for another pitcher. Though David Eckstein continues as the peskiest player in the game at 35, the Padres could make things easier on themselves if they beef up their offense. Better problem to have, though, than where to trade Adrian Gonzalez.

Colorado Rockies (49-39)
Overall grade: B
Offense: B+; Pitching: C

Whether another of the Rockies' patented second-half runs is on-deck is tied directly to injured shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. He's that important to this team, and he's not due back until late July (wrist). Jim Tracy's Rockies have done a nice job of hanging in there despite being decimated by injuries, from three-fifths of the rotation being out early (Jeff Francis, Jorge de la Rosa and Jason Hammel) to Tulowitzki, Todd Helton and closer Huston Street. In that light, Ubaldo Jimenez might be as valuable as any player in baseball. In budding superstar Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler and Ian Stewart, the Rockies have plenty of ammunition, and Tuesday's nine-run ninth inning to storm back from a 9-3 deficit to beat the Cardinals was the kind of game that could serve as a starter's pistol.

The Dodgers need Matt Kemp to regain his focus if they are to defend their title. (Getty Images)  
The Dodgers need Matt Kemp to regain his focus if they are to defend their title. (Getty Images)  
Los Angeles Dodgers (49-39)
Overall grade: C
Offense: A; Pitching: C

Embarrassing enough that the Dodgers started Vicente Padilla on opening day, but the inclusion of Charlie Haeger in the rotation early on loudly announced the Dodgers' step back from the team that won back-to-back NL West titles the past two seasons. Clayton Kershaw is developing nicely and Chad Billingsley continues to tease, but the regression of outfielder Matt Kemp is alarming. He looks disinterested at times, his baserunning is wretched and his fundamentals are lacking. One huge key to the second half is keeping Andre Ethier in the lineup. James Loney quietly plugs along and Rafael Furcal is one of the 10 most valuable players in the NL. More and more it seems that this is manager Joe Torre's last hurrah with the Dodgers. The McCourts' divorce -- trial scheduled to begin in late August -- is too much.

San Francisco Giants (47-41)
Overall grade: C+
Offense: C; Pitching: B

Buster Posey, Pablo "Kung-Fu Panda" Sandoval and Madison Bumgarner are the future of the Giants, but for the sake of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez, you hope the future is about here. Bruce Bochy's club continues to fight to score runs, making life awfully difficult when the pitching isn't flawless. Neither Lincecum nor Cain has been as dominant as in the past, but the bar has been set so high and you figure the dominance will arrive. Aubrey Huff has been a nice addition, but that has been nullified by the absence of Mark DeRosa. Freddy Sanchez? Seems like he's just achieving liftoff. The Giants uncharacteristically lost seven in a row from June 26-July 2. The trade of Bengie Molina was another step toward an eagerly anticipated future.

Arizona Diamondbacks (34-55)
Overall grade: F
Offense: C; Pitching: F

The Diamondbacks were doomed the minute ace Brandon Webb's shoulder became an issue, but this is ridiculous. Two years running now the D-Backs have fired their manager before the All-Star break. Whether you're an old-school hardball guy or favor new-age sabermetrics, this generally is not considered the path to success. Good to see Chris Young back among the living -- all that hard work and patience paid off, at least for now. Dan Haren, Adam LaRoche and Kelly Johnson probably will be wearing new uniforms after July 31. A serious makeover is needed, and you wonder how much leeway interim GM Jerry DiPoto will be given to do it. Otherwise, the only thing left is to count Mark Reynolds' K's and the bullpen's horrific ERA.

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