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The Great Race, 2007

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I know this is the second time we've posted this graphic to the main page in the last week and a half. But take a look at it again; lose yourself in its unfathomable wonder and beauty:

Okay, okay--The Starry Night it isn't. But to a baseball fan, there's little in this world more thrilling than a close, multi-team playoff race. And, with the Marlins winning last night while the Mets, Braves and Phillies all lost, we've got a bona fide four-team scrum in the works. Even better, from a purist's standpoint, there's a good chance no wild-card consolation prize will be open to an also-ran; the NL West has a similar four-team battle underway, with the first three all running ahead of the East-leading Mets.

Today, with all four clubs sitting idle, seems like a good moment to assess the strengths, weaknesses and possible X-factors of the Phillies' three rivals.



New York Mets, 38-32

Season So Far: As the chart shows, just a few weeks ago the Mets looked poised to run and hide from the rest of the East for a second straight season. Then the calendar turned to June... and the Mets turned into a sub-.300 ballclub. Since June 1, they're 4-14, and they've lost games in almost every way possible: close ones (including three straight to the Phillies), blowouts, pitching duels, slugfests. Through it all, however, they've held the division lead, thanks most recently to the interleague struggles of the Braves and Phillies. As TGP contributor FTN414 has noted, the Mets played unsustainably good defense across the board in the first two months; regression to the mean has hurt them in this area over the last few weeks.

Upside/Downside: Last season, Carlos Beltran was an MVP candidate and Carlos Delgado remained one of the game's most fearsome sluggers. In 2007, Beltran has been mediocre (.790 OPS) and recently hobbled by a quad strain, and Delgado (.690 OPS) has become the whipping boy of local sports radio. Young superstars David Wright and Jose Reyes continue to produce, but otherwise the Mets have looked old. If Beltran gets a chance to heal--he's playing through the injury with the rest of the Mets outfield banged up--he should be fine; whether Delgado is hitting in bad luck or simply beginning to decline at age 35 is unclear, but I'd expect him to find his stroke.

On the pitching side, young starters John Maine and Oliver Perez have cooled off after great starts, and venerable lefty Tom Glavine suddenly has looked his age (41) with a 4.67 ERA. The Mets were sustained for awhile by some great outings from journeyman Jorge Sosa, but he too seems to be coming back to earth. The question is whether Glavine can rediscover his form and Orlando Hernandez, perhaps the Mets' best starter this season, can keep it up.

Reinforcements? As noted, the New York outfield has been crippled by injuries. Moises Alou--another Met over 40--has been on the shelf since mid-May with a quad injury, and Endy Chavez (hamstring) got hurt during the Phillies series. Shawn Green had a DL stint as well. Getting both back, especially Alou, would bolster the lineup and strengthen the trade hand of GM Omar Minaya. Of course, the big arrival the Mets are waiting on is Pedro Martinez, whose rehab from rotator cuff surgery could bring him back to Shea Stadium in August.

As for trades, the Mets are connected with virtually every big name rumored to be on the market, from Eric Gagne to Mark Buehrle, and they'd love to go after Carlos Zambrano or Dontrelle Willis should the Cubs and Marlins choose to fold. New York has virtually unlimited financial resources and a good stable of young talent, pitchers and outfielders especially, that's close to major league-ready. It's virtually certain that GM Omar Minaya will make a move, though when and how big probably depends on the health of Alou, Pedro and others.



Atlanta Braves, 38-35

Season So Far: The Braves roared out of the game with seven wins in their first eight games (including, of course, an opening sweep of the Phils in Philadelphia), and stood at 24-12 on May 12. Then they went 9-17 over their next 26 games, first falling a ways behind the Mets, then finding themselves unable to capitalize when New York stumbled. A brutal interleague schedule--featuring the Twins, Indians, Red Sox and, this weekend, the Tigers--hasn't helped.

Upside/Downside: Second baseman Kelly Johnson was a question mark three months ago, as the club was asking him not just to switch positions from outfield to infield but take the leadoff role in the lineup... after Johnson had missed a year with injury. Now he's an exclamation point, with a .281/.381/.468 line and 8 home runs. Whether he can continue to produce like an unholy amalgam of Jose Reyes and Chase Utley could determine how long the Braves can hang in the race. Likewise veteran shortstop Edgar Renteria, who's hitting .333 with a .912 OPS. Both figures are pretty far out of line with his career norms. The same is true, but much more so, for journeyman outfielder Willie Harris, who's produced a .380/.440/.504 line in 121 at-bats. At the other extreme, Andruw Jones (.202 average, .687 OPS) isn't making a great case for the megabucks contract he and agent Scott Boras will be looking for this winter as a free agent, but unless he's hurt, you have to assume he'll find his stroke. Brian McCann, the 23 year-old catcher who looked like vintage Mike Piazza last season, has put up numbers (.258/.720) more reminiscent of late-career Mike Lieberthal in 2007.

On the mound, the Braves' veteran starters John Smoltz and Tim Hudson continue to perform at a high level, and #3 starter Chuck James looks fine. The back of the rotation, though, is a shambles, with Kyle Davies looking lost and a cast of thousands bumbling through the fifth starter slot. Atlanta's bullpen, which seemed impregnable early on, took a major hit with the season-ending injury to Mike Gonzalez. Closer Bob Wickman doesn't inspire great confidence either.

Reinforcements? Chipper Jones is having something of a career year at age 35, but he's not fully healthy, and the nature of his injuries--wrists, groin--renders it unlikely that he will be. From the minors, Atlanta already has summoned top prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia to fill in for McCann and under-performing first baseman Scott Thorman.

As far as outside help, GM John Schuerholz might not have the inventory anymore to make the big in-season trades he once pulled off seemingly every June or July. His best chip is Saltalamacchia, who probably could land an impact bat plus a prospect, but the Braves might want to keep him as their answer at first base or market him during the offseason when a wider range of teams could get in on the bidding. While Schuerholz--like Minaya and Pat Gillick--presumably would love to add a starter, the Braves' hopes probably rest upon their youngsters stepping up, continued production from the middle infielders and better health and production respectively for the Jones boys.



Florida Marlins, 35-38

Season So Far: For the most part, the Marlins have avoided the dizzying highs and terrifying lows that have characterized the Mets, Braves and Phillies thus far in 2007. Florida hasn't been more than three games over or five games under .500 all year, which probably speaks well for rookie manager Fredi Gonzalez. The team's biggest problem--well, second-biggest, behind injuries to pitchers--has been winning at home: the Fish are just 14-19 in whatever the hell they're calling that stadium this week.

Upside/Downside: While Miguel Cabrera continues to put up numbers that one day could get him an A-Rod type contract, Florida's other young hitters mostly have repeated or even improved upon their breakout 2006 campaigns; Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham et al seem to be for real. Gonzalez has gotten solid work out of journeyman relievers like Kevin Gregg, Lee Gardner, Justin Miller and Henry Owens (currently on the DL); they've needed it, as the only constants in the Marlin rotation have been lefties Dontrelle Willis and Scott Olsen, and neither has dominated. Can the bullpen keep it up? Will the starters get in gear?

Reinforcements? The Marlins' surprising late push into the race last season was powered by pitching, with youngsters like Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez leading the way. Johnson was just activated last week, and got hit hard in his first start back--but if he can resemble the guy who went 12-7, 3.10 last season, he could give Florida as big or bigger a boost as Pedro returning to the Mets, or Brett Myers to the Phillies. Sanchez, who's about to undergo exploratory shoulder surgery, is gone for the year, but Ricky Nolasco (elbow inflammation) could provide a boost for the Marlins rotation down the road.

In terms of trade, Florida already added Armando Benitez to bolster the bullpen, but it's unclear whether underrated GM Larry Beinfast has the pieces or salary flexibility (he got Benitez almost entirely on the Giants' dime) to bring in anyone else. Given the team's always-tenuous situation in South Florida, the Marlins might be no more than two bad weeks from becoming sellers rather than buyers.

So here we are. Enjoy it.