Around the NL East: Nats and Braves primed for second-half duel

Around the NL East: Nats and Braves primed for second-half duel
July 15, 2014, 12:00 pm
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(USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA BRAVES 

At the All-Star Break, this division's starting to shake out the way most expected it to -- with the Braves battling the Nationals down the stretch for the NL East crown. After a nine-game win streak briefly vaulted Atlanta into first place, Washington came right back and both teams enter the break tied atop the division. 

So what will be the thing that separates these two teams come the end of the season? Probably what usually does: Pitching. The Braves have managed to survive a bevy of injuries to their starting rotation going back to spring training, and have received gutsy performances by pitchers they weren't counting on earlier in the season. Perhaps they make a move to upgrade the rotation at the trade deadline, but even if they don't they've still managed to lead the league in quality starts with 65. As for the Nats, they need the trio of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and (a healthy) Jordan Zimmermann to collectively step up and lead the rotation the rest of the way.  

And if the pitching performances are comparable, then it'll probably come down to the nine games (8/8-10, 9/8-10, & 9/15-17) these two teams have left against each other. It's definitely shaping up to be an entertaining second half of the season in the NL East.

MIAMI MARLINS  

The Marlins got a pleasant surprise over the weekend as it was announced starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez would replace the injured Jordan Zimmermann on the All-Star team. His selection along with Giancarlo Stanton's gives Miami two members on the National League team for the first time since 2010. Alvarez may have joined the roster because of an injury, but his 2.63 ERA is fourth-best among starters in the NL, so he's certainly deserving of the nod. As for Stanton -- who was a slam-dunk All-Star selection --  he wowed early in the Home Run Derby before eventually bowing out in the second round.  

Unfortunately for the Marlins as a team, things are rapidly falling apart. They stayed in it for the majority of the season's first half, but a rough June and early July have all but doomed their chances for the season. They've now fallen to fourth place and sit 7.5 back of the division lead. 

NEW YORK METS

The good news for the Mets? They've started to put things together recently, winning seven of their last eight games. The bad news? It's probably too little, too late. Despite their recent hot streak, they're still seven games back and have a tough second half schedule ahead. They also may have already labeled themselves as sellers at the trade deadline, with rumors that starter Bartolo Colon is available for any team that wants him. This potential trade would make a lot of sense, as the Mets have a surplus of young arms in the starting rotation who are all under contract for the next few seasons, while Colon is an aging veteran whose contract expires after 2015. 

And even though the future might be bright for New York's rotation, they still have issues elsewhere that cost them a chance to be in contention this season. Obviously the Mets would like to finish the year on the upswing regardless, but this division will belong to either the Braves or the Nationals when it's all said and done. 

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

The fire sale many have expected is about to begin in Philly. With the trade deadline just a few weeks away, the rumor mill is buzzing around the City of Brotherly Love. From Marlon Byrd to Chase Utley to Cole Hamels, it seems like everyone on the Phillies roster is up for grabs. However, if there's one roadblock, it's that most if not all of the chips have some form of a no-trade clause in their contracts. Jimmy Rollins and Utley, for instance, have 10-5 rights, and Hamels owns a no-trade clause where he can block a deal to 20 MLB teams.

We'll see how much that matters in the end; if players want to be traded, they'll waive the clause and move on regardless. But for the time being, it may limit the team's trade partners. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has a golden opportunity in front of him, with many high-priced veterans drawing interest from around the league. The only question now is if he'll be able to make the most of it as the Phillies roster is in desperate need of a reboot.