Heading into the weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals appeared to be the class of the National League, but the Atlanta Braves marched into town and swept the Cardinals while scoring 23 runs in three games. With the Philadelphia Phillies struggling and the Miami Marlins recovering from an 8-14 start, which team is the best in the NL right now?
Los Angeles Dodgers (23-11, plus-34 run differential)
The case for: They have the best player in the NL in Matt Kemp, but even last week, when Kemp battled a sore hamstring and had just four hits, the Dodgers had an .869 team OPS and went 5-1. Catcher A.J. Ellis is third in the majors with a .462 OBP, Mark Ellis has a .385 OBP, and Andre Ethier has a .364 OBP. That's four guys who have been getting on base, which means the Dodgers are a relative offensive juggernaut. They have the best pitching in the NL, Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly are a combined 10-0 and fit perfectly as fly ball pitchers at Dodger Stadium, where the club is 15-3. Overall, the rotation ERA of 2.91 is second in the league.
The case against: C'mon, Ellis and Elllis sounds more like a law firm than the meat of a championship lineup. They're getting little offense from shortstop Dee Gordon and third baseman Juan Uribe, and their left fielders have combined for one home run. Capuano and Lilly aren't this good, and the team has played a pretty soft schedule thus far with only two series (Braves and Nationals) against teams above .500. And this Kemp hamstring injury could be more serious than just him missing a day or two.
Atlanta Braves (22-13, plus-34 run differential)
The case for: The best team in the NL has to be in the NL East, and the Braves showed they're that team with their weekend sweep in St. Louis. They lead the NL in runs scored, and Brian McCann hasn't really started to hit. Thanks to the dominant duo of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, the Braves haven't lost a game they've led after six innings. Atlanta has also played just 13 of its first 35 games at home. The fact that the rotation ranks 15th in ERA is actually a good sign: They're nine games over .500 despite that.
The case against: Actually, the struggles of the rotation aren't a good sign. Brandon Beachy has been the team's only reliable starter, and even his numbers are a little flukey, with a .220 batting average on balls in play and just one home run allowed in 45 innings. The bullpen is 9-1 and has held leads, but the signs say that luck won't continue. Kimbrel, Venters and Eric O'Flaherty are allowing runners at a much higher rate than 2011. Chipper Jones has 22 RBIs in 25 games; that RBI rate can't continue.
@dschoenfield Braves.Timely hitting throughout lineup, Very good starting pitching, Top RPs 7-9 inns, good health and mostly youthful team
— Lyle Wood (@wood_back) May 14, 2012
Washington Nationals (21-13, plus-15 run differential)
The case for: That rotation has a chance to be one of the best we've seen in a long time. So far it has compiled a 2.31 ERA and allowed opponents to hit just .202. Ross Detwiler has a 1.02 WHIP, and that's the worst of the five starters. The team is eight games over .500 even though Mike Morse hasn't played a game, Ryan Zimmerman missed 13 games, and Jayson Werth is on the DL. If they can hold things together until Morse and Werth return, the lineup could be solid.
The case against: Baseball isn't 90 percent pitching ... or even 75. The Nats are averaging 3.56 runs per game, 14th in the NL, and that's likely to get worse without Werth and Wilson Ramos. Bryce Harper is exciting, but he has just a .663 OPS. The injuries are just going to be too much to overcome, and once the starting rotation falls back a little bit, so will the team's win-loss record.
— Chris Rinaldi (@Chris_Rinaldi) May 14, 2012
St. Louis Cardinals (20-14, plus-65 run differential)
The case for: That run differential shows that St. Louis has been the league's most dominant team. Its offense is so deep that Mike Matheny will have trouble finding regular playing time for Allen Craig, who has five home runs and 16 RBIs in 10 games since returning from the DL. Carlos Beltran has more home runs than Kemp, Rafael Furcal has a .447 OBP, and Jon Jay is hitting .347. The Cardinals lead the NL in batting average, home runs, OBP and slugging. Then there's the pitching staff. Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse each have ERAs of 2.08 or better. Lynn, in particular, looks legit with a power fastball and curveball, and Westbrook and Lohse are strike-throwing machines. Just wait until Adam Wainwright gets going and Chris Carpenter possibly returns.
The case against: Despite that run differential, the Cards have just the fourth-best record. In a sense, you get the idea they blew some of this early offense and didn't build up a 24-10 record or such. They've also played a soft schedule, playing almost exclusively within the weak NL Central. Other than two series against the 17-16 Reds, the only .500 team they played was the Braves, and they were swept. Do you really believe in Lohse and Westbrook. And we don't have to mention that Furcal and Jay aren't going to hit .383 and .347 all season.
@dschoenfield The St. Louis Cardinals because the pitching staff is overachieving, & Furcal and Beltran are providing veteran leadership.
— Zach Loesl (@mmm9731) May 14, 2012