NL Pennant Race: Five Players Who Will Make a Difference

The 2008 season looks to be quite exciting with what appear to be three competitive races for the division crowns. These close races will come down to the performance of a few players who need to perform to get their teams to the postseason.

Mike and Phil compiled this list.

Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies

Chase Utley is coming off of a great 2007 season where he batted .332, belted 22 homers, and kept an OBP of .410. Utley has earned two straight Silver Slugger awards at second base and appears ready to complete the trifecta. Chase also brings a capable glove to second base. He led all qualifying NL second basemen in range factor (5.10) and had a fielding percentage of .985. The Phillies were the benefactor of the epic choke-job that was the Mets’ September last season. Though they earned the NL East title last season, it does not appear that another implosion by the Mets is in the cards this season. The Mets added perhaps the best pitcher in the league, Johan Santana, to an already solid pitching rotation. Coupled with a very capable offense that features 3B David Wright and SS Jose Reyes, the Phillies are facing an uphill battle to defend their NL East crown. In fact, they are definite underdogs.

Utley’s 2007 season was hampered by a broken bone in his right hand. He missed a little over a month following surgery. Luckily for the Phillies, Utley was able to return and keep producing like he was before the injury. This broken hand came about from being hit by a pitch, so that injury does not speak to his durability one bit. He was not affected by any nagging injuries (ie. Hamstrings, twisted testicles). In fact, he played in 160 games in 2006, so it is evident that Utley is a trooper who will provide a great bat in the Phillies’ lineup for the duration of the season. However, the Phillies cannot afford another injury, freak or not, to their second baseman. The Mets are just too good this year to give up games. The performance of Chase Utley this season will be an important component of the Phillies’ success and their odds of winning another NL East title.

Carlos Zambrano, SP, Chicago Cubs

Carlos Zambrano has proven he is an ace over these past few seasons. Since his first full season as a starting pitcher, he has never posted an ERA higher than 3.95 and he has averaged 15.4 wins per season. In addition to these ace-type numbers, he has pitched over 200 innings every season since 2003. This guy is a great pitcher to build a staff around as he is a tough innings eater with a fierce attitude that makes him one of the most intimidating pitchers to take the rubber. In addition to his pitching prowess, he brings a sturdy bat to the yard. He batted .247 last season, and you don’t bat that high by faking a bunt every pitch. Definitely not an easy out. He has had his battles with inconsistency, as evidenced by his high walk totals (101 in 2007), but he is able to fight his way out of jams and into further innings.

Zambrano survived the Dusty Baker era in Chicago where no young pitcher with promise had a chance. Baker’s philosophy as manager was “let’s pitch these guys until their arms fall off.” The era claimed the bright career of RHP Mark Prior and has relegated RHP Kerry Wood to the bullpen. Wood’s collapse has not been as serious, and he may be closing this season for the Cubs. Thankfully for Chicago, Carlos was able to stay healthy through the Baker era and still be a star today. Carlos has been a large part of the recent success of this Cubs team. Though the team has a couple other good starters in Ted Lilly and Rich Hill, neither of them are ace quality pitchers like Zambrano. His excellent numbers have been a constant over the past few seasons and it would be hard to imagine the Cubs ever reaching the postseason without him. Assuming Zambrano gives them numbers like he has shown he is capable of putting up each season, the Cubs will be back in the playoffs, challenging the Mets for the NL Pennant.

Matt Holliday, OF, Colorado Rockies

Matt Holliday, for God’s Colorado Rockies is a very good player and although I do not think he will hit .340/.405/.607 like he did in 2007, he will have very good numbers, around the .320-330 range with an OBP at .390 and a SLG at the .590s. His numbers will regress slightly but he will get MVP votes and he and Troy Tulowitzki (although I think Tulo will have a sophomore slump) will definitely help the 2008 Colorado Rockies. Holliday has been wrapped up with a 2-year, 23 million dollar contract, although I think he deserves to get more money and be locked up for a long time. Matt Holliday is already a superstar at his own right and I think maybe 5 years, 75 million is good for him. He will get MVP voting again, unless he gets injured early or if he slumps and hits like .280, which is a stretch for him. Holliday is a rare player whose batting numbers, SLG, OBP, and OPS have gone up for his first four seasons, and I do not think anyone could have predicted it either. His minor league numbers were .275/.348/.424 which would have projected him as a decent major league hitter. It is fair to say that he is proving everyone wrong and that Holliday is indeed a great player.

Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

I really like Adam Wainwright here as a sleeper, especially for the St. Louis Cardinals. He is reaching his his age 26 season, his second full season, and if Chris Carpenter does not come back, he is the ace of this so-so St. Louis Cardinals staff. Last year, he had a 3.70 ERA with the Cards, and I think with his first full season behind him, he will do better in his second season with an ERA in the 3.4-3.5 territory with 15-16 wins. Also, he just signed a 4-year, guaranteed $15 million deal with a chance to bump it up to $36 million with two of his years being option years, showing how much the Cardinals value him.

Wainwright, traded from the Braves to the Cardinals in the trade that sent J.D. Drew to Atlanta in the end of the 2003 season, possesses a curveball, a changeup, and has a fastball that will go around 92-94 mph. He also uses his curveball in a fastball count and is not afraid to. He is an extreme groundball pitcher, with 55% of his outs coming from the groundball, and also possessing a 1.65 GB/FB ratio. I think these stats bode well for him for the future. He may not miss bats but he sure can get people out and induce many groundballs, and if he gets his strikeouts up even more, we may see a very good difference maker for the Cardinals and the NL Central this year, even if he does not have the greatest of offenses backing him.

Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

2007 NL Rookie of the Year, Ryan Braun will get his first full season of action. Braun had one of the most explosive rookie seasons in recent memory. In only 113 games, he hit .324 and cranked 34 home runs. In 2007, he was a third baseman, but was for lack of a better word, terrible at the position. Even in a reduced season, he led MLB third basemen with 26 errors. This shift to the outfield was prompted by the Brewers’ signing of Mike Cameron. It also allowed them to move Bill Hall back to the infield. Braun should be a huge part of any success the Brewers have this season. He is expected to bat cleanup this year behind Cecil Fielder. A lesser known part of Braun’s game is that he possesses some speed. Now that he will be batting behind power hitting Prince Fielder, he will have more green lights to steal bases, adding another weapon to his stacked arsenal.

Braun’s presence alone will pay dividends for the Brewers, as he will be protecting Prince Fielder who will bat in the third spot. This is what makes Braun so valuable to the Brewers. If Prince Fielder and Braun can both put up comparable numbers to their 2007 seasons, the Brewers will contend for a possible wild card berth. Second place in the NL Central is wide open and the Brewers have a bona fide ace in Ben Sheets. The Brewers are a definite underdog, but there is a lot of young talent paired with veteran leadership in Milwaukee this season. Keep an eye on Braun this year because he will be around for a long time.

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3 Comments on “NL Pennant Race: Five Players Who Will Make a Difference”

  1. nick Says:

    How would Adam Wainwright make any difference? The Cardinals are going to be pretty shitty regardless of how he plays.

    The idea for a list like this is to talk about guys who may or may not play well, but whose teams will need them to be key factors. Saying “Zambrano, Utley, and Holliday are really good and their teams might win something” is kind of a waste of time.

  2. Jeff Crupper Says:

    It’s too bad Utley can’t pitch for the Phillies as it looks like that will really be what makes a difference for his team this season. Yes I know it is only Spring Training, but the Phillies pitchers have gotten off to a horrible start. They have pulled it together the last few games, but that will still be a HUGE question mark for the team entering the season.

  3. Mike Says:

    Honestly, we’re stretching right now and getting lazy. We really want the baseball season to start and didn’t really do enough research. A little more than a week away though so I know you guys are as excited as us. However, we do believe that Wainwright will make a difference by stealing a few wins from more legitimate contenders. The rest, we are sorry for the obviousness. Thanks for your readership and we hope you return.


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