Previewing the National League

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Time for part two of the MLB second-half preview, where this time, we look at the NL and try to pick the division winners in a season that is seeing more close races than ever before.
NL East: Atlanta. Atlanta entered the All-Star break with the biggest lead of any division leader – 6.5 games over Philadelphia.  Washington is just behind both at seven back. It’s going to be hard to catch Atlanta though, with the Braves pitching staff ranking second in ERA (3.29), third in quality starts (59) and fifth in WHIP (1.22). It’s a strong division, but I think Atlanta stays steady enough to sew up the top spot.
NL Central: St. Louis. Another current leader, though these guys play in what appears to be the best division in baseball. It’ll be tough sledding with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati both just behind. Yadier Molina’s become an MVP candidate, and five regulars are batting .300 or above. Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller might be the best 1-2-3 punch in the league atop a rotation.
Pittsburgh’s pitching staff is nasty, but I don’t think their bats will hold up. The Reds actually have the balance to make a run at the Cardinals – their pitching is comparable to the Pirates, with a much better, Joey Votto-led offense.
NL West: Colorado Rockies. The Rockies always seem to be a second half team. They’re currently in third place in the West, but the return of Troy Tulowitski should provide a massive boost, perhaps enough to overcome one of the division’s weaker pitching staffs.
Arizona is the clubhouse leader right now, with the Dodgers in hot pursuit. Paul Goldschmidt is leading the Diamondbacks in the four major hitting categories and Patrick Corbin all of its pitching – perhaps they can extend what’s been something of a carry-job through the season’s end.
Wildcards: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh.
NLCS prediction: St. Louis over Cincinnati
MVP: Yadier Molina, Cardinals
Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
On a basketball note, I was quite happy to see Austin Rivers show a great bit of improvement during his summer league action this season, highlighted by his great all-around performance against New York to kickstart things.
Rivers took a lot of verbal abuse for the season he had last year for the Hornets. He wasn’t a finished or ready product, but he was forced into action after Eric Gordon was sidelined to begin the season, and Monty Williams went with the “sink or swim approach.” Rivers sank, tallying, by some measures, the worst statistical rookie season by anyone who had played so many minutes.
But the ridicule didn’t break him, nor did the failure. Rivers shot 46 percent over his final 15 rookie games before breaking his hand, then showed his improvements were no fluke in the summer league – and for all the “it’s just summer league” rhetoric, that same summer league devoured him a year ago.
I thought it presented a good lesson for young athletes playing at any level: early failure is not ultimate failure. If you don’t let it beat you, you can rise above it. Time will tell whether Austin Rivers will make it in the pro game. But because
he’s mentally tough, he’s certainly significantly closer to
doing so than he was for much of the past year.