The Table Setter: Reigning NL Division Winners Are Finally Starting to Play Like It

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When there’s as strong a consensus as there was regarding division winners this spring training, there is also groupthink run amok. That didn’t feel like the case this year, though. There was good reason to believe that the Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers, Astros, Indians and one of the Red Sox or Yankees would take the six divisions, the only real contest being the battle of behemoths in the AL East.

The Red Sox, Yankees and Astros have held up their end of the bargain. But the other four division favorites have had their problems—real or imagined—dissected repeatedly by onlookers. The Indians and Dodgers have spent much of the season below .500, while the upstart Braves and Brewers have troubled the Nationals and Cubs, respectively. Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington have spent one day combined in sole possession of first place.

And yet, as we approach the mathematical halfway point of the season, the standings are trending in the direction of expectations. The Nationals are tied with the Braves atop the NL East. The Cubs kick off a three-game series with the Brewers on Monday one-half game back in the standings. The Dodgers rose above .500 last week for the first time since April 23, when they were 11-10, and now sit just 2 1/2 games behind the Diamondbacks. The Indians, meanwhile, have won four of their last five games, and 10 of 14, holding a five-game lead in the weak AL Central. As for the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros, they have three of the four best records in baseball, with the Mariners the lone interlopers.

All the hand-wringing over Cubs, Nationals, Dodgers and Indians already feels silly, with the possible exception of the Dodgers, and even that owes more to all their injuries than anything else. Baseball has a long season for a reason. The cream is already rising to the top.

With that, let’s get to this week’s Table Setter.

Hitters to Watch This Week

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks

The real Goldschmidt has finally arrived for the 2018 season. After taking an 0-for-4 on May 26, Goldschmidt’s slash line fell to .201/.319/.380. He has gone 22-for-48 with six homers since then, raising his slash line to .254/.364/.509. In other words, it took him two weeks to raise his season long numbers to “good” from “terrible.” Just imagine what he could do over the next two weeks. Goldschmidt is back, and not a moment too soon for the Diamondbacks or his fantasy owners.

Eddie Rosario, OF, Twins

Rosario has five homers in his last nine games, highlighted by a three-homer performance against the Indians two weekends ago. In that same timeframe, he has gone 12-for-35, improving his season-long slash line to .313/.352/.557 with 14 homers and 43 RBI. It has been a disappointing season thus far for the Twins, who have not followed up strongly on last year’s postseason berth, but they have had a few standout hitters to give them hope of making a run in the second half. Rosario is at the top of that list.

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Angels

Kinsler was excellent in the Angels’ weekend series with the Twins, going 6-for-12 with two homers and three RBI in the three games. He has seven multi-hit games in the last two weeks, turning around a dreadful two months to start the season. He’s still hitting just .229/.292/.400, but has slashed .388/.434/.837 with six homers in his last 12 games. With Shohei Ohtani possibly out for the rest of the season, the Angels will need the good version of Kinsler to stick around if they are going to stay in the AL postseason hunt.

Cody Bellinger, 1B, Dodgers

Bellinger homered in four straight games last week, increasing his home run output on the season by 50%. Just like Goldschmidt and Kinsler, Bellinger needs to play more to expectations if his team is going to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. We finally saw signs of that last week. He’s hitting .235/.314/.466, a far cry from his rookie year, but a whole lot better than where he sat a week ago at this time. Bellinger has been hitting in the bottom half of the Dodgers’ order recently, but he should move back into the middle if he keeps swinging the bat as well as he did last week.

Jose Martinez, 1B/OF, Cardinals

Martinez is coming off his best week of the season, during which he went 12-for-20 with four homers, nine RBI and four walks against just one strikeout. He’s riding an eight-game hitting streak, a season high, and is slashing .320/.391/.514 with nine homers and 40 RBI on the season.

Pitchers to Watch This Week

Mike Soroka, SP, Braves

Soroka will return from the DL on Wednesday in the final game of a two-game series against the Mets. The 20-year-old has been on the DL since the middle of May with a shoulder injury, but looked great during his brief rehab assignment over the last two weeks. He made two starts in the minors, allowing one run on three hits while striking out 10 in eight innings. That the Braves are getting Soroka right back in the mix the moment he’s ready to come off the DL tells us everything we need to know about where he stands in their hierarchy. He is in the rotation to stay.

Mike Montgomery, SP/RP, Cubs

Could we soon say the same about Montgomery? He has been pressed into action as a starter with Yu Darvish on the DL, and is making quite the case to stay there for the long haul. Montgomery has made three starts, allowing two runs on 11 hits while striking out 10 and walking two in 17 2/3 innings, helping the Cubs to wins in all three games. Darvish, of course, will be in the rotation when he returns, but Montgomery could take the spot of Tyler Chatwood, who has struggled mightily, racking up a ridiculous 20.7% walk rate. No matter what, though, it appears Montgomery will be in the rotation for at least a few more weeks as Darvish recovers from biceps tendinitis. He’ll take the ball once this week, opposing the Brewers in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

Seth Lugo, SP/RP, Mets

Lugo, too, could be making an argument to stay in his team’s rotation. He was great in a start against the Yankees on Sunday, tossing six shutout innings, striking out eight while allowing just two hits. Lugo has been one of the Mets’ most effective relievers this season, but he deserves a few spins through the rotation to see if he can stick as a starter. He owns a 1.77 ERA, 2.62 FIP, 0.85 WHIP and 47 strikeouts against nine non-intentional walks in 45 2/3 innings. Assuming he remains in the rotation this week, he’ll take the mound at some point during the Mets’ weekend series with the Diamondbacks.

Steven Wright, SP/RP, Red Sox

Here is yet another pitcher who has spent most of the season as a reliever, but could force his way into the rotation. Wright made a start last week in place of the injured Drew Pomeranz, throwing seven scoreless innings against the Tigers. He allowed two hits and three walks, striking out six while earning his second win of the season. Wright will make at least one more start, facing the Orioles on Monday. If he pitches well in that outing, it might be hard for the Red Sox to send him back to the bullpen once Pomeranz is healthy. If Wright remains in the rotation all week, he’ll make a second start against the Mariners on Saturday.

Dylan Covey, SP, White Sox

Carlos Rodon returned to the White Sox’ rotation last week after spending the first two-plus months of the season on the DL. When his return was getting close, it seemed that he would take Covey’s spot. After all, Covey has bounced between the majors and Triple A, making more starts at the latter than he has at the former. Covey, however, secured his spot in the last two weeks, and appears to be in the rotation for good. The day before Rodon’s return, Covey shut out the Red Sox for six innings, allowing three hits and one walk while striking out seven. He has another tough assignment this week, facing the Indians on Wednesday.

Matchups to Watch This Week

Jon Gray vs. Aaron Nola, Tuesday

Gray is having one of the oddest seasons in recent memory. He has a 5.66 ERA, but a 3.12 FIP. Going back to 1900, no pitcher has ever had a greater difference between ERA and FIP. The largest discrepancy in Fangraphs database belongs to Jack Knott, who had a 7.29 ERA and 5.16 FIP for the St. Louis Browns in 1936. Gray hasn’t had a quality start since early May, and he has allowed at least five runs in five of his 13 starts. Yet his stuff is still so good that it seems he can turn the corner any moment. Nola, meanwhile, is all but assured of his first trip to the All-Star Game. The 25-year-old has a 2.35 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 0.96 WHIP and 80 strikeouts in 84 1/3 innings.

He has been consistently great all season, allowing more than three runs in a start just once, and pitching at least six innings in all but two outings. What’s more, those two were his first two starts of the season, when Gabe Kapler was maniacally trying to keep his pitch counts low. Nola gives the Phillies a decided advantage in this start, but the good version of Gray could show up at any moment.

Madison Bumgarner vs. Ross Stripling, Saturday

Bumgarner made his first start of the season last week, scattering eight hits over six innings, allowing two runs while striking out three. He took the loss in the game, but it was an encouraging performance after spending more than two months on the DL. He’ll take on Stripling in the second game of three-game series with the Dodgers over the weekend. Striping has been nothing short of a revelation for the injury-ravaged Dodgers this season. He has made five starts, pitching to a 2.01 ERA and 1.01 WHIP with 55 strikeouts against five non-intentional walks in 44 2/3 innings.

Trevor Bauer vs. White Sox, Wednesday

The White Sox typically don’t factor into the Matchups to Watch section, and they are not making a surprise appearance for a good reason. Bauer was electric in his last start, holding the Tigers to one run in eight innings, striking out 12. It was his third straight start with at least 11 strikeouts. Bauer’s streak is the 74th such run in MLB history and the fifth this year, joining Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Gerrit Cole (twice). Nine different pitchers have accounted for 19 streaks of four games with 11 or more strikeouts, and Bauer could join their midst on Wednesday. For what it’s worth, the White Sox have a 25.1% strikeout rate this season, fourth-highest in the majors.

Justin Verlander vs. A’s, Thursday

Power meets power when Verlander takes on the A’s in the finale of a three-game set. He’s allowed just six homers in 93 1/3 innings this season. His 0.58 HR/9 is the sixth-lowest in the majors, trailing Jacob deGrom, Luis Severino, Jake Arrieta, Trevor Bauer and Aaron Nola. The A’s, meanwhile, have 82 homers this season, tied with the Dodgers for sixth in the league. Despite sharing a division, Verlander and the A’s have yet to face off this season.

Cubs at Brewers, Monday through Wednesday

A huge series in the NL Central kicks off this week, with the 37-25 Cubs visiting the 39-26 Brewers. The Cubs have been one of the hottest teams in baseball of late, going 21-10 in their last 31 games. This is the last time these teams will see one another before August, and there’s no telling what the standings will look like then. Jose Quintana will oppose Junior Guerra on Monday, Tyler Chatwood and Chase Anderson will take the mound Tuesday, and Mike Montgomery will square off with Jhoulys Chacin on Wednesday.

Red Sox at Mariners, Thursday through Sunday

The Red Sox and Mariners, owners of the second- and third-best records in the majors, respectively, will open a four-game series in Seattle on Thursday. They’ve yet to meet this season, and will get their two series with one another out of the way over the next two weeks. This should be a great series featuring two teams that rank in the top 10 in all advanced offensive metrics, from wOBA to weighted runs created plus to WAR. The Red Sox will send David Price, Rick Porcello, Steven Wright (likely) and Eduardo Rodriguez to the mound, while the Mariners counter with Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Wade LeBlanc and Mike Leake.

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