Ten Games in - NL

The American League is comprised of several obvious favorites for the playoffs and a bunch of hopefuls.  The NL is much less clear.  Although teams like the Cubs, Astros, Marlins and Phillies seem like obvious choices, their advantage in personnel, both on the field and off, is not as significant as commonly perceived.  With that said, here are the pitching breakdowns through the first 10 games of the season and what they might hold for the rest of the season:

NL West
In a little more than 7 innings work, Antonio Osuna and Eddie Oropesa have combined to surrender almost a quarter of the Padres' earned runs this season.  Brian Lawrence has given up just as many in 16 innings work.  None of the three are guaranteed, or possibly even likely to get straightened out.  The Padres do have several options in AAA with Matt Bruback, Dennis Tankersley and Chris Oxspring.  Scouts are high on hard-throwing lefty Edgar Huerta, but he needs more control of the strikezone if he's going to help this season.  Regardless, the Padres will have their hands full because the Dodgers made the trade for Milton Bradley, Shawn Green looks renewed and Adrian Beltre finally looks like the player everyone thought he'd become; the sum of which gives them a respectable offense.  LA also has options in AAA to shore up deficiencies in the infield and in the rotation.  Speaking of which, Odalis Perez is pitching like the NL's starting pitcher for the All-Star game and Jeff Weaver looks like he may have turned the corner towards effectiveness.  Even if they can't get Nomo straightened out, the Dodgers can get serviceable-to-good innings from Jose Lima, Wilson Alvarez and/or Darren Dreifort.  The Diamondbacks should be so lucky.  Yes, on days when Brandon Webb and Randy Johnson are pitching they'll be fine, but on days when Steve Sparks, Elmer Dessens, Casey Daigle and Shane Reynolds take the mound?  As they say on Sesame Street, the letter of the day is "L".  I wish there was a synonym for rain that rhymed with either Hermanson or Schmidt, because like the Braves of the 50s with Spahn and Sain (or the Diamondbacks' current situation) the Giants should pray for rain on days those two don't pitch.  Actually, Tomko, Rueter and Williams are a little better than what Arizona has to offer.  The Giants' real problem is their bullpen.  In 31 innings, they've walked 19 batters and struck out only 15.  They've managed to escape most of the damage so far, but those kind of ratios don't bode well for continued success.  The Rockies may have caught lightning in a bottle with the trade for Joe Kennedy, who consistently posted strong numbers in the minors.  It's hard to be confident that he will continue to pitch this well in the high altitude, but he is due for some good luck.  But the rest of the rotation doesn't look good, despite Shawn Estes' early season success.

NL Central
Are you kidding me?  It's the second week of the season and Dusty Baker let Kerry Wood throw 131 pitches?  Is he completely insane?  Unsatisfied with just one ace on the DL, Baker's now going for two.  On paper, the Cubs have the best team in the division on the strength of their starting staff.  Then again, Dusty isn't on paper.  Prior is out indefinitely with an Achilles problem and (drum roll) elbow soreness.  The 23-year old averaged 113.4 pitches per outing last season and finished the year with 125+ pitch outings in 6 of his last 9 starts and the next year he comes up lame... whoa, anyone see that coming?   Fans in Houston should be dancing in the streets... except that they have Jimy Williams subbing in Mike Lamb regularly for Morgan Ensberg.  Fans in St. Louis should be dancing in the streets... except that they have Tony LaRussa batting Tony Womack as the lead-off hitter... doesn't anybody want to win this division?!?  As long as the Cubs are without Prior, the Astros have the strongest rotation in the division.  No disrespect to Greg Maddux, but finesse pitchers simply don't age as well as power pitchers do and Roger Clemens so far is pitching like he did in 1994-95.  Picking up Chad Harville was a nice move to bolster their pen; they now have four power arms - Dotel, Lidge, Miceli and Harville - for the late innings.  The Cardinals, on the other hand, have 2 power arms... on their whole staff!  Even once Matt Morris gets straightened out, the Cardinals have issues with their pitching staff.  They have great team defense and a solid offensive core, but they are going to be hard pressed to keep the ball in the yard enough to make a difference; they're the worst in the majors in home runs allowed.  Adam Wainwright can't get to St. Louis fast enough.  The Reds staff is surprising a lot of people and sometime in the middle of May, someone at ESPN will write about 'what a good pitching coach Don Gullett is'.  It's not an exciting staff, but they have decent enough talent to stick around in the Central race for a good part of this summer.  If the favorites keep doing the same misguided things they are doing now, the Reds will stay in the race into the fall as well. The Pirates have some guys who can pitch as well.  Kris Benson, Kip Wells and Oliver Perez have been very good so far, and if Ryan Vogelsong matures, the Pirate staff will finish among the major league leaders in strikeouts.  But the story so far has to be Jose Mesa, who was rightly dumped from Philly after a dreadful season as their closer, but has come out of the box this season in Pittsburgh like a house afire.  He has 5 saves in 5 chances and allowed just one hit and (even more un-Mesa-like) one walk so far.   In Milwaukee, Ben Sheets will anchor a pitching staff some day.  Until then, he will pitch every fifth day and watch the opposition run the bases like the Gas House Gorillas in the 1946 Bugs Bunny cartoon, "Baseball Bugs".  Chris Capuano and Danny Kolb are the only seeds of respectability they have outside of Sheets.

NL East
I'd like to give Leo Mazzone credit for the job he's doing with Jaret Wright, but that wouldn't be fair to Tom Brown, the Portland Beaver's pitching coach who actually fixed Wright last year when he was sent down to AAA.  Don't believe me?  Look at the numbers: 19 innings in 12 games of relief, 16 hits, 7 walks allowed, 21 Ks and an ERA of 1.42.  He went to the Braves after that and has pitched well since.  That said, if the Braves can somehow keep their offense healthy - Drew, Furcal and Chipper Jones have all missed time so far - then Mazzone should be able to work enough magic to keep them in the race, especially with Juan Cruz and Chris Reitsma on board.  The Marlins looked as though they were going to run away with the division after the first two weeks, but they simply do not have a complete enough team to do so.  As long as Darren Oliver is pitching every fifth day and the bullpen is as thin as it is, and with as infrequently as their hitters draw walks, they can be had over the course of a long season.  The return of AJ Burnett some time in late May or early June will help, but he might not be back to full effectiveness until next season.  After a rough start, the Phillies' rotation is getting it's legs, led by Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood.  Once the back end gets straightened out, they could finish with four 16-game winners.  Billy Wagner looks ridiculously good so far.  He's the only pitcher in the history of baseball who has twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed (almost 2.1 Ks per hit allowed) and he's increasing the ratio!  If the Expos could get any kind of run support they might make a run at .500, but they've scored just 19 runs in 11 games.  Only the Phillies haven't scored at least twice as many runs as the Expos and 16 teams have scored at least three times as often.  It's true that Cabrera, Vidro, Wilkerson, Schneider and Everett won't hit as poorly as they have so far, but the rest of that offense could actually be this bad.  If that's the case, it won't matter much how good the pitching is, which is unfortunate. With the exception of Tomo Ohka, it's been pretty good.  After a brutal first year in New York, Tom Glavine is off to a seemingly strong start this year. However, his strikeout rate is awful (2.25 per 9 innings) so I wouldn't expect the good times to continue much longer.  The Mets defense has improved, but no defense is good enough to cover for a pitcher who can't get more guys out on his own.  On the plus side, Tyler Yates has some ability and Matt Ginter had an excellent start to his AAA season, so in addition to Al Leiter and Steve Trachsel, the Mets may have a solid starting staff by June.  It won't be enough to compete in the division, but it may be enough to keep them out of the basement.