MLB Week in Review: Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, and the NL Central

1.  The Clayton Kershaw Injury

Calling Sonny Gray!  Calling Yu Darvish!   Dodgers, Line 1!   The Dodgers, having a season for the ages, had their biggest nightmare occur this afternoon when Clayton Kershaw was lost to a back injury. He was instantly placed on the disabled list.

The good news for the Dodgers is that they are very secure in their playoff position, so if they feel that Kershaw will be back within the next six weeks or so, it decreases some of the urgency.   However, you have to figure that some of the top pitchers on the market are now in their cross hairs.

The offense has been great all season long, and should be able to support their pitching staff even with the loss of Kershaw.  The pitchers after Kershaw in the rotation are far from scary, but they have been productive.  That is especially true of Alex Wood (2.17 ERA, 193 ERA+), who has surprisingly pitched to Kershaw’s level this year, when healthy.   After him, however, the rotation is a bit more iffy.  Rich Hill and Brandon McCarthy are both fine middle-to-late rotation starters, but neither would inspire big confidence in the playoffs.   The Dodgers can really use a boost from Kenta Maeda, who has pitched well in four of his last five starts.

This is all about Kershaw, however, as there is no substitute for arguably the best pitcher on the planet when he is healthy.   The Dodgers were probably casting a wide net for pitching help before his injury.  Now, the net may actually be a bit more narrow, as a top-of-the-rotation target figures to be more of a focus, unless the news on Kershaw comes back very positive.

I realize that Kershaw’s postseason performance has been erratic, but there are still few (if any) pitchers one would want on the hill in any game at any time.  The Dodgers have bought themselves plenty of time with their big season to date.  However, they now find themselves in a quandary with only eight days until the trade deadline.

2.  Stephen Strasburg

Of course, the Nationals, another team with a firm grip on a playoff berth, weren’t immune to injuries today.    Stephen Strasburg, pitching to a 3.31 ERA (132 ERA+) entering today’s action, left the game against the Diamondbacks due to forearm stiffness.

While Strasburg is not the ace that Kershaw is, he is still the obvious #2 to Max Scherzer‘s dominating #1 (three home runs to the first three batters on Saturday aside)

The Nationals do not have the depth or the bullpen that the Dodgers can use to get themselves through a big injury.  Gio Gonzalez has been outstanding (2.83 ERA; 154 ERA+), but his FIP is much less flattering (4.16).   The fact they are trying to squeeze innings out of Edwin Jackson tells you all you really need to know:  The Nationals likely will have a tough time surviving a Strasburg injury unless they use some of their remaining prospects to get a starting pitcher.   A team looking to get over the playoff series hump is surely not going to try to do it with Scherzer, Gonzalez, and a cast of misfits, right?  That can’t happen.

Like the Dodgers, the Nationals will be able to hit enough to avoid any kind of big collapse in a playoff push.   They could go in the direction of bolstering their bullpen even more if they can’t get a starter, but it is hard to envision this team doing much if Strasburg’s injury is serious.

3.  The Cubs Try to Make Their Move

The Brewers, and their unpredictable ways, are beginning to fade a bit, which has opened up the door for the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and even the St. Louis Cardinals.   Entering action today, the four teams were separated by 4.5 games.  The Brewers, Cubs, and Cardinals all have expected records that would have placed them at 46 losses each entering action today.    While many expect the Cubs to pull away now that they have started acquiring some assets, I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion too quickly.  They are still a flawed bunch that is hoping a turnaround by Jose Quintana in the second half can bolster a pitching staff that has been running on fumes most of the season.  The staff has been better as of late, though.

As for the opposition, watching the Brewers a few weeks ago in Yankee Stadium was interesting, to say the least.  They are a reckless type of team with no big regard for defense.  They want to hit home runs and run wildly around the bases.  They want to play unorthodox because they feel that is the way they can differentiate themselves from the pack.  It isn’t (wasn’t?) a bad strategy – if you don’t seem to have the talent to win it on PAPER, you may as well try different things to turn yourself into more than people expect.

The Pirates are riding a bit of a streak by the embattled Andrew McCutchen, who suddenly has a .899 OPS after disappearing from the heights of baseball stardom over the past 1.5 seasons or so.    Before the season started, there seemed to be a lot of interest in McCutchen, though the Pirates never pulled the trigger.  Buying low on his talent would have been smart for somebody, though the Pirates likely priced him based on what he was before 2016, not on what he was during 2016.   That said, the squad is still 12th in runs in the league and 6th in team ERA.   Not typically the formula for winning divisions, but when a division lacks a superpower, being flawed isn’t a killer.

The Cardinals are three games under .500, so we shouldn’t be singing their praises too much.  That said, they have been able to play just well enough to keep themselves on the edges of contention.   Their expected record paints a prettier picture though, as their pitching staff currently sports the 3rd best ERA in the National League.   Carlos Martinez is a stud, while Mike Leake (3.39 ERA; 126 ERA+), Lance Lynn (3.30 ERA: 129 ERA+), and Michael Wacha (3.71 ERA; 115 ERA+) have all held their own.    The offense and bullpen, however, leave a lot to be desired, which is probably why they are under-performing their expected record.    They are 13-19 in one-run games.

The National League Central will be fun to watch down the stretch, as the Cubs will try to finally put the opposition away.  I am not sure that is going to be as easy as once thought, however.

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