MLB in June: What To Watch in the National League

The Cubs are off to one of the hottest starts in league history. Can they keep it up?

The 2016 MLB season is still young, but the storylines keep churning from the diamond. The National League is filled with plenty of early drama that will surely continue into the dog days of summer. With June arriving and the quarter mark of the season passing, here are a few narratives In the Senior Circuit to keep an eye on.

 

Related: What to Watch in June in the American League

 

Murphy for MVP?

Last October, when Daniel Murphy was swinging the bat more like Mickey Mantle, there was talk the NLCS MVP was cruising his way towards a $75 million free agent contract. When the World Series rolled around, Murphy fell back to earth, as his .421 postseason average dipped to .150 with no RBIs and seven strikeouts. The demand for Murphy on the open market also dipped. Ultimately, Murphy left the Big Apple for DC, signing with the Nationals for three years and just over $37 million.

 

Since making the move to Washington, Murphy has tapped into his power source from last fall, leading the majors in batting average (.379) while pacing the NL in hits (81), OPS (1.032), OPS+ (171), and total bases (132, tied) entering Wednesday's games. Murphy’s early-season surge may be unlikely given his age, 31, and history at the plate, but it wouldn’t be fair to say that his success is a fluke this season. Quite frankly, the answer could simply be that Murphy has finally figured it out.

 

According to FanGraphs, Murphy is doing a much better job of driving the ball than in past seasons. His ground ball rate is down 12 percent from last year, while his fly ball and line drive rate, along with his percentage of medium to hard contact, has increased notably.

 

Murphy and catcher Wilson Ramos (.348-8-32 with .953 OPS) have been the pleasant surprises for an offense that has been stuck in the middle of the NL in most categories. Despite the offensive mediocrity, Washington sits atop the NL East by two games over the Mets with a weekend series against the Phillies looming. If the Nats hope to stay atop the heap in the East, Murphy is going to need some help at the plate.

 

Cubs Cruising

In spring training, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was preaching “Embrace The Target” to his squad. So far, so good. Monday night’s victory in Philadelphia was the team’s 40th of the season, making the Cubs the fastest team to that mark since the 2001 Mariners, who would go on to tie the single-season record of 116 victories.

 

Maddon’s lineup card is going to grab the most attention, but let’s focus on the Cubs’ pitching. Jake Arrieta continues to compete with Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in baseball. Jake’s 1.80 ERA, 2.49 FIP, and 0.963 WHIP, in addition to another no-hitter earlier this year, proves that the reigning NL Cy Young winner may not be a one-year wonder after all. He did suffer his first loss in almost a full calendar year on Sunday at home against Arizona — but it took an absurd .900 BABIP to do it and he still struck out 12 in five innings.

 

As a whole, the Cubs’ starting rotation has been remarkable, especially lefty Jon Lester. Lester has posted a 2.06 ERA in 78 2/3 innings of work, while striking out nearly five batters for every walk he’s issued.  In nine of Lester’s 12 starts, he has surrendered one or no earned runs, giving the Cubs the best one-two punch in the league.

 

The Cubs’ rotation doesn’t stop with Arrieta and Lester. Free agent addition John Lackey (2.88 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 0.973 WHIP) is putting together one of his best seasons ever at 37 years old. Kyle Hendricks (2.90 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 0.937 WHIP) has found his groove in his second full season. The former Ivy Leaguer isn’t blowing hitters away with his fastball (avg. velocity 89.8 MPH), but he has cut back on his walks and chopped his home run rate in half compared to last season. Jason Hammel (2.14 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 1.079 WHIP) has helped solidify the back end of the rotation, as his renewed commitment to training in the offseason has paid off to this point.

 

Runs come and go throughout the course of an entire season, even for the Cubs’ fantasy-friendly lineup. Pitching has to be the constant. So far this season, the starters are looking equally October-worthy, even if it’s only June.

 

Mets Making a Move?

The Mets are dying for offense. Much like last season, Terry Collins has had to deal with his share of injuries, especially when it comes to filling out a lineup. David Wright is out for the foreseeable future while catcher Travis d’Arnaud, and first baseman Lucas Duda are also on the 15-day DL.

 

Last season New York made the deal of the year for slugger Yoenis Cespedes. The move paid dividends, as the Mets rode his bat all the way to the World Series. This year is more of the same — the Mets, arguably the worst offense in the NL, need to make a move. But will they?

 

The Mets’ financial situation is still fluid, and many pundits think the team will be hesitant to deal any top-end prospects for a half-season rental. If the front office decides to pull the trigger, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy could make sense. Lucroy would certainly be an upgrade both behind the plate and with the bat, and would be affordable for this year and next with a cheap team option ($5.25 million) in 2017. Also, A’s third baseman Danny Valencia could be a fit. Valencia, 31, is playing under a one-year deal and is putting together his best numbers, hitting .343 with a .968 OPS.

 

Lately, much has been made about the possibility of Evan Longoria being traded from Tampa Bay to New York. I wouldn’t bank on it. Longoria is putting together a great season (.281 average, 14 HRs), and is going to command an impressive collection of prospects in order for the Rays to trade their franchise cornerstone. With six and a half years and approximately $118 million left on his contract, I can’t see the Mets ponying up for Longoria. But one thing is clear, in the jam-packed NL East, the Mets need to find a solution, and fast.

 

— Written by Jake Rose, an avid baseball fan who also is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.

 

(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)

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