By Tim Gutowski Published Jun 27, 2006 at 5:20 AM

After their game Friday night in Minnesota, the Brewers will find themselves at the statistical midpoint of the season. With 81 games down and 81 to go, little will have been decided in a watered-down National League. Only one team -- the New York Mets -- has asserted itself as a near-lock post-season participant. That leaves three spots up for grabs.

Who will be this year's Houston Astros, a club that went 50-31 over the second half last year to claim the NL wild card and eventually advance to the World Series? Will anyone else separate themselves from the jumble of clubs hanging around the .500 mark? Here's a closer look at the second-half prospects for the National Leauge:

National League East

The revamped Mets (47-28 through Sunday) have the biggest lead of any division leader (11.5 games) and clearly look like a playoff team. Young hitters Jose Reyes (.294 BA, 33 SB, 10 triples) and David Wright (18 HR, 64 RBI) have blossomed into stars and transformed the Mets into the best team in the NL. After a 13-13 campaign last year, 40-year-old Tom Glavine is 11-2 and may be in line to start the All-Star Game. The Mets showed they are serious about the postseason when they acquired Orlando Hernandez from Arizona in <em>May</em>, two full months before the trading deadline. The only thing manager Willie Randolph has to worry about is a rash of injuries to his aging pitching staff.

Philadelphia was expected to contend for the division title, but has been oddly inconsistent at home and sit at 35-39. The Phillies have a steady lineup featuring Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell, but Brett Myers -- who was involved in a domestic violence incident with his wife last weekend -- is the team's "ace." Myers is a good pitcher, but his career ERA is 4.39, which doesn't scream Game 1 starter on a playoff team. Plus, rumors circulated last week that Abreu may want out of Philly (the team would require a top-line starter in return). Still, I expect the Phillies to challenge in the wild-card race by August.

Florida (32-40) has done an incredible job with a young roster but doesn't have enough to contend for the playoffs. The main question in Miami is whether or not the team will peddle Dontrelle Willis at the deadline (I'm guessing they won't). The Nationals (33-44) got off to a horrible start, climbed back within 4 games of .500 and have since tanked. It appears that Atlanta's  incredible run of division titles is over. A recent eight-game slide left the Braves at 32-44 and nearly out of the hunt. Still, it's tough to count the Braves out just yet, especially when the wild-card leader is just six games over .500.

National League Central

Just when it looked like
St. Louis was going to cruise to another division title, Albert Pujols strained his oblique and missed a little over two weeks. He's back, but the Cardinals haven't done much since, losing six straight to the White Sox and Tigers last week. But at 42-32, St. Louis still leads the Central by two games. Tony LaRussa's primary worry is his pitching; the Cards led the NL with a 3.49 ERA last year but are at 4.44 in 2006, despite featuring many of the same arms (minus Matt Morris). If the starting pitching levels off, the Cards should win the Central.

Is Cincinnati (41-35) for real? It's difficult to tell, but the Bronson Arroyo-for-Wily Mo Pena trade was the best of the season so far. Arroyo (9-4, 2.58) gives a team that has had abysmal starting pitching a legitimate ace, and Aaron Harang (8-5, 3.59) is developing into a quality No. 2 starter. Offensively, young 2B Brandon Phillips (.313, 7 HR, 43 RBI) has been a pleasant surprise for manager Jerry Narron. If Arroyo and Harang hold up through the brutal southern Ohio summer, the Reds bats should score enough runs to keep the heat on St. Louis.

For all of Houston's struggles, they Astros are 38-38 and slightly ahead of last year's pace. I doubt this year's team will have the finishing kick of the '05 team, but Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte are all present and accounted for. To finish strong, Houston will need better second halves from RF Jason Lane (.208, 11 HR, 29 RBI) and Pettitte (6-8, 5.75).

The Brewers’ problems were amply displayed Saturday night in
Kansas City, when two walks and two errors in succession erased a 5-2 lead against baseball’s worst team. At 37-39 (entering Monday), it's not too late for Milwaukee, especially with the Reds at just 41-35. But considering the Brewers are 12-22 on the road and have been outscored, 409-352, it's difficult to say the wild card is imminent. Ned Yost's team needs an extended stretch of winning baseball -- 11 or 12 victories over two weeks, for example -- to establish itself as a contender.

The Cubs (28-46) and Pirates (26-51) still present problems for the Brewers in intra-divisional play, but both are out of playoff contention.
National League West

We can joke about the National League Worst, but the last-place team in the division (Arizona) has the same record as Milwaukee (37-39). Still, as with last year, the West should feature a division champions with fewer than 90 wins.

The Dodgers don't have a lot of pop -- J.D. Drew leads the club with 9 homers -- but Grady Little's team somehow leads the NL in runs and has solid starting pitching (Brad Penny and Derek Lowe both have sub-3.00 ERAs). But with closer Eric Gagne still nursing an arm injury and the offense relying on aging stars like Nomar Garciaparra (who leads the NL with a .361 BA) and Jeff Kent, don't expect L.A. to run away and hide in the West.
San Diego (39-36) is doing much what it did last year en route to the '05 division title, winning slightly more than it loses. But the Padres have scored just 323 runs (only better than the Cubs in the NL), and they need more from ace Jake Peavy (4-8, 4.50).

Colorado (38-37), San Francisco (37-38) and Arizona (37-39) have all been surprising to one degree or another. The Rockies have improved behind a host of young hitters, including Matt Holliday (.350 BA, 15 HR, 54 RBI), Garrett Atkins (.310, 10, 48) and Brad Hawpe (.303, 13, 41). The pitching isn't much (4.30 ERA), but it's better than it has been historically. Still, the Rockies are probably a year away.

Can the Giants make the playoffs behind Pedro Feliz and Randy Winn? Doubtful. And the D-Backs looked solid early, but they've now lost 17 of 20 and are looking to stop the bleeding. But Brandon Webb (8-3, 2.48) is the type of No. 1 starter that could allow the D-Backs to hang around the race and sneak in come September.

And now for some midseason predictions:

Division Winners: The Mets look strong, St. Louis should hold off Cincy/Houston, and the West is anyone's guess; I'll take Arizona because of Webb.

Wild-card winner: It should come down to Philly, Houston and Cincy. My heart says the Brewers have a chance, but my head realizes they're 118-120 since April 2005, the definition of an average team. I'll go out on a limb and take Cincy, but a pitching meltdown there is a distinct possibility.

MVP: Despite the injury, Pujols still leads the world in HR (26) and RBI (67) and is clearly the best hitter in the world. But if Houston makes the playoffs again, it will be due to Lance Berkman's bat, so he's a darkhorse.

Cy Young: Glavine leads a weak crop of candidates at the moment. If the D-Backs sneak into the playoffs, Webb may win the Cy. And it sounds crazy, but Chris Capuano (8-4, 3.33) isn't totally out of the question. I expect Arroyo to cool off in the second half, though he should still win 16-18 games, if healthy.

Rookie of the year: Prince Fielder. He's cooled off a tad, but he should hit 25 HR and drive in 80 runs. And early-season candidates like Hanley Ramirez are leveling off. But if Carlos Lee is traded, Fielder's numbers could suffer.

NL champion: I'll take the Cardinals. The Mets are strong, but St. Louis has Pujols and the added incentive of recent playoff disappointments.


Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.

Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.