Going into September, the National League playoff picture seems to be a bit more clear than that of the American League. The New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers held division leads of 6.5, 5 and 4.5 games respectively entering play Tuesday and each have different strengths that could very well carry them into the postseason.
With the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs currently controlling the two wild card spots and each playing series against struggling division foes this week, they have to like their chances at reaching at least the one-game playoff match on Oct. 7. There’s always the possibility of a final month collapse though, a la 2007 Mets or 2011 Atlanta Braves.
Will we see the defending-champion San Francisco Giants make a push at a wild card spot, or better yet, the NL West crown? Will the severely underachieving Washington Nationals finally put some wins together to put some pressure on the Mets or make up some ground in the wild card chase?
Let’s find out the answers to those questions and more as we look at how the National League playoff field might look in one month’s time.
1. NL East
Standings as of Sept. 1
1. New York Mets – 73-58 – .557
2. Washington Nationals – 66-64 – .508 – 6.5 GB
3. Atlanta Braves – 54-77 – .412 – 19 GB
4. Miami Marlins – 53-79 – .402 – 20.5 GB
5. Philadelphia Phillies – 52-80 – .394 – 21.5 GB
The Mets are getting ready to party like it’s 1969… or 1986. Playing in one of the worst divisions in baseball, New York’s other team has taken advantage of the inferior competition to build a substantial division lead entering September. The rotation arms of Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom and Noah Syndergaard, as well as the return of “Captain America” David Wright have baseball fans in Queens dreaming of another World Series run.
Another season, another possible failed project for the Nationals. Consistently picked as World Series contenders over the last few seasons, the seemingly stacked roster in the nation’s capital looks like they won’t even make the playoffs this year. Despite a MVP-caliber season from Bryce Harper and terrific work from new ace Max Scherzer, manager Matt Williams’ job could very much be in jeopardy if his team doesn’t make a miracle run in September.
It seems like decades ago that Bobby Cox was comfortably at the helm in Atlanta, leading the Braves to the postseason year in and year out. With significantly lower expectations coming into 2015, the Braves have, well, met those and now will look to avoid a last place finish.
With the amazing amount of parity in baseball, the Marlins have the longest current playoff drought of any National League club at 12 years. With the Toronto Blue Jays looking destined for October baseball in the American League, the Marlins will trail only the Seattle Mariners for the top (or bottom) spot for the most playoff-desperate franchise beginning in 2016.
Long gone are the days of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt. Jimmy Rollins fled in the off-season and Chase Utley followed this summer. All who’s left from the glory days of the late 2000’s appears to be Ryan Howard. The Phillies are one of the most obvious rebuilding teams in MLB.
PREDICTED NL EAST WINNER: METS
2. NL Central
Standings as of Sept. 1
1. St. Louis Cardinals – 85-46 – .649
2. Pittsburgh Pirates – 79-50 – .612 – 5 GB
3. Chicago Cubs – 74-56 – .569 – 10.5 GB
4. Milwaukee Brewers – 55-75 – .423 – 29.5 GB
5. Cincinnati Reds – 54-76 – .415 – 30.5 GB
Where the National League East struggles as perhaps the worst division in the league, the NL Central excels as the strongest. The division is extremely top-heavy with three of the four best teams in baseball, including the major-league best Cardinals. Despite losing ace Adam Wainwright at the beginning of the season, the rotation – and entire team for that matter – has not lost a step and yet again will be playing baseball in mid-October.
The Pirates are sure making up for lost time after missing the playoffs for 20 consecutive years. They look like a solid bet to make the postseason for the third straight year, albeit having to play in the wild card game for the third straight time as well. If only those consistently pesky Cardinals weren’t in the way, the Pirates could be looking at three years in a row with a division title.
Could it be? Could it be? Could this FINALLY be the year? After 107 years without the championship trophy Cubs Nation has to certainly be thankful for the newly instituted second wild card. If not for the new format, they would currently be on the outside looking in. If the revamped Cubs can find a way into the play-in game, they could make some noise in October.
The Brewers have fallen on hard times of late. With stud outfielder Carlos Gomez gone, underrated catcher Jonathan Lucroy fighting injuries this year and Ryan Braun not producing the same offensive numbers as before his suspension, the team has struggled in 2015. The only battle the Brew Crew will be fighting this month is one to avoid the NL Central cellar.
They still have a solid core of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Aroldis Chapman, but their ace in Johnny Cueto has been traded and the Reds could finish with a bottom-five record in all of MLB this season.
PREDICTED NL CENTRAL WINNER: CARDINALS
3. NL West
Standings as of Sept. 1
1. Los Angeles Dodgers – 73-57 – .562
2. San Francisco Giants – 69-62 – .527 – 4.5 GB
3. San Diego Padres – 64-67 – .489 – 9.5 GB
4. Arizona Diamondbacks – 63-68 – .481 – 10.5 GB
5. Colorado Rockies – 53-76 – .411 – 19.5 GB
Of all the divisions across MLB, the NL West is probably looking most similar to what was predicted around preseason. The Dodgers have been led by co-aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke (who has been the better pitcher this year) but, like the Nationals, the Dodgers have always seemed to come up short of their lofty expectations in recent years. We’ll see if that finally changes this fall.
The Giants are about where most expected them to be at this point in the season. Yes, they’ve had some solid runs and are very much alive in the playoff chase. That was to be expected of a team that won the World Series last year. But if they don’t make the playoffs, that’s just part of the pattern right? 2010 World Series champs, 2011 no postseason, 2012 champs, 2013 sitting at home and 2014 champs. Well, lucky for Giants fans, if they do end up missing the playoffs this season, they’re immediately the favorites in 2016.
The Padres had a massive off-season, completely revamping their outfield and bringing in James Shields to solidify a solid starting rotation. Not all as worked out though as they are three games under .500 going into the final five weeks of play.
The Rockies still have Carlos Gonzalez left, but that’s about it. They’re currently one of six teams very much in the running for the worst record in the NL and in all of baseball.
PREDICTED NL WEST WINNER: DODGERS
4. NL Wild Card
Standings as of Sept. 1 (top two teams make Wild Card game)
1. Pittsburgh Pirates – 79-50 – .612
2. Chicago Cubs – 74-56 – .569 – 5.5 GB first WC spot
3. San Francisco Giants – 69-62 – .527 – 5.5 GB second WC spot
4. Washington Nationals – 66-64 – .508 – 8 GB second WC spot
5. San Diego Padres – 64-67 – .489 – 10.5 GB second WC spot
6. Arizona Diamondbacks – 63-68 – .481 – 11.5 GB second WC spot
With more than a 10-game safety net, the Pirates can be tentatively penciled in for a spot in the wild card game. The second spot gets a little bit more tricky.
The Cubs, Giants and Nationals all dropped their series-opening contests on Monday, so did not gain or lose any ground on each other. The Cubs appear the best-bet to bounce back though, as they are facing the bottom-feeding Reds at Wrigley Field. The Giants and Dodgers are in the middle of a massive NL West clash this week meanwhile and they throw their best pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, tonight. One tiny problem; he faces Zack Greinke. The trailing Nationals are also facing off against a division leader on the road, contending with the Cardinals. The way the Nats have played during the second half, it’d be a shock to see them make any sort of run in September.
With a young, but strong lineup, backed by Mr. No-No Jake Arrieta and the playoff-tested Jon Lester, the Cubs have a great chance of snagging the second wild card berth. The Giants may very well have to wait until next year for another shot at the crown.
PREDICTED NL WILD CARD WINNERS: PIRATES (FIRST SPOT) AND CUBS (SECOND SPOT)
With the Cardinals in good position to get the National League’s top seed in the playoffs, they would face the winner of Pirates/Cubs in one of the National League Division Series. The other match-up would feature the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers.