Thursday, August 29, 2013

National League Playoff Picture

 The playoffs are fast approaching.  Things are becoming clearer in terms of which teams will be participating.  Here’s a quick run-down of the National League, division by division, and which teams will be involved in some October ball.

NL East:

This is the easiest division because there is only one team to talk about.  The Atlanta Braves recently became the first team to reach the 80-win plateau.  And they will be the only NL East team taking part in the playoffs.  In what was supposed to be one of the tightest divisions in baseball, the Braves have run away with the lead and disappointing seasons from Washington and Philadelphia have made this race fairly hum drum.  Atlanta sports a 13+ game lead over the Nationals and are cruising into October.  And it’s a good thing they have that lead because they have hit some rough waters.  Dan Uggla went to the DL to have Lasik eye surgery.  He’s on his way back.  Jason Heyward took a pitch to the jaw, breaking it and visiting the DL.  He’s eyeing a return in the playoffs.  Brandon Beachy has returned to the DL after only 5 starts coming off of Tommy John this season.  There is inflammation in his surgically repaired elbow, so he’s returning to Dr. James Andrews to let him take a look.  The prevailing opinion is that a player that gets Tommy John taken care of early in his career is fine and will not have problems anymore.  Empirical evidence suggests otherwise.

However even with all those issues, the Braves will not be caught in the NL East.  They will win their division and avoid the dreaded one game wildcard playoff that did them in last year.  They are really just playing for home field throughout the playoffs and even with their injuries they have the pitching staff and bullpen to keep them competitive and give them a good shot of locking that up too.

NL Central:

We go from the easiest division in the league, to the hardest.  It’s also the most interesting.  We have a three-team race between the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds.  And it’s a close race, with the teams separated by less than 4 games.

Currently the Cards are in first place.  They’ve played well recently, overtaking the Pirates last week.  The Cards overcame season ending injuries to Rafael Furcal, Chris Carpenter and Jason Motte to have a great year in the NL Central.  They also seem to have a never-ending line of quality young starting pitchers who have come up and settled this rotation (Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha) and this team hasn’t missed a beat.  Add to that a few great individual performances from the expected (Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday), the unexpected (Matt Carpenter) and guys who were trying to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke (Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran) and this team is right where they expect to be.  Their upcoming schedule could make the difference, as they play a ton of games against the Reds and Pirates.  However they’ve faced adversity all season long and knocked it out of the park, so I doubt they’ll blanch at playing their rivals.  These next few weeks will go along way towards sorting out this division.

The Pirates are currently in second in this division by less than 1 game.  They’ve fallen on some hard times, losing 6 of 12 and falling behind a hot Cardinals team.  500 baseball in short stretches isn’t bad (they are 13 for their last 25), but it is when the team behind you is on fire.  The past two seasons have seen the Pirates start hot out of the gate but fade down the stretch and miss the playoffs.  It could not happen again or heads would roll.  The Pirates have stayed hot and near the top of the central standings longer this year than the past two years.  So that means it would take the most epic collapse yet to keep them out of the playoffs.  I just don’t see it happening.  However I wouldn’t be surprised if they fell out of division contention and into the wildcard mix.  They are currently the number 1-wildcard seed.  If they continue to play at 500, which they have for a while now, they could fall into the wildcard mix, but likely not much further beyond that.  Great seasons from McCutchen and Alvarez have powered this offense, and they hope the recent acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and John Buck will give them the extra oomph to make it into October.  They still have a great starting staff and should be getting their closer back soon to settle the bullpen.  This team will be playoff bound for sure this year; I just don’t think it will be as the NL Central champs.

The third team in this division has kicked it into high gear recently in their quest to stay relevant in the NL Central race.  That team is the Cincinnati Reds, last year’s NL Central champs.  The Reds have just dragged through the middle season.  They started out near the top of the standings, but fell to a distant third playing 500 baseball through the middle months.  However they kicked it into high gear after the All Star break, cutting their deficit in half as we approach the final month of the season.  Things aren’t going as the Reds planned, seeing how many people picked them to win the Central (me included).  However they’ve overcome some injuries (Ryan Ludwick, Johnny Cueto, Nick Masset) and are playing great baseball now.  Tony Cigriani has played well for them early on this year (though he’s on the DL now) and their offense has been powered by MVP candidate Brandon Phillips and another strong year from Joey Votto.  They may have the softest remaining schedule of the teams in this division, with healthy doses of the Cubs, Mets, Brewers and Astros.  I definitely see them taking one of the wildcard spots, perhaps even taking home field advantage in that wildcard game.

NL West:

That brings us to the Wild Wild West and the best team in baseball right now, the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Dodgers have won 21 of 27 and have pulled themselves from the West basement to the second best record in the league.  In addition they’ve put almost 10 games between themselves and the next nearest team in their division.  They’ve basically already wrapped up the division, and are playing well enough against their division opponents that the other West teams have fallen from the playoff chase entirely.  The Rockies are no longer in the Wildcard hunt and the Diamondbacks are quickly falling to the wayside as well.  Adrian Gonzalez has been their most consistent hitter, and Hanley Ramirez has played out of his mind when he’s been healthy.  But Yasiel Puig and his 346 AVG have stolen the headlines.  The likely Rookie of the Year has powered this offense to relevance and beyond and made them favorites in this league.  And with Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball, having another Cy Young caliber year, the Dodgers are posed to go deep into October.

Going in a completely direction, we have the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Outside of the Atlanta Braves, no team was hotter to start the 2013 season than the Diamondbacks.  They were on fire to in April and May and it looked like they had the division well in hand.  However they have fallen off lately.  Paul Goldschmidt has been an MVP candidate all year, but the rest of the team has not gotten it done behind him.  Their top 3 starters have greatly struggled, as Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarty all have losing records and ERAs north of 4.30.  Kennedy is gone, but the pitching struggles remain.  There have also been issues at the back end of the bullpen with J.J. Putz out a while and Heath Bell and David Hernandez struggling.  They built a big lead, but saw it evaporate and are now only in the running for the wildcard.  And they’ve faded in that race too, falling to about 8 games back.  They are the 3rd team in the wildcard race, but have a huge mountain of games to overcome.  The good news for them is that the 3 teams in front of them are all in the Central division and will play each other a lot.  In addition, the next nearest team to them is the Washington Nationals, and they’ve been a mess.  So they shouldn’t fall further behind.  If they win, they should have a good chance to make it into the playoffs.  But right now they are on the outside looking in, and I think that’s where they’ll stay.

So the last few months of the baseball season should be exciting.  While the NL East and West divisions are set, the Central is up the air with three different teams all contending for the division title.  Those same three teams are also in the wildcard hunt with a hungry Arizona Diamondbacks team that has fallen from first place but is desperately clinging to hope of a Wildcard berth.  It will go down to the wire.  I’m excited to watch it play out.  Here are my picks:

Atlanta Braves-                      NL East Division Winner (home field)
Los Angeles Dodgers-           NL West Division Winner
St. Louis Cardinals-               NL Central Division Winner
Cincinnati Reds-                    Wildcard Berth 1
Pittsburgh Pirates-               Wildcard Berth 2

Let me know your picks.  Use the comments section to share them with me.  Should be very exciting going forward.  Play ball!

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