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Sifting Through the Crowded National League Playoff Race

Odubel Herrera

Do Odubel Herrera and the Phillies have staying-power in the NL East race? Credit: Bill Streicher/USA today

With the non-waiver trade deadline now past, the run to the MLB Playoffs is set to heat up. The one general characteristic that stood out from this year’s trade deadline has to be the shear number of teams that sought to make upgrades to their rosters. Looking at the National League in particular, the number of teams with a realistic chance to reach the postseason is much greater than is typical by the time August arrives. The NL fails to have any teams that really stand out as a tier above the competition, like the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Houston Astros do in the American League. This allows the bunched up field of playoff contenders to be possible.

So who should you take seriously or brush aside as pretenders? Who might pull a surprise and rise to the occasion down the stretch? Here’s a breakdown of all 11 National League teams still carrying 2018 playoff aspirations.

*Records updated through August 2nd*

Odubel Herrera

NL East

Philadelphia Phillies (60-48)

The first half success and position in the division standings was not expected. Many simply viewed it as a young, rebuilding team that was performing a year ahead of schedule. However, it is now August, and the Phillies are yet to fade. They continue to lead the NL East, albeit by the slimmest of margins, and they have found ways to get results against even the best teams in baseball. A two-game series split at Fenway Park against the Red Sox earlier this week spoke volumes. Philadelphia was active at the trade deadline, adding shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and catcher Wilson Ramos. These additions will bolster an already sound lineup that includes Odubel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, Carlos Santana, and Cesar Hernandez. The key will be whether or not the Phils pitching staff behind Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta can continue to deliver, in particular a bullpen that has depth with the likes of Seranthony Dominguez and Pat Neshek, but lacks any particularly dominant arms.

Prediction: CONTENDERS. The Phillies will be in the NL East race until the end, with a real shot at winning it. This is likely their only shot at the postseason, with the division being the weakest in the NL.


Atlanta Braves (58-47)

The Braves have a real chance to be MLB’s next Astros. After suffering through multiple miserable seasons during which a complete gutting and rebuild took place, Atlanta now finds themselves with a solid core of hungry young players. Their success thus far in 2018 isn’t quite as surprising as the Phillies, but the Braves can also be viewed as slightly ahead of schedule. Mainstay Freddie Freeman has to be thrilled to finally be on a contending squad once again that also includes veteran Nick Markakis who has put together a brilliant All Star season. The young guns include Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozhaino Albies, and pitcher Max Fried. With Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz providing two quality starters, Atlanta certainly has the pitching capable of carrying a team into October.

Prediction: FADERS. A brilliant mix of veterans and young talent, the Braves will stay in the NL East fight down the stretch. They have led the division for stretches this year, but something makes me hesitant to pick them as the team to finish atop the East this year.


Washington Nationals (55-53)

The Nationals are one of, if not the biggest disappointment of this baseball season. Preseason favorites to finally reach the World Series, Washington has been hovering around the .500 mark, and playing sub-.500 baseball for a couple months now. They lack consistency, have not gotten the production from stars that has been their in recent years, and worst of all, have had locker room fighting and turmoil on more than one occasion.

Despite all this, they are just five games back of the Phillies in the division entering the weekend. After GM Mike Rizzo gave the team a vote of confidence by not trading Bryce Harper at the deadline, the Nats exploded for 25 runs in their win over the Mets that night. The talent is there to make a late season push. Harper, Trea Turner, Juan Soto, and Daniel Murphy anchor a loaded lineup while Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are the big names in the rotation. Even the bullpen has depth with Sean Doolittle and the recently acquired Kelvin Herrera. Can the Nationals put months of turmoil and underachievement behind them and sneak back into the postseason?

Prediction: CONTENDERS. The Nationals are chasing a couple of young teams in the Phillies and Braves. With Bryce Harper’s free agency looming, this team will either make a big move down the stretch or completely go up in smoke. I’ll opt for the former, and even give them a better chance than the Braves to win the division.

Anthony Rizzo

Credit: Getty Images

NL Central

Chicago Cubs (62-46)

Sitting atop perhaps the deepest division in baseball at the start of August is something to hang your hat on. But the Cubs still have work to do with three teams nipping at their heels. Acquiring starter Cole Hamels at the deadline was a big time move. Hamels has struggled as a Ranger this year, but this is thought to be largely attributable to the hot Texas climate. He promptly struck out 9 in his first start as a Cub against the Pirates on Wednesday. He fills out a rotation that also includes Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, and Kyle Hendricks. The bullpen is not what it was on 2016’s World Series winning team, but Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, and Pedro Strop are a formidable late-inning trio. Javier Baez has been having a monster year to lead a lineup that includes many of the same names from two years ago: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Addison Russell, etc. The offense will need to be more consistent down the stretch to ensure the Cubs a playoff berth.

Prediction: CONTENDERS. The NL Central picture is very murky right now, but expect the Cubs, the lone team with recent championship experience, to pull away and take the division crown once again.


Milwaukee Brewers (63-49)

The Brewers find themselves in a very similar position to last year. They are locked in a battle atop the division with the Cubs. However, the difference this time around is that Milwaukee currently holds down the first of the two NL Wild Card spots with the second-best record in the league. Milwaukee made some positional upgrades at the deadline, bringing in Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop to join Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar and Ryan Braun. They also upgraded the bullpen by bringing in Joakim Soria to join All Star Josh Hader and Chad Knebel. The starting rotation is the biggest question mark. With both Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies on the DL, Chase Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin are the current number 1 and 2 starters. It’s a lot to expect that to be good enough.

Prediction WILD CARD CONTENDERS. Expect the Cubs to outrun Milwaukee over the next couple of months. However, the Brewers should have enough to stay in the hunt for the Wild Card spots until the very end.

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St. Louis Cardinals (56-53)

The Cardinals appear to be heating up at the right time. After taking 2-of-3 from the Cubs last weeked, they won 3-of-4 games against the Rockies this week, including a come from behind walkoff in the series finale. Things have been looking up in the clubhouse as well since the firing of Mike Matheny and Mike Shildt has this team playing the best ball it has all year. A red hot Matt Carpenter certainly is aiding that cause. With Marcell Ozuna, Yadier Molina, Jedd Gyorko, and Dexter Fowler also in the lineup, St. Louis certainly has the bats. The pitching will be the doomsday of the team if there is one. This week, Carlos Martinez joined fellow starters Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright on the DL. Miles Mikolas has impressed recently, but there isn’t much behind him in the rotation. Fireballer Jordan Hicks is the bright spot of a bullpen that lacks any big time talent otherwise.

Prediction: WILD CARD CONTENDERS UNTIL THEY FADE. Expect St. Louis to hang around for at least the duration of August. If they get their pitchers to return from full strength, they could be battling for the long haul, but they are a step below some of their Wild Card competition.


Pittsburgh Pirates (56-53)

The Pirates looked to be dead to rights just a couple of weeks ago. After rattling off an 11-game winning streak and acquiring starter Chris Archer at the trade deadline, Pittsburgh is right back in the thick of the NL Wild Card hunt. Archer joins a pitching staff that will need to improve upon their 4.22 ERA (18th in the MLB) if the Pirates are to contend down the stretch. The lineup has capable bats in Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Corey Dickerson, and Josh Harrison. Closer Felipe Vazquez has been lights out all season, and Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon represent two quality starters behind Archer. Will it all be enough to have the Pirates in the hunt come September?

Prediction: PRETENDERS. Pittsburgh had to rattle off 11 straight wins just to get above the .500 mark. With several games against fellow division contenders in the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals, it will be an uphill battle for the Pirates to hang in the race down the stretch.

Clayton Kershaw

Credit: Harry How/Getty Images

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers (61-49)

The Dodgers solidified themselves as trade deadline winners with the acquisition of All Star Manny Machado. His presence in the lineup and in the infield was sorely needed with Corey Seager lost to injury. Justin Turner has also been in and out of the lineup with injuries, so acquiring Brian Dozier was also a welcome move. With Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig, and Max Muncy, L.A. should be able to manufacture runs, especially as they get more guys healthy down the stretch. The injury theme has also impacted the starting rotation in a big way, even getting to ace Clayton Kershaw. While he is now healthy, he is slightly less daunting than in previous years. Alex Wood and Kenta Maeda are the two starters behind him, meaning the bullpen could be crucial for the Dodgers. Kenley Jansen has had his share of struggles this season, and the setup men aren’t particularly scary either. The team that came within a game of winning it all a year ago has its work cut out just to get back to the postseason.

Prediction: CONTENDERS. The Dodgers are contenders, both for the NL West title and the Wild Card, but they are nowhere near the juggernaut of last year. If they can take care of their divisional games down the stretch, they will get back to the postseason.


Arizona Diamondbacks (60-50)

The Diamondbacks got back to the postseason last season, winning the Wild Card game before being swept by the Dodgers. This year’s team is capable of avoiding the Wild Card game altogether if they can claim an NL West division title. Arizona was again active at the trade deadline, acquiring infielder Eduardo Escobar to add to the offense and bolstering their bullpen by getting Brad Ziegler and Jake Diekman. With Archie Bradley and Brad Boxberger also in the pen, the D-Backs should have late innings on lock. They have the starters to get them there with leads as well in Zack Greinke, Patrick Corbin, and Robbie Ray. The lineup has talent up and down the order with the criminally underappreciated Paul Goldschmidt, David Peralta and A.J. Pollack. They may not have J.D. Martinez or Jean Segura like last year’s squad, but Arizona is legit once again.

Prediction: CONTENDERS. The Diamondbacks probably aren’t as good as last year’s team on paper, but the changed NL landscape and a better bullpen this season will have them making noise into October. A division crown is well within the realm of possibility.


Colorado Rockies (58-50)

Of all the teams in contention across the NL, the Rockies were the one who stayed completely silent at the trade deadline. The decision can be justified when you look at their loaded lineup, including Nolan Arenado, Trevor story, Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, and more. Colorado’s starting pitching staff has been coming up huge of late. Tyler Anderson, Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland in particular have been pitching very well. Where the decision to remain inactive at the deadline comes into question is with the bullpen. Wade Davis is of course the real deal at closer, and Bryan Shaw and Adam Ottavino have had excellent seasons as well. However, with a rotation that isn’t the most trustworthy, Colorado could have standed to pick up a bridge reliever. A Wild Card team from a year ago, the franchise clearly has confidence in their assembled group of players. Should you?

Prediction: WILD CARD CONTENDERS. The Rockies are a step below both the D-Backs and Dodgers in terms of finishing atop the NL West, but they are a real threat to again earn a Wild Card.


San Francisco Giants (56-54)

The Giants are on the fringes of playoff contention at this point, a full five games out in the West with three teams ahead of them. The even year magic ran its course in 2016, and despite having a sound group of veterans, San Francisco just hasn’t quite put it together this year. Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, and Brandon Crawford are all having fine seasons to spark the offense. Unfortunately, the Giants just don’t have the pitching to match. Madison Bumgarner is a diminished version of his once-dominant self after dealing with various injuries the past few years. The rotation is completely barren behind him. The bullpen is also in shambles. Once a star closer in Pittsburgh, Mark Melancon doesn’t even own the role in San Francisco. His 3.66 ERA isn’t going to cut it. Will Smith is the current closer, but he can’t make many saves if he never gets a lead to work with.

Prediction: PRETENDERS. With their lack of pitching depth, it’s amazing the Giants are above .500 in August. They will be out of the race entirely by the end of the month.


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