For as competitive as the NL is this year, the most competitive division is going to be the Wild Card Division. Seven NL teams are realistically vying for two spots, and with so many buyers and so few sellers (Cubs, Milwaukee), let’s examine where the Wild Card contenders stand:
Cincinnati, 44-30 (second, NL Central)
The Reds have the catbird seat here, as they have the strongest offense (332 runs scored) of any of the contenders, combined with the second-strongest pitching staff (271 runs allowed). The biggest questions: will the Cardinals run away with the division or will the Reds catch them? These Reds are a lock for the playoffs either way.
Pittsburgh, 43-30 (third, NL Central)
The Pirates have been here before. First half contenders wilt to second half also-rans, as the overachieving pitching staff wears down in the summer heat. But wait–these Pirates have one of the best bullpens in baseball, and sport the lowest runs allowed (252) of any Wild Card contender. They play in a brutal division with the Cards and Reds, so this might be a catchable team over a long season. Their runs scored is adequate but not overwhelming (272). Overall, so far, a fundamentally sound team.
San Francisco, 37-35 (second, NL West)
Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Each of the members of the pitching staff has battled a down year or injury in the past four seasons, and when it happens multiple times, the team is very mediocre. They have been outscored on the season and sport one of the highest team ERAs in the NL, 4.05. Some health and focus would do their pitching staff a world of good, and the talent is there for a run if the pieces can come together.
San Diego, 37-36 (third, NL West)
Surprise! Didn’t expect the Padres here? They have also been outscored, with the worst pitching staff that doesn’t play half its games at Coors Field (4.16 ERA). That said, they can hit a little bit and have been very tough at home (roughly .667 win percentage), though playing in a division with four good teams will make this a tougher slog.
Washington, 36-36 (second, NL East)
Alas, the Nats look like they took manager Davey Johnson’s “World Series or Bust” proclamation totally the wrong way. What looked like a pitching staff for the ages has been beset by injuries and inconsistency, but a return to health and a midyear retooling of the bullpen has resulted in a very solid ERA of 3.14. The Nats’ major issue is hitting, or lack thereof–they sport the third worst offense in the major leagues, a team batting average of .233 and injuries up and down the lineup, including to star Bryce Harper. The addition of Anthony Rendon and other minor league stars has helped, but ultimately the Nats will not contend without a much improved offense.
Colorado, 37-37 (fourth, NL West)
Normally teams that are in fourth place in their division don’t get on this list, but the Rockies have been game this year. Their pitching staff has been atrocious, giving up the most runs in the league for a 4.12 ERA–but that’s not bad for a Colorado team. Their strength is that they have outscored their opponents by 29 runs, on the strength of the best offense not in the American League, and have dominated at Coors Field. The downside? A bad record away from home that may doom them as it has so many Rockies teams in the past.
Philadelphia, 35-38 (third, NL East)
The Phillies have talent, including some young talent. Domonic Brown is a major stud who has carried this team into respectability. Unfortunately, their pitching staff is one of the worst in the league and they have been outscored by 50 runs (that’s not a misprint) on the season. Health could help them make a run, but they need at least one more starter and one more reliever to be seriously in the hunt–and with a bereft farm system from all those title runs, that help may not arrive.