Ranking the National League title contenders in tight race

by Justin Kramer | 6/28/19 2:00am

kyle-hendricks-centerspread

The Chicago Cubs rotation, led by Kyle Hendricks '12, gives the team an excellent shot at making the playoffs.

Beverly Schaefer/Courtesy of the Dartmouth Athletics Department

Halfway through the 162-game Major League Baseball season, 13 of the 15 National League teams were within six games of the playoffs as of Thursday morning. Other than the .671 Los Angeles Dodgers who led their division by 12 games, every team in the NL had a winning percentage below .600, with 11 teams between .450 and .540.

NL playoff races last year stayed extremely close on the division level last year, requiring an unprecedented two tiebreaker games in October. This year, the NL Central is close again, with the Chicago Cubs leading the Milwaukee Brewers by a game and the St. Louis Cardinals by two-and-a-half as of Thursday, but the Wild Card race is more compelling: 11 teams are competing for two spots, and there’s currently a three-way Wild Card tie.

Let’s have a look at the 11 NL teams who are in the picture for a Wild Card spot, which sadly excludes my hometown San Francisco Giants. Teams are ranked in order of what I think their chances are of making the playoffs, and the Dodgers and Braves are excluded because they are likely to win their divisions.

11. New York Mets (37-44, 5.5 games back of a Wild Card spot)

The Mets are an utter mess, on and off the field. Their 18-32 record against teams above .500 is not promising . At 37-44 , they don’t really belong in the conversation for the playoffs anyways, but you can’t pass up an opportunity to bash on the Mets. Pete Alonso has mashed the league as a rookie, but generally poor team performance has led to off field issues. Manager Mickey Callaway and starter Jason Vargas recently threatened to kick out Newsday reporter Tim Healey after a heated exchange. Poor Mets.

10. Pittsburgh Pirates (37-41, 4.0 games back of a Wild Card spot)

The Pirates hovered around .500 until the end of May, when their record sat at 28-28. June has not been as kind to them and they have gone 12-18 in their last 30 games, as of Thursday morning. Their 21-34 record against teams above .500 is ugly, and their -64 run differential suggests they have actually been getting lucky. Josh Bell is in the midst of a breakout season, and rookie Bryan Reynolds somehow is still batting .362, but the rotation lacks an ace without Jameson Taillon, and they are waiting on outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco to eclipse the .800 On-Base Plus Slugging mark.

9. Cincinnati Reds (36-42, 5.0 games back of a Wild Card spot)

The Reds saw an opening in the NL Central at the beginning of the season and they made an aggressive push. They acquired Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood from the Dodgers, Tanner Roark from the Nationals and Sonny Gray from the Yankees in an attempt to bolster last year’s 67-95 team. Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark have pitched well alongside ace Luis Castillo, and minor league free agent Derek Dietrich has an OPS of .917, but he leads the team by over 100 percentage points. With Puig, Roark, Wood and second baseman Scooter Gennett set to hit the free agent market, it’s only a matter of time until the Reds have to sell. 

8. San Diego Padres (40-40, 2.0 games back of a Wild Card spot)

The Padres have made big splashes in free agency the past two years, signing Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado, and rookie Fernando Tatis Jr. has emerged as a superstar. With a promising young rotation, I expect the Padres to make the playoffs next year, but the Padres are currently in the bottom-five in the NL in runs scored, OPS, and batting average. Their assortment of starting pitchers will likely reach innings limits or receive time in the minors as Chris Paddack did recently. 

7. Arizona Diamondbacks (41-41, 2.0 games back of a Wild Card spot)

The Diamondbacks did not seem intent on contending at the start of this season. They lost two cornerstones in Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock to free agency and traded franchise player Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals, but they are still competitve. Their +47 run differential is a great sign, and Ketel Marte’s breakout paired with an over-achieving rotation puts the team in solid position to compete. The NL West is extremely competitive though, and the Diamondbacks, in what seemed to be a rebuild year, may not want to be aggressive at the trade deadline.

6. Colorado Rockies (42-38, tied for a Wild Card spot)

This is where the real contenders start to come in. The Rockies’ +20 run differential and 26-26 records against teams above .500 are really good signs. Their 444 runs (six players have at least 40 RBIs) lead the league, but their 5.04 team ERA is only better than Pittsburgh’s (5.05). Their league-worst 5.46 ERA for starting pitchers is disastrous, and it isn’t just due to Coors Field: they are dead last in strikeouts with 661. Add in the NL West competition, and I don’t foresee the Rockies remaining in the picture.

5. St. Louis Cardinals (40-39, 1.5 games back of a Wild Card spot)

After making the playoffs for five straight years from 2011-2015, the Cardinals have fallen short each of the past three seasons as the NL Central has gotten more competitive. Still, this is a historically excellent franchise which has had one sub-.500 season since the turn of the century, so they can never be counted out, especially after acquiring Paul Goldschmidt this offseason. However, they do not seem to have enough offensively to make a serious run, as they sit 12th in the league in runs, homers and batting average. Their 4.16 ERA is fourth-best in the NL, but their bullpen may struggle after closer Jordan Hicks’ season-ending injury.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (42-38, tied for a Wild Card spot)

The Phillies made a huge push this offseason to get to the playoffs after last year’s 80-82 season, adding Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, David Robertson and Jean Segura. Losing McCutchen to injury is tough even after acquiring Jay Bruce. The team struggled mightily last week, losing seven straight, including three to the Marlins to fall 5.5 games back of the Braves. The Phillies rank in the bottom half of many hitting categories in the NL, and their 4.53 ERA is eighth overall. They will need starting pitchers Jake Arrieta and Aaron Nola and their new lineup acquisitions to perform as well as they have in the past to have a good chance at a Wild Card spot.

3. Washington Nationals (39-40, 2.5 games back of a Wild Card spot)

The Nationals were the consensus pick to win the NL East last year, and despite collapsing to 82-80 last year, many experts still expected them to make the postseason this season. It’s for a good reason: the Nationals have the second-best starting rotation in the league. With three frontline starters in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin (their newest addition), the Nationals rotation leads the NL in strikeouts and is second in ERA and BAA. Third base star Anthony Rendon has an OPS over 1.000, and Juan Soto continues to excel. Their mediocre record is largely due to having the worst bullpen in the Majors — their 6.36 ERA is nearly two runs higher than the NL average — so with some relief acquisitions, the Nationals could make a run.

2. Milwaukee Brewers (42-38, tied for a Wild Card spot)

The Brewers tied the Cubs through 162 games last year, and the same could happen this year with Milwaukee just a game back. The team leads the league in homers and is fifth in slugging percentage, largely due to Christian Yelich’s MVP-level 29 home runs and 1.149 OPS already. Offseason signings Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas each have an OPS easily over .900, and if Jesus Aguilar, Lorenzo Cain and Travis Shaw can turn around their seasons, watch out for the Brewers. While I expect them to win a Wild Card spot, their 4.70 ERA (12th of 15) and 288 walks issued (third-most), along with their -8 run differential are concerning for their divisional hopes.

1. Chicago Cubs (43-37, one game above a Wild Card spot)

PECOTA’s algorithm projected the Cubs to go 79-83 this season and finish last in the central after they went 95-68 last season. The Cubs have used that lackluster projection as motivation for a 43-37 start, and they seem likely to hold onto the division title. Their infield is star-studded, with Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo enjoying stellar seasons and catcher Wilson Contreras maintaining a .981 OPS. As a result, their runs, homers and on-base percentage are all top five in the NL. Their pitching staff’s 3.88 ERA is third-best in the league, which should be enough to win the division.