This last week has created an entirely new NL Wild Card race. The Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers have slipped badly, allowing teams that were thought out of the playoff race as early as June and July back in, creating a dramatic situation that could rival last years amazing finish.
1. Atlanta Braves (83-63, Run Differential +78)
The Braves have essentially locked up the top Wild Card spot. Unlike the sinking Dodgers and Cards, they have maintained their solid play and have now opened up a 7 game lead over the two clubs in the race for the top Wild Card slot. Kris Medlen has been the best starter in baseball since his promotion to the rotation from the bullpen, bringing stability to the Braves’ injury-plagued rotation, previously the club’s major weakness.
2. Cardinals (76-70, +80)
The Cards have played horribly of late, losing 8 of their last ten, and failing to capitalize on a similar run of poor play by the Dodgers. The Cardinals are a flawed team, hurt by injuries to their pitching staff and an ineffective bullpen all year, but they have the deepest lineup in the National League. The return of Chris Carpenter, out all year with a shoulder injury, should give the Redbirds a shot in the arm, in addition to shoring up the team’s pitching staff.
3. Milwaukee Brewers (73-72, +38)
Forgotten for almost the entire season after the departure of Prince Fielder, and a multitude of injuries that devastated the team’s opening day infield, suddenly the Brewers find themselves in the thick of the Wild Card race after a strong run back into contention over the last few weeks. Ryan Braun has put up even better numbers than his MVP season of 2011, helping compensate for Fielder’s departure and give the Brewers a legitimate shot to swoop in and steal the final Wild Card spot from the Cards.
4. Philadelphia Phillies (73-73, -7)
The most dangerous team on this list, the Phillies have come back from the dead and now sit just 3 games back of the second Wild Card slot. The club’s rotation remains one of the strongest in baseball, with Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee capable of shutting down the strongest lineups in the game on any given night, offsetting a disappointing offense that has struggled to score consistently all year. No one wants to see the Phillies in the playoffs with the strength of their rotation, and, up until the last 2 or 3 weeks, no one thought they would be in the playoffs. If they continue to play as strongly as they have in that time period however, we could see a resurrection of a team that has dominated the National League over the past few years, before sputtering out during the first few months of 2012.
5. Dodgers (76-70, +19)
Other than a huge win Saturday night that tied them in the standings with the Cardinals for the second Wild Card slot, the Dodgers have had little to cheer for over the last few weeks. They have steadily sunk in the standings, allowing the San Francisco Giants to open up a 7 1/2 game lead in the NL West, and failing to capitalize on the Cards’ similar run of poor play to seize the second Wild Card slot. To make matters worse, staff ace Clayton Kershaw is out indefinitely with a hip injury, a huge blow to an already deeply flawed team.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates have experienced a terrible run of play since a 19-inning win against the Cards on August 19th. Just like last year, the Buccos can trace the source of their slide out of contention, and their perennial march to sub-.500 baseball to a 19-inning game. These Pirates hope to rewrite history however, and the slumps of the teams in front of them has provided them with an opportunity to come back and break the streak of 19 seasons without playoff baseball.