The non-waiver Trade Deadline has come and gone, meaning that the National League Playoff Races are starting to heat up. This is the first in a series of weekly columns analyzing the National League Wild Card race.
The D’backs are one of the strongest teams in the NL on paper, but have underachieved this year, starting terribly in 2012. Despite strong play from Jason Kubel, the outfield has been a major disappointment, with young star Justin Upton posting a .271/.359/.404 line after last year’s stellar .289/.369/.529. The pitching staff has been disappointing as well, with 2011 breakout star, Ian Kennedy failing to find the form that saw him win 21 games last year and contend for the NL Cy Young Award. But, the team’s recent turnaround still makes them a strong contender in the NL playoff race.
The Dodgers have been a huge surprise this year, getting off to a scorching 33-22 start by the end of May. However, injuries to stars Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier crippled an already mediocre offense, leading to poor play in June and July allowing the San Francisco Giants to pass them in the division. However, a new ownership group headlined by Earvin “Magic” Johnson saved one of baseball’s proudest franchises from the horribly incompetent Frank McCourt, giving GM Ned Colletti the financial security to acquire veterans Shane Victorino and Hanley Ramirez in the week before the trade deadline, bolstering the Dodgers’ lineup and making them a dangerous player in the NL playoff races.
The defending world champions have the best run differential in baseball, outscoring their opponents by 107 runs this season. However, much like this time last year, the Cards have been victimized by poor relief pitching. The back end of the bullpen, led by closer Jason Motte and set-up man Mitchell Boggs has been solid, but key players from last year such as Fernando Salas have struggled in 2012. Unlike last year, GM John Mozeliak did not aggressively add at the deadline, pulling off a single deal for Edward Mujica of the Miami Marlins. In doing so, Mozeliak took a gamble that the current unit will revert back to the form that helped lead to a world championship in 2011. The team should begin to shake off the bad luck that has seen them underachieve and put themselves in the thick of the playoff discussion for the remainder of the season.
The Pirates seem to have finally shaken off the 19 straight losing years dating back to the days of Barry Bonds and are poised to make the playoffs for the first time in the same time frame. They are led by MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen who is posting spectacular numbers after fading down the stretch in 2011. In the first half of the season, the team owed their strong play almost entirely to their pitching and the aforementioned McCutchen, as the offense had scored an anemic 130 runs through their first 46 games. However, the bats have heated up, led by second baseman Neil Walker and his .358/.423/.674 July line, helping to account for the sudden ineffectiveness of first-half ace and breakout candidate James McDonald who has looked awful since a July 7th win against the Giants. It looks like the Pirates are going to stay in the race to the end this year after fading down the stretch last year.
The Braves infamously blew an 8 1/2 game lead in the Wild Card race to the Cards last year. This year, they find themselves in a similar position, leading the Wild Card race in early August behind strong all-around play. However, there is reason to believe that this year’s team will not repeat last year’s implosion. Young star Jason Heyward has rebounded from his injury-plagued 2011, hitting .273/.349/.480 with solid defense. In addition, Brian McCann seems to have finally broken out of his early season slump, hitting .296/.354/.704 in July. The Braves should be determined to avoid another late-season collapse, and should win one of the two wild card spots. However, the added pressure from last year could lead to another collapse if they hit a rough patch and players start to press in an effort to avoid another terrible end to the season.