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8/31/2007 09:54:00 AM

Nine Lives: The NL Playoff Race

by Cliff Corcoran

Last week, I took a quick look at the AL contenders. As the pennant races continue to heat up, here's a look at the even more crowded National League field.

New York Mets

Status: 2-game lead in the NL East Record since the All-Star break: 25-21 (.543) Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds: Division: 74.5%, Wild Card: 10.8%, Playoffs: 85.3%

The Mets looked like they were going to waltz into the playoffs until a recent 2-7 slump that culminated with a dramatic four-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies. The Mets have three more left against the Phils and six left against the third-place Braves (including a three-game set that starts tonight), so they're vulnerable, but there are no other winning teams left on their schedule and 13 of their last 14 come against the last-place Nats and Marlins.

Key Player: Pedro Martinez is expected to make his long-awaited return to the Mets rotation next weekend after one more rehab start. He won't be the Pedro of old, and he'll only have four starts left in the season, but if he's even moderately effective, he could be the difference in the division.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Status: 1-game lead in the NL West Record since the ASB: 28-17 (.622) BP Playoff Odds: Division: 37.6%, Wild Card: 20.8%, Playoffs: 58.4%

The Diamondbacks are probably the most compelling team in baseball right now. In addition to Brandon Webb's recent scoreless innings streak, Micah Owing's crazy day at the plate, the seemingly endless train of top-tier prospects entering their lineup, and the discrepancy between their record and run differential (currently an 11-game difference, a phenomenon which was explained in detail by SI.com's Jacob Luft here), they have the best record in the NL in the second half.

Key Player: With the exceptions of Orlando Hudson and Eric Byrnes (who are good complimentary players, but hardly offensive lynchpins), the Diamonbacks' regulars are so young and inexperienced that it's difficult to demand that one of them step up with a big September, but someone on the offense is going to have to help tip the balance lest the D'backs' coin come to rest on the wrong side.

Chicago Cubs

Status: 2.5-game lead in the NL Central Record since the ASB: 24-21 (.533) BP Playoff Odds: Division: 65.5%, Playoffs: 65.7%

After salvaging their season with a hot June and July, the Cubs have slipped back into their early-season form, but they're still beating the teams that matter, going 8-4 in their last four series against the Brewers and Cardinals. Thanks to Milwaukee's second-half collapse and the Cardinals' early-season struggles, the Cubs are likely to win the division by default much like St. Louis did last year, but the five head-to-head games remaining between the rival Cubs and Cardinals will likely be the deciding factor.

Key Players: Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee. Lee has been an enigma this year. He hit .330 in the first half, but knocked just six pitches over the fence. In the second half he's hit already hit nine taters, but is batting just .274. Soriano lived up to his contract in the first half, but missed three weeks with a quad injury in August and hasn't hit even when healthy in the second half. These Cubs need to live up to the back of their baseball cards as the club's questionable offseason pitching additions are starting to do the same.

San Diego Padres

Status: 2-game lead in the Wild Card, 1 game behind in the NL West Record since the ASB: 24-22 (.523) BP Playoff Odds: Division: 42.9%, Wild Card: 19.4%, Playoffs: 62.3%

The Padres are in that prime position of being ahead in the Wild Card race and very close to the leader in their division. They have a fairly stiff schedule remaining, however, with six each against the Dodgers and Rockies, four against the Brewers, and three against the division-leading Diamondbacks. Of course, the Pads just took three of four (at home) from the D'backs and have gone 7-3 against the Mets, Phillies, and Arizona in their last 10 games. They're up to the challenge.

Key Player: Chris Young missed two starts in early August with an oblique strain, then another recently from lower back pain suspected to be the result of his compensating for the oblique. These sorts of injuries are particularly tricky for someone with Young's 6-foot-10 frame. Indeed, Young struggled in his return to the mound yesterday, but claimed he was just rusty and that he's feeling much better. The Padres hope he's right as they're at a loss for a fifth starter, let alone a sixth.

Philadelphia Phillies

Status: 2 games behind in the NL East, 2 games behind for the Wild Card Record since the ASB: 27-18 (.600) BP Playoff Odds: Division: 17.6%, Wild Card, 21.2%, Playoffs: 38.8%

Despite injuries to Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, and Shane Victorino almost everything else has gone right for the Phillies in the second half. Tad Iguchi and Jayson Werth have raked while filling in for Utley and Victorino, respectively, Pat Burrell has just gone batty, and the Phils just took four straight from the Mets without Hamels pitching a game. Still, the Phillies' rotation is a scary thing without Young King Cole and you just know they'll find a way to fall one game short of the playoffs come the end of September.

Key Player: Hamels is due to return to the rotation on Sunday, but if his elbow flares up again, it could sink any hope the Phils have of crashing the playoff party.

Milwaukee Brewers

Status: 2.5 games behind in the NL Central Record since the ASB: 17-28 (.378) BP Playoff Odds: Division: 19.9%, Playoffs: 20.2%

On June 2 the Brewers beat the Pirates in the opener of a series in Pittsburgh to go 14 games over .500. They then dropped the next three to the Buccos and have since sunk all the way back down to a game below .500. What changed? It's hard to say. The team's young middle infielders both suffered a collapse, but the addition of Rookie of the Year favorite Ryan Braun should have compensated for that (indeed, the team had its best offensive month in June). Ace Ben Sheets got hurt, but not until July. The pitching staff as a whole had a dreadful August, but what about the previous two months? Maybe the Brewers were just never that good to begin with. Maybe it has something to do with their almost perfectly inverted home and road records. This team still has a bright future, but with no games left against the Cubs (to whom they just dropped two of three in Chicago) and their last 11 games of the season coming against contenders, that future isn't now.

Key Player: Sheets is beginning to look like a one-year wonder. It took him four seasons to put it all together for his 2004 campaign and he hasn't been able to stay healthy since. He turned 29 on July 18. Time is running out for Sheets to avoid coming up in discussions like this one. The Brewers can't keep waiting.

St. Louis Cardinals

Status: 3 games behind in the NL Central Record since the ASB: 24-21 (.533) BP Playoff Odds: Division: 13.8%, Playoffs: 13.9%

The Cards must have stolen the Brewers' mojo, not that the Cardinals have been world beaters in the second half, in fact their second-half record matches the Cubs underwhelming performance exactly, but they've made up a lot of ground since bottoming out at nine games below .500 on May 29. Rick Ankiel has been a great story, and Brendan Ryan a pleasant surprise, but the Cardinal revival has had more to do with Albert Pujols reverting to form in the second half, and Adam Wainwright finding his sea legs as a starter (his ERA has improved dramatically each month this season). Unfortunately, their tough remaining schedule (15 of 32 games against contenders, no off days, and a double-header against the Cubs) means that it's all likely too little too late.

Key Player: Yadier Molina discovered the base on balls after the All-Star break, walking once every 7.8 plate appearances after a prior career rate of one walk every 15.7 PA. The result has been a .294/.392/.413 line, which is fantastic for a defense-first catcher. If the 25-year-old backstop can make that change permanent, the Cardinals will have their best offensive catcher since 1982 World Series MVP Darrell Porter.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Status: 3 games behind for the Wild Card, 4 games behind in the NL West Record since the ASB: 21-23 (.477) BP Playoff Odds: Division: 15.1%, Wild Card: 12.6%, Playoffs: 27.7%

The Dodgers don't really deserve to be here. They have a losing record in the second half and haven't taken a series from a contender other than the Phillies since June. Nearly all of their offseason moves have blown up in their faces leaving them to pick up waiver-wire detritus such as the 44-year-old David Wells and the injured and overpaid Esteban Loaiza, while the deadline swap of Wilson Betemit has reduced them to starting the execrable Shea Hillenbrand at third.

Key Player: Tony Abreu is playing again after missing time due to a mysteriously undetectable "sports hernia." He's also mashing. Unfortunately he's doing so for Triple-A Las Vegas. He needs to be playing third base for the Dodgers.

Atlanta Braves

Status: 4.5 games behind for the Wild Card, 4.5 games behind in the NL East Record since the ASB: 22-23 (.489) BP Playoff Odds: Division: 7.9%, Wild Card: 9.5%, Playoffs: 17.3%

The Braves' second-half run differential translates to a .608 Pythagorean winning percentage, which means they've underperformed that differential by more than five games thus far since the break, enough to explain their deficits in the playoff races. The Braves also have a terrible record in one-run games and in extra innings, and have greatly underperformed their run differential on the road. That all points back to the bullpen. The Braves have 12 games left against the two teams ahead of them in the East, which gives them the opportunity to make a run at the postseason, but to capitalize on that opportunity they need to stop letting leads slip away in the late innings.

Key Player: Rafael Soriano. With Bob Wickman having been released and Octavio Dotel back on the DL, the onus falls on the 27-year-old Soriano to finally live up to his promise in the closer role.
posted by SI.com | View comments |  

Comments:

Posted: August 31, 2007 9:46 PM   by Anonymous
How can the Mets have an 85% shot at the playoffs. This shows where sabermetricians like the losers who write baseball prospectus know nothing about baseball. Their bullpen can't get anybody out. Reyes is slumping. Delgado is shot. Same goes for Green, Lo Duca and Alou. Their starters outside of Maine suck. If these people knew how the game was played on the field and not through a calculator, then they would reduce that number.
Posted: September 2, 2007 9:26 PM   by Anonymous
Spoken like a true loser Braves fan. Braves are done, and the Phillies are not far behind. The division is not won on August 30th. Mets win!! Mets win!!
you must be a yankee fan anonymous ... Have you actually followed the Mets at all? or the National league East? The Mets have been in first virtually all season. Thats not going to change.
Looks like anonymous is the one who needs to shut up an doesn't know anything. The numbers don't lie idiot! All the sabermetricians do is spot trends based on the numbers they do say it set in stone.
Well, well, well. All the big mouth Met haters can go back into their holes and cry. Delgado shot? (don't you wish you had him).... Reyes slumping ? (that's all it is - a slump - and over 70 bases stolen while he's at it), Bullpen can't get anybody out? (what are you judging THAT on... the Philly series), Green? (now a role player who has a ring and knows what to do when he has to do it), Alou? (please, you're an idiot fior even mentioning his name in your comment, - he's a first class professional hitter).
Mets 1st place since early May - now September - still first place.
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