Monday, September 15, 2014

NL Playoff Outlook

A look at the National League playoff contenders. American League outlook coming soon.

Atlanta Braves

There are officially 11 teams still in the hunt for the playoffs, but only the Braves and Brewers have realistic chances to climb back into the playoff picture. Atlanta is a fringe candidate being 4 games out of the last wild card spot with less than two weeks left in the season. A lot of things need to go right for the Braves to make the playoffs. The team's offense has struggled this year and Atlanta is next to last in the NL in runs scored. The Braves led the NL in ERA last season, and allowed fewer runs in 2013 than anytime during Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz era. The Braves defense has still been a strong point, but they haven't been the same team this year.

The Braves let Brian McCann go in the offseason, and replaced him with Evan Gattis. While Gattis has put up good numbers after becoming a starter, the Braves bench was weakened. Dan Uggla was finally released after years of decline in Atlanta. Rookie Tommy La Stella doesn't hit for power like Uggla, but gets on base. Justin Upton has been one of the team's best hitters, but his brother B.J. has had another disappointing season. Chris Johnson has fell off quite a bit from his career year last year. Freddie Freeman has put up a good season, but the team is full of guys who strikeout a ton and get on base infrequently. Injuries have decimated the pitching staff, but they still had strong performances from Julio Tehran and Craig Kimbrel.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers have spent most of the season in first place due to their 19-7 start. Since April, Milwaukee has had only one winning month. The Brew Crew were 53-43 before the All Star break, and 25-29 after. As of today, Milwaukee is within a game of the last wild card spot. The Brewers are hoping to avoid a late season collapse and at least salvage a playoff spot. My view, this was a team that was playing over its head earlier in the year. Milwaukee has plenty of good players, but they also have some flaws. With 6 remaining games against the Cardinals and Pirates, Milwaukee could still position itself into the playoffs.

The biggest weakness offensively is their horrible combination of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay at first base. Jean Segura has had a down year, but still contributes with his glove at short. Jonathon Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, and Aramis Ramirez all were All Stars this year. Ryan Braun hasn't played at an All Star level, but is still a better than average player. The offense has been fine, but it has been their pitching that has let them down. Matt Garza went down with a injury that cost him a month, and Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse weren't as good in the second half as the first half. The same could be said about Francisco Rodriguez and the team's bullpen.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The thought of the Pirates making their second postseason in a row would of been considered a pipe dream by even the biggest Pirates fans a few years ago. If the season ended today, the Pirates would have the second wild card spot. They have had another strong performance from 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who is making another run at the award. Super utility man Josh Harrison made the All Star team this year, and is in the race for the batting title. Harrison will likely get most of his time at third base after Pedro Alvarez went down for the season due to injury. Neil Walker, Russell Martin, and Sterling Marte have had strong offensive seasons, which has led to Pittsburgh being third in the league in runs scored.

The rotation has improved in the second half after the call-ups of Vance Worley and Jeff Locke. Getting Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano healthy has helped out, too. Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage have re-habilitated Edinson Volquez in a way that would make Dave Duncan proud. After trading last year's closer Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon has been outstanding at that role. Lefty Tony Watson has moved up to the setup role and made the All Star team. With Alvarez out, the team is hoping that Gregory Polanco can step up. The team's top prospect started off hot when he was first called up, but struggled since then. He could make a big difference if he played to his hype.

San Francisco Giants

This is a team to watch out for in the postseason. The Giants have won two recent World Series championships in 2010 and 2012. Will the trend of winning a championship every other year happen again in 2014. They still have a shot at the division, but are three games back from their arch-rival Dodgers. The team has survived season ending injuries to Matt Cain and Marco Scutaro, along with several other injuries that kept key players out for significant time. Led by Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, and Pablo Sandoval, the Giants have kept themselves in the playoff hunt despite all of that.

Bruce Bochy has made a couple of moves with his pitching staff in the second half. He moved Sergio Romo out of the closer role and replaced him with Santiago Casilla. More recently he moved Tim Lincecum from the rotation to the bullpen. Bochy made the opposite move with Romo and Casilla in 2012 in the stretch run. He also made the same move with Lincecum during the 2012 postseason, and Lincecum thrived in that role. Madison Bumgarner has been one of the National League's best starters outside of Clayton Kershaw. Tim Hudson has been terrific in his first season in San Francisco, and Jake Peavy has been very good after being re-united with his former manager. This is a team with a lot of playoff experience, and not a team that anybody wants to play in October.

St. Louis Cardinals

At the All Star break, the Cardinals weren't sure if they were going to make the playoffs. Yadier Molina went down with a thumb injury and several of the team's starters were injured. The team's offense was struggling, and had inconsistent pitching with the exception of Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn. At the deadline, the Cardinals signed A.J. Pierzynski, traded for Justin Masterson, and traded away Allen Craig and Joe Kelly for John Lackey. Those moves have had mixed results, but the team has played much better since then.

At the end of July, the Cardinals were 14th in the NL in runs scored and allowed more runs than it had scored. That isn't good news for a playoff contender. In mid-September, the Cardinals are now 9th in runs scored and have a 3.5 game cushion in the Central division. Among the reasons for improvement have been Matt Holliday's second half surge, Kolten Wong's improvement since coming back from injury, Jon Jay's rebound year, Matt Carpenter's ability to get on base in the leadoff spot, and Jhonny Peralta's power. The pitching has also improved, and St. Louis has one of the deepest organizations in baseball. Most teams are searching for arms at this point of the year, and the Cardinals still have many options, despite the injuries. Even if Michael Wacha is not available for the postseason, they still have Miller, Marco Gonzales, and Carlos Martinez as fourth starter options behind Wainwright, Lynn, and Lackey.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Dodgers ownership has invested a lot of money on this team. They have surpassed the Yankees for having the biggest payroll in the game. There is a lot of talent on this team, but there still are some questions and potential weaknesses. No team can top the 1-2 combo of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Still, the health of Hyun-Jin Ryu is the difference maker for Los Angeles. If Ryu is healthy, this team will be a lot harder to beat. If not, Dan Haren moves into the third spot, and the team might have to start someone like Roberto Hernandez or Kevin Correia. The team's bullpen has been thin outside of closer Kenley Jansen and lefty J.P. Howell. The team has invested a lot of money in Brian Wilson, Chris Perez, and Brandon League, and all have been disappointing. The Dodgers need at least one of these pitchers to re-find their All Star form in the postseason.

Offensively, the Dodgers have been one of the NL's best teams. With big names like Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, and Yasiel Puig, that was expected. Still, some feel like this offense has under performed. Former All Stars Carl Crawford and Kemp aren't the players they used to be, but Andre Ethier has really fallen off this year. With a crowded outfield that also includes Scott Van Slyke and Puig, Ethier's playing time has decreased. Puig hasn't hit for much power after a very good first half. Dee Gordon and Justin Turner have given the Dodgers unexpected contributions. Gordon made the All Star team and leads the NL in stolen bases. This is a ballclub with a lot of talent when they are all healthy. Don Mattingly is expected to take this team to the World Series, and his job could be in danger if he doesn't.

Washington Nationals

This Nationals teams is one of the deepest teams in the league. There isn't an MVP candidate offensively, but this a lineup with no easy outs that has a good bench. This depth has allowed the Nats to stay in the playoff hunt despite injuries that kept Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister for significant amounts of time. Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, Ian Desmond, and Adam LaRoche have all had solid seasons that have helped put the Nats second in the league in runs scored. Another key to the Nats success is their pitching, and they have allowed the fewest runs in the NL. First year manager Matt Williams has his team in position to win the NL East for the second time in three years.

Drew Storen has had a dominant year, and recently replaced Rafael Soriano as the team's closer. Tyler Clippard was made his second All Star team as a setup reliever. Washington has had four different starters win 10 or more games, and that doesn't include Gonzalez. Three of the team's starters have a sub-3 ERA, and that doesn't include Stephen Strasburg or Gonzalez. Jordan Zimmermann might very well be the Nats Game 1 starter, but Tanner Roark could find himself in the bullpen. Roark has had a very good year, but isn't likely to get the nod over Strasburg or Gonzalez. Strasburg was shut down late in the 2012 season and was controversially left off the postseason roster. Strasburg was disappointed in the decision, but he will have his turn this year.

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