NL Contenders and Pretenders

Back on Wednesday afternoon on The Mike Gill Show (1450 ESPN Atlantic City) we got to talking about which teams were legitimate contenders this year and which probably weren’t. The AL seemed fairly straightforward, save for the West, but the Senior Circuit seemed like a major fustercluck when it came to separating the wheat from the chaff.

After we concluded, I decided to take a closer look on the NL side to see if I could make sense of it all. Before we get into the meat and potatos of it, I thought for the sake of clarity (and brevity) I’d lay a few basic groundrules. One, I’m assuming the East is settled. Following the Nationals denuding of the Reds, I’m going to concede the Central to the Cardinals, since I can’t see any team unseating them from their perch.

If I’m wrong then we can all have another good hearty laugh at my expense. Heck, if I wanted to be taken seriously I would’ve done something more productive with my life than using David Samson as my straight man.

That leaves us with the Wild Card candidates and the wild, wild West. We’ll use 90 wins as the baseline for the Wild Card. Why 90 wins? After in-depth research, analysis, and study proved to be too much bloody work, I decided to pull the number out of my butt instead okay? It’s close enough to make this column borderline relevant. Anyway, here are the wild card contenders-slash-NL West in the hunt. Listed are their won-loss records and what they need to do to reach the 90-win plateau:

Team        W-L   To 90 Wins   W% to 90
Reds       50-45    40-27       .597
Giants     48-47    42-25       .627
D-Backs    47-47    43-25       .642  
Dodgers    47-48    43-24       .632
Astros     46-49    44-23       .667
Brewers    46-50    44-22       .672
Rockies    45-49    45-23       .662
Braves     49-50    41-22       .657 
Padres*    50-44    40-28       .588

*Currently leading in West but will be considered part of the Wild Card mix.

I defined “Wild Card contenders” as being within five games of the Wild Card lead. I came up with this using the same complex formula I used to come up with 90 wins. To come up with who might be for real and who’ll fall by the wayside, let’s break down these bad boys:

PITCHING (ERA)
Team     Starters        Team    Relievers 
Rockies    4.19          Padres     3.64
Giants     4.27          Dodgers    4.53
Dodgers    4.34          Astros     4.55
Astros     4.39          D-Backs    4.62
Padres     4.43          Rockies    4.65
Reds       4.59          Braves     4.73
D-Backs    4.65          Giants     4.77
Braves     4.70          Reds       5.06
Brewers    4.94          Brewers    5.09
OFFENSE
Team      Runs        Team         OPS
Braves    505         Braves  .276/.342/.454  
Dodgers   484         Reds    .264/.344/.449  
Reds      472         Dodgers .281/.353/.426   
D-Backs   455         Rockies .269/.337/.428 
Brewers   444         Brewers .262/.330/.434 
Rockies   443         D-Backs .269/.336/.421
Giants    437         Padres  .265/.332/.420
Padres    435         Giants  .259/.331/.418
Astros    431         Astros  .257/.333/.406

Without belaboring the point, here are the teams I think we can eliminate without much verbiage:

Braves: Yes, they’ve got Bob Wickman and they’ve been raking the ball of late, but they’ve got seven pitchers on the DL (three starters, four relievers) and they had one of these hot streaks earlier this year. From May 7-28 they went 15-4 and pulled within 3.5 games of the division lead before falling back.

Expect the same again. Among the teams mentioned, the Braves are 8th in starting pitching and their bullpen ranks 6th–is that enough to play .657 ball between now and the end of the season? Doubtful. There’s not enough pitching on the market this year.

Brewers: The Brew Crew is looking to go 44-22, but they’re at the bottom of the list with both starters and relievers, and fifth in offense. Not even the return of Ben Sheets and Jorge de la Rosa will get them close.

Reds I know they’re on top of the Wild Card standings, but they were doing it with offense and starting pitching. They traded away a good chunk of hitting to marginally upgrade one of the worst bullpens in the NL. Expect a steady decline until October.

That leaves the Astros in the NL Central. The pitching is there and their offense is upgradable. There are some good bats on the market from places like Philadelphia and Washington. However, they’d better act soon before things slip away completely. Getting Brad Lidge’s head on straight would help as well.

Everybody in the NL West is within five games of either the Wild Card or the division crown. Let’s narrow our focus a bit:

PITCHING (ERA)
Team     Starters        Team    Relievers
Rockies    4.19          Padres     3.64
Giants     4.27          Dodgers    4.53
Dodgers    4.34          D-Backs    4.62
Padres     4.43          Rockies    4.65
D-Backs    4.65          Giants     4.77
OFFENSE
Team      Runs         Team         OPS
Dodgers   484         Dodgers .281/.353/.426  
D-Backs   455         Rockies .269/.337/.428 
Rockies   443         D-Backs .269/.336/.421
Giants    437         Padres  .265/.332/.420
Padres    435         Giants  .259/.331/.418
OPS RANK BY POSITION
Team      C 1B 2B SS 3B LF RF CF
Dodgers   3  1  2  4  4  2  3  4
D-Backs   2  4  5  3  2  4  1  3
Rockies   5  2  1  5  1  1  4  1
Giants    4  5  3  1  3  3  5  2
Padres    1  3  4  2  5  5  2  5

I’ve got to be daring here. After all, if I went through all the trouble of making up these bloody charts only to say “I think they’ve all got a chance,” then I’m taking myself out behind the woodshed and teaching myself a lesson I’ll never forget.

What makes it tough to figure is that the Dodgers have the best offense in the division, their starting pitching stacks up well, and they’ve got the second-best bullpen in the NL West (damning with faint praise), but they’re 3.5 games out of the lead and have a bushel of guys on the DL. The Giants’ starting pitching is solid but their bullpen is awful, their offense almost worst in the West, and they’ve got the whole Barry Bonds circus as a distraction.

I’m going to knock the Giants out of the equation.

The Rockies are playing as well at home as they are on the road. If they can upgrade the bullpen …

The Snakes just haven’t got the pitching or enough offense to overcome that this year. They’re on the right track, however.

The Padres are in a similar position to the Astros–albeit in first place. The pitching looks good but the offense needs some serious love–especially at the infield/outfield corners. Like the ‘Stros, there are bats available.

Since there’s not a lot of pitching to be had, but there will be lumber, teams with decent pitching figure to stay in the hunt. So in the NL West, I see the contenders for both the division and the Wild Card being the Dodgers, Padres, and possibly the Rockies.

We started with nine teams looking at two playoff spots. I’ll officially predict the following:

Contenders: Astros, Padres, Dodgers.

On the bubble: Rockies.

Pretenders: Braves, Reds, Brewers, Giants, Diamondbacks.

Let me have it …

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