NL Season Preview: A crowded wild-card picture

NL Season Preview: A crowded wild-card picture

April 1, 2013, 9:00 am
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The first year of Major League Baseball’s 10-team playoff format showed us that clubs that previously would have been out of the race in late-August or early-September can stick around into the final days of the season hoping for that one final surge.

The Phillies did it in 2012. The Brewers did it. So did the Rays, Angels, White Sox, Dodgers and Diamondbacks.

Remember when the Phillies were three games out of the second wild-card spot in mid-September, when they reached 77-74 on the same day the Cardinals fell to 80-71? There was hope then. Had it been a year earlier, the Phils would have been nine games out of the playoff race, as the Braves were 86-65. Adding one more playoff team to each league actually puts three or four more into play. It does create excitement. Give Bud Selig credit, because few liked the new playoff format when it was first announced.

Knowing what we now know, let’s take a look around the divisions to see which teams should still be in the playoff race down the stretch in 2013 ...

NL East

The favorite

The Nationals are the most complete team in the division, but Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing arm at third base is a worry after an offseason shoulder procedure, Mike Morse is gone, Adam LaRoche won’t replicate his career year of 2012, the league is one more year wiser to Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, the Nats don’t have a lefty specialist and the middle infield isn’t elite.

See? You can poke holes in any team.

The Nats should still win the division, posting a win total near 95.

After that, the only certainty is that the Mets and Marlins will compete for the NL’s worst record.

The Mets have exactly two impact bats in David Wright and Ike Davis. Colin Cowgill is set to lead off.

Placido Polanco is batting cleanup for the 2013 Marlins. That is all you need to know about them.

The others

The Phillies and Braves will duke it out from start to finish for a wild-card spot. The talent levels of the two teams are very similar, despite the splashy offseason Atlanta had. The Braves didn’t really net much this winter, as the Upton brothers and Jordan Walden were added at the expense of Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, Michael Bourn and Tommy Hanson. Setup man Jonny Venters is also dealing with a sprained elbow that will keep him out of the opening series.

Predictions: Nats win the division at 95-67; Phillies and Braves finish with 88 wins apiece.

NL Central

The favorite

The Reds won 97 games last season and then got better over the winter. The main thing is that Joey Votto won’t miss 50 games again. But the addition of Shin-Soo Choo to play center field and lead off gives Cincinnati a true power/OBP threat at the top of the lineup. Handing those plate appearances to Choo (.381 career OBP) rather than Drew Stubbs (.312 OBP) is an enormous upgrade to the Reds’ already potent offense.

Throw in a solid rotation and a stellar late-relief crew led by Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Broxton and Logan Ondrusek, and you have the best team in the NL.

The others

The Cardinals and Brewers are in a similar position and will compete for the second wild-card spot. Both teams have good offenses and decent pitching staffs. Adam Wainwright should be better one more year removed from Tommy John surgery, and Kyle Lohse is a solid No. 2 starter behind Yovani Gallardo in Milwaukee.

The Brewers are one injury away from falling out of contention, as their team is very thin after Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Gallardo and Rickie Weeks. The Cardinals need Carlos Beltran to stay on the field and for the double-play combo of Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma to give them something offensively.

The Astros are no longer in this division, which is bad news for everyone else. The Pirates are too similar to last year’s team to be substantially better than 79-83, and the Cubs have a better rotation but an ugly offense.

Predictions: 97 wins for the Reds; wild-card contention for the Cards; a late-season fade by the Brewers; another season under .500 for the Pirates and a slightly better but still awful year from the Cubs.

NL West

The favorite

Everyone wants to talk about the Dodgers, but until we actually see the pieces fit together they can’t be predicted to win a tough division. Instead, let’s go with the reigning champion San Francisco Giants, who maintained the status quo this offseason.

Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong form a top-three that rivals the Phillies and Nationals for the best in the National League. If Tim Lincecum can get back to his pre-2012 form – and this spring was far from encouraging – the Giants can be even scarier.

A couple things to keep an eye on are Sergio Romo’s transition to being the guy in the bullpen, and how Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro respond after getting their big contract extensions.

The others

L.A. has $216 million already committed to players in 2013, but far too many questions for a team spending that much. Zack Greinke and Carl Crawford have both dealt with injuries this spring. Outside of Adrian Gonzalez, the infield is light-hitting with Mark Ellis, Nick Punto, Juan Uribe and Luis Cruz. Can Brandon League be an effective closer on a team with high expectations? He has a 3.60 career ERA and only one season of 20-plus saves.

The Diamondbacks had a very strange offseason, subtracting Justin Upton, Chris Young and top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer while adding “meh” outfielders to an already stocked outfield and acquiring heart-and-hustle guys like Prado, Cliff Pennington, Cody Ross and shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius.

Brandon McCarthy makes the rotation better and if Heath Bell has anything at all left he’ll make the bullpen better. Offensively, Paul Goldschmidt is the player to watch in the NL, as he figures to make the leap from underrated first baseman to legitimate 30/30 threat.

The Padres have oddly become a deep sleeper by some, but the rotation is not good and until Cameron Maybin and Will Venable reach their potential for even a half-season, they can’t be trusted. The fences were moved in at PETCO Park, which should add offense to a hitter’s house of horrors.

The Rockies? Some intriguing young hitters like Josh Rutledge and Jordan Pacheco, as well as the always dangerous Carlos Gonzalez, the always consistent Michael Cuddyer and the always injured Troy Tulowitzki. But nothing exciting on the pitching staff. Closer Rafael Betancourt will be traded by the deadline.

Predictions: Giants finish with the worst record of any division-winner; Dodgers miss the playoffs the way the high-priced Angels did last season; Diamondbacks finish 84-78; Padres and Rockies battle for last place.

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