As of last night’s games, the Chicago Cubs stand in a percentage points lead for first place in the National League Central, and subsequently two games out of the Wild Card race.
Based on head-to-head schedules, as well as remaining schedules for both the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, it is my prediction that the Cardinals will come out on top of the division victorious.
Despite the two teams being stuck together in the standings, the Cardinals’ sailing has been much smoother on their way to a 59-51 record. They have been consistent all year in a division that has not seen any team take advantage of the other’s struggles. Their longest winning streak and longest losing streak on the year is five in both categories, and they have not had many negative headlines.
One question mark that arose for the Cardinals early in the year was the question of who would protect slugger Albert Pujols in the batting order. Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel have not been up to the task of doing so in trying to repeat their breakout performances of last year.
To ignite the offense and protect the best hitter in baseball, the Cardinals added a couple of veteran pieces that are sure to help mightily during the stretch run. First, Mark DeRosa was acquired for a couple of mid-level prospects, and he has done a solid job batting in the two spot.
After starting his Cardinals career out 0-for-15, DeRosa has batted .242 since with seven homers, 12 runs batted in and an .891 OPS. He has batted all over the lineup, anywhere from the two spot to the seven spot, and he has shown his versatility by playing first, second, and third base in the field while still having the capability to play outfield.
For as average as DeRosa has been since coming to the Cards, Matt Holliday has picked him up and then some. Since putting on a Cardinals jersey, Holliday has batted a blistering .477 with three home runs, 11 runs batted in, and an on-base percentage of .549 in just 11 games.
Along with the new and improved offense, the Cardinals’ starters have been outstanding this year, and the defense has been superb. The Cards’ starters rank tied for second with the Cubs in the National League in ERA at 3.67, and they have walked just 192 batters, which is good for third in the majors.
Ryan Franklin has been about as shut-down of a closer as there is possible, and the bullpen, while having an average season statistically, has thrown the second-least amount of innings this year, which is always important for a stretch run in September.
But enough about that. It’s time to focus on the North Siders.
That team with the “C” on the helmet that has been tricking you and deceiving you for the past 106 games. Oh, don’t worry Cubbie fans. You will probably make it to the postseason this year for reasons that we will go over in just a second.
But once you are there, it’ll be the third year in a row that you don’t even sniff the “W” column during the second season.
In case you haven’t heard, the National League Central is one of the the worst divisions in all of baseball. As a division, it has a .485 winning percentage and is the only division in baseball to have four teams at .500 or below.
It has the lowly Pirates, who are setting up to look really good in 2014. It has the Reds, who seemingly fell off the map without anyone noticing.
It has the God-awful starting pitching of the Milwaukee Brewers and the ever-fading Houston Astros.
Yes, for the Chicago Cubs, it’s almost too much fun to be in the National League Central and get to feast on some of the worst teams in the league this year. And feast they have, as we get to the first reason why the Cubs’ record and production is tainted.
They have played 55 games against the National League Central this year and will wind up playing a total of 80 against the worst division in the NL. In those 55 games, they have gone a solid 32-23, and the 32 wins are the most by any team against their own division in all of baseball.
Sounds pretty good, right?
But realize that the Cubs are 11-12 against the other top two teams in the division, Milwaukee and St. Louis, as opposed to the 21-11 record they sport against the cellar dwellers of the Central in Houston, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.
Even better, they still have nine games left against Pittsburgh and a combined six against the other two teams at the bottom. Tell me those numbers won’t end up looking good on a playoff resume. I hope the Cubs can pull the Pirates or Reds in the NLDS.
Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies are slaving away as they battle in the deepest division not named the AL East. With three teams as legitimate contenders to make the playoffs, including the best team in all of baseball in the Los Angeles Dodgers, times are not easy over there.
Thus far, the Rockies and Giants have had the 16th- and 17th-toughest schedules in the majors, while the Cubs have relaxed with the 24th-easiest in all of baseball.
If you think that kind of stuff always evens out at the end of the year, think again.
To end the year, the Cubs will play 38 games against teams with losing records and just 19 games against teams with winning records.
To put that in comparison, the Giants will play 28 games against teams with losing records and 26 games against .500 or better teams.
The Rockies have it even worse, playing 27 games against teams with losing records and 30 against teams with winning records.
Simply put, there is a very good chance that the Cubs get into the playoffs while the Giants and Rockies beat each other up. San Francisco and Colorado will play each other 10 times before the end of the year in what will either decide the Wild Card race or let a Central team in.
Let’s say, for a moment, that the Chicago Cubs make the playoffs as the National Leauge Wild Card representative. Let’s say that the easy schedule was just easy enough and that the Giants and Rockies could never pull away from each other. In all honesty, there’s a good chance it happens.
San Francisco will get the Dodgers nine times before season’s end, and the Rockies get to face them six times.
Now the real question: Would the Cubs stand any kind of chance in the playoffs against, more than likely, the Los Angeles Dodgers?
The simple answer to this question is no, but because it’d be a lame ending to this article, I’ll explain why.
This season, the Cubs have played 18 different ballclubs. They have played every team in the National League other than the Mets (14) and have played four American League teams as well.
The Cubs have played 27 games against the top six teams on their schedule and have won just 10 of those games. The middle six of their schedule has seen the Cubs go 24-21. And right on cue, the Cubs are 22-13 against the worst six teams on their schedule this season.
Against teams with winning records this season, the Cubs are a dismal 19-29, which is good for a .395 winning percentage. Compare that record against other clubs’ results against .500 or better teams such as the Cardinals (.545 win percentage), the Giants (.528), the Rockies (.490), and the Dodgers (.566), and you see a huge disparity.
The numbers don’t lie, and what they show is that the Cubs do not fare well against good teams but do very well against the lower-tier teams. Because they are in one of the worst divisions in baseball, that trait is magnified, and it makes the Cubs look better than they really are.
The Giants are 16-11 against teams in the Central, and the Rockies are 17-8 against those same ballclubs.
In reverse effect, the Cubs are just 8-9 against the National League West this year. This clearly shows how much easier it is to play in the National League Central and indicates that the Giants and Rockies have outperformed the Cubs this year by more than the two games the standings say.
Other indicators that spell doom for the Cubs if they make it to the playoffs are the bullpen woes. The Cubs have the fourth-most blown saves in the National League with 16, and their bullpen has walked more batters than any other team in the NL. Walks might fly against the Astros and Diamondbacks, but when it comes time to play against the big boys, you’d better not give up any free passes.
When thinking about teams in the National League getting ready to make their stretch runs, the word “aggressive” came to mind this year. The Phillies went out and got Cliff Lee, the reigning Cy Young award winner and new ace for the next two years.
The Giants obtained Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko to add some good solid bats to help support the best pitching staff in the league.
The Dodgers helped their shaky bullpen out by getting one of the best, if not the best, lefty specialists in the game in George Sherill.
The Cardinals traded their top prospect and other first-round draft picks in order to get their hands on a guy that could drive in Albert Pujols instead of stranding him on second.
With the Cubs and their acquisitions of John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny, you didn’t get the sense that they were making that “push” to reach the pennant or beat out the Cardinals. They got what they needed in another lefty arm, but it didn’t put them over the edge.
The sale of the team hurt them, as Jim Hendry was advised not to increase payroll, but something a little more spicy would have been nice. Grabow is an average arm in the bullpen, and Gorzelanny does not give the Cubs anything that Kevin Hart was not already giving them.
With the best record in the National League, it’s all but set that the Los Angeles Dodgers are going to obtain the top seed in the National League playoffs this year. It will be an award well-deserved, and there is no doubt they will honor that title and back it up as best as can.
Standing in their way, if they get there, will probably be the Chicago Cubs.
If the Cubs win the National League Central and the Wild Card comes from the National League West, or if the Cubs win the Wild Card, they will visit Chavez Ravine to start the playoffs.
Not only do the Cubs struggle mightily on the road with a record of 24-30, but the Dodgers are a National League-best 35-19 when playing in “Mannywood.”
Clayton Kershaw has a 2.06 ERA at home this year, Jonathon Broxton has allowed just one earned run all year there, and a ridiculous eight Dodgers are batting over .265 when at home.
When looking at the schedules of all contenders in the National League, the Cubs have a very good shot at contending with other squads in the Wild Card race. As easy as their schedule is, the Cardinals have an even easier schedule, as St. Louis will play the Padres seven times, the Pirates six times, and the Reds six times.
However, the Cubs’ inconsistent and struggling play against the good teams this year is that will be their downfall in the playoffs. It’s no secret that whoever comes out of the Central will have a tough time competing, but that statement applies even moreso to the Cubs.
Heading into tonight’s action in the National Leauge, it has become apparent that just six teams are left in the league that have a shot at competing for the playoffs, and ultimately the NL pennant.
The Pirates, Reds, Brewers, and Astros really have no shot at winning the Central this year. The Astros and Brewers are within reaching distance but trends say they are out of it.
In the East, the Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves are both inside seven games of the Philadelphia Phillies, but with the acquisition of Cliff Lee to the pitching staff, I will go ahead and say the Phillies are rolling to the playoffs.
In the West, the Diamondbacks are too far out of it and the Padres have officially begun to rebuild and stand no chance in what is easily the toughest division in the National League.
With those ten teams all but out of any race heading into the stretch run of the season, six teams remain that include the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Philadelphia Phillies, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs, the San Francisco Giants, and the Colorado Rockies.
To get the easy stuff out of the way that really does not even need to be broken down, the Dodgers will win the division because they are the deepest team in the league and have one of the best managers in the game.
Joe Torre has his team absolutely rolling on all cylinders and the team is taking care of both the weak competition and the tough. What’s amazing about the Dodgers best record in baseball is that they also have had the toughest schedule to date in the National League, with an opponent’s win percentage of .510.
Against teams with a winning record, the Dodgers are are an NL-leading 34-26 in those games. They have scored the second most runs in the NL, behind just the Phillies, and have the second best team ERA in all of baseball. The bullpen has been shaky and is the one question mark that the team has, but the trade deadline acquisition of George Sherill looks to be huge for them.
They showed no signs of slowing down even when Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games and his presence back on the team has brought them together even more. He has struggled as of late but the young stars in James Loney, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier have picked up the slack.
The other ballclub that has won their division by default (at least in this article) is the Philadelphia Phillies. They have won 20 of their last 28 games and have opened up a safe cushion on both the Braves and Marlins. Even more importantly, they made the trade of the year in acquiring starting pitcher and reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee from the Indians.
They gave up a decent amount of minor league prospects but this year’s team was left completley alone. He joins what now looks to be the best starting rotation in all of baseball that is poised for another run deep into the playoffs.
The Phillies have a pretty average looking schedule the rest of the way compared to the other contenders, with 25 games left against teams with winning records and 32 left against losing records.
The Phillies rank fifth in runs and sixth in slugging percentage this year, which is always a good thing when playing in the ballpark they play in. Combined with a now excellent pitching staff and the potential of Pedro Martinez, and the Phillies have great pitching that will get plenty of run support every time one of them takes the mound.
The one division that has not been decided and likely will not be decided until the last week of the year is the National League Central. Going into tonight’s play, the Cardinals and Cubs were tied for the best record in the division. Based on percentage points, the Cubs held a slight advantage over St. Louis.
Looking at the stretch run for both teams, the schedule seems to favor the Cardinals moreso than the Cubbies. Both teams will play 38 games against teams with losing records, but the Cubs will play four more games (19 compared to 15 for the Cards) against teams with a winning record.
Making it even more difficult for the Cubs, 15 of those games against teams with winning records will come away from Wrigley Field, where the Cubs are 24-29. The Cardinals will play nine games at home against +.500 teams and just six on the road.
My money is on the Cards taking the division, and no it has nothing to do with my staunch Brewers homerism. The Cardinals have added their pieces in Mark Derosa and Matt Holliday, and Albert Pujols is more than capable of taking them to the top. They have an easier stretch than the Cubs and overall play better ball.
The Cubs will have a tough time competing just because of their struggles on the road. The stat of having 15 of 19 road games against winning-record teams is a huge disadvantage, but what’s worse is that they play almost half of their remaining games on the road (28 of 57).
As of right now, the National League Wildcard seems as if it will be a three team race, with the San Francisco Giants leading the way, followed by the Colorado Rockies and the loser of the National League Central.
Numbers point to the Giants being the front-runners for a few reasons, with the main one being their unbelievable pitching. They have the best team ERA in the Majors and have two bonafide aces in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. They are pretty much guarenteed two quality starts every five days.
The Giants finish their season with 28 games against teams with winning records and 26 games against teams with losing records. The majority (16) of their winning-record opponents will have to come to San Francisco to play them.
With the addition of Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko to a less than stellar lineup, the Giants look to be in good position to take home the Wildcard.
What will be important is not getting into a slugfest with the Colorado Rockies so that the Cubs or Cardinals sneak right in and both are left out. The Rockies and Giants will meet ten more times before the year is over, and the odds are that whoever comes out on top in that span of games will also meet up with the Phillies in the first round.
The races in the National League, while not featuring the best teams in the world, will be exciting and should come down to the final games of the year.
Catcher: Bengie Molina, San Francisco Giants
Molina leads all catchers in the National League with ten home runs and 36 RBI’s and is one of the best defensive catchers in the game. He has commanded a great pitching staff to go along with his offensive numbers and has the Giants flying under the radar.
First Base: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals
This is about as big of a no-brainer as you can have here in taking Pujols. While there are other first basemen having great years, Pujols gets the job done everywhere and is putting up ridiculous numbers with 23 home runs and 58 runs driven in, all while batting .323.
Second Base: Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies
Utley is also a pretty easy choice here at second base as no one can match his power numbers on offense (15 home runs) and amazing on-base percentage (.490). He does a little bit of everything on offense but has been a little shaky on defense this year with five errors.
Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins
While the popularity contest is holding strong with Jimmy Rollins leading the votes here, Ramirez is putting together a great year that can not go unnoticed. I have seen him play two series against the Brewers this year and he has been unbeatable.
Third Base: David Wright, New York Mets
While his power numbers are down (just four home runs), Wright is batting .357 and has stolen a ridiculous 18 bases this year. He has been keeping the up-and-down Mets afloat so far and, in my book, slightly edges out Ryan Zimmerman for the starting nod.
Outfield: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
Braun is quietly putting up outstanding numbers that have been overshadowed by Prince Fielder’s MVP-type first half. For the year, Braun has hit 14 home runs and 46 RBI’s while batting .318.
Outfield: Raul Ibanez, Philadelphia Phillies
PED accusations or not, Ibanez has put up monster numbers and, despite going on the DL today, is a sure-fire starter in this year’s All-Star Game. The Phillies’ fans crazy voting numbers and Ibanez’s 21 home runs and 57 RBI’s are a pretty good combo to get a starting nod.
Outfield: Carlos Beltran, New York Mets
After Braun and Ibanez, the third spot in the outfield is up in the air. In the actual fan voting, Philadelphia’s Shane Victorino and even Manny Ramirez are keeping pace with Beltran, but it’s hard to argue against what Beltran has done this year. As always, the five tool center fielder is putting up great numbers and should start in the Midsummer Classic.
Starting Pitcher: Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
Cain has been dominating this year with a 9-1 record and a 2.39 ERA. While his strikeout numbers aren’t great and he walks a fair amount of batters, he finds ways to get outs and win ballgames. In his starts this year, the Giants are 10-3.
Pitcher: Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers
Billingsley has struggled as of late but still continues to be the workhorse for the Dodgers pitching staff. He has posted a 9-3 record with an ERA under three and also struck out over a batter per inning.
Pitcher: Dan Haren, Arizona Diamondbacks
Haren might be the best pitcher with a 5-4 record on the planet, as he boasts a 2.20 ERA and has walked 13 batters in 90 innings. His WHIP stands at 0.81 (no one in the NL has a WHIP under 1.00) and in his four losses, his offense has scored two runs while Haren has given up seven.
Pitcher: Johan Santana, New York Mets
As bad as his last outing was against the Yankees, Santana is still a sure-fire all star this year. He has struck out 94 batters in just 82 innings while winning eight games already. I’ve mentioned this stat before, but in Santana’s first two losses, he gave up a combined zero earned runs.
Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers
Gallardo has really stepped up his game this year and has become the ace of the first place Brewers. He sports a 7-3 record with a 2.93 ERA and opponents are batting just .193 against him, good for fourth in the National League. Command has been an issue as of late but he has also struck out 85 batters this year.
Relief Pitcher: Francisco Rodriguez, New York Mets
K-Rod has been just as good this year as he was last year and, outside of the number of saves, one could argue he has been better. He has 17 saves on the year with just one blown and sports a 0.56 ERA in 32.1 innings.
Relief Pitcher: Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
When Trevor Hoffman bolted to Milwaukee in the off-season, the biggest question was how the Padres would replace the all-times saves leader. Well, Bell has been every bet as good as Hoffman was and earns his first All Star appearance because of it. He leads the NL with 18 saves and a 1.56 ERA.
Relief Pitcher: Trevor Hoffman, Milwaukee Brewers
Despite missing the first month of the season with a rib injury, Hoffman is still at the top of the leaderboard with 17 saves and a 1.31 ERA. Despite being shaky as of late (a loss and a blown save in his last two appearances), Hoffman has walked just three batters in 20.1 innings and has blown just the one save.
Backup Catcher: Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves
McCann leads all National League catchers with a .325 batting average and has six homers on the year to go with 25 RBI’s. These numbers are even more impressive considering he has missed a decent amount of time with injury this year.
Backup First Baseman: Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers
An easy choice here as Fielder is as close to a starting nod over Pujols as anyone ever has been. He leads the Major Leagues with 64 RBI’s and is batting over .300 with 16 home runs. After Ibanez, Fielder is next in line in the MVP talks.
Backup Second Baseman: Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati Reds
Phillips is enjoying a nice year just as long as he keeps his mouth closed (stated the Reds were better than the Brewers after being swept by them…) and is a solid choice as a reserve. He is batting .280 this year with ten home runs, 43 RBI’s and eight stolen bases.
Backup Shortstop: Miguel Tejada, Houston Astros
Where is this Miguel Tejada coming from? On the year, the 35-year-old veteran is batting .342 with six home runs and an NL shortstop-leading 37 RBI’s. His defense is down but his bat has all but mad up for it this year.
Backup Third Baseman: Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals
It would be an understatement to say Zimmerman is the bright spot on a rather dark season for the Nats. Zimmerman has hit 12 home runs this year and leads all third basemen with 42 RBI’s. Zimmerman will easily be the lone rep for Washington.
Backup Outfielder: Nate McClouth, Atlanta Braves
While he is not getting much love from the fan vote, McClouth is putting together an outstanding year. For some reason, the Pirates did not want his ten home runs, 36 RBI’s, nine stolen bases, and gold glove defense. The All-Star roster should suit him just fine this year.
Backup Outfielder: Brad Hawpe, Colorado Rockies
Say what you will about Coors Field, Hawpe is having a fantastic year and deserves to play in the All-Star Game. At .343, Hawpe leads the National League in batting and also has nine home runs and 47 RBI’s to go with it. His 23 doubles also lead the National League.
Backup Outfielder: Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers
Somewhat of a sleeper pick here, but I love Kemp’s game and believe that he is an All Star this year. He has put his whole repertoire in front of the national spotlight and the results have been eight home runs, 37 RBI’s, 16 stolen bases and a .316 batting average. Kemp ranks first or second in all of those categories for center fielders.
Best of the Rest: Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies
Apologies to Adrian Gonzalez, but I give the nod to Howard in this case. Maybe it’s that he got hot too early in the voting or that he plays on the west coast, but I like Howard’s game more and think he deserves this spot. Howard has 19 home runs and 51 RBI’s on the year, so this selection isn’t terribly biased.
Best of the Rest: Freddy Sanchez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Every team must be represented in the All Star Game, and since Nate McClouth no longer sports the black and gold, Sanchez gets in as the lone representative. On the year, Sanchez is hitting his usual .314 with an on-base percentage of .355 with 36 runs scored.
Best of the Rest: Orlando Hudson, Los Angeles Dodgers
While Hudson has cooled off somewhat, his statline this year has been very solid and has earned himself a spot on the roster. His .310 batting average to go along with a .388 on-base percentage has kept the Dodgers offense rolling without Manny Ramirez. He also sports a .987 fielding percentage, good for third in the NL.
Best of the Rest: Ted Lilly, Chicago Cubs
I have become a huge fan of the North Sider southpaw and he is deserving of an all-star spot this year. At 7-4, he has led one of the best rotations in baseball with a 2.94 ERA and just 20 walks in 85.2 innings.
Best of the Rest: Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
Although he has been overshadowed by Cain’s dominating stuff this year, Lincecum has done more than hold his own with a 6-2 record and 112 strikeouts in 96 innings to lead the National League.
Best of the Rest: Jason Marquis, Colorado Rockies
Pitching in Colorado is never easy but Marquis has stepped up to the challenge and done an excellent job. While his numbers are better away from Coors Field, he still has eight wins on the year with an ERA under four.
Best of the Rest: Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins
Johnson might be one of the best pitchers that no one talks about, sporting a 6-1 record with an impressive 2.76 ERA. The Marlins are 11-3 when Johnson takes the hill, and the tall right hander owns a 2.02 ERA at home.
Best of the Rest: Jonathon Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers
Broxton has been crazy good this year with a 6-0 record to go along with 16 saves. The flame thrower has struck out 53 batters in 33 innings, meaning that over half of his outs recorded come by strikeouts.
Fan Vote-In: Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks
Upton, May’s Player of the Month, has been very good this year on an average D-Backs squad. The 21-year-old is batting .308 with 12 home runs and 38 RBI’s and has scored 40 times on the year. He also has four triples and an on-base percentage close to .400 (.391).
Apologies To: Juan Pierre (LAD), Pablo Sandoval (SF), Shane Victorino (PHI), Adrian Gonzalez (SD), Zach Duke (PIT), Johnny Cueto (CIN), Adam Wainwright (STL), Wandy Rodriguez (HOU)