Playoff-picture preview: Phillies, Braves have all but locked up the National League
It’s difficult to think of anything in this world that’s more arbitrary than preseason baseball predictions.
Of course, it’s always fun to forecast the future. Plus, without predictions there would be no compelling underdog stories. However, with considerations for the sheer longevity of the sport’s regular-season schedule alone, predicting anything postseason-related in Major League Baseball is relatively pointless prior to, we’ll say, mid-to-late August.
By then – or should I say now – the trade deadline has passed, typically inconsistent players on a year-to-year basis have given fans an idea of what they can expect the rest of the way and just a handful of teams remain within reach of playoff contention. While roster sizes have yet to be expanded for the playoffs, the majority of September call-ups are merely role players used to fill out the depth chart and rarely affect the overall complexion of their respective clubs.
That being said, the National League playoff picture is beginning to take shape earlier than most anticipated.
In the Central – once thought by many to be one of baseball’s most balanced and heated divisional races – the Milwaukee Brewers have surged ahead of the fading St. Louis Cardinals by 10 games thanks to a sizzling month of August. For only the second time in the last 28 seasons, and the first since 2008, there will likely be playoff baseball in Wisconsin.
The Philadelphia Phillies’ lead in the East has shrunk as of late, and Atlanta is making a run at making a late run. The acquisition of Michael Bourn at the deadline — in addition to the reemergence of Dan Uggla and one of the league’s most dominating bullpens – has Atlanta looking like an extremely tough out come playoff time. Whether or not the team will have enough to erase the Philadelphia’s comfortable 6 ½-game cushion within its division, however, is still up for debate.
At this point, only the National League West truly remains up for grabs, with both the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks in position to potentially punch a ticket to the postseason.
Yet, despite a total of just five teams considered realistic contenders at this point, there are still a few questions that surround the National League playoff picture.
Will the Phillies coast their way into home-field advantage throughout the entirety of the playoffs or will the Brewers ride their recent hot streak into an improbable top seed? Can the Giants earn the chance to defend their 2010 World Series championship? Or, do the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks have enough left in the tank to squeak into October baseball by capturing the franchise’s fifth NL-West crown in only its 13th year of existence?
After a relatively comprehensive look at each team’s remaining schedules, as well as a few other considerations, the questions above become clearer.
Let’s start with the Milwaukee Brewers, the inevitable NL Central champions.
The only question on fans’ minds at this point is whether or not their team can challenge Philadelphia for the league’s top overall seed and, more importantly, full home-field advantage come October.
Overall, the Brewers have one of the friendliest final schedules of any team in baseball. Milwaukee has 10 total series left on the slate, nine of those 10 come against non-playoff teams and only three feature opponents with a win percentage above .500. The Brewers’ 49-23 record against their remaining opponents is also encouraging for fans. Not to mention – aside from Cincinnati, who they are 5-8 against – Milwaukee holds a winning record versus all who make up their final schedule. Even the four-game series against mighty Philadelphia (Sept. 8-11) is fortunate enough to be played at Miller Park where the Brewers are 47-16, good enough for baseball’s best home mark.
Next, we quickly shift to the NL East.
The Phillies have 6 ½ games between themselves and Atlanta as August comes to a close. Philadelphia, at least from a schedule standpoint, has the toughest task on paper. For instance, Philadelphia plays more games on the road and against playoff teams than any of the other four contenders.
Similarly to Philly, the Braves will play the majority of their remaining 33 games on the road. However, Atlanta has just a 32-28 record versus all remaining opponents. The pair of three-game sets against the Phillies (including the season finale) should at least give the Braves an idea of exactly where they stand when the dust of 162 games is settled.
Lastly, we take a look at the race out West – starting first, with the defending champions.
Thankfully for the Giants – who has withstood a barrage of injuries this season — the vast majority of their remaining games will be played in the comfort of their own ballpark, where they are 36-26. Also, without counting Arizona, the Giants are 33-23 versus the remaining opponents who comprise their schedule.
Unfortunately for Giants fans, their club is just 18-21 in the season’s second half — although much of that can be attributed to health issues. Nonetheless, it remains in question whether or not this team can get healthy, much less stay that way. The potential addition of Heath Bell, who was claimed off waivers by San Francisco on Wednesday, would be an enormous lift, but it remains unclear whether or not the two teams involved can complete a deal during the 48-hour window allowed.
The Diamondbacks hold a two-game lead over San Francisco thanks to a newly disciplined core of young stars, that are now being coached by, quite literally, an all-star cast of former players and legends.
However, against all remaining opponents, the D-Backs have a record of just 27-26. Their saving grace could be the team’s nine consecutive home games to conclude the regular season, which feature three against the visiting Giants. At Chase Field, Arizona is a healthy 36-26.
All things considered, let’s revisit each race and make some predictions – arbitrary or not.
As far as the Brewers and their quest for the top seed are concerned, the most obvious obstacle standing in Milwaukee’s way is an inability to compete with playoff-caliber teams – or non-playoff-caliber teams, for that matter — away from Miller Park. With a road record of 31-38 — the worst of any contending team in all of baseball — it’s hard to imagine the Brewers getting too deep into October, much less finishing with the best overall record. Speaking of alarming trends, it’s worth mentioning that if the season ended today, Milwaukee would be just 9-15 against qualifying playoff teams and were outscored 78-113 in those contests during the regular season.
That being said, the Milwaukee Brewers will likely finish the season around 96-66, a handful of games behind the Phillies in the race for the Senior Circuit’s best overall record.
Back in the East, Philadelphia should clinch the top seed and home-field advantage all the way through to the World Series with a record around 103-59, earning them a date with the team that emerges out of the West in round one.
I predict Atlanta to finish second in the East at 95-67. As a result, those old enough to appreciate the irony will be treated to a storyline-laden date between the Braves, who once called Milwaukee home, and the Brewers, the city’s current resident club.
So, who ultimately takes the West, filling out the fourth and final playoff position? It’s certainly going to be one of the last divisions decided, and with six games remaining between the Giants and Diamondbacks, it could very easily sway either way.
However, I believe that concerns over the Giants’ health and lack of offensive support are nothing if not warranted, and in turn, will keep them from defending their World Series title – but barely. The Diamondbacks — who should eke out the West title with a finish roughly around 90-72 — will be the final team in the postseason, earning them the unenviable task of traveling to Philadelphia to open their quest for a World Series title.
Naturally, each team’s strengths and weaknesses are altered drastically by the postseason format – especially in the best of five Divisional Series. Starting rotations are condensed to the best three starters, only the most proven bullpen arms are utilized and the mental makeup of each team becomes one of the most influential aspects of each individual contest.
Milwaukee’s road woes could be minimalized by one of the more imposing playoff-built pitching staffs. Philadelphia’s playoff experience may be unmatched and underappreciated. The Braves have one of the best bullpens in baseball and shortens the length of any game they lead, an essential component of any playoff team. Lastly, the combination of youthful athleticism and experienced guidance may make Arizona an unfairly overlooked participant.
With that in mind, which of these four teams is best built for postseason play?
Well, on second thought, the only thing as arbitrary as preseason predictions is forecasting playoff matchups that have yet to be set, so I’ll bite my tongue on that question — for now, anyway.