Originally posted on Taking Bad Schotz  |  Last updated 8/27/13

With a little over a month to play, there are no questions as to who will be in the playoffs in the National League. The five teams are more or less set, with three teams battling for a division and the two wild card spots. The Dodgers have a 9.5 game lead. The Braves have a 13 game lead over the Nationals. And then there is the NL Central, where the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds are within 3.5 games of each other. Those five teams will be the five teams representing the NL in the playoffs. But what has happened this year in the NL is only possible because of the two wild card system. The second wild card was supposed to add suspense to the end of the season and assure at least one close race for baseball fans to salivate over. But year two is almost in the books, and the system has already been beaten. The NL Central has helped to break the system this year. The Pirates finally took two years of great starts and continued its great play through the whole season. The Cardinals have continued the consistent greatness and handling of the farm system that has made them the model franchise of Major League Baseball. The Reds continue to be powered by Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and breakout starter Mat Latos. Needless to say, the NL Central has been outstanding this year and fully deserves to have three playoff teams. Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati have 77, 76, and 74 wins respectively, so it will be a fight to the end to see who wins the division and which two teams need to battle in the one game playoff just to get into the NLDS. As of now, the Cards have a one game lead on the Pirates, and considering St. Louis has the experienced players who have gone through a playoff run and won a World Series, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they keep the division as the season winds down. 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Pittsburgh brought in Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano through free agency as well as trading for Mark Melancon. To get Melancon, the Pirates traded away former closer Joel Hanrahan and turned the closer job over to Jason Grilli who was having an outstanding year until he was injured on July 22. The Pirates took a chance by moving Grilli into the closer role for the first time at the age of 36. While he will easily have the most strikeouts in his career this year, Pedro Alvarez has proved he is here to stay as a big league hitter. El Toro already has set a new career high with 31 home runs and he has tied his career high with 85 RBI, giving him two consecutive seasons with 30 homers and 85 RBI. For the second year in a row, Alvarez is getting consistent playing time, and he is able to show that he is a legitimate big league hitter after faltering earlier in his career. Starling Marte has been another bright spot for the Buccos, giving Andrew McCutchen a running mate in the outfield. In his first full season, Marte has shown power, with 11 home runs and 25 doubles, and speed, with 10 triples and 35 stolen bases. Marte has also played an exceptional left field to give Pittsburgh two great outfield defenders. Photo Credit: Chris Lee / Associated Press The Cardinals continue to be the Cardinals. At the beginning of Spring Training, they learned that rotation mainstay Chris Carpenter would be out most, if not all, of the season. They didn’t go out and resign Kyle Loshe to a multi-year contract, instead they plugged Shelby Miller into the rotation and didn’t skip a beat. Miller is just another product of the Cardinals minor league system that has developed players like Allen Craig, David Freese, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay, as well as pitchers like Adam Wainwright, Trevor Rosenthal and Lance Lynn. 2011 World Series hero David Freese is having a down year, but Matt Carpenter has played well in the field after moving to second base in the offseason and has hit well enough that some have put him in the conversation of the best second basemen in the NL along with Brandon Phillips. Yadier Molina has continued the defensive play that has earned him the reputation as the best defensive catcher in the game, and this year he continues to improve at the plate hitting .332 with an OPS of .869. With the continued improvements at the plate, Molina is making a stronger case than ever to win the NL MVP. Much like the Pirates, the Cardinals gave the closer job to a reliever who had never closed before in Edward Mujica. Mujica was forced into the closer role after Jason Motte was injured after just nine appearances and needed Tommy John surgery. Mujica has picked up where Motte left off last season with 34 saves in 36 chances this year while registering a .80 WHIP. The Cardinals look primed for another run in the postseason behind their strong starting rotation and years of hard work in developing players in the minors. Photo Credit: AL BEHRMAN/AP The Reds have continued to fight the Cardinals for NL Central over the past few years. This year on-base wizards Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto have helped carry the offense, with Brandon Phillips reaping the benefits of having all those men on base by driving in 95 runs putting him in position to set a new career high in RBI (previously 98). Todd Frazier has struggled hitting for average in his sophomore season after a .273 rookie year, but aside from that, he has produced at just about the same levels he did during his rookie year. The Reds are also getting a bit of an offensive reinforcement with Ryan Ludwick coming back after missing nearly the whole season with a torn labrum. Ludwick adds more power to the lineup and takes over after Clay Heisey and Xavier Paul filled in the first four months of the year. In the starting rotation, Mat Latos is pitching more like he did as a rookie in San Diego than he has in the last two seasons. Like anybody else who has thrown a no hitter, Homer Bailey’s season has been highlighted by that game, but he has posted a lower WHIP than any other year of his career and has an era lower than all but one year of his career. At the end of games, Aroldis Chapman is coming in and again blowing hitters away with fastballs consistently over 100 mph. But this year Chapman has been getting hit harder than any other time in his career and has allowed more home runs this year, seven, than he had the rest of his MLB career, six. Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports   Out in the NL West, it is a completely different story. The Dodgers were 9.5 games back in the middle of June, stretch their lead even more, and are now still 9.5 up. Fans could turn look to superstar rookie Yasiel Puig as the reason for the Dodgers turn around, but that would be doing an injustice to the pitching staff that Ned Colletti has put together. Since July,  Zack Greinke has a 1.93 era and has allowed hitters to hit just .203 against him, while going 8-1 in those 11 starts. Clayton Kershaw has been so good this year; some writers have begun putting him in discussion to be the NL MVP as well as possibly winning the Cy Young award. Kershaw has been historically good with a 1.72 era and 188 strikeouts. Hanley Ramirez has also played a huge role in the Dodgers midseason revival. Ever since coming back from injury on June 4th, Ramirez has hit .343 with 12 home runs and an OPS over 1.000. Puig’s effect on the Dodgers should not be diminished. The rookie Cuban outfielder has provided the spark plug LA has needed when they were in the NL West cellar. He plays rightfield with a wreck less abandon that might worry Dodger coaches, management and fans. He runs the bases with the enthusiasm of a little kid. Puig has been impressive enough that the Dodgers have not been hurt by Matt Kemp’s inability to stay on the field for any kind a prolonged time. The Dodgers are in the middle of a historic stretch of games, and they line up to be a scary postseason team with a one-two punch of Kershaw and Greinke.   Photo Credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore The Braves have fought through injuries and ineffective play to be the most consistent team in the NL East. BJ Upton has produced virtually nothing for Atlanta after signing a huge contract this offseason. Brain McCann has hit 18 home runs after missing the first month of the season with injury. Although he seemed to go missing for a while after an amazing April, Justin Upton has put up numbers more or less in line with what he did the rest of his career in Arizona.  Freddie Freeman has been the Braves most consistent hitter with an average over .300 and could reach 20 home runs and 100 RBI (he currently has 16 home runs and 85 RBI). However, the Braves starting pitching is a huge question mark. Even before Tim Hudson went down with a freak injury against the Mets, the rotation had wholes. Now take away the best and most consistent starting pitcher Atlanta had this year, and there are some big problems. Brandon Beachy came back from Tommy John surgery and is already back on the DL with elbow troubles. Kris Medlen has not been able to pitch anywhere near the level he did last season. However, Atlanta has been helped by their division. The Nationals have been a disappointment after last year’s 95-win season and trip to the playoffs, and the Mets, Phillies and Marlins were not perceived as contenders before the season and their play has proven those thoughts right. The Braves will have no problem winning the NL East even without Jason Heyward for the rest of the season, as they have a 13-game lead over the Nationals, but there shouldn’t be high expectations in Atlanta this year of doing damage in October. This year has been extremely odd. The two wild card system is not supposed to allow the playoff picture to be set this early in the season, but through a combination of teams playing well and teams playing poorly, such as the Nationals, the playoff teams in the NL have all but been decided. Aside from Atlanta, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, no team in the NL has more than a 10% chance to make the playoffs according to ESPN. By comparison, four teams in the AL East have greater than a 12% chance to make the playoffs according to the same ESPN stat. Technically anything can happen in the last month of the baseball season, and nobody is truly out of the playoffs until they are mathematically eliminated, just look at the 2011 season. The Red Sox and Braves both blew huge wild card leads in the last few weeks of the season. Under the new system, we wouldn’t have had the greatest night in baseball history when both the Red Sox and Braves lost, and the Rays and Cardinals won in game 162 effectively completing the comebacks propelling the Rays and Cards into the playoffs. So yes, technically no lead is safe, the Pirates could end up continuing the longest playoff drought in professional sports. The Nationals could come back from under .500 to win the division. Last week, I heard Casey Stern on MLB Network Radio talking about this same issue and he said that this is such an oddity that he wouldn’t be surprised if a similar situation doesn’t occur for the next 10 years where the playoff teams are decided by the end of August. This is certainly a strange year in Major League Baseball and one can only imagine what kind of a wild ride the playoffs will be. -Goldberg


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