Handicapping the MLB teams battling for the final NL playoff spots

By Ucatchers

The National League playoff race is a mess. If you like “Hoarders,” “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” or the finale of “Game of Thrones,” you are certainly enjoying this mad scramble of mediocrity in Major League Baseball’s senior circuit. With less than three weeks left in the season — and many doubleheaders to be played — it seems that only four teams have locked up playoff spots: the Dodgers, Braves, Cubs and Padres. Only the Pirates and Diamondbacks can safely be eliminated, which leaves nine teams fighting for the four spots in the bottom half of the bracket.

Let’s check in on those nine teams, ranked by their odds of making the playoffs. First, however, remember the postseason rules:

(1) Eight teams will advance to the postseason.

(2) The top two teams in each division make it, plus two wild cards.

(3) There will be no tiebreaker games. Any ties will be settled by head-to-head record, then record within the team’s division, then record over the final 20 games within the division (then 21, 22 and so on until the tie is broken).

Current playoff odds: 89.8%

Strength: The Phillies are fourth in the majors in runs per game, trailing only the Dodgers, Padres and Braves. Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto have been steady all season, but Rhys Hoskins has been on a tear, hitting .310/.403/.793 with eight home runs in 14 games heading into Tuesday’s doubleheader.

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Weakness: The bullpen is last in the majors with a 7.02 ERA, even though only the Cardinals have needed fewer innings from their relievers. Opponents are hitting .328/.402/.579 against Phillies relievers. Only two other teams have allowed an average higher than .265.

Overachiever: Zack Wheeler is 4-0 with a 2.47 ERA, but how he has done it is interesting, as he’s averaging just 6.4 strikeouts per nine. He has cut down on his walks compared to previous seasons and has allowed just two home runs in 51 innings. It has worked so far, even with a mediocre strikeout rate.

Needs to get going: In general, everybody in the bullpen. The Phillies acquired Brandon Workman to take over as closer, but he has allowed 19 baserunners in 9⅓ innings (though he has managed to save five of his six chances).

Series to watch: The Phillies play seven games against the Marlins from Thursday through Monday in Miami, including doubleheaders Friday and Sunday.

Final thought: The Phillies have a little margin to play with, thus their high playoff odds, but even after Tuesday’s doubleheader, they have four more doubles on the schedule. They are finished with the Braves, but they end the season with a road trip to Washington and Tampa Bay. The Rays will be worried about getting their staff ready for the postseason by then, however, so the Phillies look pretty good. Don’t rule out their catching the Braves for the NL East title.

Current playoff odds: 80.6%

Strength: The Cardinals have the fifth-best rotation ERA in the majors, the lowest batting average allowed and the third-lowest wOBA allowed.

Weakness: The offense is 22nd in the majors in runs per game and 27th in home run rate. Cardinals outfielders are hitting just .214/.294/.377.

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Overachiever: Brad Miller has taken over the DH duties and is hitting .282/.404/.541 with nearly as many walks (17) as strikeouts (22).

Needs to get going: Somebody from the Matt Carpenter/Tyler O’Neill/Dylan Carlson/Lane Thomas group. All are hitting under .200, and only Carpenter has an OBP over .300. He hasn’t hit for any power, though, and rookie Carlson has been optioned to the alternate site after looking overmatched (.162, 23 K’s in 79 PAs).

Series to watch: Five games in Milwaukee from Sept. 14 to Sept. 16. That series features two doubleheaders — two of the six the Cardinals have remaining (beginning with Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Twins). Note that the Cardinals have only 58 games scheduled. We’ll see if that ends up playing to their advantage.

Final thought: All those doubleheaders will be difficult, but the good news is that after the Twins games on Tuesday, the Cardinals don’t play another series against a team currently above .500. They face the Tigers, Reds, Brewers, Pirates, Royals and then the Brewers again. Given the team’s pitching depth and good defense, the Cardinals should be able to handle their business and return to the postseason.

Current playoff odds: 67.3%

Strength: Mike Yastrzemski has been one of the best players in the majors, ranked behind only Fernando Tatis Jr. in FanGraphs WAR and behind Mookie Betts and Tatis in Baseball-Reference WAR.

Weakness: Closers Trevor Gott and Tyler Rogers are a combined 2-5 with a 7.44 ERA. Rogers has pitched better than his 5.73 ERA indicates, but the late game remains a bit nerve-wracking for manager Gabe Kapler.

Overachiever: Yaz is certainly unexpected, but so is longtime first baseman Brandon Belt, who is hitting .337/.432/.653. Throw in Donovan Solano’s .353 average, and the Giants’ top of the order has been one of the best in the majors.

Needs to get going: The only starter with a sub-4.00 ERA is Trevor Cahill, and he has pitched just 17 innings in five outings. The Giants need a couple of other guys — Johnny Cueto, Kevin Gausman, Tyler Anderson, Logan Webb — to have a hot two-week stretch.

Series to watch: Sept. 10-13 at San Diego. The Giants then finish with three games against the Padres and have a three-game series against the A’s as well, which makes for a tough final stretch, even though they’re finished with the Dodgers.

Final thought: The Giants cleaned up against Arizona (8-2), and that’s why they’re here and the Diamondbacks are looking ahead to 2021. The offense has obviously been much better than expected, with basically everybody performing better than they did last season — a huge surprise given that this is the oldest group of position players in the league. The playoff odds like the Giants to get the No. 7 seed, but I’m not quite as confident.

Current playoff odds: 44.6%

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Strength: Really, their biggest strength is that nobody expected them to be here after last season’s 105 losses and their COVID-19 outbreak after the first series of 2020. The starting pitching has been solid, with a 3.94 ERA, and the bullpen has been clutch in the late innings (the Marlins are 17-0 when leading after six innings).

Weakness: They don’t hit much. They’re 23rd in the majors in runs per game, and that’s with their numbers being much better with runners in scoring position.

Overachiever: Rookie starters Sixto Sanchez and Trevor Rogers have combined for a 2.25 ERA through seven starts. Can they keep it going?

Needs to get going: Corey Dickerson has six home runs but is hitting just .232/.294/.416. Adding Starling Marte should help the meager outfield production, but this team needs more from Dickerson as one of the veterans with a track record.

Series to watch: That seven-game series against the Phillies will do a lot in determining who finishes second in the NL East.

Final thought: What’s interesting is that the Marlins aren’t really a young team. Their average adjusted age for their position players is fifth oldest in the NL. The pitching is younger and the better part of the team, but this is mostly a lineup of players other teams didn’t want. Also, the team has had to use 35 pitchers — eight more than any other team — because of the early COVID outbreak. A season-ending road trip against the Braves and Yankees will be a tough finish, but the Marlins keep overcoming various bumps, and Sanchez and Rogers have looked really good. I say the Marlins will find a way to squeeze in.

Current playoff odds: 37.6%

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Strength: The bullpen is 13th in the majors in ERA, but it is sixth in Win Probability Added, so it’s been good when games are close. That’s mostly thanks to Josh Hader and Devin Williams (although Hader’s 10 walks in 11⅔ innings is a concern).

Weakness: The Brewers are hitting a pathetic .221, with none of their eight players with the most PAs hitting even .250 after Tuesday.

Overachiever: Williams appeared in a few games last season and had an excellent strikeout rate at Double-A, but he’s one of the best relievers in the game with a 35 K’s and just one run in 17 innings. He looks like the real deal thanks to a devastating changeup: Batters are 0-for-39 against it with 26 strikeouts.

Needs to get going: You hate to pick on the team’s best player, and while Christian Yelich has nine home runs, he’s hitting just .213/.348/.463. He’s hardly the biggest problem, but the offense was mediocre even when he MVP-level last year, so he needs to carry them these final two-plus weeks.

Series to watch: They end the season with five games in St. Louis, including a Friday doubleheader.

Final thought: I’m not sure how the Brewers are even in this race. The rotation has a 5.15 ERA. The offense is terrible. They’re 8-4 in one-run games, so that’s been a key to keep them close to .500. They’re 29th in the majors in strikeout rate, so that helps explain the low batting average. They need to make more contact to score more runs and have a chance at the postseason.

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Current playoff odds: 32.0%

Strength: Well, Jacob deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball with a 1.69 ERA — although he’s won just three of his eight starts. The offense actually leads the majors in OBP and is tied with the Braves for the lead in wOBA, but it has underperformed its expected run total due to a .238 average with RISP (ranking just 27th in wOBA).

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Weakness: The rest of the rotation minus deGrom is 6-12 with a 6.64 ERA.

Overachiever: Dominic Smith didn’t really have a role at the beginning of the season but has bashed his away into regular playing time with .322/.390/.636 line that includes 32 RBIs and 23 extra-base hits.

Needs to get going: Look, the Mets aren’t going to find 2015 Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard in this current crop of rotation options, so they simply need to hit more. Amed Rosario is hitting just .223/.243/.339 with 26 K’s and just three walks and has apparently lost his job to Andres Gimenez, who has hit well enough and is better in the field. But nothing would get the Mets going like a hot Pete Alonso and he hit four home runs in five games heading into Tuesday.

Series to watch: At Philadelphia, Sept. 15-17. This is the only series the Mets have remaining against the Phillies and Marlins, the two teams they’re trying to run down for second place. They’re 2-5 against the Phillies and may need to sweep this series.

Final thought: It has been a frustrating 40-something games for the Mets, from the injuries to the rotation, to a couple of huge blown saves, to the offense struggling with runners on base. Seth Lugo has moved to the rotation, a necessary step even if it weakens the bullpen. There’s no reason the numbers with runners in scoring position won’t improve, and if that happens, the Mets just may hit their way into the playoffs. Put it this way: The Dodgers don’t want to face deGrom in Game 1 of a best-of-three series.

Current playoff odds: 26.8%

With only 60 games on the schedule and 16 teams headed to the playoffs, the races are already heating up.
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Strength: Umm … well, they’ve been outscored by 45 runs and yet are just 1.5 games out of the playoff race. OK, maybe the starting rotation is better than you think. In fact, according to FanGraphs WAR, Colorado’s rotation has matched the Dodgers’ rotation with 3.0 WAR (even though the Dodgers have a 3.25 ERA versus 4.81 for the Rockies).

Weakness: As usual, the Rockies struggle to score away from Coors Field, hitting just .223/.296/.361 on the road. That’s even worse than normal — last year they hit .230/.289/.388 on the road (with pitchers hitting). Their home OPS is also down 59 points, so it’s not a good offensive team.

Overachiever: Daniel Bard has been one of the best stories of the season. The 35-year-old had last pitched in the majors in 2013, his career undone by an extreme inability to throw strikes. Now he’s throwing strikes, still throwing 97 mph, and he’s the closer.

Needs to get going: The Rockies’ offense needs Trevor Story, Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon to all produce big numbers, but Arenado has really struggled (for him), with an adjusted OPS well below the league average. He hit his first road home run (of eight total) on Tuesday and is hitting just .222 on the road. His BABIP is low, but his expected batting average is just .250, so the Statcast numbers don’t actually suggest he’s been hitting in bad luck. He just hasn’t been hitting.

Series to watch: At San Francisco, Sept. 21-24. This four-game series could decide third place in the NL West — and who goes to the playoffs.

Final thought: The Rockies are 9-19 since an 11-3 start, but maybe taking two of three from the Dodgers over the weekend will get them going again. German Marquez (other than one 10-run start), Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela have been solid, while Jon Gray (now on the IL) has not. Despite those road batting woes, they’re 11-10 on the road. So maybe the key is they have to hit more at Coors Field.

Current playoff odds: 20.7%

Strength: Led by Trevor Bauer’s 2.05 ERA, the Reds have four starters with a sub-4.00 ERA. Overall, the Reds are eighth in the majors in rotation ERA and second in strikeout rate — and yet the rotation is just 11-18.

Weakness: As you can guess, the offense. Despite all the offseason additions that were supposed to deepen the lineup, the Reds are 29th in the majors in runs per game. Here’s the weird thing. They’re second in walk rate and fifth in isolated power. The problem? They don’t hit singles. They’re batting .210, getting shut out Tuesday, while hitting just .228 with RISP.

Overachiever: Jesse Winker is hitting .286/.406/.588, although his Statcast measurements support that level of production. Those 10 home runs have produced just 18 RBIs, however — even though he’s hit .316 with RISP and .378 with men on. He just hasn’t batted often enough with runners on.

Needs to get going: Shogo Akiyama has soaked up 122 plate appearances with a dreadful OPS+ of 48. Newcomer Brian Goodwin will get an opportunity and Nick Senzel should return this weekend, but they need to get more from their outfield.

Series to watch: At St. Louis this weekend. They have two more this week against the Cubs at Wrigley and then the St. Louis series. It’s time to go 4-1 and get closer to that eighth seed.

Final thought: There was a lot of optimism in Cincinnati based on the strength of the rotation and the power potential in the lineup. Instead, they have a chance to challenge the lowest batting average ever — the 1968 Yankees hit .214 in the year of the pitcher. Their second-line players killed them (Phil Ervin, Matt Davidson, Josh VanMeter, Jose Garcia, Christian Colon, Travis Jankowski and Mark Payton are a combined 24-for-199 (.121), so maybe that’s reason to think they can reel off a 8-2 stretch and sneak into the playoffs.

Current playoff odds: 3.6%

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Strength: Juan Soto and Trea Turner have been perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the league.

Weakness: Pretty much everything else.

Overachiever: Tanner Rainey has been the one reliable pitcher in the bullpen as he’s finally learned to throw enough strikes. He’s fanned 30 in 19⅓ innings and has allowed just seven hits.

Needs to get going: Anibal Sanchez, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth have allowed 27 home runs in 104 innings and are a combined 3-12. That’s three-fifths of the rotation. I think they might be missing Stephen Strasburg.

Series to watch: They host the Braves for four games this weekend. They need to win … well, at least three to get going in the right direction.

Final thought: We included the Nats out of respect as the reigning champs, although their odds are certainly slim. Their win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday is a start, but even if we say 28-32 makes the postseason, they have to go 12-7 the rest of the way. OK, that’s not impossible. Look, you had a feeling this might when Strasburg went down and Soto missed the start of the season (on top of losing Anthony Rendon). In this short season, no team had less incentive than the Nationals, given they just won the World Series. That’s not an excuse and it’s disappointing that some of the young players like Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom have played so poorly, but at least flags fly forever.

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