Image courtesy of USA Today.
By: Michael Porter
Unlike the American League, the National League playoff picture is still very unclear as some clubs are underperforming while others are exceeding expectations. If one thing is clear, it is that the Los Angeles Dodgers will make the playoffs and likely win their ninth consecutive NL West title. Despite dominating their division for close to a decade, the Dodgers still remain without a recent World Series title.
While Los Angeles’ otherworldly performance is nothing new, the club is likely surprised to see the San Diego Padres trailing closely in their rear view mirror. The Padres have played the Dodgers well this season, and are likely one of the last teams that Los Angeles wants to face in the postseason. After rebuilding their roster and farm system for the better part of the 2010’s, the Padres have put it all together on the field in 2020. Young shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. has blossomed into one of the most electric athletes in the league and the club was by far the most active team in advance of this season’s trade deadline. These two neighboring teams will likely finish the regular season as the best of the West and opposing teams are certainly beginning to strategize ahead of potential playoff matchups with either of these clubs.
In the Central division, the Chicago Cubs have rediscovered what made them World Champions back in 2016. The club has benefitted from the emergence of former top prospect Ian Happ and the resurgence of former ace Yu Darvish. After entering the league in 2017 as one of baseball’s most prized prospects, Happ struggled during his first few seasons as a pro. Fortunately for both the player and team, the outfielder has provided Chicago with serviceable center field defense and an above average bat. As for Darvish, his organization is likely more relieved than thrilled with his performance this season. While the righty has been nothing short of exceptional in 2020, it has been anything but smooth sailing since his current team put pen to paper on a six year, $126 million dollar deal ahead of the 2018 season. With Darvish pitching like the ace that he once was, the Cubs look like a sure bet to make the playoffs and compete for a National League Pennant. The Saint Louis Cardinals are currently the second best team in the Central however they still have a lot of work to do before officially punching their ticket to the postseason. The Cardinals missed over two weeks of games due to a Covid-19 breakout in their clubhouse following an early season series in Miami. While they have rebounded nicely and appear to be at full strength, their upcoming schedule is loaded with makeup games from lost time in the form of doubleheaders. These abbreviated contests will challenge the depth of the team and likely determine if there is October baseball in their future.
The 2019 World Series Champion came from the National League East, however that team, the Washington Nationals, is currently buried in the standings. The East is once again being controlled by the Atlanta Braves who are almost certainly going to take home another division title in 2020. This team is a legitimate contender for the NL Pennant and seems to get stronger with each victory. Their offense features lethal bats like Macell Ozuna, Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna who can each carry a team on their own when they are hot. The pitching staff is the one weakness of this team as second year star Mike Soroka’s season ended prematurely when he tore his achilles tendon during an early season contest against New York. Without Soroka, the team has relied on young starter Max Fried to lead their rotation and he has delivered in a big way. Fried has posted some of the best pitching statistics in baseball as has continued to give his club a chance at a victory each time he takes the mound. The Philadelphia Phillies sit behind Atlanta in the standings but can not seem to get hot enough to distance themselves from their divisional opponents or make a run at the Braves first place status. Outside of Atlanta, no team in this division is performing as they were expected to. The Miami Marlins are largely over performing and have remained relevant in the Wild Card conversation while the Mets and Nationals have underperformed their way to the bottom of the standings.
The Wild Card chase is where much of the uncertainty lies as the season enters its final swing. The San Francisco Giants and Miami Marlins remain in the hunt despite being counted out by most analysts before the season began. All of the Mets, Reds, Rockies and Brewers remain just a hot streak away from propelling up the standings. With so many teams with similar records fighting for a playoff spot, the National League Wild Card is likely going to come down to the wire. The powerhouse teams will claim their division titles and enter the playoffs as favorites to advance, however history shows that sneaky Wild Card teams are more than capable of creating a disturbance in the postseason.