Five months ago, when we were first handicapping the National League as to who would still be standing come October, it didn’t appear to be that difficult an exercise.
The NL East was the league’s deepest division by far, with talented teams top to bottom. Meanwhile out west, the Dodgers and Padres figured to be neck and neck all year, but it was hard to argue against a Dodgers repeat (defending World Series champs always seem invincible the following spring) given all the talent L.A. was returning, bolstered by their signing of the most sought-after free agent starting pitcher on the free agent market over the winter.
So you could pretty much sign up for a playoff tournament that would include two teams from the east (pick any two from the menu — the young and fearless Marlins ready to build on their surprise playoff appearance last fall; the reigning division champion Braves loaded once again; the Mets under new ownership looking to get out from under the franchise’s perpetual dark cloud while bursting at the seams with quality bats up and down what would surely be the division’s most potent everyday lineup; the Nats only a couple years removed from their 2019 World Series stunner; and the Phillies trying to do it the old fashioned way with high-priced free agents surrounded by a few inexpensive but serviceable pieces), plus the two SoCal rivals in the west, rounded out by one club from the uninteresting and non-competitive central, simply because the rules say so.
Not so fast.
Here we are smack in the middle of the Dog Days of August, the baseball season two-thirds of the way in the books, and very little looks the way we anticipated those few short months ago.
The NL East sucks (technical term). Nobody wants it, but so far only the Marlins and Nats have officially spit the bit. The NL Central has all but ceded things to the Brewers (who nobody really takes seriously as a potential contender), with the only competition down the stretch potentially coming from the Reds (Reds??), who we take even less seriously than the Brewers.
Out in the NL West, we are seeing, as expected, an ultra-competitive rivalry develop between the two SoCal ball clubs that each boast fantasy-type rosters and front offices unabashedly going for it right now, however that competition appears, as of today, to be only for home field advantage in the Wild Card game.
What in tarrrr-nation’s going on here?
That’s exactly what SportsAttic aims to sort out, as we continue our MLB Pennant Race prognostications, Senior Circuit edition. So here goes nothing (as with our American League review, we will only consider those teams at or above .500, even if there is absolutely no chance in hell a team may make the playoffs — hello, Cincinnati fans):
NL East Overview: How the heck did this mess happen? All those stars and all that high-priced talent, and we have…this? Lots of inconsistent baseball from the “Big 3” aka Mets/Phillies/Braves, with injuries taking a severe toll on every club. The Marlins acknowledged that they may have been a couple of years ahead of themselves in making the playoffs last year, and are back to building for their ever-elusive “future” around young arms. The Nats traded everyone of value away (except for Juan Soto — even the Nats aren’t that dumb) despite the division still being up for grabs at the trade deadline, and meanwhile the Braves, Mets and Phils keep doing their “take it, no YOU take it” routine, managing to infuriate all three fan bases on a daily basis. Someone has to come out on top, though, soooo…
*Mets – Nothing like starting out our unbiased, clinical evaluation with a heavy dose of homer-ism, right? Yup, the Mets will win this division. Primarily because the Braves won’t be able to overcome their injuries and the inconsistent Phillies’ lack of pitching depth will cost them in the end. Look for New York’s vaunted rotation to piece together enough healthy arms by September to eke out this embarrassment of a division with 84 or 85 wins. deGrom, Thor, Stroman and Carlos Carrasco will come together just in time to form the starting rotation nobody wants to face in the postseason, and all those underperforming bats will get the chance to redeem themselves with a fresh start under the bright postseason lights.
*Phillies – They’ll hang in there until the end, as Joe Girardi continues to grind the enamel off his molars whipping his stars like lazy mules in an effort to will them to the division title. But only two quality starting pitchers (even when one is presumed Cy Young winner Zack Wheeler) and the worst pen in baseball dooms the Phighting Phils to second place and another year of watching the playoffs from their couch.
*Braves – Sometimes it just isn’t a team’s year (spoiler alert — you may hear that line again when we get to the NL West), and from the get-go things just haven’t fallen into place for the Braves. Fully healthy, this team would be the class of the division, but it is hard to overcome losing a do-everything star and clubhouse leader like Ronald Acuna, Jr. They gave it the old college try, adding useful pieces at the trade deadline, but when you’ve already been crippled by a torn ACL (Acuna), achilles (Soroka) and strangulation charges (Ozuna), it’s hard to see Joc Pederson being the difference-maker to get Atlanta over the hump.
NL Central: With an eight-game lead and 50+ left to play, we can safely award the division to the Brew Crew. But c’mon…does anyone truly see them as a World Series contender? Like their AL Central cousin, the White Sox, Milwaukee will take advantage of the weak division schedule (not to mention the broad-based bed-shitting going on in the NL East) to earn, at minimum, home-field advantage in the NLDS. Somehow the Reds have put themselves seven games above .500 as of this writing, good enough to miss the playoffs this year without ever even making it interesting, since both wild cards will emerge from the stacked NL West. Same goes for the Cardinals, who would be firmly in the thick of a pennant race if they still called the NL East home (shit, they’d probably be the favorites in the east), but due to the imbalance of power in the National League and the strength out west, they’ll find themselves home in October, too.
*Brewers – When Avisail Garcia is your most menacing power hitter and your former MVP has forgotten how to hit (back injuries are a bitch, just ask Don Mattingly and David Wright), I guess you have to rely on your arms to get you there. And the Brewers do have arms. The Milwaukee starting rotation has put up stellar numbers thus far, but all are on track to throw more innings than they ever have, which will likely catch up to them come playoff time, when they can no longer fatten up on terrible teams like the depleted Cubs or Pirates. And maybe its wishful thinking, but I’m looking for closer Josh Hader to come up small in October as well. They’ll get the winner of the putrid NL East in the opening round, and it will end right there for the overrated Brew Crew.
*Reds – This is an up and coming team playing good ball that most years would have them contending for the second wild card spot right about now. This isn’t most years, though. The Reds will fade in September and finish below .500 when the light bulb goes on that they have no shot at the postseason.
*Cardinals – They always seem to get hot just when everyone’s forgotten they are in the league. Could this be one of those years? Even if it is, and the Redbirds get Red hot the rest of the way, it won’t matter. A record of 30-18 from here only gets them to 88 wins, so barring a collapse out west, it’ll be wait til next year time in St. Louis.
NL West: The gold standard of MLB divisions through the season’s first 110+ games. We all expected to see the Dodgers and Padres at the top of the standings as September approached, but the Giants? Did anyone see these guys playing .640 ball 114 games into the season? Holy hell! It’s too big of a sampling to continue calling them a fluke or a house of cards ready to collapse at any moment (that would be me at least a dozen times to date this season), but really? If San Francisco cools off to just a .500 pace from here on out, they still win 97 games! Even the most hardened of the skeptics and haters here at SportsAttic have to admit at some point that the Giants are legit. But with the arch-enemy Dodgers and Uber-talented Padres still in hot pursuit, will they be able to close the deal in the city by the bay?
*Dodgers — Yes, it says here that Evil Empire West will come away with the division. Way too much talent, even with Mookie Betts landing on the IL the other day. Their trade deadline acquisitions of Mad Max and Trea Turner from our nation’s capital almost feel unfair at this point. Despite Cody Bellinger’s mysterious, season-long malaise, there is simply way too much talent here (bats and arms) for the defending champs not to come away with the division title. Look for the Dodgers to continue along at their .600 clip and nip a tired, fading Giants team at the wire by a game.
*Giants — Give them all the credit they are due. Best record in baseball? Check. Leading the league in home runs? Check. Busty Posey rising from the ashes? Check. Tremendous trade deadline acquisition of Kris Bryant to fortify the lineup? Check. Four starting pitchers, who at the beginning of the season wouldn’t have earned a roster spot on the Mets, all looking like aces? Check. Yet, when the dust settles, the Giants will get to try and validate this season for the ages with a one-game playoff against the Padres, relying on Kevin Gausman (Kevin Gausman?? Good grief!) to take them to the NLDS. Look for a second-place finish despite 95 wins that nobody saw coming, followed by one losing playoff game that will write the final epitaph on this unexpectedly successful Giants season.
*Padres — The Pads are a fun team to watch, boasting exciting stars, solid pitching, and a deep lineup. But there’s a “but” — but if Fernando Tatis, Jr. isn’t right physically heading into the playoffs, all bets are off. Do you really want to rely on Manny Machado as your go to superstar in a tight series? Tatis is the engine here, and assuming he’s one hundred percent, this team is capable of emerging from the National League and taking on Houston. The rotation is as solid as the Mets’ and Dodgers’, but Mark Melancon as closer gives me pause. It won’t matter against the Giants in the Wild Card game (I’m feeling something like a 12-1 blowout — sorry, Giants fans), but the pen could be the achilles heel exposed when the inevitable showdown with L.A. happens in the NLDS.
SportsAttic Crystal Ball: Your National League division winners will be (in order) — the Los Angeles Dodgers (96-66), Milwaukee Brewers (95-67) and New York Mets (84-78). The Dodgers will take on their neighbors to the south, the Padres, in one NLDS, while the Brewers will have home field advantage in their NLDS matchup against the New York Mets.
The home field will not matter in either series, however, as the Mets will easily dispose of the Brewers in five games behind their rejuvenated starting rotation (and barely enough hitting). Meanwhile in the battle of the 5 Freeway, the Padres will emerge victorious in seven thrilling games, because…well, because…well, because sometimes it’s just not a team’s year. Call it the Curse of Trevor Bauer (if ever a player truly warranted an honest to goodness curse, it most certainly is Bauer, by the way), but the Dodgers won’t even see the NLCS in 2021.
In a fun, bicoastal NLCS, the combination of the Mets vaunted rotation and two blown San Diego saves (courtesy of a burnt to a crisp Melancon following the high-pressure Dodgers series) will send the team with the worst record of all 2021 playoff teams to the World Series (just like those ’73 “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets did). And this time the Metropolitans will come away with different results than Yogi’s boys had against the A’s back in ’73.
Mets over Astros. Six games. Put it in the books.