Almost home: A quick look at the NL Wild Card race

The end of the 2017 MLB season is rapidly approaching and, as we previously did in depth for the American League, it’s time for a quick check in on the National League Wild Card race. While The AL is still a hot mess, the NL Wild Card situation has been on cruise control for quite some time. For much of the season, we’ve been looking at a Diamondbacks-Rockies Wild Card game and that would still be true if the season ended today. That doesn’t mean that things are set in stone, though.

The Diamondbacks might be one of the biggest surprises this season, and they’re pretty much assured their spot in the postseason (99.8% chance per Fangraphs) thanks to the tear they’ve been on as of late. Going back to August 21, Arizona has gone 16-3 and basically assured a postseason appearance. They’ll almost certainly have the luxury of setting up their rotation so that they can have Zack Greinke pitch the Wild Card game for them. The Rockies, though, haven’t been as steady as of late.

After being 21 games over .500 on June 20, Colorado’s record was 27-39 from that date to September 6 and it took a just-completed four-game series sweep of Los Angeles to get back to 13 games over .500 today. Despite holding onto a postseason spot all season, the Rockies certainly aren’t assured of one anymore, with the Brewers and Cardinals both hanging out at 3.0 games back of Colorado with about three weeks of baseball left.

If we were doing this even a week ago, we’d have another team in the mix. On September 2, Miami was only 5.0 games back of the Wild Card and seemed like they might have turned a corner and make a run at their first postseason appearance since they won the World Series in 2003. Since then, they’ve gone 1-6 and basically torpedoed their chances to go 3-for-3 on winning the World Series after making the postseason as a Wild Card. While they’re not officially out of the picture yet (they’ve got a 0.1% chance according to Fangraphs), they might as well be. I would love to talk about Giancarlo Stanton, his quest for 62 home runs and the “real” home run record, that will have to wait for another day.

But with the Marlins out of the picture, that leaves us with the Brewers, the Cardinals and potentially the Cubs, depending on what happens with the first two teams, to challenge the Rockies. The NL Central is a mess, as the 2017 Cubs certainly haven’t looked like the 2016 Cubs for long stretches of the season and the Cardinals and Brewers are both just 2.0 games back of the Cubs. These three teams play each other a lot through the end of the season (and we’ll have more on that momentarily).

The Brewers’ playoff hopes just took a serious hit this weekend, when it was announced that their ace Jimmy Nelson (3.03 FIP, 10.2 K/9) will miss the remainder of the season due to a shoulder injury he suffered sliding on the basepaths. That certainly hurts the Brewers chances quite a bit to make the postseason (and their chances when they get there if they do, obviously), but it’s not over yet.

The Cardinals’ rotation has been rolling all season and I would give them the best chances to pull off an upset on the Cubs. They’ve been very unlucky in one-run games and have the worst record in MLB at 20-27. They have one of the worst actual records in baseball when compared to their expected records (-4 by BaseRuns and Pythagorean), another indication that they’re a better team than their record suggests. If any team is going to pull off an upset in the NL Central, I’d bet on the Cardinals.

The few games that Colorado has in the standings certainly gives them the edge on the other teams, no matter what happens in the NL Central. And their schedule doesn’t hurt, either, as they’ve got the easiest schedule amongst the teams we’ve been discussing. After a four-game series with Arizona, they have nine games against the cellar-dwelling Padres and Giants, three against the Marlins and close out the season with two against the Dodgers, who have been scuffling as of late. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers play most of their remaining games against teams who are trying to make the postseason, namely each other, which gives Colorado a clear advantage over the would-be contenders.

At the end of the day, Colorado will likely hold out and hang on to a playoff spot thanks to the small lead they currently have and the strength of their schedule. But if they slip even a little bit, things could get very interesting very quickly in the NL and, if the Cubs fail to separate from the Brewers and Cardinals, we could potentially have the chaos of play-in games for play-in games in both leagues.

Yardbarker: MLB

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