Atlanta Braves vs. Washington Nationals: Who Has Better Shot at NL Wild Card?

Chris StephensCorrespondent IIApril 10, 2012

Atlanta Braves vs. Washington Nationals: Who Has Better Shot at NL Wild Card?

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    Coming into the 2012 baseball season, the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals were thought to be two teams that would be competing for the two wild-card spots.

    Both teams seem to have top-notch pitching, but they both have their struggles at the plate, even though it seems both have solid players there as well.

    Even with that, my prediction is that one team will make it in, while the other team will be watching the playoffs from home.

    Here's a look at eight things that will factor into who will make it into the playoffs.

8. Can Atlanta Overcome Their Horrible Start?

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    To say the start of the season has been horrible for the Braves in an understatement.

    With a sweep by the Mets and a loss in the opening game of a three-game series with the Astros, Atlanta finds itself in a deep hole early.

    The main problem—hitting against lefties.

    The Braves have struggled against lefties for many years, which is why they made a trade for right-handed hitting Dan Uggla prior to last year.

    Still, he and the Braves have had their struggles.

    If the Braves hope to make it to the playoffs, they're going to have to figure out lefties.

7. Will Stephen Strasburg's Innings Limit Hinder the Nationals?

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    With Stephen Strasburg being on an innings limit for the Nationals, it's obvious he won't be there for a playoff run in September.

    Will that hurt the Nationals?

    Think of it like the Tigers not having Justin Verlander for a September run...it doesn't look good.

    While Strasburg is still below his limit, Jordan Zimmerman and Edwin Jackson are going to have to show they can fill the No. 1 starter spot.

    If neither steps up, the Nationals will have to look to the trade deadline to get a pitcher who can fill that spot.

6. Question Marks in Left Field

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    Yes, Martin Prado is a good hitter.

    But is he a good hitter in the No. 2 spot for the Braves?

    In my opinion, Prado is good in left field (as long as Chipper Jones is playing third base), but he's not a No. 2 hitter. I feel he is better suited to be in the No. 6 slot, with Jason Heyward being inserted into the No. 2 spot.

    The Nationals have similar issues in left field, with a revolving door of Xavier Nady, Mark DeRosa and Steve Lombardozzi taking up space there.

    That is one of the biggest weaknesses in the Nationals' lineup and is another area they need to address before the trading deadline if they hope to make the playoffs.

5. Up the Middle Will Make Big Difference

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    Up the middle is key for the success of any baseball team.

    The Nationals have Wilson Ramos at catcher, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa on the infield and Roger Bernandina in center field.

    The Braves counter with Brian McCann at catcher, Tyler Pastornicky and Dan Uggla on the infield and Michael Bourn (for now) in center field.

    The advantage goes to the Braves at catcher and in center field, while it's a push on the infield.

    Uggla has the power, but he's still struggling to get on base.

    While the combination of Desmond and Espinosa isn't that much better, one has to wonder if that combination is better than the Braves' combination.

4. Health Could Be an Issue for Nationals

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    Currently, the Nationals have Michael Morse, Rick Ankiel, Drew Storen and Chien-Ming Wang on the disabled list, while the Braves have Tim Hudson and Chipper Jones on the DL.

    Both teams have two key players not available, but they will need them to stay healthy once they get back in an effort to make a run at the playoffs.

    The Nationals desperately need Morse to man first base or left field to put more power in the lineup, while Storen is the team's closer, who I must say is pretty good.

    Jones is needed for leadership on and off the field for the Braves, while Hudson is the true No. 1 starter.

    Injuries have played a key role so far, and they could hamper both teams if they linger throughout the season.

3. Braves' Bullpen Looks Better

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    There is no comparing the bullpens of the Braves and the Nationals.

    The Braves have Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty at the back of the bullpen, while long relievers Livan Hernandez, Cristhian Martinez and Kris Medlen can eat up innings if the starters struggle.

    The Nationals are currently dealing with an injury to their closer, but they still have good pitchers in Tyler Clippard and Brad Lidge.

    But that's where it ends for the Nationals.

2. The Bryce Harper Effect

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    At some point, Bryce Harper will be in the big leagues.

    You can bet that almost immediately he'll be inserted into the middle of the lineup, where he's expected to have a big effect on the team.

    As the season hits September, and the fact that Strasburg likely won't be pitching, the hopes of the young Nationals team could rest of Harper's young shoulders.

    And, if you ask him, I'm sure that's the way he wants it.

1. September and October

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    The last five weeks of the season will bring this race down to the wire.

    The difference is the schedule each team has.

    The Nationals will be at home against the Cardinals, Cubs and Marlins; at the Mets and Braves; at home against the Dodgers and Brewers; at the Phillies and Cardinals; before finishing up the season at home against the Phillies.

    The Braves will close the season at home against the Phillies and Rockies; at the Mets and Brewers; at home against the Nationals; at the Marlins and Phillies; at home against the Marlins and Mets; before finishing up the season at the Pirates.

    So looking at the schedule, the Braves have a better road to the playoffs in the final months.

    But nothing is guaranteed, no matter who you're playing.

Drawn Conclusions

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    The Braves have struggled to begin the season, but they will get things together.

    The Nationals have started out decently and will continue to ride Strasburg (and eventually, Harper) into September.

    However, without a true No. 1 starter in September, the Nationals will struggle and miss the playoffs.

    But don't worry, Nationals fans...you'll be in the playoffs next year.

    For the Braves, there will be no September collapse, as they'll remember what happened last year and prevent it from happening this year.

    First, however, the Braves have to win a game.