NL Wild Card Race: Ranking Playoff Contenders Heading into Final Month of Season

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NL Wild Card Race: Ranking Playoff Contenders Heading into Final Month of Season
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If September 2012 can come anywhere close to matching September 2011 in Major League Baseball, things are going to get intense in a hurry. The National League Wild Card race looks like it will come down to the wire with four teams within 1.5 games of each other right now. 

Of course, if we learned anything from last year, it is that a nine-game lead isn't safe heading into September. Granted, the Cardinals only had to leapfrog one team last year, whereas a team like Milwaukee, currently 8.5 games back, would have to jump over three teams. 

With approximately 30 games remaining in the season, here is a power ranking of the teams in the NL Wild Card chase. 

(Note: Only teams with a realistic chance are listed, so no Milwaukee or a team that is still mathematically alive but not likely to make it will be discussed.)

 

No. 1 and 1A. Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals

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I put these two teams together for two reasons. First, and most obvious, they currently hold the lead for the wild-card spots in the NL. At 74-57, the Braves are 2.5 games ahead of the Cardinals and 3.5 ahead of Pittsburgh. 

The second reason is they are the two best teams not leading a division in the National League, bar none.

The Braves have gotten a nice return to form from Jason Heyward (.274/.347/.500) after his disastrous 2011 campaign. Chipper Jones, despite his impending retirement, is still one of the most dangerous hitters in the league. Plus, Michael Bourn, Martin Prado and Freddie Freeman help give them their deepest lineup in a long time. 

The pitching does have a lot of question marks after Tim Hudson, as Tommy Hanson is not the same guy he used to be. His shoulder has to be giving him problems, as his fastball velocity is down nearly 1.5 miles per hour this year (per Fangraphs). 

Kris Medlen has been outstanding since moving into the rotation, though this is his first full season since having Tommy John surgery late in 2010. He could be the Braves' No. 2 starter in the playoffs. 

I am still convinced that St. Louis is the best team in the National League, even as they cling to life in the wild-card race right now.

The Cardinals have easily the deepest lineup top to bottom in the league. Their bullpen has been a source of concern all season, though they can get by with an average group if their rotation holds up down the stretch. 

 

No. 2 Los Angeles Dodgers (70-61, 1.5 Games Behind St. Louis)

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After the Braves and Cardinals, the talent drops precipitously in the National League. There are only two teams who still have a shot at catching the wild-card leaders, and between them, the Dodgers are a better bet. 

We all know about the big trade that happened last week, which will help shore up the offense, but their most important player in the final month will be Matt Kemp. He is easily the best player on the team, and he has to stay healthy and productive in order for them to make a run. 

Their rotation after Clayton Kershaw does scare me. Chris Capuano has been a pleasant surprise, though I don't see him as being more than a No. 4 starter. His numbers have been helped by pitching in the big parks of the National League West. 

Andre Ethier might have a superstar contract, but he can't hit left-handed pitching, so the Dodgers will be relying a lot on Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez over the final four weeks of the season. 

They have no depth in the lineup or rotation, so they need all their stars to play up to their full potential in order to sneak into October. 

 

No. 3 Pittsburgh Pirates (70-60, One Game Behind St. Louis)

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I know this really isn't as great as it sounds on paper, but the Pirates should be thrilled at the prospect of finishing over .500 this season. Anything else would be icing on the cake. 

They are starting to fall apart, even though they did just shut out the Cardinals in two straight games. James McDonald (37 earned runs, nine home runs in 63 innings) has been a disaster since July. A.J. Burnett (19 earned runs, six home runs in 33 innings) is pitching like he did in New York since the start of August. 

Andrew McCutchen, who seemed like a lock for the MVP award a month ago, has struggled in August with a .252 average and 27 strikeouts in 107 at-bats. 

The Pirates don't have enough depth in the lineup to withstand a prolonged slump from McCutchen. Pedro Alvarez is hitting a lot of home runs but still striking out in nearly 32 percent of his plate appearances. 

It is obviously not an impossible task for them to come back from this rough stretch, but the magic carpet ride is slowly coming to a halt.

 

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