National League Contenders Gear Up for October

Steve MagouirkContributor ISeptember 21, 2008

While the playoff spots in the National League are still up for grabs, contenders must soon start wondering how they will match up against the competition they will face in the playoffs. Each contender has its strengths that it must utilize and its weaknesses that they will have to overcome. Here is a look at the N.L. contenders:

Chicago Cubs-They were the first team in the N.L. to clinch their division, and as of Sunday are one win away from clinching home-field advantage throughout the NLCS. The fact that the Cubs will almost certainly claim home-field is an enormous advantage for them, because they are only 5 games over .500 on the road, while being 29 games over .500 at home.

For the most part the Cubs are shaping up to be a tough out for any N.L. team in the playoffs. Their biggest strength is their offense. With a lineup that boasts the likes of outstanding veterans Alfonso Soriano, Derek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez, a resurgent Jim Edmonds, and rookie phenom catcher Geovany Soto, the Cubs lead the N.L. in runs. They have enough fire power that if one of their stars are slumping, the rest of the lineup can easily compensate.

One of the biggest weaknesses for the Cubs is their pitching. They have the talent at the front end of their rotation to do well in a match-up against any other contender. The biggest concern is the health of their starting pitching.

Carlos Zambrano is among the top pitchers in the league but was hobbled by shoulder less than two weeks ago, and while he returned to throw a no hitter in his first game back he followed that up with a 1.2 inning performance while giving up 8 earned runs. Rich Harden is another starter with talent but injury problems have always hampered his career, on average he will throw a strong game but lasts only about 5 innings and thus puts a great deal of stress on the bullpen. Their third starter, Ryan Dempster, has remained healthy and consistent this year, but has not been a starter for some time before this year and thus may have trouble holding up down the stretch. The Cub's bullpen has been good this year, but Carlos Marmol has not been the same since the all-star break and Kerry Wood has also looked shaky lately, and given his history is definitely an injury risk.

Milwaukee Brewers- The Brewers have a lot of work to do if they hope to make the playoffs, but if they get there they could pose a problem to whoever they come up against.

The biggest question mark the Brewers to have any hope in the playoffs is the health of staff ace, Ben Sheets. Sheets has incredible stuff when he is on the mound but has always been hampered by nagging injuries throughout his career. His latest injury to his throwing elbow is a cause for great concern. Without Sheets, the Brewers have nothing even close to consistent behind trade deadline acquisition, CC Sabathia. Manny Parra who was great for a while this year, was removed from the rotation earlier this month and only got his job back after Sheets injured himself.

The Brewers can rely on their offense to get the job done if they need to. While it has not been very good in recent weeks, their lineup packs a lot of punch with Prince Fielder and their MVP candidate Ryan Braun. While the lineup isn't as deep as some others, they still pack some punch and can put up tremendous numbers.

Milwaukee's bullpen also has to be cause for great concern come playoff time. They are fifth in the N.L. in blown saves with 25 and while Solmon Torres has done an OK job in the closers role, branching from starter to closer is a huge problem for this team, and without finding a suitable middle relief man the Brewers could be in for a rude awakening come October, unless they can throw CC Sabathia for 9 innings every game, which isn't very likely.

Philadelphia Phillies- The Phillies are getting hot at the right time and seemed to be primed for a strong post season run as long as they continue their hot hitting September ways, and do not fall into a slump like they did last year in October when they were ousted by the Rockies in three games.

The Phillies have the problem that all of their strengths can also become their greatest weaknesses in the playoffs. Their lineup is on of, if not the best in the N.L., when they are hitting. The problem is that the lineup is full of streaky players that could fall into a slump at any time. However with two former MVPs in Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, all-star second basemen Chase Utley and a bunch of worth while role players and veterans like Pat Burrell, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino the Phillies have more than enough fire power to give any pitcher trouble in October.

The Phillies pitching can be both great and terrible. The Phillies have a premier ace in young lefty Cole Hamels, but scouts say that it looks as though the tremendous amount of innings that Hamels ahs pitched this year is catching up with hima dn that he has not looked like himself in his past few starts. After Hamels comes Brett Myers, who can be the pitcher that Manny Ramirez called "nasty" or the pitcher that had to be sent to the minor leagues in July and gave up a career high 10 runs in his last outing. And after Myers comes the ageless wonder, Jamie Moyer, a crafty lefty who can leave opponents wondering what happened as they head back to the dugout, but given his age one must wonder how much he has left in the tank.

The Phillies had the best bullpen in the N.L. for much of the first half of the season, but pitchers like Chad Durbin and J.C. Romero have struggled in recent weeks and are not as reliable as they were but still can get the job done, and if they can hand the ball to all-star closer Brad Lidge then the Phillies are in great shape considering that Lidge is 40 for 40 in save opportunities this season with an ERA under 2.

New York Mets-The Mets do not seem to be doomed to repeat a tremendous collapse like last year and should be in the mix come October. The Mets have had a lot of injuries this season and have gotten through most of them to become a very formidable opponent in the playoffs.

The biggest difference between this years Mets and last years Mets is one player. Johan Santana, the Mets huge off season acquisition has lived up to ever expectation, and if not for a suspect bullpen, would probably be leading the Cy Young race. Santana is arguably the best pitcher in the N.L. and thus would cause a tough match up for any team in the playoffs. The problem with the Mets is, that besides Santana, their pitching is average at best. A mediocre Pedro Martinez, an injured John Maine, and inconsistency from Mike Pelfrey and Odalis Perez have not provided enough for the Mets to have a dominate rotation like some may have thought before the season.

The Mets have a very strong lineup that boasts all stars like David Wright, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and Jose Reyes. In order for this lineup to be successful in October, Jose Reyes is going to have to play up to his ability. Reyes is a player ewith a reputation for not having a lot of heart, but he could erase that with a strong playoff performance and could carry the Mets to the World Series in the process.

The Mets biggest weakness by far however is their bullpen. After their closer, Billy Wagner, went down with a season ending elbow injury the Mets has blown a tremendous amount of games, and if it had held on to just a few of those games, the Mets may be battling the Cubs for the best record in the N.L, rather than battling the Phillies for the N.L. East.

Los Angeles Dodgers- The Dodgers season can be divided into two chapters, pre-Manny and post-Manny. The Dodgers could not score enough runs before getting Manny to stay in contention and were 1 game under .500 before they acquired Manny Ramirez and since then the Dodgers are 7 games over .500.

The Dodgers now have a decent lineup to go along with their great pitching to make a playoff run. The biggest problem with the Dodgers is that besides Ramirez and  newly acquired Casey Blake the Dodgers do not pose much of a threat offensively. The lineup has been made a great deal better since the Ramirez acquisition due to the fact that they are seeing better pitches to hit, but come playoff time if they run into a team that can handle Ramirez their lineup is in trouble.

The Dodgers biggest strength is their pitching. Their starting rotation is above average with starter Chad Billingsley having a career year, the emergence of Clayton Kershaw as a solid starter and veteran Greg Maddux in the third spot. While none of these starters seem to intimidate as much as some of the other tandems in the N.L., the Dodgers boast one of the best bullpens in the league. With a finally healthy Takashi Saito, and young star Johnathan Broxton if the Dodgers can hand the ball off to their bullpen, they have a very good shot at winning a game.

Arizona Diamondbacks- The Diamondbacks are one of the most intriguing teams in this playoff race, they rode they incredibly hot start for most of the season but that has finally caught up with them and they now sit on the outside looking in for a playoff spot.

The Diamondbacks have arguably the best top of the rotation in the N.L. with Cy Young candidate Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. With a veteran Randy Johnson in their third spot, the Diamondbacks could shut down almost any lineup in baseball in a short series and thus if they make the playoffs they have the potential to go very deep, because as they say, pitching wins championships.

And while pitching does normally prevail come October, a steady offense is also a necessity in the playoffs and the Diamondbacks do not exactly have a steady offense. With All-star second basemen Orlando Hudson out for the season, the Diamondbacks are struggling for a veteran to lead their young lineup through their struggles. The acquisition of Adam Dunn has helped to hide the struggles of their offense but this lineup is the worst out of the contenders in the N.L. and could be a cause for major concern if the Diamondbacks make it to October.

Predictions- Given the reasons i have given above, this is the way that I see the N.L. playoffs finishing:


Chicago Cubs Defeat New York Mets in 4 games

Philadelphia Phillies Defeat Los Angeles Dodgers in 5 games


Philadelphia Phillies Defeat Chicago Cubs in 6 games.