NL Playoff Picture: If Not The Cubs, Then Who?

Dave MulhernCorrespondent ISeptember 27, 2008

Currently holding the best record in the National League by a long shot, the Chicago Cubs are in a very enviable position as the Major League Baseball winds down this weekend.

I think.

As much as we all love seeing a good broken curse (I mean, everyone loves the Red Sox these days, right?) the likelihood that the regular-season champion of a given league will advance to the World Series, let alone win it, is fairly slim.  Just ask the Braves teams of the 1990’s how far regular-season success gets you.  It has happened often, especially since the advent of the wild card playoff berth, that the regular-season crown means very little in terms of accumulating rings.

For example, last year’s league champions were the Boston Red Sox and the Arizona Diamondbacks.  While the Red Sox managed to carry their excellence through to a World Series title, their opponent was a Colorado Rockies team that needed the help of a one-game playoff in order to attain their wild card playoff berth after scorching through the end of the season on a tear and continuing their hot play through the NL Playoffs.

Starting in 2001 with the Diamondbacks’ World Series win over the New York Yankees, there has been at least one wild card representative in every world series with the exception of 2005, including the 2002 World Series featuring two wild card teams, the Anaheim Angels and the San Francisco Giants.  Eight of the 14 World Series competitors during that time were wild card teams who just eeked their way into the playoffs after failing to win their division.  In all during that time span, only four regular-season league champions have made good on their top playoff seed.

With two—possibly three—aces, the first rookie catcher ever to start the All-Star Game, one of the most powerful lineups in the league, and a back end of the bullpen that strikes fear into the hearts of opponents before blowing them away with unbridled power, the Cubs find themselves as the clear favorite in the National League.  There is very little debate regarding this statement. So, with the playoffs upon us, the question that must be asked is: if not the Cubs, then who will be able to make it through the playoffs and into the World Series as the National League representative?

With Saturday's results in the books, we now know two of the three challengers--the division champion Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies--with the wild card still to be determined between the New York Mets and the Brewers.  So, who will be the team to get hot and make a run for the pennant?

The Dodgers, who have officially clinched their playoff spot by winning their division, seem like they would have the best shot at challenging the North-Siders in the playoffs.  However, the Dodgers are currently 6 and 7 games behind the Brewers and Phillies, respectively, and certainly benefited from playing in a division in which they could very well end up as the only team above .500 for the season.  The offense has been electric since the mid-season arrival of Manny Ramirez and the starting pitching has certainly been strong led by their top two pitchers who boasting double-digit wins and low-3 ERA's.  However, having clinched their division rather early and thus having the luxury of being able to shut things down for the last stretch of the season, the Dodgers are not carrying any great momentum into the playoffs.

The Brewers have had all year to figure out how to beat the Cubs, playing them 17 times already this season, but still have not.  Even after all of their exposure to the Cubs, the Brewers have not been able to reel them in and overtake them in the standings.  While they certainly match the Cubs in regards to the two-headed monster at the top of the rotation and the potentially explosive offense, questions at the back of the bullpen and injury issues with key players (most notably Ben Sheets) give rise to questions of how long they will hold up in the tough atmosphere of the playoffs.

The Phillies yesterday clinched their second-straight NL East division title, mostly due to the power of one of the best offensive lineups in all of baseball along with a shut-down closer and a very powerful bench.  With these strengths masking a pitching staff that has been inconsistent at best, the Phillies have managed to hold onto first place in the East for most of the season despite serious dry spells by their three key hitters in Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley.  Looking ahead, it appears as though the Phils have found their stride offensively—mostly thanks to Howard, Jayson Werth, and Shane Victorino—and are headed into the postseason in the midst of a hot streak and riding the emotional high of winning a second straight division title.

The Mets seemed for a time to be doing a pretty convincing impression of the 2007 team that collapsed in historic fashion.  With Saturday’s complete-game 9 SO performance by Johan Santana and the Brewers losing at the hands of the Cubs, the Mets have kept themselves in the realm of playoff relevance.  The Mets boast a powerful offense that seems to revolve in many ways around their speedy yet sometimes difficult leadoff hitter José Reyes and features two potential MVP candidates in David Wright and Carlos Delgado.  If not for the complete disaster that is the back end of the Mets’ bullpen, this would be a very scary team come playoff time.  If they find a way into the playoffs, don’t be surprised if the Mets make things interesting, but the way they have been playing lately it looks like they will be the odd team out.

All things considered, it appears that top to bottom, the National League should be in for a pretty tight playoff race.  If any team is to ride late-season momentum through the postseason the way the Colorado Rockies did in 2007, the Phillies look to be the best candidate to take down the Cubs.  However, the Dodgers finished the year very strong with the resurgence of their offense, coming back from four games behind to win the division after failing to make the playoffs last season.  This Dodgers team could really come on strong if they get a few strong starts from their pitching staff, and maybe even find a way to get past a strong ball club in the Chicago Cubs.

But no one knows for sure.  That's the beauty of October baseball.

(Note: It was almost impossibly hard for me to pick a team other than the Phillies, but I couldn't come off as that big of a homer.  This article is meant as a springboard for debate, please leave comments about the question at hand.)