National League: Favorites Within a Few Games of Upstart Young Teams

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Heading into the second series in as many weeks between the two defending NL champions, the National League playoff picture is juicy. The 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs travel to Los Angeles to face the 2017 NLCS-winning Dodgers from Monday to Thursday. The teams have faced off in the last two NLCS’, and along with the Washington Nationals, constitute the three heavy division favorites coming into this season.

But so far, the young Brewers and Braves have stolen the show in their respective divisions, while 2017 wild card winner Arizona leads the NL West. All three favorites sit within three games of the division lead as of Monday afternoon, but none of them lead their divisions, setting up for an exciting playoff race, contrary to the American League.

In the NL East, the Braves went from 72-90 last season to 44-32 following a series loss to the Orioles this weekend. Young prospects Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña have ushered in a new era in Atlanta, with Albies leading NL All-Star voting at second base. Meanwhile, Freddie Freeman is slugging .565 and Nick Markakis is having a career revival batting .328 and is also in position to start the All-Star Game. Their pitching gets the job done, with Mike Foltynewicz having a very good year leading the rotation while Julio Teheran struggles.

The Phillies also are playing well for a young team that was 30 games under .500 last season. Rhys Hoskins continues to rake, while Aaron Nola is a legit Cy Young candidate to head a dangerous rotation. Their bullpen has gone through struggles of late, but they just beat the Nationals in a series and figure to continue playing well.

The Nationals, meanwhile, are missing production from phenom Bryce Harper, and it is hurting them. They still have a solid 41-35 record, but they were expected to run away and hide in the division, which they did last year in winning it by 20 games. Max Scherzer is always a viable Cy Young candidate and is showing it again this year. Trea Turner and Michael Taylor make up for average offense with brilliant defense, while the unsung Anthony Rendon carries the offense during the subpar season Harper is having.

The Nationals are still favored to pull ahead in the division, and rightfully so. With Juan Soto coming up and Daniel Murphy back, their lineup is about to get really scary soon. Harper hit three doubles on Sunday in a win over the Phillies. I think Philly will fall off to about a .500 season, and I can’t imagine the whole Braves lineup keeping up their brilliant seasons. The National League wild card will be a tough race, and the young Braves will need to stay consistent to have a say in it.

In the NL Central, the Cubs have improved from 16-15 in fourth place on May 6 to second place now behind the Brewers. But Chicago still has problems. Between May 26 and June 19, all six of their losses came with the offense putting up not more than a single run. In wins, they average around seven runs per game, but they have been shut out seven times and are very inconsistent.

Yu Darvish hasn’t been the acquisition they had hoped for, struggling under the bright lights of Wrigley Field and currently serving his second stint on the disabled list. Anthony Rizzo had a rough start to the year and is just getting better. Tyler Chatwood has been a walks machine with low innings after being signed for almost $13 million a year. And then there’s the fact that they just got swept in four games by the last place Reds.

The Brewers, meanwhile, have had another good year following the late collapse of last season. The acquisitions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich are panning out well, with the two being first and third, respectively, in team WAR. Cain leads all National League hitters in that category. Josh Hader has been a revelation in the bullpen, with his 1.13 ERA making up for the struggles of 2017 All-Star Corey Knebel. The Brewers are young and really good, and should be able to finish the season strong this year to fight the Cubs for the Central.

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The Cardinals still lurk behind both of those teams, led by a resurgent Miles Mikolas, who has turned out to be the most valuable free agent to come out of Japan. While Dexter Fowler, their big money free agent acquisition from a year ago, has been one of the worst players in baseball this year, the Cardinals seem to be hanging in the playoff race, and they probably won’t be going away anytime soon.

Sadly, we only get to see Brewers-Cubs five more times this season. The series in September last season, while they were fighting for playoff position, was epic.

I think the Cubs will make bigger moves at the trade deadline and get the contributions from their underperforming players back near the end of the season. Jon Lester has won five straight starts and lowered his ERA to 2.10. Brandon Morrow, signed from the Dodgers in the offseason, has been very good on the back end. And the production will come through from great hitters like Kris Bryant, Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Co.

The Brewers, meanwhile, have a good chance at snagging a wild card spot. They have matured from last year and added key pieces. But the Cubs are so stacked, that even if they struggle a little they will end the year at the top of a very good division.

Out west, the Rockies faltered from a very good year last year. But their Wild Card counterparts, the Diamondbacks, lead the division following the bad start of the defending NL pennant winners. And they’re doing it without the overwhelming run production of their power hitters this season. The starting pitching has been solid all-around, while the bullpen has been sublime. Clay Buchholz has a 2.56 ERA in seven starts, and Patrick Corbin and Zack Greinke always throw deep into games.

Paul Goldschmidt is having a down year by his standards, and A.J. Pollock, who has been playing really well, has missed 36 games. Still, even without J.D. Martinez, the Diamondbacks lead the division by two and a half games as of Monday afternoon.

With Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill coming back from injury, the Dodgers figure to surge ahead in the division before the All-Star Break. Ross Stripling, normally a reliever, has pitched at least six innings in six of his last seven starts and leads the team in WAR. Getting two of the best left-handers in the game back for a rotation already with a great 3.90 ERA will make the Dodgers scary.

After a rough 16-26 start, Los Angeles has gone 26-9, showing shades of their amazing 43-7 stretch last season. They are building up momentum and suddenly looked very hard to stop.

Matt Kemp, always seeming like an overpaid veteran, is in All-Star starting territory. Los Angeles slugs .428 and has just two below-average hitters in the lineup according to OPS+. There is certainly enough talent at Chavez Ravine to carry the Dodgers to the World Series again.

The Giants are one game above .500 but carry a mediocre -24 run differential. Big offseason acquisitions Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen have not performed up to their peak as they age past 30. And with Johnny Cueto on the disabled list, this aging Giants team doesn’t look to be able to sneak into the playoffs.

The three powerhouses in the National League did not have the starts envisioned. But now, they lurk right behind some young teams in their divisions, with their talent ready to overpower the division leaders. I think the Brewers and Diamondbacks will meet in the Wild Card game. But the National League still belongs to three teams. Is this team the Nationals turn the corner and make the NLCS after the Capitals did it in the NHL? Or will the Dodgers and Cubs continue to reign in their big markets?

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