An in-depth look at the National League Wild Card

(Editor’s note: All stats used in this piece are as of Monday, 8/27)

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This past offseason, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig expanded the playoff system. Two wild card berths were added, one to each league. A single elimination game would be played to determine the Wild Card winner. The current standings are like this:

Atlanta 73-55 (home field advantage for playoff)

San Francisco 71-57* (lead NL West by 1 game over LA Dodgers)

St. Louis 70-57

LA Dodgers 69-59* (1.5 back of STL, 1 game back of San Francisco in NL West)

Pittsburgh 68-59 (2 back of STL)

Arizona 64-64 (6.5 back of STL)

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It’s safe to say that Arizona is likely out of playoff contention, barring anything dramatic and unusual. The Wild Card will be a five-team race, and an exciting one at that. We’ll begin the preview with our own St. Louis Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals took 2 of 3 from Cincinnati this past weekend, and gained a game in the NL Central. Still, the Reds hold a 6 game lead in the Central and should be able to maintain that lead through the rest of the regular season. If St. Louis can maintain their offensive production, they should have an advantage at maintaining a spot for Game 163. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals’ rotation will play out, with Joe Kelly pitching in Lance Lynn‘s rotation spot for the time being. September’s expanded rosters may help the Cardinals in their quest.

The Cards have the toughest remaining schedule of any Wild Card contender. They have five series against teams with records above the .500 mark, three of which are against division leading teams (two against Washington, one against Cincinnati).

Cardinals fans will likely remain nervous from now until playoff time, and have good reason to be that way. Everything will have to be clicking for the Redbirds. They cannot afford to give many games away. It can be done, but they have a tough hill to climb to get there.

Remaining games vs WC teams: at PIT (Aug 28 & 29) at LA (Sept 13-16)

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers, in pursuit of the playoffs, may have just become the biggest threat to the Redbirds” Wild Card hopes.

A nine-player trade took place between the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox on Saturday. Boston sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto to LA, while the Sox received James Loney and four prospects. For the Red Sox, the trade was a salary dump and concession for the 2012 season. For LA, the trade showed that the Dodgers are serious about the playoffs, and the near future, under their new ownership. The trade could turn out to be much like the Cardinals trading Colby Rasmus to Toronto last season, and we all know how that turned out for St. Louis.

The Cardinals, Nationals and Reds are the only non-division opponents that the Dodgers face in the rest of the regular season. Washington and Cincinnati have the upper hand in their respective divisions (4 1/2 and 6 games respectively). Of the Wild Card contenders, Los Angeles may be the toughest opposition St. Louis has for the next month and a half. The Dodgers’ dangerous pitching and newly-revamped offense, combined with the easy schedule, should strike fear in their opponents and give LA an edge in the race.

Remaining games vs WC teams: at SF (Sept 7-9), vs STL (Sept 13-16), vs SF (Oct 1-3)

San Francisco Giants

Tim Lincecum has been a huge disappointment in the otherwise stellar season so far for San Fran. The PED-suspension of Melky Cabrera will certainly hurt the Giants’ chances at an NL West title. Despite these events, the Giants have been able to hold a slight division lead on the Dodgers. The only non-division opponents remaining on the schedule for the Giants are the Astros and Cubs. The NL West is pretty much a two-team race between the Dodgers and Giants. The advantage, at least on paper, goes to LA because of the trade boost. The battle for the West (and subsequent Wild Card spot) should go down to the final days of the regular season, but don’t be surprised if LA runs away to a division title before then.

Remaining games vs WC teams: vs LAD (Sept 7-9), at LAD (Oct 1-3)

Pittsburgh Pirates

Other than St. Louis, the Pirates have just three series left with teams that have winning records (two with Cincinnati, one with Atlanta – one Reds series and the Braves series at home). The Pirates are much better at home than on the road (38-25/30-34). Pittsburgh’s contention will depend on their pitching, which has been a major plus for them in 2012. Led by James McDonald and AJ Burnett, the Bucs’ rotation has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. Barring a late season collapse or injuries, Pittsburgh should remain in the three-team race for Wild Card spot number two.

Remaining games vs WC teams: vs STL (Aug 28 & 29), vs ATL (Oct 1-3)

Atlanta Braves (current leader of first Wild Card spot, 2.5 games ahead of Cardinals for position)

The Braves have a big strength of schedule in the remainder of the regular season.  Thanks to a weak NL East, Atlanta faces only two opponents with winning records, Washington and Pittsburgh. It would take a Braves slump and Cardinals surge for St. Louis to take the number one spot and home field for Game 163. It happened in 2011, but given the schedule and sure-thing Braves pitching staff, don’t expect history to repeat itself. Atlanta should be hosting Game 163 in October. The only question they should have is who they will be facing on that day.

Remaining games vs WC teams: at PIT (Oct 1-3)

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The 2012 Wild Card race will be exciting to watch. It won’t quite have the excitement of the 2011 Wild Card, but the first year with the new system won’t disappoint. Expect some good baseball in the season’s last month and a half!

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