By: Chris Larson
Heading into this season, many analysts and fans alike, expected the National League to work out the way it has over the past few seasons with the Dodgers winning the West, the Cubs winning the Central, and the Nationals winning the East. Well, here we are in mid-August and only one of those teams currently leads their division.
Starting in the NL West, the Arizona Diamondbacks currently have a 1 game lead over the Colorado Rockies, who are currently second in the division, followed up by the Dodgers in third place and the San Francisco Giants currently in 4th place or 5 games out of the division lead. As expected, the San Diego Padres are currently in the cellar of the division and will not be contending, under any circumstance, this season. The Padres were a given, but many might be shocked that the Dodgers aren't currently leading the division or even running away with it.
When you rewind to Spring Training and the start of the season, the Dodgers looked more powerful than any other team in the National League West, according to many analysts. Outside a brutal April for the team, that was a month riddled by injuries and underperformance by key impact players, the Dodgers haven't been horrible since the beginning of May, but they also haven't been dominant like many thought. Furthermore, after the terrific start the Arizona Diamondbacks got off to (they had an 18-7 record for the month of April followed by a 8-19 record in May), Arizona hasn't run away with anything either and are 3-3 over the last week. Beyond that, the Colorado Rockies, who have had an un-Rockies like season thus far, led by a dominant starting rotation and a subpar offense, have continued to stay in the conversation, but haven't assumed first place in the NL West, since May 21st.
Switching over to the NL Central now, it seems like the story this season has been similar to what happened last year with the Milwaukee Brewers coming out of the gate hot, sitting in first place for the first few months of the season, and then losing their first place seat to the Chicago Cubs. If you recall, the same type of thing happened last year right around the trade deadline. At one point last July, Milwaukee had a 5-game lead over the Chicago Cubs and many were advocating them to add a starting pitcher, but that lead later dissolved and Milwaukee ended up missing out on the playoffs altogether. Currently, the Cubs lead the division by 2 games with, Milwaukee in second place, and the surging Cardinals in third place, four games back of first place.
The Cubs are by far the best team in the National League at the moment and when everything gets clicking together, they will be a force to be reckoned with and don't forget this is a team that just won the World Series two years ago. They have the pedigree to make the postseason, experience playing in October, and the names on the back of the jerseys, probably make them the best team in the National League as well as the NL Central. However, as the Brewers showed during this past series, they are not afraid of the Cubs and will not just lay over and take themselves out of the conversation for contention. Furthermore, it's even more difficult trying to decipher who the Cardinals are and the realistic chance they have of making it to the postseason. All season long, the Cardinals have had hot and cold flashes, but since Mike Shildt took over as skipper and the team made a bevy of moves to start afresh particularly in the bullpen, the team has performed at a much higher level. Currently, they have the best winning streak (7 games) of any team in the National League.
As for the Pirates and Reds, both will once again be on the outside looking in when it comes to making the postseason. The Reds were guaranteed to be out of contention all year long when the season started and the Pirates, who made a few headline moves at the trade deadline, weren't expected to be contenders after trading both Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen this past winter. Even though the Pirates have a lot of grit and play for a skipper, who doesn't let up, they probably don't have enough to get over the hump this year and would have to be absolutely dominant over this final stretch to clinch a postseason berth.
Lastly, the National League East has probably been the most surprising division out of the three. As mentioned earlier, many people expected the Washington Nationals to basically dominate all year long and run away with the division. Some even went as far to say that the Nationals were the best team in the league and were going to the World Series before the first pitch had even been thrown out, which was fair assessment given the level of talent and the names on paper. However, things have certainly not gone that way, and the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves have both shown that their window is here and they are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Going into play today, the Braves have a 2 game lead over the Phillies, who sit in second place, while the Nationals are in third place - 8 games back of the division lead. Even further down, are the New York Mets, who have also been a huge disappointment all season, in fourth place (16.5 games back) followed by the Miami Marlins in last place or 21 games out of first. The Marlins were always expected to be a rebuilding team this season and it should be no surprise that they have a 48-74 record this year or the worst run differential (-177) in the National League. Down in Miami, all eyes are set to the future and trying to build back up the farm system, after years of constantly, being one of the worst systems in the game.
Switching back to the Phillies and Braves now, both have played extremely well this season, but that doesn't mean that either team doesn't have it's own warts or things that it can improve upon. For instance, Philadelphia needs to do a better job of playing on the road. Currently, the Phillies have a 27-34 record away from Citizens Bank Park, but they have a home record of 38-19. Beyond that, there are question marks and concerns about how the Atlanta Braves young starting rotation can perform here down the stretch and in October, if the team were to clinch a postseason berth. The Braves have had to rely on a lot of their young starting pitching depth from the minor leagues this season and while some of those names are certainly exciting and possess a ton of ability, it's no guarantee that those names can hold it together until the final bell following Game 162. In addition, ever since moving into SunTrust Park, Julio Teheran has not been the starting pitcher that he was prior to the move. Of the Braves starting pitchers, Teheran currently has the worst ERA - 4.33 over 126.2 IP with a 1.25 WHIP.
Simply put, this article isn't to degrade any team in the National League or to say that the league lacks talent to the point where it isn't even exciting to watch, but rather an article to bring attention to the fact that there hasn't been a dominant team in the NL since basically April. Certain teams have had hot stretches here and there, but as illustrated by the fact that no team in the NL currently has a win percentage higher than .600, it's fair to say that the National League is made up of different layers and components. What layer or component comes out on top, is anyone's guess, but don't discount the Chicago Cubs, who are the best team in the NL right now, and have all of the ingredients to return to the Fall Classic once again.