The 2011 National League season contains few surprises so far. Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco lead their respective divisions, just like they’re supposed to. Atlanta and Milwaukee are right in it, like they’re supposed to be. Perhaps Florida and Arizona have outplayed expectations to date, and maybe Cincinnati and Colorado have a few more losses than some expected. But by and large, things are where they’re supposed to be on June 8th.
As we look at the standings, there are really only three races left in the NL season, and only five teams truly involved in them at this point. With so many games left in the season, other teams can play their way back into consideration, but these teams on the outside will need to prove they belong once again before they earn that right.
The first race is for the NL East. The Florida Marlins looked like they could threaten, but a four-game sweep at the hand of the Brewers may have quashed those dreams. Instead, it appears to be Philadelphia working to hold off Atlanta. According to Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds, Philly’s three-game lead gives them a 55% chance at the division and a 72% chance at the playoffs overall. Atlanta’s still in good shape, with a 32% chance at the division and a 51% chance at the playoffs. Florida is one of those teams that needs to work its way back in; they’re not out, but a 12% chance at the division and a 22% chance at the playoffs encourages only the most optimistic.
The Brewers are a large player in the second race, the one for the NL Central. Currently, they trail the frontrunning Cardinals by 2.5 games, resulting in a mere 25% chance at the division, which combined with a good shot at the Wild Card gives Milwaukee a 43% chance at the playoffs. St. Louis is in much better shape, enjoying 80% chance playoff odds, the second largest in the National League to only the Giants. Cincinnati’s recent run of poor play has taken them off the pace by five games, and although it would be dangerous to cast off the Reds, they currently only hold a 6% chance at winning the division and a 12% chance at the playoffs.
San Francisco has a stranglehold on the NL West race, with an 86% chance to win the division thanks to their 5.5 game lead over Colorado and the projected incompetence of Arizona’s (one game back) roster. Given Arizona’s lack of starting pitching beyond Dan Hudson and Ian Kennedy, I’m inclined to agree with Prospectus’s projection.
That leaves perhaps the most intriguing race of all: the race for the wild card, in which the Brewers will most certainly play a mighty figure regardless of the performance of the Cardinals. Milwaukee holds a scant and rather meaningless one-game lead over Atlanta. Jon Morosi of Fox Sports declared “the NL wild card could become the biggest Milwaukee – Atlanta confrontation since the Braves left town after ’65.”
It’s difficult to find fault in that argument. After the three division winners, each projected for 90+ victories by Prospectus, we find a bit of a dropoff until Atlanta at 88.2 and Milwaukee at 87.0. After these two wild card contenders, the next best team isn’t found until Florida at 84.6. The only other teams projected above .500 are Cincinnati (82.6), Los Angeles (82.5) and Colorado (81.9). Atlanta and Milwaukee appear to be the cream of the crop, preparing the National League for an intense Wild Card battle should none of the division winners fall off.
For Milwaukee, it’s hard to ask for more from a team missing a front-line starter, it’s starting catcher and it’s starting right fielder through the first month of the season than to be squarely in the top five teams in the National League. Over the next four months, Milwaukee will matter in the National League race again. I, for one, missed that feeling.