NL's coming drama not restricted to Central
Three-way race intriguing, but Nationals, Puig continue to draw attention
On Thursday, we took a look at the most prominent situations still unsettled in the American League. In the NL, frankly, it's a lot less complicated, and you can thank the Dodgers and Braves for that.
But if you're bored, it's your own fault. Because we've still got a lot to watch in the September stretch.
The Central is the center of attention
The D-backs and Nationals are still holding onto hope that they can overcome their Wild Card deficits (and more on that in a sec). But for now, it would certainly be a surprise if both Wild Cards don't emerge out of the NL Central, where the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds have forged what might be the most captivating division race in baseball.
Best thing about that race? There are plenty of head-to-heads to come. The Cardinals, fresh off taking two of three from the Reds, head to Pittsburgh for three games this weekend, and the two clubs will square off yet again the following weekend, with three in St. Louis. They enter the weekend with the Cards clinging to a one-game lead.
The Reds, meanwhile, trail by just 3 1/2 games and hope their blowout win over the Cards on Wednesday night was a breakthrough, because they are just 5-10 against St. Louis this season and will be hosting their final four against the Cards next week, Monday through Thursday.
So this looks to be a huge stretch for the Cardinals. The opportunity to put a stranglehold on the Central is right in front of them, and how they handle this situation will go a long way toward determining whether the consecutive weekend series between the Bucs and Reds (Sept. 20-22 in Pittsburgh; Sept. 27-29 in Cincinnati) are a fight for home-field advantage in the NL Wild Card round or something greater.
One way or another, we can feel confident saying this: The Pirates, regardless of some recent difficulty, will end their unsightly streak of 20 straight losing seasons. But pardon Buccos fans if they've begun dreaming of bigger things.
It ain't over 'til it's over
We expected big, big things from the Nationals at the outset of the season. They were a favorite to reach the World Series in Davey Johnson's final season, but because of regressions in their lineup, bullpen and bench, they've struggled to put together any prolonged positive stretches.
Until August, that is. And maybe it's too little, too late.
But a Nats club led by Jayson Werth's sensational second half has looked fairly frisky in recent days, and, though they trail the Reds in the Wild Card by 6 1/2 games, their next 16 are all against the East's sub-.500 squads -- the Mets, Phillies and Marlins.
The D-backs, six games back in the Wild Card race, squandered an opportunity to gain ground when they dropped three of four in Cincinnati in mid-August. But they'll play their next nine against the last-place Giants and Blue Jays. You never know.
The Dodgers' outfield logjam
When they asked Brandon Belt, during the Giants' Fan Fest before Spring Training, about the Dodgers' big spending, Belt responded, "All I can say is, you can't buy chemistry."
Belt got a thunderous ovation for that swipe at the Giants' rivals. But suffice it to say that, at this point, the Dodgers wouldn't trade their current standing for the Giants' chemistry.
Winning breeds its own kind of chemistry, and nobody has won at the rate the Dodgers have the last few months. Still, the chemistry "issue" -- to the extent that it even is an issue -- will come up again when Matt Kemp returns from the disabled list next week and Don Mattingly has to massage egos and dole out playing time to four outfielders.
Kemp has said he still considers himself the everyday center fielder, but Andre Ethier has performed well in the role in Kemp's absence. And of course, the Yasiel Puig situation (Puig was yanked from Wednesday's game in the fifth inning for disciplinary reasons) is a near-daily source of fascination, as the Dodgers weigh the benefits Puig brings to their lineup vs. some of the negatives that come with his assimilation to the Majors.
In the end, the Dodgers are going to coast to the NL West crown and maybe even to the best record in the Senior Circuit. But their outfield logjam and how it's handled will certainly be worth keeping an eye on as they gear up for October.
Can pitching carry the Braves?
The NL East title appears to be a foregone conclusion for Atlanta, but the joy over their standing has undoubtedly been tempered some by the frustration of losing Tim Hudson for the rest of the season and Jason Heyward for possibly all of September, maybe beyond.
At least Atlanta got good news on Brandon Beachy, whose right elbow discomfort, which landed him on the DL, won't require a second surgery in as many years. But still, the loss of Hudson's veteran presence and the assets Heyward had brought to a sagging leadoff spot will present difficulty down the stretch and could have October repercussions. Pitching will of course be the key, because Heyward's absence is a huge blow to the bats.
Thankfully, pitching depth tends to be a strong suit of the Braves, and this season is no different (just look at what 2012 second-round pick Alex Wood has done in the rotation in recent weeks). But Atlanta does have to be careful not to put too much on rookie Julio Teheran's plate in these final weeks, as he's venturing into previously unknown innings territory and will need to be sharp in the postseason. In general, the Braves will have a lot riding on a rotation that is untested in October.
The awards outlook
With all due respect to Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis and Mike Trout, the NL will be home to the most interesting MVP debate (I'd expect another runaway win for Cabrera in the AL).
As was the case with Justin Verlander in 2011, Clayton Kershaw is going to invite another round of discourse over whether pitchers ought to be considered. And Kershaw makes it particularly interesting because he doesn't have the lofty win total (he's 13-8) to match his incredible 1.72 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. So although he's the obvious NL Cy Young choice, the Dodgers lefty meshes the debate over the importance of wins with the debate over pitchers winning MVPs into a stats-driven super-squabble.
So that'll be fun.
Andrew McCutchen will likely be considered the safer selection, and you could do worse than to take the face of a franchise whose turnaround might be the best story in baseball in 2013. Paul Goldschmidt of the D-backs and Carlos Gomez of the Brewers also have decent arguments, potentially hurt by how their teams have fared this season.
And what about the Rookie of the Year race? Does the Puig intrigue carry him to the honor, or will the voters hold his April and May absence against him?
For my money, the best choice is the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, who, despite the emergence of Teheran, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Shelby Miller, has been not only the best rookie pitcher in baseball this season but one of the best overall. He's 10-5 with a 2.30 ERA entering his Friday start (opposite Teheran and the Braves), and he's finishing strong as he nears an innings cap, having allowed two runs or fewer in eight straight starts.
Who takes home field?
The Braves and Dodgers might have their divisions all but locked up, but they will still be vying with the NL Central winner for the honor of best record in the NL and the home-field advantage it will provide in the Division Series and League Championship Series.
A question, though: Do you really want it?
After all, the Wild Card era is littered with clubs who couldn't go the distance after posting the best record in their league, and that's especially true in the NL. You have to go all the way back to the 1995 Braves to find an NL team that posted the league's best record and went on to win the World Series.