When the MLB added the second wild card team in each league in 2012, the incentive for teams in late-season contention to win the division ratcheted up. All of a sudden, organizations didn’t want to have to deal with a one-game-playoff and the opposing team’s ace with the flight home just hours away. The new rule has brought about great memories to boot. From the rejuvenated Pittsburgh Pirates’ fanbase showering down “CUEEEETTTTOOOO” chants and rattling the Reds’ Johnny Cueto into a rough outing last season to the “infield fly” call on a ball that landed 20 feet into the outfield grass in the Braves/Cardinals 2012 matchup, the change has brought about the perfect mix of excitement and importance that the sport – and its shrinking fanbase – needed.
Here we are, at the 7th inning stretch of the 2014 regular season and the divison races are as heated as ever. Teams you would expect – Nationals, A’s, Dodgers – and teams you may not expect – Orioles, Brewers, and Royals – all hold leads in their respective divisions. But one thing is certain in the coming weeks; things are going to change between now and September 30th. So in the next couple of weeks, ISH is going to break down each division race – starting with the NL East and ending with the AL West – with a series of questions that will help determine the results down the homestretch of the season.
NL East Standings:
- Washinton Nationals – 69-53
- Atlanta Braves – 64-60 (6 GB)
- Miami Marlins – 62-62 (7 GB)
- New York Mets – 59-67 (12 GB)
- Philadelphia Phillies – 54-70 (16 GB)
- Will the Nationals hit enough to run away with the division?
Why can the Nationals seemingly beat everyone except the Braves? With Atlanta sputtering after a dreadful west coast trip, the Nationals had a chance to all but put them away. Instead, they lost two out of three games in Atlanta and left the door cracked open – ever so slightly – but open nonetheless. It’s not as though it has been a bad year for the Nats – the sit with a comfortable six game lead – but if the preseason expectation of World Series is to be exacted, this lineup needs to produce more runs. The sit currently 13th in baseball in runs scored while 16th in batting average. One player who could factor in changing that? Bryce Harper. His WAR on the season of 0.4 basically places him at replacement level. The Nationals desperately need that to change.
- If/When will the wheels on the pieced together Braves rotation fall apart?
The preseason injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were supposed to cripple an already ace-less Braves rotation. Instead it was the hitting that sputtered out of the gates while the pitching dragged the team along. Now as both have regressed slightly to the norm, the question remains: Can Aaron Harang seriously maintain an ERA of 3.51 – a full .7 runs lower than his career average? Will a career high innings pitched hinder a breakout season for Julio Teheran? The Braves also need to find out if Alex wood is going to be in the rotation or bullpen long term, but with Mike Minor struggling, they can hardly afford the latter. Braves fans should cross their fingers that Evan Gattis or Jason Heyward gets on a tear in September and adds that crucial third bat in the lineup, because if not they don’t pose a huge threat.
- What’s next for the non-contenders in the division?
With the Marlins hanging around .500 a second wild card isn’t out of sight (4.8% chance according to MLB.com), but the main goal for the rest of the year and into the winter is locking up Giancarlo Stanton long-term. Are they going to commit to winning this offseason and shop for an ace or will they go the other route (the typical Marlins one) and acquire a haul of prospects in return for the ultimate prize – Stanton. The Mets hold no real postseason aspirations and will use the rest of the season for evaluation. The Phillies, however, will be the truly fascinating team to watch. The Phils made no moves at the July 31 deadline, despite the glaringly obvious need to do so. Though Cliff Lee’s contract may not be movable, plenty Philadelphia has plenty of pieces that can and should be moved during this August waivers period. Reports of the massive asking price for Cole Hamels may signal that the Phillies may not be inclined to talk deals on that front, at least until the winter.