Baseball Chatter

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesWho's in the race, who's out and who will win the coveted playoff spots in the National League? See below. (And please click HERE for my American League predictions.)
NL East

Who's In?
New York Mets
They don't always make it look easy but this is still the best team in the NL. Its grip on that title is tenuous though, depending greatly on the health of Moises Alou and Carlos Beltran, the nerves of rookie outfielder Lastings Milledge, the fortysomething right arm of Orlando Hernandez and the long-awaited comeback of Pedro Martinez. As much as everybody loves Paul Lo Duca, this is a better team when Ramon Castro gets at-bats.

Atlanta Braves, 3.5 GB
Bobby Cox can still platoon with the best of them. Look at his left-field combo of Willie Harris (125 OPS+) and Matt Diaz (129 OPS+). With Mark Teixeira and Octavio Dotel on board, now Cox just has to worry about getting Andruw Jones to perform and getting something out of his fifth starter.

Philadelphia Phillies, 4.0 GB
Losing Chase Utley, who was having an MVP season, was a huge blow. Tadahito Iguchi has proven to be a capable replacement, at least in the short term. The NL's highest-scoring team isn't going to win anything in subtle fashion -- the Phillies are 6-19 in one-run games and 20-14 in blowouts (five-plus runs).

Who's out?
Washington Nationals, 11.5 GB
They were supposed to be one of the worst teams in history, but it looks like they won't even lose 100 games. Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard and Ryan Church have kept the offense from being outright putrid, and the bullpen has been better than average. Manny Acta is as solid a choice for manager of the year as anybody.

Florida Marlins, 11.5 GB
They have two of the best hitters in the majors in Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera. And Dan Uggla and Josh Willingham give them a formidable top four sluggers. The problem is none of those guys can field very well. Add a porous defense with an injury riddled pitching staff and this is what you get: the same record as the Nationals.

Prediction: The Mets will hold on thanks to the late, heroic return of a diminutive Hall of Fame right-hander.
NL Central
Who's in?
Milwaukee Brewers
After a magical start, the only thing they've been any good at lately is finding new and creative ways to lose. Just imagine where they would be without ROY front-runner Ryan Braun. What they need is what they have always needed: a bona fide stopper in the rotation. Are you listening Ben Sheets?

Chicago Cubs, 1.0 GB
Kudos to the Cubs for remaking themselves early on. Installing second baseman Mike Fontenot and shortstop Ryan Theriot as regulars were inspired moves, as was getting Alfonso Soriano out of center field. Those changes, and the trade of Michael Barrett, had more to do with the turnaround than Lou Piniella's ramblings.

Who's out?
St. Louis Cardinals, 7.0 GB
With the exception of losing Chris Carpenter, are they that much worse than last year's club? Albert Pujols can still knock the cover off the ball and Yadier Molina is still a banjo hitter. The difference is the division is a lot better.

Houston Astros, 9.5 GB
Getting Ty Wigginton from Tampa Bay was a great move, but he can't solve enough of this team's problems. They miss Adam Everett's glove a lot, the arms of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte even more.

Cincinnati Reds, 11.0 GB
Adam Dunn has the highest OPS+ of any regular on the team (including Ken Griffey Jr.). But somehow he's not a player to build around for this club. And for some reason they couldn't trade him at the deadline either. So what is their plan here? Do they have one? At this point Reds fans must be feeling like Mulder & Scully: "I want to believe."

Pittsburgh Pirates, 12.5 GB
This club is stuck in a spin cycle, always seeming to have an array of promising young arms but consistently failing to develop them into winners. It doesn't help that the offense ranks near the bottom of the league year in and year out.

Prediction: Sheets comes back, setup man Scott Linebrink gets hot and Milwaukee finally makes it back to October.
NL West
Who's in?
Arizona Diamondbacks
The Brewers' Braun is lucky Justin Upton wasn't called up earlier. The kid who homered and nearly hit for the cycle on Tuesday night might be the big bat the overachieving D'backs have been missing all season. The Bros. Upton (B.J. plays for Tampa Bay) will be a treat to watch for the next decade.

San Diego Padres, 1.0 GB
The offense isn't nearly as bad as it looks. Overall the Padres rank 12th in the NL in runs, and they are fifth in the league in runs scored on the road. Petco is killing these hitters. That's why they need to get the Jake Peavy-Chris Young one-two punch rolling again.

Colorado Rockies, 4.0 GB
A long time ago in what must have been a galaxy far, far away, the Rockies made the playoffs behind a thunderous offense and a stingy bullpen. The Rockies have finally gotten back to that same formula and it is paying off. If All-Star closer Brian Fuentes can return to his first-half form, he'll give the Rox a nice lefty-righty combo with Manny Corpas.

Los Angeles Dodgers, 4.0 GB
The offense has hit a lull and the starting rotation is banged up, with Jason Schmidt, Randy Wolf and Hong-Chih Kuo out and Derek Lowe and Brad Penny hobbled. This is probably the most talented team in the division, and the kids -- James Loney and Matt Kemp -- have come through, but veterans Nomar Garciaparra and Rafael Furcal have to pick it up.

Who's out?
San Francisco Giants, 13.5 GB
By now, anybody who was taken hostage by the Bonds Watch knows this all too well: The Giants are terrible. Outside of the Big Three of Noah Lowry (131 ERA+), Tim Lincecum (121 ERA+) and Matt Cain (110 ERA+) , what else is there to build on here? At least now we can stop watching.
Prediction: The Rockies come out of nowhere and take it, setting the stage for a possible Todd Helton vs. the Red Sox matchup in the World Series.
The Wild Card Race
1. Padres
2. Braves, 1.5 GB
3. Phillies, 2 GB
4. Cubs, 3.0 GB
5. Dodgers, 3.0 GB
6. Rockies, 3.0 GB

Prediction: The Braves try something new and make it as the wild cards after winning the division umpteen times.



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