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Handicapping the NL West Race

There are two weeks left in the regular season, and over in the NL West, things are getting fun. Here are the current standings as we head down the stretch:

San Francisco, 84-66
San Diego, 83-66
Colorado, 82-67

The Giants have the edge by virtue of winning the one extra game they’ve played, while Colorado stands one back in the loss column behind both teams. All three teams have a real chance of winning this thing, and the division will be decided by who finishes the strongest.

To figure out if any of the teams have an advantage, let’s take a look at their respective schedules.

SF: @CHC (3), @COL (3), Off, vs ARI (3), vs SD (3)
SD: @LAD (3), vs CIN (3), @CHC (4), @SF (3)
COL: @ARI (3), vs SF (3), vs LAD (3), @STL (4)

The big difference between the three teams is that San Francisco is the only one with an off-day left in their regular season schedule. After this weekend’s games, they take Monday off before starting their final homestand of the year. Offsetting that, the Giants are the only team that has to play two teams fighting for a playoff berth down the stretch, as they face the two teams they’re fighting for the NL West over the next two weekends.

San Diego has to contend with a good Cincinnati club, but they have little to play for at this point, so Dusty Baker may be more inclined to hold out players who would otherwise be on the field on some days, and there’s certainly a motivational aspect that can’t be completely ignored. Meanwhile, the Rockies have just their three game set against the Giants, but other than that, they play a bunch of teams that are already planning their October vacations.

I’d give a slight edge to the Rockies in terms of ease of remaining schedule, but that previously mentioned off-day for San Francisco looms as an equalizer. Their next six games will see games started by Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, and then Cain again before the day-off. The break gives them the opportunity to shift their rotation around, setting them up better for a potential tie-breaker or the NLDS.

They could finish the season with Sanchez-Lincecum-Bumgarner-Cain-Zito-Sanchez, which would allow them to limit Barry Zito to just two starts over the rest of the season, and setup Lincecum to pitch on regular rest in either Game 1 of the NLDS or an if necessary tie-breaker following the conclusion of the regular season. If they had to play their way into the NLDS, they’d then have Bumgarner available to start on full rest, which isn’t the worst situation they could face.

Meanwhile, Colorado and San Diego just have to roll with how their rotation shakes out, since they play 13 games in the final 13 days. Unless one of them runs away with this thing, which seems unlikely, they won’t be able to set their rotations up for a a potential tie-breaker or the NLDS. Given that they also have a slight lead over the other two clubs, the Giants have to be considered the favorites right now.