Why the NL Teams Won’t Win It All

As we head into the playoffs, you’ll surely hear a lot about why each team has what it takes to go all the way and win the World Series. Today, we’re taking the opposite approach. Here’s a look at why each of the five National League playoff teams will not win it all.

Atlanta Braves: Lack of an “ace” and a top-heavy offense

Led by the underrated Mike Minor and boosted by rookie Julio Teheran, Atlanta’s deep rotation gave the club a chance to win every day, not only weathering a lost season from Brandon Beachy and a season-ending injury to Tim Hudson, but improving down the stretch thanks to 11 solid starts from rookie Alex Wood.

Yet while this rotation is built well for the day-in, day-out rigors of a long season, the Braves might find difficulty matching up with the elite-level starters they’ll find in the playoffs — such as Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the National League Division Series. Minor’s 3.39 FIP leads the remaining Braves starters (Wood is headed to the bullpen), yet is just 19th in the National League, behind four different Dodgers starters and two apiece from the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

The Braves might also find themselves limited by their top-heavy offense, which has a few star-level performers in the second half (Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons, provided you include his defense) but also some complete anchors (B.J. Upton, Evan Gattis, Dan Uggla and Jordan Schafer). Catcher Brian McCann, he of the .296 OBP since the All-Star Game, is now also dealing with a strained adductor muscle. And though it’s not expected to be serious, it’s another issue he doesn’t need.

Cincinnati Reds: Struggle against the best

Reds fans should be terrified about Dusty Baker‘s usage — or lack thereof — of closer Aroldis Chapman, as well as his infuriating bunting tendencies, but the biggest reason the Reds won’t go all the way is that they have been unable to beat the best teams this year. Cincinnati fattened up on lousy teams like the Cubs, whom they beat 14 of 19 times, and went 55-30 against teams under .500.

Good teams are supposed to do that, but they’re supposed to be able to beat their own class, too, and the Reds are the only NL playoff team with a losing record against teams above .500 — finishing with a poor 31-39 record against winning opponents.

October baseball is all about beating the best, of course, and the Reds posted losing records against fellow playoff teams the Braves, Pirates and Cardinals. (They beat the Dodgers four out of seven times.) Considering their performance against elite opposition and Baker’s tendency to help his opponents with some of his decisions, Cincinnati might be in for an uphill battle against the best the game has to offer.

St. Louis Cardinals: Closer and injury issues

Having to replace your struggling All-Star closer 97 percent of the way through the season wasn’t exactly the plan Mike Matheny‘s team had hoped to follow. The good news is that even Edward Mujica‘s collapse isn’t as fatal as it might be on other teams, because Matheny can turn to talented arms like Trevor Rosenthal (108 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings), Kevin Siegrist (two earned runs in 38 2/3 innings) and perhaps even starter Michael Wacha, but all three are rookies, which always is a concern at the end of a long season.

If relying on such youth in the bullpen isn’t enough to stop this team, the health of a lineup that already has a black hole at shortstop might be. First baseman Allen Craig, one of the top run producers in baseball, hasn’t played since injuring his foot in early September and is unlikely to be available for the NLDS. He’ll be replaced by Matt Adams, who has been dealing with a sore elbow that cost him a few days earlier this month, though he’s still hit well. Outfielder Carlos Beltran has a sore wrist, while catcher (and MVP candidate Yadier Molina) has put up his worst month of the season after returning from a knee injury that cost him half of August.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Skip Schumaker, starting center fielder

With the unexpected news following Sunday’s season finale that Matt Kemp‘s injured ankle would sideline him for the postseason, the Dodgers find themselves with a huge hole in center field. It’s true that Kemp wasn’t around for most of the team’s record-setting summer run anyway, but Andre Ethier was — and Ethier hasn’t started since Sept. 12 with a sore ankle of his own, making his availability for the NLDS a very uncertain proposition.

Don Mattingly indicated he would prefer to keep Yasiel Puig in right field, so if Ethier can’t go, that leaves the team stuck with bench player Skip Schumaker as the starter. Schumaker played just 12 complete games in center this year and was rated as below average by most defensive measures. At the plate, he’s a subpar hitter who had just four steals and homers combined, and has a large enough career platoon split that he’s nearly an instant out against lefties.

The Dodgers should also worry that usual setup men Paco Rodriguez and Ronald Belisario have struggled over the past few weeks ahead of elite closer Kenley Jansen, but that’s a secondary concern. Going from Kemp and Ethier to Schumaker is a huge blow that could cost them in October.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Facing right-handed pitching

The Pirates are a team that wins with pitching, defense and MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. That’s been enough to overcome what is generally an average offense — their .311 wOBA was just 18th in baseball, between the noncontending Brewers and Giants. The good news is that no team in the National League feasted on lefties the way Pittsburgh has, topping all others with a 108 wRC+ against southpaws, including having five different Pirates who had at least 40 plate appearances put up a wRC+ mark of at least 176 against lefties.

Unfortunately, the Pirates were merely middle-of-the-pack against righties, and are last among all NL playoff teams; McCutchen was the only one who managed to get to even 125 in wRC+ against righties. Other than McCutchen, their best hitters against righty pitching (third baseman Pedro Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker) are all but unplayable against lefty pitching, creating matchup problems against lefty specialists in the late innings.

The lesser production against righties is a concern considering that even if the Pirates can get past Cincinnati righty Johnny Cueto in the wild-card game, they’ll end up facing a St. Louis team that will likely have an all-righty starting rotation in the NLDS.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

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