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Breaking down a potentially thrilling finish to the NL Wild Card spots

Sam Friedman
NL Wild Card
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The slate of MLB games today highlights how perfect this time of year is, especially with the race for NL Wild Card spots heating up. Across the National League, some of the best teams in baseball are competing for just a few spots in October.

Many clubs are keeping an eye on the chase to October, but the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets really don’t have to worry about it. Los Angeles won 10 consecutive games entering the weekend and the path to its ninth NL West title since 2013 is clear with a current pace of 113 wins. In New York, the Mets are cruising right now and even a September collapse would likely still earn them a shot at the World Series.

For the remainder of the NL teams, the intensity is picking up. The Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are all vying to land one of four spots in October.

Related: MLB playoffs

It means one of these teams is going to walk away with an empty feeling at the end of the regular season, reflecting on the opportunities they missed. Let’s take a look at where each team in the NL Wild Card battle stands.

Atlanta Braves

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Boston Red Sox
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The reigning champions are 4.5 games clear for the first wild card spot. Atlanta has dealt with a ton of injuries over the season, including extended losses from two of their cornerstones in Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. Now, ace Max Fried is sidelined with a concussion.

Fortunately, the Braves have Austin Riley who is arguably the most underrated player in MLB. Riley has had the biggest ascent in professional baseball over the last two years, launching himself into contention as the best third baseman in the National League.

  • Austin Riley stats (last 162 games): .306/.357/.575, .933 OPS, 40 home runs, .269 ISO, 151 wRC+

Atlanta won the World Series in 2021 without Acuña Jr, who many view as its best player. However, I would say it’s Riley. Either way, they have a lineup with multiple MVP-caliber bats. The Braves also have excellent pitching, ranking in the top 10 in most categories, and have a very deep roster. I would say they are the favorite amongst all the teams listed to make the playoffs.

Philadelphia Phillies

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies are one of the hottest teams in the league over the last two or so months, boasting a 40-20 record since Rob Thomson replaced Joe Girardi. Keep in mind that Philadelphia is still without reigning MVP Bryce Harper who has been sidelined with a thumb injury since June.

  • Bryce Harper stats (2022): .318/.385/.599, .985 OPS, 15 home runs in 64 games

Despite missing their best player, the Phillies just keep on winning with the help of Kyle Schwarber (34 home runs, 69 RBI). The rotation is captained by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, both of whom will likely finish with WARs above 5.0.

Both of these pitchers are at the top of the league right now, and it seems like when we rank the best pitchers, we tend to forget them. Nola has the best strikeout to walk rate in the league, ranks in the top 10 in strikeouts, and has a WHIP of 0.95. Wheeler has arguably been better, putting together 15 quality starts, and posting an identical 4.4 WAR.

Harper is set to come back soon, mostly in a DH role, but I predict them to make the playoffs as well.

San Diego Padres

MLB: San Diego Padres at Washington Nationals
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Boy, are the Padres fun to watch now. They were darlings of the league before, and now that they have Juan Soto, it’s incredible to watch. Players have finally realized that San Diego is the best place in the United States, why not just play there?

The Padres have the big names in Soto, Machado , and newly acquired Josh Bell. San Diego also boasts an extremely solid rotation in Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Sean Manaea, Blake Snell, and Mike Clevinger with plenty of postseason experience. On top of that, Josh Hader is in the bullpen. The pinnacle of this roster is probably a top-three in baseball.

The issue I see with the Padres is will role players step up and hit when they need it? Outside of Machado, Soto, Bell and Jurickson Profar (.796 OPS) a lot of their other hitters float right around that league OPS average of .709, if not lower.

San Diego proved it can win without Fernando Tatīs Jr, so his suspension might not prevent them from earning an NL Wild Card spot.

The St. Louis Cardinals/Milwaukee Brewers

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals
Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

We’re left with the NL Central battle. There is no current spot open for the wild card, as I have picked the other three teams to make it. It means the final playoff spot will be determined by who wins the division and Milwaukee is trailing with St. Louis grabbing more momentum.

My prediction is that the Brewers stay in that spot for the rest of the season, in part because of the Hader trade. They may have the best pitcher in the league in Corbin Burnes, who is on the shortlist for Cy Young again. I just think they have an uphill battle to climb

The Cardinals are better than the Brewers, but not by much. They are powered by two of the top ten players in the National League, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. Outside of that, they added during the trade deadline, getting Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery to flush out the rotation.

  • Prediction: Milwaukee Brewers fall short in NL Wild Card hunt