By Cliff Corcoran
September 29, 2010

On Monday night, the Phillies clinched the National League East title and the best record in the NL, and on Tuesday, the Reds wrapped up the NL Central while the Rockies were eliminated from postseason contention. That leaves three teams -- the Braves, Giants and Padres -- fighting for the final two spots in the National League. Those three clubs, as well as the Reds, enter Wednesday separated by just two games in terms of overall record. At this point in the season, records alone don't tell us which of those other four 87-to-89 win teams is really the strongest and thus the biggest threat to preventing the 94-win Phillies from capturing a third straight NL pennant.

Here's how those four stack up entering play on Wednesday:

There are a few other methods of determining just how successful a team has been. One is Bill James' Pythagorean record that converts runs scored and allowed into wins and losses. That method produces this ranking:

The problem with these measures, however, is that they take into account the entire season, while the four teams in question have undergone a number of changes that make the teams they are today much different from the teams they were in, say, May. The Giants opened the season with an outfield of Mark DeRosa in left field, Aaron Rowand in center and John Bowker in right. Todd Wellemeyer was in their starting rotation and Bengie Molina was their starting catcher. Of those five, only Rowand remains on their active roster, and he has started just six games since August 14.

The Braves began the year with an infield of Troy Glaus at first base, Martin Prado at second, Yunel Escobar at short and Chipper Jones at third, but now Prado and Jones are out for the year with injuries, Escobar is a Toronto Blue Jay, and Glaus has been limited to bench duty by a tender left knee. Meanwhile injury (to Jair Jurrjens) and poor performance (by Kenshin Kawakami) have forced the Braves to employ a pair of rookies (Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy) in their starting rotation down the stretch.

The Padres and Reds have had less turnover, though San Diego did add Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick at the trading deadline to boost its offense and have recently dropped Kevin Correia from their rotation. Cincinnati called up Aroldis Chapman and has had to replace Aaron Harang (injury and ineffectiveness) and Mike Leake (innings limit) in its rotation.

If we limit our view to the four teams' September records we get this:

Of course there are all sorts of small-sample biases involved there, not the least of which is strength of competition. Still, the one thing each of the three sets of standings above have in common is that the Giants and Braves hold the top two spots and the Reds and Padres the bottom two.

If the season ended today the Padres would be the odd team out, and indeed, they have been steadily losing their grip on a playoff spot this month. They entered September leading the NL West by four games thanks mostly to a dominant pitching staff. Mat Latos had been the ace all year but the 22-year-old had never thrown more than 123 innings in a professional season entering 2010 and has clearly begun to tire lately. Latos entered his September 12 start having thrown 162 2/3 innings and, in four starts since, including that one, he is 0-4 with a 10.13 ERA, nowhere near the dominant ace he was in the previous months (13-3, 1.64 ERA from May 1 to September 7).

Of course, San Diego's real problem continues to be its offense. The team has averaged just 2.81 runs per game over their last 28 contests, scoring more than four runs just twice over that stretch.

The Reds are in a unique position among this four-team clump because they entered September with an eight-game lead in the Central and have more or less cruised to the division title since. Accordingly, the Reds have cooled off significantly from what was their best month of the year in August (19-8, .704). Like the Padres, the Reds recent slump has been due to a lack of offense. Though they are still the have scored more runs than any other NL team, and more per game this month than these other three teams, the Reds have averaged just 4.2 runs per game in September with essentially the same lineup they've used all year.

Part of the problem has been second baseman Brandon Phillips, who has been playing through pain since being hit on the right wrist with a pitch at the end of August and has hit just .163/.255/.239 since returning to the lineup on September 3. Also, veteran third baseman Scott Rolen seems to be wearing down as the season draws to a close. His playing time has been limited of late by neck and back stiffness, and his slugging percentage since sitting out 10 days in July with a tender hamstring has been a hundred points lower than it was prior to that injury. Outfielder Jay Bruce has been red-hot over the past two months, but his playing time has been limited as well by a sore oblique and he has made just 10 starts this month.

Bruce will play regularly in the postseason, but the Reds might not get much more from Rolen or Phillips, the latter of whom may be doing his team more harm than good by playing through an injury. Still, their offense has been too good for too long to not perk back up and their pitching has been as strong as ever of late, with Edinson Volquez looking particularly sharp in his four September starts (1.95 ERA, 31 Ks in 27 2/3 IP).

The Reds are certainly a more well-rounded team than the Giants and Padres. The same was true of the Braves, who led the NL East by seven games in late July, before the injuries took hold. It will be a great testament to Bobby Cox in his final year at the helm if he can steer Atlanta to the playoffs after losing Glaus's bat in late June (.178/.300/.260 since June 20), seeing Jason Heyward through a variety of slumps and a stint on the disabled list and now being without Jones, Prado (who was also on the DL for the first half of August), starter Jair Jurrjens and reliever Takashi Saito.

General manager Frank Wren will also deserve high praise. It was Wren who acquired a pair of crucial replacement infielders in rookie Brooks Conrad, who was signed as a minor league free agent in November 2008, and Omar Infante, one of Wren's first acquisitions after taking over as GM in late 2007. Infante's selection as an All-Star utility man this year was ridiculed, but he has hit .319/.362/.441 in 56 starts since taking over second base for the injured Prado on the final day of July. Prado moved to third on the field and in the lineup in place of Jones upon returning from the DL, and the Braves will now turn to Conrad, a switch-hitter with some pop, to fill Prado's shoes at the hot corner, giving him his first extended exposure as a starter in the majors.

Wren's higher-profile in-season fixes have been less successful. Rick Ankiel, acquired from Kansas City at the trading deadline, has hit just .211/.313/.333 as a Brave. As a result, Atlanta's left and center field picture remains an unsettled and unproductive mix of Ankiel, Melky Cabrera and Matt Diaz, though Nate McLouth has helped out by hitting .264/.344/.528 since returning from the minors in late August. Glaus's replacement at first base, Derrek Lee, has also been a disappointment. Lee has hit only two home runs since being acquired from the Cubs in mid-August, though he has batted .308/.403/.462 since September 6. Altogether, the Braves have scored just 3.48 runs per game in September, which ranks them third among these four lineups.

The Giants all-or-nothing attack ranks second among this quartet this month with 3.75 runs per game. San Francisco has scored nine or more runs in four of its last 11 games but also scored one or none in eight of 13 games from September 8 to 22. It's easy to see why they've been so inconsistent. The Giants are way behind their monthly splits in nearly every offensive category except home runs. Rookie Buster Posey and reclamation project Pat Burrell have been clear upgrades at catcher and left field, but Jose Uribe and waiver claims Cody Ross and Jose Guillen, the team's new center and right fielders, make too many outs (combined on-base percentage in September: .301). In addition, third baseman Pablo Sandoval is following an August in which his bat finally showed some life by hitting just .192/.259/.250 in September.

Fortunately for the Giants, their pitching has made the rest of the league look like the Padres at the plate. The Giants have allowed more than two runs just twice in their last 16 games and more than three runs just once in their last 21 games. This month alone, Tim Lincecum is 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA and 41 strikeouts, Jonathan Sanchez is 3-1, 1.17, Matt Cain is 3-0, 2.19 and Madison Bumgarner, despite a 1-2 record, has a 1.00 ERA.

So which team is second-best to the Phillies in the Senior Circuit? It's clear that the Giants' pitching and the Reds' offense make them superior to the Braves and that the Padres are the weakest team of this quartet for all of the reasons that everyone has been doubting them all season (no hitting and no-name pitching).

That doesn't mean the Padres will be the odd team out come Monday, however. The Braves have to play the Phillies three times over the weekend while the Padres have an outside chance of reclaiming their division via three games in San Francisco. With those three teams separated by just two games with five left on the schedule (four for the Braves, who are off on Thursday), nothing has been decided. But as long as the Giants' starters are pitching the way they have in September they will be the team from this quartet that no one wants to face in October.

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