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Examining the National League Wild Card Picture

As of three days ago, there were only four National League teams with a winning record: The Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, and Atlanta Braves. Since then, the San Diego Padres have swept the Oakland Athletics in a three-game series at Petco Park keyed by back to back walk-off home runs by backup catcher Kyle Higashioka and rookie center fielder Jackson Merrill to propel San Diego above .500, but the National League still pales in comparison to the American League. The AL has five teams with at least forty wins, including the Cleveland Guardians, who have shocked MLB's landscape with their .652 winning percentage and a +90 run differential, as of the morning of June 13th. Incredulously, the two teams that faced off in the American League Championship Series last October, the dynastic Houston Astros and eventual World Series winning Texas Rangers are both below .500 and have quite a few teams to leapfrog in order to secure a Wild Card slot. The New York Yankees, Guardians, Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles, and Kansas City Royals, should their squads remain relatively healthy, should secure a spot in the dance this fall, leaving only one more spot in the postseason free. In the National League, however, things seem a lot more open.

Philadelphia has gotten off to a sensational start to begin the year, and their star-studded rotation of Ranger Suarez, Aaron Nola, and Zack Wheeler, along with a lineup that features Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, Alec Bohm, Bryson Stott, and J.T Realmuto has given the Phillies the best record in the National League. Right behind them are the odds-on World Series favorite Los Angeles Dodgers. Headlined by their three-headed monster of Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, and Freddie Freeman, along with fantastic pitching from Tyler Glasnow, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and the emergence of Gavin Stone, Los Angeles has managed to stave off injuries and do what they always do: lead the NL West by a healthy margin. Less predictably, however, the Milwaukee Brewers have managed to retain their NL Central title thus far. Despite dealing Cy Young candidate Corbin Burnes to Baltimore and losing their terrific manager Craig Counsel to rival Chicago, the Brewers have rode stellar seasons from shortstop Willy Adames and catcher William Contreras, as well as the re-emergence of outfielder Christian Yelich, who had scuffled the previous years following his MVP-caliber seasons in 2018 and 2019. The three division leaders seem almost certain to qualify for October again this year.

However, the NL Wild Card is as open as it's ever been. Although the Atlanta Braves currently hold the first Wild Card slot, their season has been somewhat derailed by season-ending injuries to reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr. and star pitcher Spencer Strider. After their loss to the Orioles on Wednesday, the Braves had lost five consecutive games for the first time since 2017. The sky isn't necessarily falling for Atlanta, but a playoff berth for the Braves is less certain that it's been in quite some time. In the 2nd Wild Card slot are the San Diego Padres. Despite dealing superstar Juan Soto to the Bronx in December, and failing to retain All-Star closer Josh Hader and NL Cy Young Winner Blake Snell in free agency, GM A.J Preller has swung early season trades for Dylan Cease and Luis Arraez. Although starters Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish are currently on the IL, Michael King (acquired from New York in the Juan Soto trade) and knuckleballer Matt Waldron have filled the holes in San Diego's rotation nicely. But perhaps the most pleasant surprise for the Friars this year has been Jurickson Profar, who San Diego brought back on a one-year, one million dollar contract. At age 31, the former top prospect is having his best season yet, hitting .324 with a .924 OPS, and will almost certainly be the starting left fielder in the All-Star Game. Even with all this, the Padres are only two games over .500, at 37-35, and have quite a bit of work to do. yet in order to secure a spot in the playoffs.

The third and final wild card slot is completely up for grabs. There are EIGHT teams fighting for it, and even the lowly New York Mets remain only 3.5 games back of the final ticket to the dance. But all eight teams have a losing record. Out of the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, and Arizona Diamondbacks, there's no doubt at least one of these teams will eventually make a run with the talent they have. Even the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals, who were almost certain to be sellers and bottom dwellers before the year, are only a game and a half back. Every GM is sure to be thinking about the Arizona Diamondbacks' run last year. The team finished 84-78, and barely snuck into the postseason. But Corbin Carroll, Ketel Marte, Lourdes Gurriel Jr, and Tommy Pham ALL got hot at the right time. With timely hitting combined with their rotation of Zac Gallen Merrill Kelly, and Brandon Phaadt, the D-Backs made it all the way to the Fall Classic. At this point of the season, every general manager is internalizing a line from Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when the young wizard is teaching Dumbledore's army about how to protect themselves. "If they can do it, why not us?"

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