St. Louis Cardinals (77-54) - 31 game remaining
What they have going for them: Weakest remaining schedule of the 3, most games against other teams
What they have going against them: Young, inconsistent pitching.
We have to start somewhere, so we will start with the division leader (for the moment at least). The Cardinals are in the middle of their toughest and most important stretch of the season. Over a 16 game stretch the Cardinals have or will face all playoff teams. The Cards took 3 of 4 from the Braves (best record in the National League) over the weekend and just started a 12 game stretch against the Reds and Pirates. Yeah, you read that right, 12 straight games against the 2 teams you are deadlocked in the standings with. This could either work out really well or really poorly for the Cards. IF the Cards can manage to make it through this stretch relatively unscathed. Their final 19 games are all against teams with below 500 records. Now, not all of these under 500 teams are going to roll over and die, but as the rosters expand later this week (when the minor league regular season ends), it is very likely that the Cardinals won't be facing a full team of regulars in most of their final 19 games. That is a big plus for the Cardinals heading down that stretch. The key though, is doing well in this key stretch against the Pirates and Reds. The Cardinals biggest potential problem is their pitching. Mind you, most teams would love to have the Cardinals pitching staff, but the only pitcher to make it out of the 7th inning in the last 3 weeks in Adam Wainwright. On top of that, the Cardinals, not counting wainwright, have very little experience in the Rotation with 3 guys classified as Rookies and 1 guy who is technically is in his 2nd full year as a starter. Westbrook is set to come of the DL in a couple of weeks, but he has been very poor over the last month, so no guarantees that when he comes back he will be a large improvement over what the Cardinals have there now. Another drawback to the young pitching staff is that, even in the bullpen, there is not a lot of big game experience. Most of the listed pitchers for the Cardinals have been through 1 postseason at best... most have less than that. How they handle big games down the stretch will greatly determine how the Cardinals end up.
Pittsburgh Pirates (76-54) - 32 games remaining
What they have going for them: Young, Athletic team; belief that they can do it
What they have going against them: Very little big game experience, Last 2 years they have fallen apart down the stretch
The Pirates have been slowly building to the crescendo of this seasons success. 2 years ago they surprised everyone for about 4 months before an embarrassing last 2 months left them just under .500 for the season. Last year, same song but a different season. Both year the Pirates had the division lead at some point in June or July... this year, they had it up until last night. The Pirates have had as big as a 3 game lead a couple of times this month that has slipped away, and a lot of people may be beginning to worry that another collapse is near at hand. I, for one, do not think a total collapse, the likes of which we saw the last 2 years, is going to happen again, but now they have that pressure on them again, it will be interesting to see how they react. I keep hearing this is a different team than teams in the past, but the Pirates do not have the playoff experience that either the Reds or the Cardinals have, so as they play these games with big ramifications in the standings... how do they react. The Pirates have a lot of young talent, and, this season at least, the best pitching staff of the group. Lirano has been fantastic this season for the Pirates, and AJ Burnett has a good deal of playoff experience to draw from. The Pirates also play very good defense, which will help them down the stretch.
Cincinnati Reds (74-58) - 30 games remaining
What they have going for them: Pitchers coming off the DL; 6 of last 9 against Pirates; great bullpen
What they have working against them: Least amount of games; 6 of last 9 against Pirates; 3.5 games back of Cardinals
The Reds have played the most games to date, so they will have the most off days down the stretch. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Yes, they will have more time to rest and or travel, but they have a little less control over their own destiny. They also sit 3.5 games back, so they need the Cardinals and Reds to lose while they are resting, or they are just losing more ground by being inactive. Now, the Reds have a very talented lineup that plays in a very hitter friendly park. They are having the best season attendance wise that they have had in a long while (though they still trail the Cardinals by a large margin in that dept.). Their pitching staff is good, their bullpen is really good. But both have been plagued by injuries (which is true of all these teams really). Good news for Reds fans, Cueto and Marshall (both on the 60 day DL) may be able to come off the DL by seasons end in a relief pitching role. Bad news is that their may not be time for a rehab start due to the minor league seasons ending. The Reds right side of the infield is one of the best in baseball though, and the rest of the team ain't too bad. And unlike the Pirates, they have been their before. One thing that is haunting the Reds though... They haven't won a playoff series in a while. While making the playoffs in 2 of the last 3 years, they lost in the first round both times. How will they fare in a 1 game playoff if it comes to this? Only time will tell.
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Thanks for reading
-T.O. signing out
Picture from Yahoo Sports Big League Stew