The National League is shaping up to be a real madhouse. It has a blend of teams in the rebuilding stages against teams that are primed and ready to make a deep postseason run. While it seems a bit early to be discussing how the playoff race will shape up, these first few weeks feature seemingly sleeper matchups that could have huge impacts come September.
Contrary to the American League, where a vast majority of teams have a shot to compete in their divisions this year, the National League’s divisions each have two teams that should theoretically run the division, and two teams that should be at the bottom of the totem pole.
In the East, the Mets and Nationals seem the obvious top dogs in 2016, with the Phillies and Braves in the midst of rebuilding for the future, and the Marlins continue to be a dark horse.
In the Central, the World Series favorite Cubs and last year’s division champs, the Cardinals, are sitting pretty coming into 2016 with the Reds and Brewers looking fairly weak. The Pirates deserve an honorable mention as well, racking up 97 wins last year (and taking third, showing how intense this NL Central race can be).
The West sees the Giants (it is an even year after all) and the Dodgers, despite some injuries, as the front runners with the Padres and Rockies being the punching bags of the division.
Now comes the fun part. Each team plays their divisional opponents 19 times throughout the year. They play teams from the other National League divisions 6 or 7 times. So, with three potentially weaker teams in each division, the contenders are all playing predictably weaker opposition in roughly 66 games over the course of the season. If they win two-thirds of these games (which isn’t unreasonable considering the apparent talent gap existing between the upper and lower NL teams in 2016), they’re sitting at 66-33. Even if these teams all play .500 ball throughout the “tougher” parts of their schedules, that’s still 97 wins in 2016. With a couple of favorable series against the tops of other divisions or in inter-league play, there could be multiple teams sitting at almost 100 wins come late-September, and only five of them can make the playoffs.
While it’s incredibly unlikely that the 2016 season pans out this way for every single National League playoff contender, this shows just how crucial these series against “lesser” opponents will be over the course of the season. While the opening games may be forgotten by the end of the regular season, their impacts could be huge on where a team sits in regards to Divisional and Wild Card races come September.
This also makes the series played between the marquis teams in the division that much more exciting to watch. Since each team will theoretically have a large number of wins behind them, head to head records could be huge in deciding if a team is playing or watching October baseball.
This is all theoretical, of course, as every team is prone to big-name injuries or other factors that can derail a season. On the flip side, teams that seemingly don’t have a lot going for them can always surprise everyone with an expectation shattering season or play spoiler to one of the supposed top dog teams. It’s a long season, and anything can happen.
I want to give credit to MLB Network Radio, as I heard them discussing these details and it peaked my interest and made me want to look into some of the numbers and gauge the issue for myself.