October Isn’t Everything: Storylines to Keep an Eye on in the National League

In May, I took a look at some of the most compelling storylines in the American League for the teams least likely to make the postseason. Since that post ran, Shohei Ohtani has been involved in a benches clearing incident (don’t worry, he’s fine) and Miguel Cabrera inched closer to his 3,000th hit with this bases-clearing double to put the Tigers ahead of the Brewers:

The Brewers are in first place in the NL Central right now, so they will not be making another appearance in this post, as our projections like their chances in a tight division race and predict that they’ll hold that spot to win the division. No, this post is for the teams that are much less likely to make the postseason — the teams that won’t play meaningful baseball in October, but that can hopefully still offer something to the fans who continue to show up. Let’s delve into the prospects, players, and milestones on the horizon for the non-contenders in the Senior Circuit.

Colorado Rockies (Playoff Odds: 0.0%)

The writing was on the wall in Colorado even before executive vice president/general manager Jeff Bridich resigned in late April. The Rockies entered the season with a 0.1% chance to make the playoffs and did nothing to fix that, currently tied for the lowest wRC+ in the majors at 85 and sitting 13.5 games out of first in the NL West. The team’s offensive struggles persist despite Coors Field, and while cold weather can impact baseball in Colorado longer than some other areas, it’s worth noting that the Rockies’ team wRC+ for non-pitchers got worse from April to May, falling from 75 and 29th in the league to 72 and 30th.

The biggest thing to look forward to in Colorado is the return of Trevor Story from the injured list and what he brings back in any deadline deal, which is depressing in and of itself, especially given the uncharacteristic offensive struggles and right elbow inflammation that could impact his trade value. On the more positive side, Charlie Blackmon is 18 home runs away from 200. That could be a stretch this season, but if he keeps up his May hot streak (.310/.396/.452 and a 124 wRC+), things could get interesting. And if nothing else, Ryan McMahon’s breakout is nice and rookie Yonathan Daza has managed to creep to the top of the NL qualified WAR leaderboards, which should provide for some fun baseball viewing in Denver.

Arizona Diamondbacks (Playoff Odds 0.0%)

It’s rough to be in the bottom half of the NL West this season, where it seems like the Grand Canyon separates the division’s haves and have nots. On May 1, the Diamondbacks were 14-13, and while it didn’t look like they were going to be serious contenders, it also didn’t look like they were going to go 5–23 in May — which they did, losing staff ace Zac Gallen to an elbow sprain in the process. You would be forgiven for assuming the brightest spot in Arizona’s season has already come and gone with Madison Bumgarner’s seven-inning “no-hitter”.

It’s all about the future in the desert. Pavin Smith is third among National League rookies in WAR, and his .293/.348/.457 triple slash is quite good, but what really jumps out is his 15.6% strikeout rate, which is first among the NL’s qualified rookies. Corbin Martin, No. 6 on Eric Longenhagen’s Diamondbacks top prospect list, made it back to the majors after 2019 Tommy John surgery, though he had the misfortune of drawing the Dodgers and the Giants in his two starts, got knocked around, and has since been demoted. Shortstop Geraldo Perdomo (No. 4) got a handful of at-bats in an early April call-up, and while he’s currently in Double A, he could resurface again this season. And of the older young players present, Carson Kelly and Ketel Marte look like cornerstones once more.

Pittsburgh Pirates (Playoff Odds: 0.0%)

The Pirates landed on the 2021 highlight reels courtesy of Javier Báez‘s magic, Will Craig’s mental error (which was then exacerbated by more errors by his teammates), and/or Willson Contreras‘ base running, depending on who you ask. That comedy routine aside, there are some bright spots for a team that was projected to finish last and almost certainly will. Adam Frazier and Bryan Reynolds are both having solid offensive seasons in a hitting environment that hasn’t exactly been friendly to batters. The former has a 141 wRC+ across 254 plate appearances and the latter is just ahead at 143 over 236 plate appearances, bouncing back after a down 2020. Richard Rodríguez has been excellent with six saves and a 1.85 ERA that is only slightly ahead of his 2.04 xFIP. The best news of the season for Pittsburgh fans, though, came over the weekend, with the return of last year’s breakout star, Ke’Bryan Hayes, who slashed .376/.442/.682 in 2020 but logged only seven plate appearances in ’21 before landing on the 60 day-IL with a wrist injury. Our projections currently have the Pirates losing just shy of 100 games at 67–95, but they have some fun players to watch while they do it.

Miami Marlins (Playoff Odds: 0.3%)

The 2020 Marlins were a surprise playoff team after a COVID outbreak wrecked their roster, only for Miami to rally and finish the shortened campaign with a 31–29 record. With the expanded playoff bracket, that was good enough to earn a trip to Chicago as a Wild Card, where their starters made short work of the Cubs with a steady diet of high fastballs. You can’t blame COVID for the 2021 Marlins’ struggles. Luckily, the starters continue to be the team’s strength, even with a bit of bad news on the Sixto Sánchez injury front. Take a look at our rookie pitching leaderboard for the NL and you’ll find Trevor Rogers leading the pack with 2.1 WAR, a full win above Ian Anderson; three of the top ten rookie pitchers by WAR are Marlins, too with a fourth sitting at 11th. In fact, Miami rookies sit at or near the top of both the NL pitching and batting leaderboards, with Jazz Chisholm Jr. just behind Daza among NL rookies tied with 1 WAR despite playing 14 fewer games than Daza or 22 fewer than third-place Pavin Smith. And we may still see Sánchez or No. 3 prospect JJ Bleday make an impact later this season.

Washington Nationals (Playoff Odds: 3.3%)

The blueprint for turning around a troubled season is the 2019 Nationals, who went from 19–31 on May 24, a full 10 games out of first place, to winning the World Series. They are a reminder that a lot can happen over a 162-game season, but the odds of lightning striking twice in the D.C. seem low, especially with Stephen Strasburg going on the IL for the second time this season, this time with a neck injury. This is not a particularly young team, and there are no reinforcements coming from the farm; the Nationals placed zero players on our 2021 top 100 list.

But even if the Nationals don’t repeat their 2019 magic, there might be career milestones worth tuning in for. Trea Turner, who leads the NL in stolen bases, is a mere 14 bags away from his 200th career swipe. Ryan Zimmerman is sitting on 276 career home runs. Jon Lester is just 78 strikeouts away from his 2,500 in his career and seven wins away from 200 (though that will be tough since he’s averaging just five innings per start). Then there’s Max Scherzer, who continues to dominate in his age-36 season. He’s sitting at 2,888 career strikeouts and should get to 3,000 this season if he stays healthy. That historic K may come with another team, as he is in the final season of his seven-year contract and should make for a popular trade target.

Philadelphia Phillies (Playoff Odds: 13.9%)

Suffice to say things haven’t worked out as planned in Philadelphia. The Phillies missed the expanded playoffs in 2020 after finishing third the NL East with a 28-32 record, and while they doubled down in the offseason by re-signing Didi Gregorius and J.T. Realmuto, something still isn’t right. With a third of the season under their belts, the Phillies are once again under .500; their lackluster season was captured perfectly by the almost walk-off home run Rhys Hoskins hit on May 2.

Of all the teams on this list, the Phillies are the best bet to find another gear and make it to the postseason, but even if they don’t, they are still worth watching. A healthy Bryce Harper should provide fireworks. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola look like the top-of-the-rotation pieces the Phillies hoped they’d be. Top prospect Spencer Howard has made it to the majors, and while the 24-year-old has struggled in his three starts, he has struck out 19 in 13.2 innings, good for a 32.1% K rate. Plus with how weird the NL East is, you can’t count out a sudden Philadelphia summer surge.

St. Louis Cardinals (Playoff Odds: 14.6%)

I am actually stunned to see the Cardinals on this list. When I started this project, they were atop the NL Central and while our projections had them falling just short of the Brewers over the course of the full season, they had a solid 30% chance to make the postseason most days. That was 10 days and two critical injuries to the pitching staff ago. On June 1, staff ace Jack Flaherty hit the IL with what is being characterized as a “significant” oblique injury. Losing Flaherty would have been bad enough, but four days later starter Kwang Hyun Kim hit the IL with back tightness. While the Cardinals had adequate rotation coverage, their bullpen has not been particularly solid in 2021. They have the highest BB/9 of any team in the majors at 5.75 and tapping the ‘pen for starts, combined with being swept by the Cincinnati Reds over the weekend, has hurt their playoff chances considerably.

There are still any number of things to cheer for in St. Louis. New third baseman Nolan Arenado has been exactly as advertised, slashing .287/.333/.522 with a 132 wRC+. Arenado is a mere four home runs away from his 250th long ball, which could come before the All-Star Game if he stays healthy. Veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright is on the final year of his deal and sits 109 strikeouts away from 2,000, which is just on the far side of possible given his numbers from recent seasons. After signing a one-year deal to return to the club this offseason, Yadier Molina has been resurgent in 2021 with a .277/.314/.493 line. My favorite storyline by far, however, has been Dylan Carlson’s run at the NL Rookie of the Year award. He currently sits fourth by WAR on our leaderboard behind Daza, Chisolm and Smith. It’s always dangerous to write off a Cardinals team, and if they can get some decent starts from their bullpen while Flaherty and Kim are out, their combination of veteran success and young skill could pull them off this list as we get deeper into the season.

Cincinnati Reds (Playoff Odds: 15.3%)

Of all the teams I wish we could have seen a full season from in 2020, the Reds are at the top of the list. They appeared to be truly, actually trying to win the NL Central, with a fearsome rotation that included Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, plus a lineup filled with electric bats in a hitter’s park. Instead, they finished third in the division amid a roughly .500 season, and their first playoff appearance since 2013 ended in two anemic games against the Braves. A year later, Cincinnati is sitting in fourth, only four games back of first but one game under .500 and struggling to find momentum.

It hasn’t been all bad. Nick Castellanos has been one of the major’s best hitters. As has teammate Jesse WinkerWade Miley threw an improbable no-hitter. Mike Moustakas should reach 200 career home runs once he comes off the injured list. And then there is franchise icon Joey Votto, who has reinvented himself a bit at 37 by sacrificing some of his legendary on-base skill for power, hitting his 300th career home run in the process. Votto is currently on the IL, but at 1,932 hits, he’s a mere 68 from 2,000. I don’t know about you, but you couldn’t drag me away from watching Votto’s 2,000th hit later this summer. Here’s hoping it comes at Great American Ballpark, so Reds fans can give him the ovation he deserves.

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D-Backs: Look at Carson Kelly!
Marlins: Look at Trevor Rogers!
Nats: Look at Juan Soto!
Rockies: Look…directly into the sun?
Cards: Look…don’t blame us for this mess…