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D-backs face deep field of competition for a Wild Card playoff spot

Arizona Diamondbacks' Christian Walker (53) celebrates his three-run home run against the Colorado Rockies with teammate Jarrod Dyson (1) during the fifth inning of a baseball game Friday, July 5, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The National League Wild Card picture is a mess, and the Arizona Diamondbacks are right in the middle of it.

Nine teams are within three games of each other. At the All-Star break, the Cubs, Braves and Dodgers all lead their respective divisions, while the Nationals and Phillies accompany the two Wild Card slots. Six teams sit behind them, all of whom are within 2.5 games of a slot.

The Brewers, Cubs, Padres, Cardinals, Rockies and Pirates are the D-backs’ main competitors. Their success and Arizona’s own over the next few weeks will determine what the Diamondbacks do at the July 31 trade deadline.

Here’s a breakdown of each team’s standing at the All-Star break.

Chicago Cubs

(AP Photo/Jim Young)

Record: 47-43

Games behind: 0 (0.5 games ahead of Brewers for NL Central lead)

The Cubs have rebounded after a poor start to the season. They have the sixth best offense in baseball based on Fangraphs’ WAR and have hit the ninth most home runs in baseball with a total of 140. In Kris Bryant, David Bote and Daniel Descalso, the Cubs have many multi-positional players, allowing them to platoon at multiple positions (second and third base) and trot out lineups that play favorable to matchups. That’s a nice thing to have when struggling bats like Kyle Schwarber’s and Descalso’s exist.

What could be holding the Cubs to just three games over .500 and keeping them from pulling away in the division race is their pitching, specifically the bullpen. They went out and added Craig Kimbrel to help solve some issues, but he’s a had rough time so far with a 12.27 ERA in four appearances.

The Cubs, despite their issues, are one of the more talented teams in baseball.  They’re going to need to put it together to stay on pace in a tight, competitive division.

Washington Nationals

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Record: 47-42

Games behind: +0.5 games ahead of Phillies for first NL Wild Card spot

The Nationals are another team that started out the season quite slow and have rebounded well.

The struggles emerged from a bullpen that was one of the worst in baseball. Washington has blown the fourth most saves this season with 18 and at the All-Star break has only two consistently productive relievers in Sean Doolittle and Javy Guerra. The Nationals have combed through other options but haven’t found answers.

They also have had position players falter. Second baseman Brian Dozier is hitting .233/.322/.444 and catcher Yan Gomes is hitting .211/.303/.303. Catcher Kurt Suzuki has stepped in and turned the position into a platoon, but Dozier has been the everyday man at second-base.

What has helped get the Nationals back into playoff contention has been their rotation, which has been the best in baseball, according to Fangraphs’ WAR. Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, former D-back Patrick Corbin along with the never-aging Anibal Sanchez all have an ERA+ of over 120, and Nationals starters strike out more batters than any team on this list based on strikeout percentage.

Pitching is key in the playoffs, and the Nationals have it to get there and be successful in it.

Philadelphia Phillies 

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Record: 47-43

Games behind: — Second Wild Card spot

The Phillies built a lot of hype coming into the season with the signing of Bryce Harper and the trades for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto, and so far, they’ve at least partially lived up to it.

The Phillies play in one of the better divisions in baseball, alongside the Nationals above and the NL East-leading Braves, so their struggles could be tied to that.

Digging into the numbers shows that the Phillies’ struggles could be that they’re just simply playing like an average team. They rank 13th in offensive WAR and haven’t gotten expected production from their rotation; Jake Arrieta has possibly started to decline, as the 33-year-old has a 4.67 ERA, and the Phillies’ younger pitchers have also turned in underwhelming or regression-plagued seasons.

The bullpen has also been an issue, ranking as the fourth worst in baseball per WAR.

Reinforcements there, and in the outfield as starting center and left fielders Andrew McCutchen and Odubel Herrera are out for the season due to injury and suspension, respectively, could have the Phillies back challenging the Braves as their playoff march continues.

Milwaukee Brewers

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Record: 47-44

Games behind: 0.5

We’re now outside of the playoff spots, so for the remaining teams, it’s about how they can break through.

For the Brewers, the rotation could play a large part. Milwaukee has been connected to some of the biggest names on the trade market and could use a boost to their 18th-ranked rotation by WAR.

In the past Milwaukee has been one of the most liberal teams in baseball with its bullpen usage, but this season that has declined a bit.

Brandon Woodruff has carried over his postseason success to this season and is now an NL All-Star. Another young pitcher, Zach Davies, has been fantastic with a 3.07 ERA, but former D-back Chase Anderson and last season’s Brewers ace Jhoulys Chacin have struggled, and the Brewers have yet to find that fifth starter.

With Christian Yelich threatening to go for back-to-back NL MVPs and the fourth-best bullpen in baseball based on WAR, the Brewers have some of the pieces necessary to make another playoff run.

Arizona Diamondbacks

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Record: 46-45

Games behind: 1.5

With Yelich as one of baseball’s best players this season, it’s likely that the Brewers will be buying and trying to compete for a playoff spot.

But as we get to the D-backs and the other teams remaining, those type of decisions, whether to buy or sell, are still up in the air.

It’s the problem that the D-backs have about three more weeks to solve.

If the D-backs decide to buy, upgrades could theoretically be used everywhere. The bullpen is the place they could go first, as one could argue the D-backs are down to one reliable reliever in Yoan Lopez given Greg Holland’s struggles before the All-Star break. But the D-backs, despite having the MLB’s eighth-best offense per WAR, also have to address the issues they’ve come across scoring runs at home.

The rotation also could use some help, as the fifth starter has been a question circling the team for weeks now. Alex Young has shown some promise in his first two career starts, but even if Luke Weaver returns to the D-backs soon, they are still down a spot as Taylor Clarke went on the IL on July 3 and has struggled mightily with a 6.21 ERA.

The D-backs have a lot of holes to fill, which asks for a big commitment for a team that is truly in the middle of the road.

San Diego Padres

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Record: 45-45

Games behind: 2

The NL West is also quietly one of the better divisions in baseball, as three teams behind the cruising Dodgers are all hanging around.

The Padres represent one of those teams.

It’s probable that the Padres are right where they want to be. Despite the offseason signing of Manny Machado and the call-up of highly-touted prospect Fernando Tatis Jr., who has lived up to the hype, the Padres are middle-of-the-pack. Overall, they’re young; Tatis’ age of 20-years-old is a perfect example of that. The Padres have one position player who is over the age of 30 in Ian Kinsler, who’s 37. The top three batters on the Padres’ WAR leaderboard are 20, 27 and 26 years old.

And the Padres have more highly-touted youngsters coming in 2020, which could include pitchers like Mackenzie Gore and Adrian Morejon. That could be the year they really make some noise.

The reason the Padres are in the middle is because of the inexperience. Despite huge numbers being put up by Tatis Jr., 23-year-old Franmil Reyes (25 home runs), Machado (20 home runs) and 27-year-old Hunter Renfroe (27 home runs), an example of their inexperience is their 26.2% strikeout rate, which is the highest in the majors. The oldest player to start 10+ games or more in their rotation is 27 years old, and three-fifths of it is made up of 23- or 24-year-olds.

The pitching is a similar boat. Chris Paddack was excellent with a 2.84 ERA before being sent down to conserve his service time. Joey Lucchesi has been a tad better in his second year (3.94 ERA compared to 4.08 last year). Other youngsters like Eric Lauer and Cal Quantrill have struggled.

The question that the Padres have to answer is whether to wait or not. Trading for immediate help could result in moving younger players with potential. Waiting and letting this season coast along would give those guys a taste of winning and let them develop even further.

St. Louis Cardinals

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Record: 44-44

Games behind: 2

In a very tough division with four teams all in the mix for a spot, the Cardinals find themselves in a similar position to the D-backs: stuck in the middle.

If the Cardinals want to make a push, improving a rotation that ranks 22nd per WAR in the MLB could work, but that may be tough. They have a couple younger pitchers (Dakota Hudson and Jack Flaherty) who are likely worth keeping around despite Flaherty’s rough season (4.64 ERA). They have older, experienced guys like Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas, who are also struggling, yet replacing those guys might as well be considering selling.

The offense has also struggled to hit for power, which is essential in today’s game. They rank 24th in home runs hit, with 107 on the season. Former D-back Paul Goldschmidt has 16 of those, a decent total considering his batting average has dropped 36 points since last season. He missed out on the All-Star game due to his subpar production so far.

While the D-backs are only a half-game up on them, the Cardinals will have to make a hard push, thanks to the complications of their problems and the competition they will likely face.

Colorado Rockies 

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Record: 44-45

Games behind: 2.5

When examining the Rockies, it’s almost the opposite of the D-backs. The statistics make you wonder how they’re this good, and that’s at the underwhelming record of 44-45.

The Rockies offense has fallen off this year, a surprise considering their home ballpark, Coors Field, is one of the most conducive hitters ballparks in all of baseball and has been the Rockies fall-back for their inability to develop pitchers over the years.

This year, that has not been the case.

The Rockies have hit the ninth-fewest home runs in baseball this season and ranked 24th in offense based on WAR overall. It hasn’t slowed down the likes of Nolan Arenado or Trevor Story, as both have hit 20-plus out of the park, but the rest of the lineup is hitting with less power.

The starting rotation hasn’t been exactly stellar either, as the Rockies are in the bottom third of the league in terms of starting pitching WAR. Oddly, it’s the Rockies pitching that also struggles immensely at Coors Field, meaning that opposing offenses aren’t having the same hitting struggles as the Rockies.

Maybe the Rockies, in a way, are more like the D-backs given their home struggles.

Pittsburgh Pirates

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Record: 44-45

Games behind: 2.5

Like the Rockies and the D-backs, the Pirates are representing average quite well.

Despite Josh Bell’s breakout season, nothing truly stands out about this 2019 Pirates season. It ranks 17th in WAR at the plate and has hit the fifth-fewest home runs in baseball. Pittsburgh’s starters rank 17th in WAR, a high mark considering no one has been ultra-successful (The highest ERA+ out of pitchers who’ve made 10 or more starts is 105). The bullpen has been quite good as Felipe Vasquez, Francisco Liriano, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez all have an ERA+ of 121 or well above, but it hasn’t translated into wins as they rank 24th in WAR generated from relievers.

Just like their division foe in the Cardinals, it could be a long, hard road to the playoffs.

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