In their past 30 games, the Dodgers and Cardinals are 15-15 and the Pirates are 9-21. Yet this is the trio of teams with the best shot at winning the National League's second wild-card spot.
1. From these three, who comes out on top, and why? Or could somebody else slip into the picture?
Tristan Cockcroft (@SultanofStat), ESPN.com: The Dodgers, but I don't feel remotely confident in the pick. I'd love to pick the Phillies, now five games back of the final wild-card spot, as I think experience actually matters in this kind of debate, but the Phillies have such a thin middle-relief corps, a patchwork outfield after their July trades, and a bunch of games remaining against the Nationals and Braves. The Dodgers have the best pitching of the three most realistic candidates and a bolstered lineup via their midseason trades; at the same time, they have a somewhat brutal schedule, with a critical four-game series against those Cardinals coming up. I genuinely believe the winner of the spot is the winner of that Dodgers-Cardinals series, Sept. 13-16. And if they split? Hello Phillies through the back door!
Michael Baumann (@MJ_Baumann), Crashburn Alley: St. Louis has the lead, the best lineup and the best starting rotation. With the Pirates falling back to earth and the Dodgers struggling to put their new acquisitions to good use, that ought to be enough. The Phillies are red-hot and have better starting pitching than any of those three, but they've dug themselves too big a hole to be viable at this point.
Matt Philip (@fungoes), Fungoes: None of the three is playing as if it wants to win it. The Bucs are on fumes, and the Dodgers and Cardinals don't appear to have much left in the tank, either. The Phillies and Brewers are each within five games, but that is still a lot of road to make up with only 20-plus games remaining, even if the Dodgers and Cardinals continue to merely coast. I say the Cardinals.
2. What's the one thing holding your pick back from running away with it already, and can the team fix it?
Cockcroft: Injuries, injuries, injuries for the Dodgers. Former No. 2 starter Chad Billingsley is out for the season; Kenley Jansen, one of the most lethal closers in the game, is a question mark; and now even Clayton Kershaw has had some doubt cast upon his immediate future in that department. I don't think you can simply "fix" that; you just have to hope that Kershaw and Jansen show no adverse effects after their returns in the coming days. A healthy Kershaw, in particular, is imperative.
Baumann: With Lance Berkman out for the year and Carlos Beltran struggling to hit, there's a possibility that St. Louis will struggle to score runs down the stretch. And if the offense starts to go downhill, Mike Matheny might manage the Cards out of the race entirely. But if David Freese, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Jon Jay keep hitting well, they'll win comfortably.
Philip: Injuries have crippled the Cardinals. They just lost shortstop Rafael Furcal and starter Jake Westbrook, and Berkman is also finished for the season. The Cardinals, who have played without the Big Puma most of the season, possess offensive depth to patch it over, and possibly enough pitching options.
3. The outcome of a one-game wild-card play-in to reach a division series might be a roll of the dice, but, afterward, which of these teams would be best equipped to win a postseason series?
Cockcroft: The Phillies, for three reasons: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. OK, four: I consider their home-field advantage significant, and, because they'd get the first two games at home, they'd stand an excellent chance at taking both there and needing to win just one of three on the road. Here's another fun reason, depending on the specific matchups: Two of the most important offensive pieces for the Phillies are left-handed (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard). The Reds' rotation is entirely right-handed. So if the Reds somehow overtake the Nationals for the No. 1 seed, that's a potential upset in the making.
Baumann: The Dodgers do because, with the Phillies and Stephen Strasburg out of the discussion, they have the best starter in the NL playoffs in Kershaw, plus an underrated bullpen, plus a lineup that has suddenly gotten very deep. If Jansen comes back and Josh Beckett regains anything resembling his old form, it becomes very easy to talk oneself into a long Dodgers playoff run.
Philip: The Cardinals showed last year in beating the NL-best Phillies that they have enough offense to overcome top pitching in a short series. They again have the best offense in the league, so they'll be dangerous -- if they make it.