You're 5 games over .500 halfway through the season, now what? Auditing the schedules of the NL's middle pack

Glad you asked. You've done so much to get this far, I'm very proud of you. Yet you sense that something's not quite complete in your life. Something's still missing. You've beaten good teams, you've gotten through some tough times, and here you sit halfway through the season and are left thinking, "Is this it?"

No. This is not it. You're an idiot for even thinking that. Look at the schedule, moron, there's still 81 games left. Get off your lazy introspective behind and start winning some more.

Okay, of course the Rockies have to get one more of those wins today against one of the two best pitchers in the National League to get back to that five over .500 level, but from there, the major point is not to get in a rut that says "just staying over .500 is fine and we'll win in September." While this has been pretty much the M.O. for National League teams the last five years, the Dodgers are pushing that envelope forward this season, and other teams in the league would be wise to start seeing that the bar for competition is getting raised. Ten over by the start of August should be the Rockies and other contending team's goal, after the jump I'll take a look at what the remaining schedule looks like for the teams that aren't already there (the Dodgers) or have little chance to get there (the Pirates, Padres, D-backs and Nationals).

So there's still a cluster of eleven teams around the middle of the National League standings. I've been saying that things will start to separate more in the month of July, but I haven't really gotten into details of why. A lot of what's going to be happening will be simply a levelling of the schedule. Certain teams that had more difficult schedules early in the year, like the Rockies, are looking at clearer paths to that 10 game over .500 barrier, while other teams like the Reds and Braves will be left scratching their heads why they seem to be running in place, at best.

Just so we're clear which eleven teams I'm talking about (they're in order of the standings before Saturday's games, but the records are updated):

  • San Francisco 44-36
  • St. Louis 44-39
  • Colorado 42-38
  • Milwaukee 43-38
  • Philadelphia 41-37
  • Florida 42-40 
  • Chicago 39-39
  • Cincinnati 40-39
  • Atlanta 39-41
  • New York 39-41
  • Houston 38-41

A lot of pundits are still clumping all eleven together, but this shouldn't be the case. A team like the Giants, which has advantages in their level of performance, their current record, and their remaining schedule shouldn't be categorized with the Braves or Reds, even though only four or five games separates the teams in the standings right now.

I'm going to look at everybody's specific schedule for coming roadblocks (sometimes literally) after a general read on who gets a light level of opposition for the second half. The bottom line is that the Rockies and Giants, who get multiple series against both the Padres and Diamondbacks will have an advantage in the wild card race over East or Central teams who have fewer lightweights. 

 

Advantageous scheduling:

 

 

Remaining home games vs. NL's bottom four (AZ, PIT, SD, WSN):

 

Most:

 

  • San Francisco: 16
  • Colorado, Cincinnati: 14
  • Houston: 13

Least:

 

  • Florida, New York: 7

For the Giants, who have been doing well at home anyway against tougher competition, this seems particularly advantageous.

Remaining road games vs. bottom four:

 

40% of Milwaukee's remaining road games are against the NL's cupcakes, these series should be a lot easier to win than Houston's remaining travel schedule. So while the two teams are both .500 on the road right now, this probably won't be the case for the remainder of the season.

Most:

 

  • Miilwaukee: 16
  • New York, Florida, Colorado: 13

Least:

 

  • Houston: 3

Overall remaining games against the NL's bottom four:

 

Most:

 

  • Milwaukee: 26
  • Colorado, San Francisco: 25

Least:

 

  • Atlanta: 15

Not only is the Rockies remaining schedule home heavy, but because of playing in the NL West, it's also creampuff heavy. This is very nice to see from our vantage point. If the Central and Eastern teams really wanted to establish themselves as the Wild Card favorites, they should have already done so. If the WC doesn't come out of the West, it will be because the Rockies and Giants both choked a very winnable opportunity away, although the Brewers have a pretty easy time of it themselves.

There is a flip side to this, however, as the NL West does have the one league juggernaut in its ranks, and both the Rockies and Giants have several remaining games against the LA PEDgers:

Avoiding LA:

 

Fewest games left vs. Dodgers:

 

  • Philadelphia: 0

Most games left vs. Dodgers:

 

  • San Francisco: 9
  • Atlanta: 7
  • Colorado: 6

Alright, with that background,I'm going to assess each of the eleven so-called contenders remaining schedules and give them pass/fail grades according to whether I see them as conducive to keeping them in this thing or pushing them out:

 

The Schedule Audit

 

These grades are based on each team's remaining schedule and what they've done so far in 2009 to give us reason to suspect they will get through it okay. Consider it sort of like a stress test on a bank's capital. Should some failing team suddenly start winning frequently against stiff competition, it will require a reassessment of their viability. 

****

Atlanta

 

 

The Braves re-appearance as a pseudo NL West team on that facing the Dodgers multiple times list, combined with their lack of easy games in the second half should make people think twice before picking them for a comeback run this season. Frank Wren is looking for help as a buyer at the trade deadline, and Atlanta's making some noise, but they've got some built in disadvantages with the remaining schedule that make me very skeptical they will be real contenders. Nine of their remaining home games are against the NL's best road teams, Philly and LA, plus eleven more against the Mets and Giants at Turner make for a difficult home schedule, for instance, and they've only been a .500 team in Atlanta to begin with. 

(FAIL)

****

Cincinnati

  

 

There are two of these middle pack teams that have been absolute monsters at home this season, San Francisco and Chicago, and as the Astros showed last night, visiting their stadiums has been as bad as getting a heavyweight on the schedule for opponents thus far. Bad news for the Reds, then, as they have nine road games left against these two teams, in addition to having to get their interdivision road trips to the Dodgers, Rockies, Mets and Phillies out of the way as well as remaining road series in St. Louis and Milwaukee. In all, that's 29 road games against the NL's best, and the Reds could easily lose twenty of them. The Reds currently have a record of 14-19 against teams over .500. 33 games so far against good teams marks the lowest total in the NL, and is full 20 fewer than the Brewers. While Cincinnati's home schedule includes 14 games against the non-contenders of the league, that's far too much competition ahead to make me think they will remain viable for long.

(FAIL)

****

Houston 

 

Houston fans have been taking comfort in the fact that their team is traditionally strong in the second half, and while there are comparitively few lightweights in the Astros second half schedule, there are more reasons to be hopeful there than what I'm seeing in the remaining schedules for Atlanta and Cincy. For one, the Astros have mostly completed their play against the NL West, with 14 games against Western foes remaining on the schedule vs 28 against the weaker NL East. They have two road series left in Chicago and one in Los Angeles which they need to avoid sweeps at, with only one "easy" road series remaining in Chase Field, but they should make up for that with a home schedule that includes two visits by Pittsburgh and one each by the Nationals (it could turn out to be a five game series in effect with the completion of this suspended game from D.C. added to the four regularly scheduled) and D-backs. I think they stay close to .500, and there still seems to be a chance that they could make noise with luck. The big problem is that I doubt just .500 cuts it this year, even in the Central, which means Houston will need the luck. With today's loss, they're now three games under .500, they have four rivals ahead of them in the standings in their division, and every team save the four worst in the NL ahead of them in the wild card race. This isn't a winning proposition, especially given the egg they've laid this weekend.

(close, but FAIL)

****

New York

 

While the Mets have a dangerous team, they really are in a fairly precarious spot. Their remaining home schedule features 13 games against the Dodger/Giants/Rockies portion of the NL West, plus St. Louis. Add in four more against Philadelphia, who does well on the road, and it isn't going to make winning streaks easy to come by. Their road schedule makes things a little easier with the 13 games against the NL bottomfeeders. The Rockies, Cubs and Marlins (twice) are their only road series against opponents who currently have winning records at home, but the Mets haven't been a particularly good road team thus far. I'm looking at Philadelphia's easier schedule, at Florida's easier schedule and realizing that if New York's going to pull out a win in the NL East, they're going to have to earn it. It will be even more difficult for the Mets to win the Wild Card at this point, but they have plenty of head to head opportunity against the teams that are ahead of them in that chase and a series sweep or two against these foes would change things quickly.

Like the Giants, the Mets have a ten game road trip right out of the gate after the All-Star break. These can be contention killers, particularly for a team that's not up to full strength. With the Dodgers and the rest of this Philadelphia series before the break, they could easily go 3-6 in the nine games leading into the break and 3-7 in the ten games after it. They then return home and get Colorado. Meaning I see a somewhat decent possibility for a 7-15 stretch here, which would take them from the .500 record they had heading into Friday night's game to eight games under with just two months left to play. Even at 9-13 and 10-12 over that stretch, however, it's likely to be enough of a deficit within the division to make a comeback unlikely. 

INCOMPLETE (I can't get myself to strike them out until the All-Star break, they still concern me, but their record and situation is more dire than they may realize)

****

Philadelphia

 

Look at all the home games on the Phillies schedule in July, broken up only by road trips to Florida and Arizona. The Phillies have been a weak home team this season, but that almost has to be a function of poor luck thus far. At three games over .500 right now, they would need just a plus 16-8 or better in the 24 games leading into their series in San Francisco to be over 10 over. It's hard to imagine Philadelphia coming out of July with less than a five game lead over New York.

(PASS)

****

Florida

 

 

There have to be two strong teams in a division to make for a real wild card contender, however, and if it's not going to be New York or Atlanta, that leaves Florida. Except it doesn't. I've already concluded that they're weaker on paper than other teams in this race, and it will show this month as the Marlins' July schedule takes them on not one, but two tough West Coast road trips with a home series (plus the All-Star break) against those road warrior Phillies in between. They won't have a very easy home schedule the rest of the way, either. I think we see Philadelphia step away from the NL East pack this month.

(FAIL)

****

St. Louis

 

For the St. Louis Cardinals, we start with the advangtage they have in the current standings. Six games over .500 is nothing to scoff at, but they're likely going to need it. The Cardinals second half schedule has brutality coming in every month. They've just started a ten game road trip heading into the All Star break, but then have to come out of it and face a gauntlet of 17 days without a day off including seven straight against the Phillies and Dodgers in the middle of that stretch. August has a West Coast road trip to Dodger Stadium and Petco and their last road trip in September includes a visit to Coors Field. Right now we're going to give them squatter's rights at the top of that division, but Milwaukee's got a clearer path. This means the Cardinals should be the strongest wild card contender for the Rockies besides the Giants, keep on eye on what they do.

(weak PASS) 

****

Milwaukee

 

Milwaukee starts with a very similar built-in advantage in their current record with the Cardinals, but the Brewers have a much easier remaining schedule. They have a rough road trip starting in San Diego at the end of July through the first ten days of August, but after that the schedule clears again and they have relatively smooth sailing until the last week of the season when they travel to Colorado and St. Louis. If things are close, that trip could decide their fate with both the Wild Card and the NL Central. For both, I like their chances better now after looking at the schedules than I did last week when I just compared the teams' strengths and  weaknesses. I'm changing my mind from that assessment and now am more willing to label the Brewers favorites in the Central.

(PASS)

****

Chicago

 

The Cubs have a relatively easy July but a difficult, to say the least, schedule in August and September, before playing the easiest last week in the majors with home series against Pittsburgh and Arizona to finish the season. The questions are where they'll be at the start and finish of that two month drudge in between the soft portions to their schedule. They've got a five win deficit to catch up with the Cardinals and Brewers right now, and while I could see them making ground on St. Louis this month, Milwaukee should stay ahead given that soft schedule of their own.

Thought experiment: A peak month in July would be something like 20-7 for the Cubs, leaving them at 56-45 heading into August. That's if just about everything goes right this month. At that point they're facing the most difficult two months of their NL schedule and it is ugly. Let's say despite this they slog their way to just over a .500 record and are sitting at 84-72 heading into the last six games. Pittsburgh and Arizona roll over at Wrigley and the Cubs sweep both series to finish the season, 90-72. Look at their schedule, though, in that 55 game stretch from August 1 through September 27, they play 32 games on the road including away series at every serious NL contender besides Philadelphia. I think 90-72 is the best possible finish the Cubs could hope for, but keep on coming to the conclusion that the more likely outcomes right now start at least six wins short of that figure. 84 wins isn't going to be enough in the Central this year.

 (FAIL)

****

San Francisco

 

Finally getting to the part you've probably been waiting for, the two NL West teams that right now seem to hold an advantage for the wild card but have only a small hope of winning their division. The good news is that the Rockies have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the majors, the bad news is that, in terms of bottomfeeders on the docket, so do the Giants. The Giants do have important long and potentially difficult road trips in the middle of each of the next two months, both of which end at Coors Field.

I can tell exactly what Giants fans are hoping for from each road trip because it would be almost exactly like our way of thinking: For July, win two at Pittsburgh, split the four game set at Atlanta, and try to win two at Colorado but be okay with avoiding the sweep and taking one for a 6-4 or 5-5 road trip. For August: split in New York, win two at Cincy, split at Coors for a 6-5 trip. As a Rockies fan looking at the G-men's schedule: I'm seeing in July a strong at home Pittsburgh team as trouble for the them right off the bat, hoping Atlanta and their pitching at Turner can take three of four and the Rockies at least two to leave the Giants at 3-7 on their trip to obscurity. In August, the Mets and Rockies are strong teams capable of winning three of four, the Reds could take two, leaving San Fran 3-8. Since Colorado plays a full third of those 21 games, the Rockies should easily be the difference between things going San Fran's way at 12-9 and things going the way I'm hoping for at 6-15 and this can make or break the Giants chances for September.

The bad break for us is that the Rockies will then have to go to AT&T twice in three weeks at the end of August and middle of September, so the Giants will have opportunity for payback if we do whack them down to size. Really, overall the schedule for San Fran is just a little tougher than what the Rockies have to go through and both teams should separate from the rest of the NL when not playing each other or the Dodgers and it's those head-to-heads that will determine who winds up on top.

Since what I wrote last week the Giants have continued one of those stretches that forces re-evaluation. They are seriously thrashing their opponents right now and have a similar can't lose swagger to what the Rockies did in June. I think they chill after the All-Star break, but I no longer can pretend they're going to go away.

(PASS)

****

Colorado

 

The Rockies schedule has a lot of cupcakes and several offdays to recuperate. Their longest stretch of consecutive games in the second half --and perhaps the most grueling portion of the schedule-- will be September 1-16, but given several games against weaker competition, even that stretch could see ten wins should the Rockies still be playing at a playoff caliber. As I alluded to above, the last ten days of August are shaping up to be among the most critical for keeping the Rockies in the playoff hunt: Two series against the Giants, one at Coors, one AT&T, with a home series against the Dodgers sandwiched in between. 6-3 or better should have us sitting pretty, 3-6 or worse could push us into hoping for a Rocktober-esque miracle. The two middle of the road results, 5-4 or 4-5, may only muddle things. Still, even in that stretch, six of the nine crucial games will be at home. The schedule still shows favor to us.

One final hiccup, while I think that the Giants and Rockies both might finish with better records than the NL East and Central division winners, let alone their second place teams, but given that's not at all certain, the presence of series with both Milwaukee and St. Louis in the final homestand may loom large in the wildcard chase. Even if it doesn't, those last three series against the Cardinals and Brewers at home and at Dodger Stadium to wind down the season represent the strongest competition of any NL team's last nine games that I've seen, the Rockies would be wise to have a cushion of some sort heading into the last few games of the season. The bright side with this is the six against Milwaukee and St. Louis are home games and if the NL West remains uncompetitive, Joe Torre may be resting more of his key parts for a playoff run leaving a weaker than normal Dodger team.  

(PASS)

****

Conclusion:

 

The remaining schedule seems to favor Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Colorado, and looks more daunting for the other seven teams. Given that these four are already in a somewhat favorable position in the standings, it gives most of the chasers below them an even greater handicap. St. Louis doesn't have an easy schedule, but has the catbird seat in the Central, and that capital reserve in the win column means that they're likely to remain in the chase.

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