Which National League wild-card hopefuls are contenders, pretenders?

Which National League wild-card hopefuls are contenders, pretenders?

The first half of the 2024 MLB season is drawing to a close, and seven National League teams are firmly in the mix for a wild-card spot. Although this should set up a second half filled with drama and intrigue, some wild-card hopefuls are already cementing themselves as true postseason threats, while others are lucky to still be in playoff contention.

A few of these teams will surely make improvements before the July 30 trade deadline, but for now, here’s who is emerging as contenders and pretenders in the NL wild-card race. 

(All statistics and records are through Sunday’s games.)

Atlanta Braves (49-39, first wild-card spot) 

It hasn’t been the type of offensive season that we’ve come to expect from the Braves, who are 12th in the majors in home runs (100) and 13th in OPS (.713). However, their ability to overcome season-ending injuries to Ronald Acuna Jr. and Spencer Strider has been one of the more impressive storylines in baseball.

Atlanta’s pitching, particularly the performances of Reynaldo Lopez (1.71 ERA) and Chris Sale (2.71), has been a key reason why the team has been able to stay afloat, as it ranks eighth in starter ERA (3.69). Additionally, Atlanta’s bullpen has been one of the best in the majors, ranking second in ERA (2.97) among teams. 

It might be difficult to close the gap on the division-leading Phillies, but if they add an impact bat at the deadline, expect the Braves to make some noise in the postseason.

Verdict: Contender 

Arizona Diamondbacks (45-45, two wild-card games back)

The Diamondbacks entered this season with the highest payroll in franchise history and even higher expectations after they made a surprising run to the 2023 World Series. While it still has most of the pieces from that team, Arizona was 52-38 on this date last year compared to the 45-45 record it now holds.

So, what exactly has been the difference in this season’s group? The answer is undoubtedly Arizona’s lackluster pitching staff.

Offensively, the Diamondbacks have been one of the better teams in baseball this season, ranking eighth in OPS (.737), though they have combined to post the second-worst team ERA in the majors (4.65). Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez (shoulder) could be back in the rotation soon, but even his return won’t be enough to help the Diamondbacks embark on a strong enough run to surpass the teams holding wild-card spots.

Verdict: Pretender 

New York Mets (44-44, two wild-card games back)

After falling to 11 games under .500 on May 30, the Mets have seemingly transformed into a different team, and it hasn’t just been due to a certain purple McDonald’s mascot. Shortstop Francisco Lindor and catcher Francisco Alvarez have been the true driving forces for New York, which has been averaging the second-most runs per game among teams since June 1 (5.94).

Lindor’s early season struggles ultimately cost him a spot in the 2024 MLB All-Star Game, but since moving to the leadoff spot on May 18, the 30-year-old is slashing .301/.361/.527 with eight home runs and 24 RBI. Meanwhile, Alvarez has proven to be the heart and soul of the Mets, with the team posting a 27-12 record with him in the lineup as opposed to a 17-32 mark without him. The Mets will have to address their disastrous bullpen situation in the coming weeks, but their new-look offense should be enough to propel them to the final wild-card spot. 

Verdict: Contender 

Pittsburgh Pirates (42-47, 4.5 wild-card games back)

A rotation led by Paul Skenes, Mitch Keller, and Jared Jones can be the deciding factor in the playoffs, but Pittsburgh’s roster holes could prevent the team from making it there. The Pirates offense has been flat for most of the season, with the team ranking 23rd in runs scored (362) and 27th in OPS (.665). The bullpen hasn’t fared well either, as it boasts a 4.52 ERA, the fourth-worst in the majors.

While the Pirates aren’t typically buyers at the trade deadline, this season could be a rare exception, though it could ultimately go to waste. Not only will it be virtually impossible for Pittsburgh to make the necessary upgrades to solidify itself as a playoff team, but according to Tankathon, it also has the fifth-most difficult remaining schedule in MLB. 

The Pirates will be a major threat in the NL Central for the foreseeable future, but it’s hard to imagine their eight-year playoff drought ending this season. 

Verdict: Pretender 

San Diego Padres (49-45, third wild-card spot)

Had star outfielder Fernando Tatis Jr. not gone down with a stress reaction in his right leg last month, the Padres might be within striking distance of the Dodgers for the NL West lead. San Diego has surprisingly been able to compensate for the offseason departure of Juan Soto, thanks in large to the emergence of All-Star outfielders Jurickson Profar and Jackson Merrill.

The Padres rank ninth in OPS, eighth in runs scored and second in batting average but have been underwhelming pitching-wise, with the team posting a 4.16 ERA, the 20th-best in the majors. President of baseball operations A.J. Preller is no stranger to making splashy deadline deals. If he has another up his sleeve for a starting pitcher like Detroit’s Jack Flaherty, the Padres should have the talent to contend for a World Series title. 

Verdict: Contender 

San Francisco Giants (44-47, 3.5 wild-card games back)

The Giants were one of the biggest spenders in free agency this past winter, but injuries have largely prevented them from achieving consistent success. The recent returns of starting pitchers Kyle Harrison and Blake Snell, as well as the impending return of Robbie Ray, set up a fascinating trade deadline for San Francisco. In all likelihood, the Giants will be buyers so their offseason efforts aren’t wasted, though their upcoming stretch of games will determine whether that’s the case.

At this point, however, it’s difficult to say the middling Giants can make any noteworthy additions to elevate them to true wild-card contention. Overall, the team ranks 25th in team ERA (4.44), 14th in runs scored (402) and 15th in OPS (.703). 

Verdict: Pretender 

St. Louis Cardinals (47-42, second wild-card spot)

Like the Mets, it wasn’t long ago that the Cardinals were considered an afterthought in the NL wild-card race. However, a solid month of June has helped the team secure a wild-card spot for the time being and put St. Louis in a position to be a buyer at the trade deadline. Even so, despite their recent surge, the Cardinals have several areas of the roster to improve, as they still rank 18th in OPS (.689) and 21st in starter ERA (4.39).

St. Louis has the offensive talent to get by without adding a difference-making bat at the deadline, but it must acquire a quality starting pitcher. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale recently reported that rival executives believe the reigning champion Rangers will make right-hander Max Scherzer available ahead of the trade deadline. If the Cardinals can bring the Chesterfield, Missouri native to St. Louis, they should have what it takes to qualify for the postseason. 

Verdict: Contender

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