This season, we've got something in baseball we have never had before: two off days for every team after the All-Star Game. That gives players who played in the game a little bit of a break before they resume play Friday, and those who didn't play will get four full days off -- which will allow many starting pitchers to pitch consecutive games for their team, Sunday and Friday.
It also gives baseball writers extra time. Time to sit at the keyboard. Time to look at the standings. Time to take a break, then look at the standings again. Yep, they haven't changed since I last looked.
Enough of this. Here are five random things I think are going to happen the rest of the year in the National League. Could I be wrong? Sure. Been wrong many times. Sure I'll be wrong again sometime in the future. Trying to figure out why I'm writing sentence fragments. Now, onward.
1. The Washington Nationals are going to make the postseason
This is a bigger deal than you think. This franchise, formerly the Montreal Expos, has been in the postseason just once -- and that was in the bastardized 1981 split season, where they actually finished two games behind the team with the best record in their division (the Cardinals), but St. Louis missed out because they failed to win either half. (There. Proof that Bud Selig isn't the only commissioner with dumb ideas. That one was Bowie Kuhn's.)
Anyway, the Nats will see the playoffs for the first time in 31 years largely due to their outstanding pitching staff, which has given up the fewest runs in the major leagues. They'll need that to continue, as their offense ranks ninth in the NL in runs, but teams have had long postseason runs with pitching staffs like Washington's. The biggest question, which Dan Steinberg examined at DC Sports Bog, is whether the Nats will actually shut down Stephen Strasburg. My thought? If they do, they're crazy. You have a chance to win now, you take it. Stretch out days between Strasburg starts, take him out earlier in games, but he's got to be on the mound in October.
2. The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to make the postseason
I was going to play it safe and say "The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to finish over .500", but they need to go just 34-43 to do that, so I thought I'd go for it and predict a playoff spot. Of course, I could have said that last year, when, even later in July, the Pirates were in first place at 53-47, and I'd have been dead wrong, since they went 19-43 the rest of the way.
But this year's Pirates have better pitchers. They're right behind the Nats in runs allowed in the National League; they have perhaps the league's best bullpen and a lockdown closer in Joel Hanrahan. I'd expect them to go after a starting pitcher in the deadline trade market to bolster the good performances of James McDonald and A.J. Burnett. While you might think they'd go after hitting, they're winning even without it; another solid starter could put them in good shape for a postseason run.
Beyond that, even if the Bucs can't hold on to first place in a weak NL Central, they're very much on target to get into the wild-card play-in game. Which leads, naturally, to...
3. There will be a three-way (or larger) tie for one of the postseason spots
Look at the wild-card standings. In the National League, there are five teams within half a game of the two wild-card spots. (This article is only about the NL, but it could be even worse in the AL, where there are eight teams within 2½ games of the two wild-card spots.)
What happens if there are ties? MLB has left one day in between the end of the regular season and Wild Card Day, where both wild-card spots will be settled by winner-take-all games. If more than two teams tie for those spots, though, we've got trouble:
Under this system, remember, virtually every tie would have to be settled on the field, because the difference between finishing first and being a wild card is too significant to be left to any sort of mathematical formula.
That doesn't even take into account the possibility that a division winner or winners and potential wild-card teams could all be tied. I'm hoping it happens just to see the embarrassed squirming that Bud Selig would have to do in that scenario.
4. The Houston Astros will be the biggest winner at the trade deadline
Many are looking at the Chicago Cubs as possibly the biggest dealer at the deadline, as pitchers Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza could be traded. But the Astros have several useful trade pieces; they've already shipped Carlos Lee out for a useful return, and contenders could have interest in shortstop Jed Lowrie (if Houston chooses to sell high on him) and pitchers Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. The Astros begin the second half with the worst record in the major leagues and knowing they're switching leagues in 2013. Why not have a big selloff?
5. The Miami Marlins are not going to the postseason
The Marlins, with a new stadium, city name, logo and colors this season, decided to go all out to put together a playoff-caliber team; they rank seventh in the major leagues with a $118 million payroll, including the signings of top free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. It's been mostly awful. They rank 13th in the league in runs scored and 12th in runs allowed; Bell has been a disaster at closer; Reyes is hitting like Zack Cozart, and the only Marlins hitter having a truly good season -- Giancarlo Stanton -- had knee surgery on Sunday and will be out four to six weeks. The only big-name acquisition who's been any good is Buehrle, who's having a typical Buehrle season, but that's not enough. The Marlins are, oddly enough, one of two teams this season (along with the Reds) who have had all their starts made by just five pitchers. The Reds are in the thick of the postseason hunt and might get in. The Marlins will be watching on television.
Predicted National League postseason teams:
Nationals (NL East winner)
Reds (NL Central winner)
Dodgers (NL West winner)
Pirates (first wild card)
Giants (second wild card)
If that does come to pass, not one of the NL's four playoff teams from 2011 will be in the October tournament this year.