Thursday night was an absolutely miserable night for the St. Louis Cardinals. After taking a 3-0 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers -- a team they hadn't lost a series to since April 2014, a string of 17 consecutive series -- everything fell apart. Adam Wainwright, the old Cardinals legend, looked more old than legendary, giving up the lead in the third inning; Wainwright has now allowed more hits than any pitcher in baseball and has an ERA of 6.30 in six starts. And then the Cardinals lost their two best outfielders. Stephen Piscotty pulled up lame with a right hamstring pull on a run through first base, and an inning later, Dexter Fowler strained his right shoulder diving for a ball in the outfield. The Cards ended up losing 5-4 to fall a game under .500 and into fourth place in the division, 2 1/2 games behind the Cubs. They rebounded on Friday to blank the Braves, 10-0, to gain back a game.
Piscotty was put on the 10-day disabled list Friday and Fowler is still being evaluated. This after a week that was supposed to feature a restorative 10-game homestand for St. Louis against Toronto, Cincinnati and Milwaukee that instead had three rainouts, two major injuries, countless bullpen blowups and a 4-4 record. Now the Cards have a six-game road trip, followed by series against the Cubs (two series), Red Sox, Giants, Dodgers (two series) and Rockies. It is the worst possible time for an injury to two of their best players.
Perhaps the Cardinals will overcome this, just like the Mets could overcome their injuries, or the Giants could overcome theirs. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the hierarchy we have become accustomed to in the National League Wild Card race -- with the same teams headed after the same spots, every year -- is being shaken up. If you've been frustrated with the Giants/Mets/Cardinals triumvirate, this might just be your year. The NL Wild Card race is going to be a madhouse.
For the sake of discussion, let's continue with the widely held assumption that the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers will all win their respective division. This is a bit of a leap, I grant you, considering the Dodgers are in third place right now. But all three teams remain heavy favorites to win their divisions in Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report (records have been updated through Friday):
ODDS TO WIN DIVISION
Washington: 76.0 percent
Chicago Cubs: 81.6 percent
Los Angeles: 72.1 percent
If you believe those odds will play out -- and you never know what will happen, but they certainly look like far and away the best teams in the NL -- then the rest of the league is going to scramble for two Wild Card spots. Sure, it's May, but who's going to pull away? The Giants, Mets and the Cardinals, the three teams who battled down to the season's last day in 2016, all have their serious problems. The Rockies and Diamondbacks look like upstarts. Everyone in the NL Central other than the Cubs looks roughly the same right now. It could be anybody.
Let's take a quick look at every NL team other than those Big Three division leaders, their current odds at reaching the NL Wild Card Game, and whether 2017 could end up being the watershed year where all we thought we knew gets turned upside down.
12. San Diego Padres (12-19, 1.0 percent WC odds). All right, so the Padres aren't a serious contender, and no one would admit that more than the Padres themselves. Still worth noting that unlike the Pirates, Giants and Braves, three teams ahead of them on this list, they're not in last place.
11. Philadelphia Phillies (12-16, 3.4 percent WC odds). The Phillies have looked somewhat feisty, and they were this close from winning their series at Wrigley this week. Zach Eflin and Cesar Hernandez have been lovely early-season surprises; the lineup is deeper than you think it is, even with Tommy Joseph turning out to be a mess. Philadelphia isn't going to push it, and you can even see its front office parting with anybody over 28 at the Trade Deadline, but as a franchise, the worst is over for the Phils.
10. Atlanta Braves (12-15, 5.4 percent WC odds). The Braves were built to be a little bit more average than they've been so far; the rotation has been a little less than they've hoped, and the lineup has some holes. If they're not better than the Phillies, then something wrong has happened, because they were supposed to be.
9. Cincinnati Reds (15-14, 6.1 percent WC odds). The Reds have been a nice little surprise so far, considering this is a team with Bronson Arroyo and Scott Feldman in the team's rotation. The strengths so far have been the lineup -- there are two players, Eugenio Suarez and Zack Cozart, currently hitting better than Joey Votto, and Votto has nine homers -- and the bullpen, which has been dominant. That rotation is going to collapse everything else any minute now, but the Reds are doing some interesting things.
8. Miami Marlins (12-16, 9.3 percent WC odds). Giancarlo Stanton still isn't the superstar you want him to be, but Marcell Ozuna might be. Miami's rotation doesn't have a single above-average pitcher right now, though; this team is hanging in through its bullpen and defense. Sure, 12-16 might not seem like "hanging in," but hey, good enough for third place in that division right now.
7. Pittsburgh Pirates (13-16, 12.0 percent WC odds). The Starling Marte suspension, along with the increasing realization that Jung Ho Kang likely isn't coming back this year, have put the Pirates in a deep hole. Their best hitter has been David Freese, who's currently on the DL, and Tyler Glasnow isn't having the leap year the Bucs had been hoping for. Ivan Nova, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are a super nice 1-2-3 atop the rotation, but this team is going to struggle to score runs all season.
6. Milwaukee Brewers (15-15, 12.7 percent WC odds). Eric Thames has been the big story, but Milwaukee's lineup is solid all the way through: Ryan Braun, Jett Bandy/Manny Pina and Travis Shaw are also off to terrific starts, making up for a slow beginning for Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton. This team isn't messing around on offense. The rotation needs help after Chase Anderson, but the bullpen has some power arms. There was a thought that the Brewers could be the NL Central team that took the tiny step forward this year that foretold a bigger one in years to come. That appears to be happening.
5. St. Louis Cardinals (14-14, 13.0 percent WC odds). The scariest part about these playoff odds is that it doesn't account for the Fowler and Piscotty injuries. Other than Wainwright, the rotation is the Cardinals' primary strength -- Mike Leake, of all people, has been the best pitcher in the NL so far -- but their defense has been a disaster and their bullpen has been even worse. The Cards looked like a total mess before the injuries. The rotation is going to have to stay healthy and dominant all season just for the Cardinals to have a chance, and when do rotations ever do that? Keep in mind that this is a panicked Cards fan talking, but: Look out below.
4. San Francisco Giants (11-19, 18.4 percent WC odds). This might seem a little optimistic considering the Giants' start and Madison Bumgarner's injury and … well, yeah, it totally is. How has Matt Cain been their best pitcher so far? What happened to Matt Moore? Why does Buster Posey not have any power anymore? Is San Francisco really going to go without a left fielder all year? The Giants look like they're as big a mess as the Cardinals. These odds strike me as insanely high.
3. New York Mets (13-15, 26.4 percent WC odds). The Noah Syndergaard injury caused all sorts of controversy and finger-pointing in Queens, but it's strange that anyone was surprised by it: Syndergaard has felt on a knife's edge for years, injury-wise. Jay Bruce has been a nice turnaround they desparetely needed, and it's starting to look like Terry Collins finally realizes that Michael Conforto should be in the lineup every day -- he has been the Mets' best player by WAR so far this season despite only 70 at-bats. But with Matt Harvey struggling and Syndergaard out, that rotation looks below average. Considering the rotation was thought to be the thing that would carry the Mets through a middling offense (and that was with a healthy Yoenis Cespedes), that's a big problem. I'm honestly not even sure the Mets will finish second in that division.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks (18-13, 26.4 percent WC odds). One of the two pleasant surprises of the first month, the D-backs look like an entirely different team. They've been fantastic at home, and their lineup is stacked with solid hitters everywhere. Having A.J. Pollock back has done wonders, really. Arizona's rotation has been a happy surprise too, particularly Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray. The bullpen is a big issue -- how is Fernando Rodney still the closer here? -- but the nightmare that 2016 seems a long, long time ago. Could the D-backs really hang on here?
1. Colorado Rockies (18-12, 28.2 percent WC odds). Well, look at you guys. The Rockies haven't been to the playoffs since 2009, and all told, they haven't been particularly close. Colorado's lineup has a few holes -- Trevor Story, DJ LeMahieu and Carlos Gonzalez are all off to slow starts -- but the rotation has been a pleasant despite the loss of Jon Gray to injury. The wizard has been 24-year-old Kyle Freeland, but 22-year-old Antonio Senzatela has been excellent. The Rockies seem to be doing this with smoke and mirrors a bit -- despite their 18-12 record, they've actually been outscored by their opponents -- but those 18 wins are in the bank. Colorado's series with Arizona this weekend at Coors should tell us something, but right now, those two teams are the surprise of baseball … and, amazingly, your most likely NL Wild Card Game participants.