Consensus among most fans, bloggers, and writers seems to be that Atlanta and Washington will be locked in a dead heat all year, with one taking the division crown and the other picking up one of the two wild cards. Should Atlanta be bound for a wild card, they'll still face stiff competition. Let's take a look at some of the prime contenders to compete for the National League's two wild cards this year.
Washington Nationals - As I mentioned, most everyone expects either the Braves or the Nationals to claim one of the two wild cards. I won't reinvent the wheel here, but instead point you to Andrew's preview of the Nationals from last week.
St. Louis Cardinals - Most writers, myself included, have the Cards penciled in for another Central division title. But they could always be pushed into the Wild Card pool by a surge from their competition. The Cardinals are arguably the best team in baseball: they have an incredible farm system that is seemingly never depleted and it consistently supplies their major-league team with stellar talent. They have, for my money, the most impressive rotation in the league: Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller are all supremely talented, while back end guys Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly are no slouches in their own right. Their lineup is extremely deep with home-grown talent, featuring guys like Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and Matt Adams. Oh, and they also have the top hitting prospect in baseball - Oscar Taveras - waiting in the wings. It's really not fair.
Pittsburgh Pirates - Last year's Wild Card Playoff winner returns much of the same team that led them to a 94 win season last year. NL MVP Andrew McCutchen leads 2013's feel good story into this season aiming to prove that last year was no fluke. And I don't think it was. McCutchen and leadoff man Starling Marte will headline a stellar outfield that should be boosted by the midseason callup of top prospect Gregory Polanco. The rotation lost A.J. Burnett, but will get a full season of Gerrit Cole, and should see a midseason callup of fellow top prospect Jamison Taillon. The Pirates are for real, and I expect them to make it back to the playoffs in 2014.
Cincinnati Reds - The Reds took the NL's second wild card spot last year, and look to be in contention to do so again this year. They star 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto as well as slugging outfielder Jay Bruce as mainstays of their lineup, but will welcome some fresh faces as well. Gone is 2013 leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo, but in his place may be the fastest man in baseball, Billy Hamilton. If the bat plays, he'll be a terror at the top of the Reds' potent lineup. Unfortunately, the Reds don't have much in the way of exciting offensive talent in their lineup outside of those three. Todd Fraizer is average at third while Brandon Phillips has proven that he will not go gentle into that good night. The Reds do boast an above-average rotation headlined by Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, but will it be enough?
Los Angeles Dodgers - The Dodgers are the overwhelming favorites to repeat as NL West champions in 2014. Buoyed by a deep and balanced lineup, the Dodgers should have one of the most potent offenses in baseball this year. Hanley Ramirez looks to be an MVP candidate while love-him-or-hate-him phenom Yasiel Puig will be setting the table. The rotation is anchored by two studs: perennial Cy Young-winner Clayton Kershaw and sabr-favorite Zack Greinke. Oh, and the bullpen features arguably the best closer not named Kimbrel in the game. It would take an absurd run by any other team in the West to knock the Dodgers into Wild Card contention, but it could happen.
San Francisco Giants - Possibly the only team that could challenge the Dodgers, the Giants are coming off a miserable 2013 in which nothing went right. They're led by an excellent middle-of-the-order group in Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt, but beyond that the lineup gets dicey. Their pitching, which has always been their calling card, was a disaster last year, with Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and even Matt Cain taking big steps back. Only Madison Bumgardner lived up to expectations. Correcting their pitching woes will be the biggest challenge to the Giants righting the ship in 2014.
For my money, I think the Nationals and the Pirates are the best bets to take the Wild Cards in 2014, with Atlanta, St. Louis and Los Angeles winning their respective divisions. What do you think? Let us know in the comments!