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Are the 2015 Diamondbacks contenders or pretenders?

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With the team possessing a winning record for the first time since mid-April, I want to believe, but is there ground to think the Diamondbacks are genuine contenders?

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Where we stand

The Diamondbacks sit with a record of 62-61, which is a tough but not impossible position from which to make the playoffs. In the wild-card era (since 1995), six teams have reached the post-season from this position or worse: the Mariners and Yankees in 1995, the Astros in 2004, the Padres in 2005 and 2006 and, most recently, the 2009 Twins. The last-named, in particular, offer hope because like us, after 123 games they were in third-place, and were actually fractionally further behind, at 5.5 games back of the Tigers, with the White Sox also ahead them. But Minnesota went 27-13 the rest of the way, to take the division. So it is possible.

But, make no mistake, it isn't likely. In the seasons of the wild-card era, twenty teams have reached this point with a record of 62-61. Just three - the two Padres and Houston teams - have made the playoffs. Now, it is true there is now an extra playoff slot. But I don't think the second wild-card is going to be of any use to us, considering the Cubs, current occupant of the slot, are 4.5 games ahead of the Dodgers. It's pretty much, win the West or bust for Arizona. And team history is not encouraging. For we ourselves have had a 62-61 record twice before, in 2006 and 2012; neither time did we even come close to breaking through, finishing with 76 and 81 wins respectively.

Strengths and weaknesses

The offense has clearly been the force that has kept the team where it is. We have scored 564 runs, which is most in the National League. That has propelled us to a run differential of +40, which better than two of the teams currently occupying playoff spots, the Mets and Cubs. However, the wins those teams have are already in the bank and are not going anywhere. The Mets are not likely to be our competition, and the Cubs are 9.5 games in front of Arizona. The other thorny point is that our run differential is below that of both the Giants and Dodgers, the teams with whom we are most directly competing.

But a bigger problem is been that our current record is based almost entirely on beating up on the bad teams. We are now 38-23 against sides with losing records, fourth best in the National League. But when we face winning teams we do less well; while that's true for everyone, in our case, it's a plummet. We are 24-38 against teams above .500, putting us firmly in the bottom half of the league. While beating up on a Reds team who have now lost nine in a row was certainly fun, I get the feeling it was the equivalent of beating Glass Joe in Punch Out!! [kids, ask your parents!] We've seen false dawns like this before, only to be ruthlessly exposed against better opponents.

The upcoming schedule

That could be a problem, with 23 of our 39 remaining games against teams ahead of us. If most of those are at home, we're a whopping half-game better there this season than on the road, so it's not as if we can consider Chase Field some kind of impregnable fortress. The good news is, it includes seven against the Dodgers and six against the Giants, so we will not have to rely solely on the kindness of strangers e.g. Houston, who swept Los Angeles this weekend. But we will have to do a hell of a lot better - we are 10-15 against them combined - to make up any headway. We literally cannot afford to lose any of those four series. Even a .500 split would benefit them.

WL 2015

We do have some degree of momentum on our side, possessing a better record than both the Dodgers and Giants over the past 10, 20 and 30 games (see the graph above). But we are about to run into the team with the best record in the major leagues, as the St. Louis Cardinals come into town for four games. This is going to be about as tough a test of our credentials as possible, since they are, entirely legitimately, the best team in the National League. It'll be an interesting trial of the old credo about whether good pitching can stop good hitting, as the #1 offensive team takes on the #1 in run prevention. If we can still be above .500 when the Cardinals leave, I'll consider that a win.

Conclusions

As a Diamondbacks fan, I feel like a producer on one of those small, independent films that always seems to end up getting an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, then looks like a tuxedo-wearing deer caught in headlights on Oscar night. It's brilliant simply to be here - whether or not anything more happens. For that, the favorable luck we have had with health certainly needs to continue, of course. Otherwise? Good, reliable starting pitching still seems to remain our biggest weakness, but it Good De La Rosa sticks around, and the rest of the rotation up their game, who knows? Weirder things have happened.

I was expecting 75 wins this season, and we only need to go better than 13-26 the rest of the way to surpass that, so right now, I'm more than satisfied. I'm not gonna get too over-excited and send in an application for playoff tickets just yet, but this caution certainly doesn't mean I'm not enjoying the team surpassing my expectations. I do see the irony in us all getting so excited about passing .500, a mark we regarded as disappointing underachievement in both 2012 and 2013. However, we were the very worst team in baseball last season, and I certainly never expected to be writing an article like this, as we go into the final week of August. Enjoy the ride over the last quarter, folks.