At this writing, the closest divisional races are found in the AL West, where the A’s, Angels and Rangers are separated by just 2.5 games. Next closest is the AL Central, where the hard-charging Indians trail the Twins by four games. After that, though, the various chases for division flags figure to be about as taut and gripping down the stretch as your standard-issue novel of manners.

Thankfully (for this year, anyway) we have the Wild Cards. They happen to be the only races worth following at this point, so let’s commence following them. This time, I’ll poke the NL Wild Card chase with this here stick and see if the bees come out.

Right now, the Cubs, going into a critical mid-week series against the Padres, lead the Wild Card fray by one game over the Pads, two games over the Giants and three-and-a-half games over the Phillies. The Giants are in the midst of a series with the Pirates, and the Phils are taking on the Rockies. Let’s flash forward to this Friday, when the weekend series will begin, and see how the schedules shake out for the balance of the season …

Team          Home/Road Games     Opp. Winning %

Cubs          25/22               0.485
Padres        21/27               0.500
Giants        22/24               0.472
Phillies      24/23               0.488

The Giants, as you can see, have the easiest slate of opponents the rest of the way, with almost one-third of their remaining games coming against the D-Backs, Rockies and Expos–the three most hapless teams in the NL. The Cubs face a slightly tougher schedule than the Giants, but they do have the most favorable home-road splits (and that’s not counting the current home tilt against San Diego).

The above numbers should be fairly harrowing for Padre fans. Not only do they play 56.3% of their remaining games on the road, but they also run up against the highest opponent’s winning percentage of any NL Wild Card contender. In fact, exactly one-third of their remaining games come against the NL division leaders, the Braves, Cardinals and Dodgers.

As for the Phillies, they face the second-toughest docket of opponents, but they join the Cubs in having more home games than road games left the rest of the way. All in all, what’s most notable from the above numbers are the disadvantageous circumstances faced by the Padres.

Clay Davenport’s Adjusted Standings Page is also instructive in matters such as these. On this page, you’ll find a little ditty called “third-order wins,” which uses equivalent runs scored and allowed and adjusts them for quality of opposing defenses, pitching staffs and lineups. This is a notable improvement on the traditional Pythagorean-record iterations, since third-order wins use runs at the component level and reflect the nuances of the unbalanced schedule. Anyhow, if third-order wins carried the day, here’s how the Wild Card standings would look (win-loss figures have been rounded off):

Team        W    L    GB
Cubs        65   46   -
Astros      60   51   5
Brewers     56   54   8 ½
Mets        55   55   9 ½
Giants      56   57   10
Phillies    55   57   10 ½
Padres      55   57   10 ½

As you can see, once runs scored, runs allowed and strength of schedule become part of the calculus, things become drastically different. In the theoretical world, only the Astros are within hailing distance of the Cubs; in reality, it’s the Padres, Giants and Phillies. That said, these are once again damning data for San Diego. In terms of third-order wins, they’re clearly overachieving, and, considering their schedule the rest of the way, regression to the mean is a real threat.

Overall, the spread between the Cubs and the rest of the Wild Card field is striking. Summarily speaking, the Cubs haven’t been as good as they should be, and the rest of the Wild Card contenders have been better than they should be. Ergo, it’s likely, based on this information alone, that the Cubs will begin pulling away over the coming weeks.

The kind of regression we’d be talking about, if it were to occur based on the third-order standings, would see teams perform as they’re expected to perform for the rest of the way, based on all the data available to us; it’s not a case of a team’s over- or underachieving to an extreme degree in order to compensate for the aberrant level of play that’s already occurred. What you would really have, then, is the team ending up somewhere on the continuum between its present outlying status and where it would’ve been had it performed as expected for the entire season.

By way of example, say you have a “true” .600 team playing .500 ball at the 110-game mark. If the team reverts to the mean it’ll play .600 ball over the remaining 52 games. What it won’t do is play .808 ball the rest of the way, so that the team ends up with a .600 winning percentage for the season as a whole (such a scenario is certainly possible, but highly unlikely). The team ends up a true .600 club that played .531 ball over the course of the season.

We have other considerations, as well. The Phillies will play the rest of the season without Pat Burrell, who had the third-highest Equivalent Average (EqA) of any Philly regular at the time of his injury. The loss of Burrell, combined with the possible loss of Kevin Millwood for the year and the deadline trade of Ricky Ledee, mean that the Phillies will be trotting out things like Doug Glanville and Lou Collier to left field, while having to lean way too heavy on a just-off-the-DL Vicente Padilla and the flammable Cory Lidle on the mound. Meanwhile closer Billy Wagner, although he has no structural damage in his shoulder, doesn’t figure to be back until September.

Ed Wade will have trouble adequately addressing those problems now that the non-waiver trade deadline has passed. Given the circumstances, it’s hard to consider them to be board-certified contenders to overtake the Cubs.

The Giants must replace Jerome Williams–who may be lost for the season–in the rotation, but otherwise they’re healthy. Still, when the lion’s share of your team’s potency is tied up in a 40-year-old, injury is always a threat. Needless to say, if Barry Bonds went down for even 10 days or so, it would likely shanghai the Giants’ playoff hopes.

The Padres are at full strength, but, as I’ve already pointed out, the schedule is working against them. As for the Cubs, they have a fairly favorable slate of games remaining, and they stand alone as the darlings of the third order (interestingly, the domain name is still available).

Finally, let’s also not forget that the Cubs massively upgraded their weakest position by adding Nomar Garciaparra at the deadline. With him in tow the rest of the way (barring injury, natch), they figure to be even better. The best hope for other comers is that Mark Prior continues being something less than Mark Prior. Even so, the preponderance of the evidence suggests the Cubs are the clear favorites to win the Wild Card.

Back Friday for a look at the AL Wild Card race…