What Every MLB Wild-Card Contender Needs to Do to Reach the One-Game Playoff
With MLB adding an extra wild-card spot in each league this season, more teams are alive for a postseason bid than ever before.
Some clubs that could probably write off their playoff chances by this point in previous seasons still have hope for meaningful baseball in September and October, according to the current standings.
No team embodies this more than the Boston Red Sox. Last year, a nine-game deficit in early August would have buried their playoff chances. But with the expanded wild card, the Red Sox are 4.5 games away from a playoff spot. That's not a huge margin to overcome with two months remaining in the season if Boston can put together a consistent stretch.
By my count, 12 teams can make a claim that they're in the playoff race, thanks to the extra wild-card spot. (Well, it might be more like 10, though the standings say otherwise.)
What does each wild-card contender need to do to win one of those two coveted postseason bids? Let's take a look.
Atlanta Braves, NL Wild Card Leader
Dan Uggla needs to start hitting again. After an uncustomary strong start to his season, the Braves second baseman has gone into the tank since June.
In July, Uggla posted a slash average of .115/.281/.179 with one home run and six RBI. That is not a typo. You can click over to Baseball-Reference to see the numbers for yourself. Since the All-Star break, Uggla is batting .176/.315/.243 with no homers and nine RBI.
The Braves need their slugger back. They need Uggla to bat in the No. 4 or No. 5 spot in the lineup and produce some runs.
Pittsburgh Pirates, NL Wild Card Leader
The Bucs are a playoff contender largely on the strength of their starting pitching. But James McDonald needs to rediscover the form that made him an early-season Cy Young Award candidate.
During the first half of the season, McDonald was 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA in 17 starts. He was striking out more than eight batters per nine innings and had a WHIP (walks and hits per innings) pitched of 0.97.
Since the All-Star break, McDonald has a 7.76 ERA in five starts and is getting hit hard. He's allowed 35 hits in 26.2 innings with a WHIP of 2.06.
Detroit Tigers, AL Wild Card Leader
Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have produced as expected in the middle of the Detroit Tigers batting order. Austin Jackson is arguably an MVP candidate in the American League.
But the Tigers need more production from their corner outfielders. Brennan Boesch had an impressive July, batting .295/.329/.538 with four homers and 17 RBI. He needs to maintain that level through August and into September.
Andy Dirks returning to the lineup should bolster left field for Detroit. He had an outstanding May, batting .343/.402/.510 with three homers and 11 RBI, before succumbing to tendinitis in his right Achilles. Since coming back, he's batted 3-for-7 (.429) in three games.
St. Louis Cardinals, 2.5 Games Back
With six wins in their last eight games, the St. Louis Cardinals might not need to do anything more than they're already doing.
The Cards still trail the Braves and Pirates by 2.5 games in the NL wild-card standings. But they're close behind the Pirates in the NL Central and wild-card races, so if Pittsburgh falters in any way, St. Louis is in a position to jump ahead.
Center fielder Jon Jay was a concern with a subpar July, batting .227 with a .655 OPS. But he appears to have turned himself around so far in August, with seven hits in 17 at-bats (.412).
The Cardinals will also have to watch Lance Lynn to see if he's wearing down. Lynn has allowed four or more runs in two of his past three starts. That's not as bad as giving up 17 runs in three starts at the end of June, but it could be getting close.
Do the Cards need to give their near-rookie starter some rest?
Oakland Athletics, AL Wild Card Leader
Cliff Pennington was activated from the disabled list on Tuesday (Aug. 7), giving the Oakland Athletics their starting shortstop again.
But the A's made it apparent that they wanted an upgrade at the position by pursuing Hanley Ramirez and Yunel Escobar before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. General manager Billy Beane has a few weeks before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline—can he get a shortstop through waivers?
Otherwise, the A's need Pennington to hit more like he did last season, when he batted .264 with eight home runs and 58 RBI. That would be a huge boost to their lineup down the stretch.
Despite Yoenis Cespedes goofing around at shortstop and showing off his arm during pregame warmups, as the Contra Costa Times' Joe Stiglich wrote, he's not an option at the position. (We know you already knew that.)
Baltimore Orioles, AL Wild Card Leader
Perhaps you've noticed that more than two teams have been labeled as "AL Wild Card Leader" on this list. Obviously, something has to give. Either that or we're going to have one tight schedule at the very end of the season with all the tiebreakers that will need to be played.
The Baltimore Orioles might not have to do much because the New York Yankees are keeping them in the AL East race with their recent struggles. But a 4.5-game deficit is still a notable one to overcome, and the Yankees will surely snap out of their funk soon.
Finding a regular left fielder would certainly help the O's, however. Nate McLouth is getting a try at the position and has three hits in his past 10 at-bats, but probably isn't the solution there. Can general manager Dan Duquette work something out before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline? His team needs it.
Getting Jason Hammel back in September will also provide a huge boost. The Orioles' starting pitching is their biggest weakness, so getting their No. 1 guy back will be a significant addition.
Los Angeles Dodgers, 3.5 Games Back
What more can the Los Angeles Dodgers do in trying to keep pace in the NL West and wild-card playoff races?
They were the busiest team before the July 31 trade deadline, acquiring Hanley Ramirez, Brandon League and Shane Victorino, each of whom filled a glaring hole on the roster. Since then, the Dodgers have also added Joe Blanton to their starting rotation and tried to pry Cliff Lee from the Philadelphia Phillies with a waiver claim.
What the Dodgers need above all is for these new additions to play well. Ramirez has 11 RBI since coming over from the Marlins, yet is hitting .240 and slugging .380. League has allowed two runs and four hits in just two innings of work.
But Victorino really needs to come through in left field and at the top of the batting order. A .200 batting average and .499 OPS is no upgrade over what the Dodgers had been getting at that position. With no home runs or RBI, he's doing little to produce runs for an offense that needs the output.
Los Angeles Angels, 0.5 Games Back
The Los Angeles Angels made the biggest splash before the trade deadline, getting Zack Greinke from the Milwaukee Brewers and adding him to what was already a strong starting rotation.
Greinke hasn't been impressive in his two starts with the Angels thus far, allowing eight runs and 17 hits in 14 innings. Perhaps he needs to re-acclimate himself to pitching against American League batters.
But the starting pitcher who really needs to get better for the Angels is C.J. Wilson.
After giving up six runs (three earned) versus Oakland on Tuesday (Aug. 8), Wilson is winless in his past eight starts. He pitched well enough to win in at least five of those appearances, but his performance in the other three starts—during which he allowed 21 runs (18 earned)—has to be a concern for the Angels.
Tampa Bay Rays, 1.5 Games Back
Why didn't the Tampa Bay Rays deal James Shields before the trade deadline, despite the demand for top starting pitching? How could the Rays trade one of their best starters when they're only 1.5 games back in the AL wild-card standings and six behind in the AL East?
The Rays may have gotten the boost they truly need with cornerstone Evan Longoria returning from his hamstring injury and giving the lineup a legitimate cleanup hitter (no offense, Jeff Keppinger). Longoria absolutely changes the Rays lineup.
But it would help matters if Carlos Pena could hit the ball consistently. A .196 batting average is a black hole in the batting order, even if Pena still has some pop. He leads the Rays with 15 home runs, though that probably wouldn't be the case if Longoria hadn't gotten hurt.
At this point, however, this is probably who Pena is as a hitter. He batted .225 for the Chicago Cubs last season and .196 with the Rays the year before that.
Getting Longoria back allows Rays manager Joe Maddon to push Pena lower in the batting order. In the seventh or eighth spot, his power might actually be a pleasant surprise.
Boston Red Sox, 4.5 Games Back
The Boston Red Sox look all but done, sitting nine games behind the Yankees in the AL East.
But hope is still alive in the wild-card race for the American League, where the Red Sox are 4.5 games back. Getting to the top of the wild-card standings won't be easy with five teams in front of them, but the numbers say Boston is still in this thing (Red Sox fans might disagree).
It's probably too late in the season to clear the apathy and bad attitude out of the clubhouse, which is what this Red Sox team might need most. And if Bobby Valentine is going to be replaced as manager—which he likely won't—it's not going to happen until after the season.
Getting Andrew Bailey and David Ortiz back will certainly help the playoff drive.
Alfredo Aceves has 23 saves but was never meant to be the closer. When healthy—an important qualifier here—Bailey is one of the best in baseball.
How could the Red Sox lineup not benefit from Ortiz's return? Any team adding a .316/.414/.609 slash average, 23 homers and 58 RBI to its lineup would be lauded for making such a brilliant move.
The Red Sox could activate that bat from the disabled list on Sunday (Aug. 12), according to The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham.
Arizona Diamondbacks, 6.5 Games Back
The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are getting all the publicity in the NL West race, but the Arizona Diamondbacks are still lurking. The D-Backs are four games behind the Giants in the division and 6.5 games back in the NL wild-card standings.
Realistically, the D-Backs (and the Dodgers or Giants, for that matter) will probably have to win the NL West to make it to the postseason. The wild cards will probably come from the NL East and NL Central, but the numbers say Arizona is still alive for a playoff run.
Chris Johnson has filled a season-long hole at third base in a big way. Since coming over from the Houston Astros, he has five home runs and 15 RBI in eight games. He's been a major addition.
But getting more production from center field would help the D-Backs' cause. Chris Young has fallen off badly since an explosive April, surely due in large part to a shoulder injury. Gerardo Parra getting more time at the position probably helps, though he's not as powerful a bat as Young can be when healthy.
Toronto Blue Jays, 5.5 Games Back
OK, let's be real here. The Toronto Blue Jays are on this list because they're 5.5 games back in the AL wild-card standings and that doesn't seem like an insurmountable deficit. (The Blue Jays are done in the AL East, however, at 10 games back and in last place.)
Toronto is under .500 at 53-56 as of Aug. 8. Six teams are ahead of them in the wild-card race.
Two of the Blue Jays' starting pitchers—Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchison—are having season-ending surgery, and this is a team that already lost Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek for the rest of the year.
Brad Lincoln was a nice pickup from the Pirates. That trade allowed Toronto to finally write off Travis Snider. Lincoln will help the Blue Jays bullpen, but he's hardly a difference maker this season.
Jose Bautista is still out with a wrist injury, and without him, Toronto's lineup looks awfully thin. Edwin Encarnacion has been a huge surprise with his breakout season, and Colby Rasmus looks to be fulfilling his potential. But how many teams can keep on going without their best run-producing bat?
The standings say the Blue Jays are in the wild-card race, but everything else says they're a non-factor through the rest of the season.
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