How Each MLB Wild Card Contender's Roster Fits into 1-Game Elimination Format
A week from today, Major League Baseball's master plan to hold two wild card play-in games for the very first time will be put into motion. Both wild-card games will take place on Friday, October 5.
It looks like the matchup for the National League is pretty well set in stone. The Atlanta Braves have a stranglehold on the top wild-card spot, and the St. Louis Cardinals enter the final weekend of the regular season with a three-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second spot.
However, that's a lead that could be lost, seeing as how the Cards are in for a rough finish against Washington and Cincinnati. The Dodgers aren't the only team that could swoop in and catch them either, as the Milwaukee Brewers are four games off the pace, and the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks are both still technically alive at six games off the pace.
The situation in the American League is even muddier. The Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland A's are separated by one game at the top, and both the Los Angeles Angels and the Tampa Bay Rays are just two games out.
So in all, there's still a total of 10 teams looking to earn a wild-card spot with just a few days to go in the regular season. The edge of your seat is going to be pretty worn out by the time we get to next Friday.
But here's a question: If it comes to it, how well equipped are each of these 10 teams to actually tackle a one-game, winner-take-all wild-card game?
Let's take a look.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
The Diamondbacks are walking on the tightest of tight ropes. If they lose one more game, they're done.
But the situation isn't hopeless. The D-Backs need to win out in order to still be playing ball next Friday, and they have the right schedule for the task. They get to finish with home games against the Cubs and Rockies.
If the Diamondbacks actually make it to the wild-card game, the question will be who Kirk Gibson should tab as his starter. Staff ace Ian Kennedy is slated to start on Friday and in Arizona's regular season finale on Wednesday. Rookie lefty Wade Miley is slated to start Monday, making him a stretch to be tabbed as Arizona's starter for the wild-card game.
My guess is that Gibson would hand the ball to Trevor Cahill, who isn't slated to make another start this season after his start on Saturday against the Cubs. He's been hit or miss this season, but he has a solid 2.84 ERA with a .222 opponents' batting average in September.
If Cahill could give the D-Backs six good innings in the wild-card game, they'd be in good shape. Their bullpen has been pitching well to the tune of a 2.63 ERA this month, and that's thanks to the fact that guys like Bryan Shaw, Matt Albers and Matt Lindstrom are all pitching well.
Arizona's offense, meanwhile, should never be underestimated. The D-Backs have a .263 average with runners in scoring position, and they rank fifth in the National League in runs scored this month. They have to feel good about their chances in a one-game playoff knowing that Justin Upton has finally turned things around, as he has an .842 OPS in September.
The Diamondbacks wouldn't be the better team on the field if they were to come across either the Braves or the Cardinals, but they wouldn't be lining up for a blowout. Their issues this season have more to do with simple inconsistency and less to do with a lack of talent.
The Braves already have things all planned out for a potential appearance in the NL wild-card game.
As David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported this past weekend, Atlanta's plan is to hand the ball to Kris Medlen in the event they qualify for the wild-card game (and it's extremely likely that they will). Fredi Gonzalez could have chosen to roll with Mike Minor or Tim Hudson, but he's going to go with the hot hand.
"Scalding" hand would actually be more like it. Medlen has made 11 starts since being moved into Atlanta's rotation in late July, and all he's done in these starts is rack up an 8-0 record and a 1.04 ERA. He's holding hitters to a .493 OPS, and scientists are still trying to prove whether or not Medlen's changeup is actually hittable.
Medlen has been going seven and eight innings on a regular basis recently, and the Braves will gladly take a performance like that in the wild-card game. Gonzalez would be able to take the ball out of Medlen's hands and put it in the hands of his best relievers.
That's a cast of characters that includes Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty and, of course, Craig Kimbrel. He's blown only three saves all season, and he leads all MLB relievers with a 16.6 K/9. And unlike last year, he's not totally gassed these days.
Atlanta's pitching is fine. Where things get a little less certain is when you turn to take a look at the team's offense.
The Braves have quality hitters in guys like Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, Freddie Freeman and Chipper Jones, but it doesn't bode well for them that they have the exact same average with runners in scoring position as the San Diego Padres. Clutch hits have been hard to come by for the Braves.
Worse, the club's offense hasn't been as explosive in the second half of the season as it was in the first half. The Braves rank 10th in the NL in runs scored since the break and 12th in the NL in runs scored in September.
So Atlanta's great pitching better show up. The Braves have no guarantees that they can win a slugfest if it comes to it.
The Orioles don't resemble your usual run-of-the-mill contender, but a one-game wild-card elimination game would suit them pretty well.
For Buck Showalter, the question isn't which of his starters is most capable of putting up zeroes in a pressure-packed game. The question is which of his starters can give him five or six good innings before he can turn the game over to his bullpen.
Pretty much any of Showalter's starters can do that. Baltimore's starters live for the quality start and not a whole lot else.
As it is, Joe Saunders is the most logical choice to get the start for the O's next Friday. He's the most experienced starter the O's have at their disposal, and he's slated to make his final start of the regular season on Sunday.
Whether it's Saunders or somebody else, my guess is that Showalter will only carry one starter on his roster for the wild-card game.
MLB's roster rules for the play-in game, which were recently highlighted by ESPN's Buster Olney, allow teams to choose rosters that don't have to carry over to the next round. That means teams are free to fill up on extra relievers and bench players.
Baltimore's bullpen could thus include usual suspects like Jim Johnson, Darren O'Day and Pedro Strop, as well as guys like Dylan Bundy and Miguel Gonzalez, who could return to his role as a long man.
The Orioles probably shouldn't mess with their offense at this point. They've scored more runs than any team in the American League in September, and they've been able to do that largely because they've hit an AL-high 40 homers this month. Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds and Adam Jones have combined to hit 25 of those.
Baltimore's formula for winning games—hit a bunch of homers and then bring on the relievers—may not work so well deep in October, but it's not a bad formula for a do-or-die elimination game.
Los Angeles Angels
Mike Scioscia isn't in the same boat as Buck Showalter. If he has his druthers, he'd no doubt love to pitch one of his aces in the wild-card play-in game.
He's going to get his wish one way or another. Zack Greinke is set to make his final start of the regular season on Sunday, making him fair game for the wild-card game. If the Angels lock up a spot in the wild card playoff a little early, Scioscia can turn to Jered Weaver instead, as he's set to start the Angels' regular season finale on Wednesday.
Regardless of who gets the call, the Angels will be hoping for at least seven sharp innings before turning the game over to their bullpen.
The Angels' pen isn't as deep as, say, Baltimore's pen or Oakland's pen, but it's better than people think. After a brutal month of August, the Angels' pen has turned things around to post a 2.77 ERA in September. Kevin Jepsen, Nick Maronde and Jordan Walden have been solid, and Ernesto Frieri is always tough.
The bigger question mark concerning the Angels these days is how good their offense is. They scored a lot of runs in May, June, July and August, but not so much in September. The Angels have scored 14 fewer runs than the Tampa Bay Rays this month.
Among the guys who haven't had the same impact offensively this month are Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, which is more than a little alarming.
On the bright side, Kendrys Morales is having a very good month, and Torii Hunter has provided plenty of big hits. They've done their share of the heavy lifting.
The Angels aren't the dominant team that their roster says they should be, but they'll like their chances in a do-or-die game with Weaver or Greinke on the mound no matter how all the other pieces line up.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers aren't dead just yet. They've won four of their last six games, and they're slated to get two more starts out of Clayton Kershaw before the season is over.
Then again, that may not be the ideal situation by the time all is said and done. With Kershaw set to start on Friday and in L.A.'s regular season finale on Wednesday, he won't be able to start in the wild-card game unless the Dodgers clinch early.
If they don't, it's likely that Don Mattingly will tab Josh Beckett as his starter in the wild-card game.
To be fair, Mattingly could do a lot worse than Beckett. He was awful with the Red Sox, but he has a solid 3.16 ERA with the Dodgers and a 2.87 ERA in September. Plus, he's no stranger to big games.
The Dodgers would take six good innings out of Beckett before turning the game over to their bullpen, which has generally been strong this year. Brandon League and Jamey Wright have been very sharp in September, and Kenley Jansen is back and looking good after missing some time with a health scare. On a good day, his cut fastball is Mariano-esque.
So even if Kershaw doesn't start, the Dodgers' pitching will be in good shape heading into the wild-card game. It's just too bad the same can't be said of their offense.
The Dodgers have scored eight runs in back-to-back games, but this doesn't hide the fact that offense has been a problem for them in the last few weeks. Shane Victorino is having a brutal time in Dodger blue, and Matt Kemp hasn't been the dominant player he was in 2011 and earlier this year. Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez are all unpredictable.
So if the Dodgers find themselves in the wild-card game next Friday, they'll be hoping for a close contest. The last thing they want is to find themselves in a situation that requires their bats to put a bunch of runs on the board.
For a while there, the Brewers were hotter than the surface of the sun.
Now they're sputtering. The Brew Crew has lost four out of six.
To live to see next Friday, they're basically going to need to win out.
They'll need Yovani Gallardo to make the most of the two starts he has left in order to do that. If he does, the Brewers could find themselves playing to go to the NLDS this time next week.
The dilemma, naturally, is that Gallardo wouldn't be able to start for them next Friday. Ron Roenicke would have to choose between Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers instead, with Shaun Marcum also being a possibility on three days of rest.
If it were me, I'd make like the Braves and go with the hot hand. In this case, that's Estrada. He got shelled in his last start, but even despite that, he still has a 3.34 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP this month.
Estrada would need to give the Brewers as many good innings as possible, because you just never know what's going to happen with Milwaukee's bullpen. It's been better recently, but it still leads all of baseball with 28 blown saves and 32 losses. Guys like John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, Jim Henderson and Jose Veras shouldn't be trusted as far as they can be thrown.
Milwaukee's offense, on the other hand, is a little more trustworthy. The Brewers have an .803 OPS as a team this month. Nobody wants to mess with Ryan Braun, and Rickie Weeks, Norichika Aoki, Aramis Ramirez, Jean Segura and Corey Hart have all been hot in September.
So, unlike many of the other teams in this discussion, the Brewers would be in good shape if the wild-card game were to turn into a slugfest.
Comparisons between the Orioles and the A's are unavoidable, mainly because people are still confused as to how exactly both clubs are doing it.
The answer is the same for both teams: They're getting contributions from all over.
For the A's, the contributions they've been getting from their rookies are particularly important, now more than ever before. They have four rookies in their starting rotation, and it's a good bet that one of the best will get the call for the wild-card game if the A's get that far.
Rookie lefty Tommy Milone is slated to make his last start of the season on Sunday against the Mariners, putting him in line to start for Bob Melvin on Friday if need be. He doesn't feature dazzling stuff, but Milone doesn't have a solid 3.74 ERA and a team-high 13 wins by accident.
As I wrote on Thursday, the A's are one of the teams that could benefit most from the funky roster rules MLB has put in place for the wild-card games. Melvin could either carry a couple extra relievers, or he could fill out his bench with useful role players like Collin Cowgill, Jemile Weeks and Daric Barton. Either way, he's sure to make it so he has plenty of toys to play with.
Having extra options is particularly important for the A's because Melvin goes out of his way to exploit matchups perhaps more than any other manager in the majors. His use of his bullpen is almost entirely matchup-based, and there are few positions on the field where Melvin isn't using some sort of platoon.
For all the string-pulling that Melvin would surely do in the wild-card game, in the end, it would come down to Oakland's ability to generate runs via the long ball. It's not the most reliable means to score runs, but the A's have hit more homers than any team in baseball since the All-Star break. They've needed homers, and they've kept 'em coming.
Oakland's bullpen has done a fine job of protecting leads all season long. If the A's get a lead in the wild-card game, it will be safe.
The Phillies are walking the exact same tightrope as the Diamondbacks. One more loss, and they're done. Not exactly a great situation for a team that has lost four out of five to be in heading into the final days of the regular season.
If the Phillies do win out, it will be because they got a lot of help from Cliff Lee in his final two starts. The only downside is that he wouldn't be in the mix to start the wild-card game for the Phillies.
Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, on the other hand, would be in that discussion. Halladay is slated to start on Saturday, with Hamels starting on Sunday.
Given the uncertain health of Halladay's right shoulder, Hamels would be the safer pick to start the wild-card game. He's been a little rocky in September, but he's as capable as any starter in the majors of stringing together six or seven dominant innings.
Philly's bullpen has been shaky this season, but it's been better lately. Jonathan Papelbon hasn't allowed a run in any of his last 10 outings. Josh Lindblom has a 0.96 ERA this month. Antonio Bastardo has a 1.17 ERA in September.
Getting to Philly's bullpen as quickly as possible is no longer the wisest strategy for opposing teams.
You never know what you're going to get from Philly's offense on a daily basis, but Jimmy Rollins is on fire this month and Ryan Howard still has a good nose for the RBI.
Philly thus has the look of a team that could be trouble if it manages to get into the wild-card game. But one thing to keep in mind is that the Braves have owned them this season. The Phillies are 6-12 against the Braves, which includes a 4-5 record at Turner Field.
So if the Phillies and Braves meet up next Friday, the smart money will be on the Braves.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have won eight out of their last 10 games, but we're about to find out just how good they really are. They were able to beat up Houston and Chicago, but now they have to take on Washington and Cincinnati.
The next six games will be part of an ongoing test for St. Louis' offense, which has been hot and cold for virtually the entire season. More recently, it's been cold, as the Cardinals are barely averaging more than four runs per game in September. Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran have had their issues, and David Freese is hurt again.
For that matter, Holliday has a back problem, and Yadier Molina has a back problem of his own. The Cardinals aren't exactly a picture of health at the moment.
It could be worse, though. At least the Cardinals' pitching is in decent shape. Their starting rotation features both Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter for the first time since 2010, and Kyle Lohse is like clockwork every time he takes the mound.
It's possible that Mike Matheny will rearrange his rotation so Carpenter would be able to start in the wild-card game. But it's more likely that he'll just go with Lohse, who is slated to make his final start of the regular season on Saturday.
It wouldn't be at all surprising if Matheny kept Lance Lynn on the roster, as he can be used out of the bullpen in a pinch if need be. The Cardinals' bullpen could certainly use an extra body or two, as it hasn't been all that great in September. Jason Motte has been as good as ever, but Mitchell Boggs and Fernando Salas have both had a rough time this month.
The Cardinals will look strong on paper no matter who's on their roster for the wild-card game. The dilemma with them is that they've tended to look a lot weaker on the field than they do on paper, and it's a habit that has plagued them for pretty much the entire season.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are in the middle of an eight-game win streak that has seen them get great pitching and clutch hits from Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton.
This no doubt has other contenders around the American League going, "Oh no."
The Rays probably aren't looking ahead to the wild-card game just yet. But if they do, they'll realize that they're going to be able to trot their best pitcher out to the mound if they get there. David Price is set to make his final start of the season on Sunday, putting him in line to start on Friday if need be.
If so, the Rays will have an automatic advantage. Price is on the verge of winning 20 games, he has the top ERA in the American League and he's 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA so far in September.
Price will be backed by a bullpen that has been excellent all season long. Fernando Rodney is easily the best closer in the AL this season, and he has a solid core of setup men in front of him in the likes of Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Wade Davis and Kyle Farnsworth. For all the credit Tampa Bay's starting rotation gets, the bullpen has actually been the more impressive unit this season.
It's going to be very interesting to see how Joe Maddon rounds out his bench, as he has an array of role players such as Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson and Chris Gimenez to choose from. Knowing him, it will be less of a question of which players offer the most versatility and more of a question of which players will give him a chance to exploit matchups.
But if we're being honest, it doesn't really matter who is on the field or in Maddon's lineup if Price is on the mound. He's the kind of guy who can turn a single run of support into a win.
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