5 Wild-Card Contenders No Team Wants to Face in a 1-Game Playoff
The 2014 MLB season keeps trucking along.
Just over a week removed from the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and the corresponding intrigue, a new set of storylines has emerged.
Tony Bosch is back in the news, surrendering to the DEA for conspiracy to distribute steroids. And with his arrest comes a request from MLB for a new set of names. If granted, the repercussions could have an impact on the playoff race.
For more on the story, you can check out this thread from Bleacher Report’s Tim Daniels.
The August waiver period is also upon us. And with it comes the intrigue of clubs trying to improve their roster or prevent other teams in the playoff race from getting better by placing a claim on a player before their rivals can.
But as important as those storylines are, there is another one developing in the wild-card race.
As of game time Friday, there were three teams that were a half-game behind the Kansas City Royals for the second wild-card spot in the American League. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants are separated by less than one game for both wild cards.
As it stands, there are a total of 10 teams that are within five games of playing in the postseason, meaning there is a legitimate chance for a one-game playoff in each league. It is quite remarkable.
So, which of the contenders are the most dangerous in a game where the loser goes home for the winter?
Here are the five wild-card contenders that no team wants to face in a one-game playoff. Before getting started, though, let's take a look at why this list is only five teams long.
What About the Other Teams?
To be sure, there are more than five teams competing for a spot in the postseason that could end up in a one-game playoff.
Clubs like the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves are in the thick of the playoff hunt. Heck, even the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins could surge into relevancy with a nice run.
That said, the 25-man rosters on those teams aren't quite as deep as they are on the ones that will be mentioned.
The Braves, for example, are struggling mightily right now, and while the Yankees are playing solid baseball, their roster simply isn’t as deep as the other teams that will be discussed.
This could all change, of course.
One of the clubs not examined could bolster its roster with an August waiver trade, and the entire playoff landscape could change if a guy like Felix Hernandez or Jose Bautista ends up going on the disabled list before the end of the season.
Let's dig a bit deeper regarding the criterion.
For franchises included because of their pitching, there must be at least two hurlers in the rotation that are are in the Cy Young conversation, have extensive postseason experience or possess a WHIP below 1.000. They must also have at least three arms in the bullpen that have excellent peripherals.
It is that type of depth that separates solid staffs like the Kansas City Royals from electric ones like the Seattle Mariners (foreshadow alert).
For those teams that are included because of their offensive prowess, they must rank in the top four in at least six measures. That means that a club must be prolific at getting on base and scoring runs, not one or the other.
Toronto Blue Jays
Operating with the understanding that Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie will be healthy by the end of the season, the Toronto Blue Jays have an offense capable of overcoming the best pitching in a one-game playoff.
As of game time Friday, the Blue Jays led the American League in on-base percentage (.330) and ranked second in home runs (137), batting average (.263), slugging (.426) and on-base plus slugging (.756). They also ranked third in runs scored (525) and hits (1,041).
The bottom line is that with a lineup at full strength, there are very few pitchers that can hold them back. And an argument can be made that if Encarnacion, Lind and Lawrie didn’t go down, the team would still be in first place in the AL East.
To be sure, the chances for the Blue Jays improve considerably if Marcus Stroman is available to start. The likelihood of that happening is unknown, however.
After all, manager John Gibbons may not be able to set his rotation up if he needs Stroman to pitch in one of the final games of the regular season just to force a one-game playoff. He does have solid options behind Stroman, though, including Mark Buehrle.
The Blue Jays control their own fate too.
All told, they have seven games against the Seattle Mariners, six versus the Baltimore Orioles and seven tilts with the New York Yankees remaining on their schedule. Doing well in those contests will go a long way toward ensuring their participation in postseason play.
After winning six games in a row at the end of July, they have dropped five of their last six going into Friday’s matchup with the Detroit Tigers and trail the Kansas City Royals by a half-game for the second wild-card spot.
Like the Toronto Blue Jays, the Pittsburgh Pirates have an offense that won’t quit.
Led by reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, the unit leads the NL in on-base percentage (.333) and is second in both batting average (.258) and on-base plus slugging (.726). The Pirates are also third in runs scored (485) and fourth in hits (1,007) and home runs (101).
The success they've found at the plate is not just because McCutchen is having a fantastic season, either. Manager Clint Hurdle is getting solid contributions from Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, and Russell Martin. Simply put, there is balance across the board.
The other thing the Pirates have going for them is their pitching staff and Martin’s leadership behind the plate.
No, there isn’t a true ace among the group, and when play began Friday, the starters ranked 10th in the NL with a 3.81 ERA, per splits over at ESPN. To make that the measure of their effectiveness would be doing them a disservice.
Consider that if we use FIP (fielding independent pitching) as the means of identifying ability, the Pirates have one of the better groups in MLB. Not Oakland A’s good, of course, but very solid.
Vance Worley, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, in particular, are pitching to a FIP below 4.00. The wins haven’t been there for a guy like Morton, but more often than not, the efforts from the starters are above board.
All of those numbers aside, one of the bigger keys is Martin. After tossing a complete-game shutout of the San Francisco Giants in late July, Worley noted to Starkey and Mueller on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan that Martin “takes the game into his own hands,” via CBS Pittsburgh. Having two leaders like Martin and McCutchen will go a long way.
Any way you slice it, the Pirates are one of the clubs no one wants to face in a one-game playoff. They can bring it at the dish and have a pitching staff that will allow Hurdle to play the matchups, potentially giving his club an advantage before the first pitch is thrown.
St. Louis Cardinals
After breaking down two offense-laden clubs, let's shift the attention to teams that have deep pitching staffs, starting with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Matheny could go with the aforementioned Wainwright, John Lackey or Lance Lynn. Each of them has an ERA below 3.00 and a WHIP under 1.300. Each also has extensive experience pitching in high-leverage situations, making the matchup that much more favorable for the Cardinals.
For as good as the starting pitching is, the bullpen is also capable of great things. If, for example, the starter makes it into the seventh inning, Matheny would then be able to hand the ball to Pat Neshek, Sam Freeman, Seth Maness and Trevor Rosenthal. That is a formidable foursome.
Flat out, the Cardinals have a staff that is made to pitch in the big game.
None of this is meant to overlook the offense. True, the Cardinlas have struggled as a unit, scoring the second-fewest runs in the National League when play began Friday. That said, they rank fourth in the NL in on-base percentage and are capable of putting up impressive numbers on any given night.
To a large extent, the Cardinals have underperformed all season, yet they find themselves in the thick of the playoff race. It is not an ideal situation, of course, but given the composition of the roster general manager John Mozeliak has assembled, they are not a team you want to face in a one-game playoff.
The Seattle Mariners make the cut for three reasons.
First, they have two starting pitchers who can take the ball in a one-game playoff who are just outstanding.
At the top, of course, is Felix Hernandez, who is pitching to a 1.97 ERA and has a 12-3 record. That is only the tip of the dominance, however, as he leads the American League in FIP (2.05), WHIP (0.877) and hits allowed per nine innings (6.2). Should he be on the mound, the Mariners are already in good shape.
If Hernandez is not available, manager Lloyd McClendon can turn to Hisashi Iwakuma. On the season, he has a 2.94 ERA and a 0.989 WHIP. More impressive, the 0.8 walks he issues every nine innings leads MLB, and his 9.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio leads the AL.
In addition to having two top-flight starters, the bullpen is incredible. Led by Yoervis Medina, Dominic Leone, Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, Joe Beimel and Fernando Rodney, the unit went into play Friday leading the American League in ERA (2.36) and batting average against (.214), per splits at ESPN.
In a one-game playoff, having six guys who are at the top of their game is a difference-maker.
Finally, the offense appears to have turned the corner with the recent additions of Chris Denorfia and Austin Jackson. They join Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, who are putting up fantastic numbers, yet have received little in the way of support the majority of the season.
To be sure, the results aren’t there yet for the newcomers, but the added versatility and speed gives McClendon a lineup that has balance. And that is something that was lacking for a long time.
Entering play Friday, the Cincinnati Reds had the fifth-best pitching staff in the National League, according to splits pulled from ESPN. Breaking it down further, the starting rotation’s 3.24 ERA trailed only the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Reds led the league with a .232 batting average against. Strong numbers, indeed.
More important than the broad success the staff has found is the fact that manager Bryan Price has multiple options to turn to in the starting role.
He could, for example, set his rotation up so that Johnny Cueto is in line to start the one-game playoff. On the season, Cueto has a 2.04 ERA, 3.06 FIP and an absurd 0.909 WHIP. He is also consistent, surrendering more than three earned runs in only three of his 24 starts.
Price also has Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Mat Latos to turn to if Cueto is unavailable. All told, there are four starters who have the ability to deliver the type of effort that matches the magnitude of the contest.
In the bullpen, there is a surplus of power arms that can dominate the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Consider that three relievers—Aroldis Chapman, Manny Parra and J.J. Hoover—all average more than 10 strikeouts every nine innings and Jonathan Broxton is pitching to a 0.805 WHIP.
True, the offense has struggled all season, but if Billy Hamilton, Todd Frazier and Co. can manage to score even a few runs, the chance that the Reds advance is fairly high.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and are accurate as of game time on Friday, August 8. Transaction, game and injury information are courtesy of MLB.com. Contract information pulled from Cot's Contracts.