Ranking Each MLB Wild-Card Contender's Chances in a 1-Game Do-or-Die Playoff

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2017

Ranking Each MLB Wild-Card Contender's Chances in a 1-Game Do-or-Die Playoff

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Say what you will about MLB's wild-card play-in game. Just don't say it's not exciting.

    Sure, there's an inherent contradiction in boiling a 162-game season down to a one-and-done death match. Maybe it's capricious; perhaps it's unfair.

    But boy, does it offer must-watch drama.

    As we barrel toward mid-September, let's rank the realistic wild-card contenders in both leagues based on their chances of surviving the do-or-die showdown, should they be fortunate enough to get there.

    To be clear: This isn't a ranking of who was the best team from April to autumn, but rather who boasts the stud ace, bullpen depth, health, experience and offensive firepower to win a single contest when it matters most.

    One other note: For our purposes, we're defining wild-card contenders as non-first-place squads that have at least a 10 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FanGraphs' calculation, which leaves us with seven hopefuls.

7. Minnesota Twins

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    The Minnesota Twins have been one of the best stories of 2017, no question about it.

    After losing 103 games in 2016, the Twinkies are in the thick of the AL wild-card chase. That's remarkable. 

    They also rank 20th in baseball in team ERA, and their bullpen checks in at No. 22. Pitching is paramount in a one-game playoff, and the Twins don't have an unequivocal ace or a stable of relief studs.

    Ervin Santana, the club's ostensible No. 1 starter, owns a 4.08 ERA in September. Before he threw six shutout frames against the hapless San Diego Padres on Wednesday, that number stood at 6.17.

    Sophomore Jose Berrios boasts undeniable stuff but is inexperienced and has had mixed results of late. Bartolo Colon is a lot of fun, but he's also 44 years old.

    Simply qualifying for the Wild Card Game would be an impressive achievement for the Twins, who could showcase rising stars such as outfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman/designated hitter Miguel Sano (assuming he returns from injury) on the brightest stage.

    Winning if they get there, however, will be a tall order.

6. Los Angeles Angels

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    The Los Angeles Angels made moves at the waiver trade deadline, adding outfielder Justin Upton and second baseman Brandon Phillips. Credit the Halos for trying to get Mike Trout back to the playoffs despite a fallow farm system and thin-stretched payroll.

    In addition to the offensive cavalry and the presence of Trout, the Angels bullpen ranks fifth in the game in ERA.

    The starting rotation is another matter.

    Ace Garrett Richards has shown flashes in two September outings, but after missing five months with a biceps injury he's far from a sure thing to dominate in a one-game playoff. He's made only three starts all season and never pitched past the fifth inning.

    The likes of Ricky Nolasco (5.19 ERA), Tyler Skaggs (4.37 ERA) and Andrew Heaney (7.06 ERA) don't inspire confidence. 

    Any team with Trout and a solid relief corps can't be counted out completely, but as with Minnesota, it's unclear who takes the ball for Los Angeles.

5. Milwaukee Brewers

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    FanGraphs is sleeping on the Milwaukee Brewers, giving them a scant 11.1 percent chance of making the playoffs despite their 77-69 record, which puts them three games off the wild-card pace and 2.5 games back of the Chicago Cubs for the NL Central lead.

    Like the Twins, the Brewers were supposed to be a rebuilding also-ran in 2017. Yet here they are.

    They've done it with a pitching staff that ranks fifth in the NL in ERA and have an unheralded ace in Chase Anderson, who owns a 10-3 record and 2.88 ERA.

    The loss of right-hander Jimmy Nelson to a season-ending shoulder injury hurts the Brewers' chances in a longer playoff series, should they advance that far. So does their lack of plate discipline, evidenced by the fact they're tied for 22nd in team batting average and are tied for 21st in on-base percentage.

    On the other hand, the Brew Crew have launched the second-most homers in the NL and, in addition to Anderson, boast stud closer Corey Knebel. 

    Warts and all, that gives them a shot in a one-game situation.

4. St. Louis Cardinals

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    The St. Louis Cardinals appeared to surrender at the waiver deadline when they traded veteran right-hander Mike Leake to the Seattle Mariners. 

    The Cards, however, are keeping pace with the Brewers and rival Chicago Cubs in the NL Central.

    If they can slip in, the Cardinals' biggest weapon is ace Carlos Martinez, who owns a 1.20 ERA with 18 strikeouts in two September starts and would give any Wild Card Game opponent a tough time.

    The bullpen has been inconsistent, and the offense doesn't boast a ton of power. Catcher and veteran leader Yadier Molina has been on a tear, however, posting a .928 OPS in September.

    More than anything, St. Louis has been here before, making the playoffs six times in eight seasons between 2009 and 2016. The past isn't always prelude, but experience and poise matter come October. The Redbirds have both.

3. Colorado Rockies

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    The Colorado Rockies had their six-game winning streak snapped Wednesday by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Still, the Rockies have rolled firmly into the second wild-card position.

    They'd love to catch and pass the Snakes and host the Wild Card Game at mile-high altitude. Even if that doesn't happen, they'll be a formidable foe.

    Yes, the Rockies starting staff is young and inexperienced. Not a man among them has made a postseason start.

    Overall, however, Colorado hurlers have posted the ninth-best road ERA in baseball. This club can pitch a little and could throw right-hander Jon Gray (3.00 ERA in September with 19 strikeouts in 18 innings). 

    True to form, Colorado ranks second in the National League in OPS and runs scored, behind an offense led by third baseman Nolan Arenado and center fielder Charlie Blackmon, both legitimate MVP candidates. 

    Taking them away from Coors Field saps their power, but these Rocks are not to be taken lightly.

2. New York Yankees

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    You've heard all about rookie masher Aaron Judge's second-half slump. You know flamethrowing closer Aroldis Chapman posted a 9.00 ERA in August, though he's rebounded with a scoreless September.

    The New York Yankees aren't perfect, and they probably won't catch the Boston Red Sox in the AL East because of it.

    They are, however, a safe bet to grab the AL's top wild-card spot and host the play-in game in the Bronx.

    The Yankees have a robust 40-27 record at home and would likely start non-waiver trade-deadline acquisition Sonny Gray in the Wild Card Game.

    Gray is 3-5 since arriving in New York, but he's pitched better than his record indicates, including an eight-inning, two-run, nine-strikeout performance Sept. 12 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Overall, his ERA in pinstripes sits at 2.66.

    Chapman appears to have put his struggles behind him at the head of a vaunted bullpen, and the offense is dangerous despite Judge's travails. The Yankees will be a tough foe for any other AL wild-card winner, especially at the confines of 1 East 161st Street.

1. Arizona Diamondbacks

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    The Diamondbacks have let the Rockies creep back into the picture for the NL's top wild-card spot, but Arizona remains the favorite to host the one-game showdown.

    Their 47-27 home record is second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL. They'll also be able to trot out resurgent ace Zack Greinke, who has fanned 200 hitters in 186.1 innings and posted a 1.93 ERA in September en route to some award chatter.

    "He's carried us all year long," manager Torey Lovullo said, per AZCentral.com's Scott Bordow. "To me, a Cy Young is somebody that is dependable, is durable, and Zack has been there every fifth day for us and gone out and executed as good as you possibly could have hoped." 

    Closer Fernando Rodney is a question mark, but the D-backs bullpen is second in the NL in ERA overall.

    The offense, meanwhile, is fourth in the NL in runs scored and OPS behind MVP hopeful Paul Goldschmidt and hot-hitting trade-deadline pickup J.D. Martinez.

    The Diamondbacks don't quite rate with the Dodgers, Washington Nationals or even Cubs among the NL's top tier, but they're a tightly coiled threat in the Wild Card Game and beyond.


    All statistics current as of Thursday, Sept. 14, and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball Reference.