Buying or Selling MLB Wild-Card Contenders

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 21, 2021

Buying or Selling MLB Wild-Card Contenders

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    New York's Aaron Judge
    New York's Aaron JudgeElaine Thompson/Associated Press

    There is going to be a ton of banter for the next 10 days about which MLB teams are buying and which teams are selling at the trade deadline, but let's pivot a bit on that lingo and figure out whether we should be buying or selling teams as legitimate threats to secure one of the four wild-card spots for the 2021 postseason.

    Headed into play on Tuesday, there were 16 teams (including the six division leaders) with at least a 6 percent chance of making the postseason, per FanGraphs' playoff odds. Take out those six division leaders and add in Seattle (listed at 4.2 percent despite an impressive record) and, voila, we have 11 wild-card contenders to either buy or sell.

    It's a subjective dance, and the numbers won't necessarily match the number of playoff spots available. I'll tell you right now that I have three of the American League teams denoted as a "Buy," even though there are only two wild-card spots in each league. If anything, I was closer to increasing that number to four or even five than I was to decreasing it to two.

    Translation: The wild-card race in the American League should be highly entertaining right down to the wire.

    In the National League, well, not so much. At this point, it seems almost inevitable that the NL West will secure both wild-card spots, though a lot can change in the next two-plus months. If nothing else, it's worth looking at the remaining schedules for Cincinnati, Philadelphia and San Diego to get a sense of what sort of chaos could be coming our way in September.

    Teams are presented in alphabetical order.

Atlanta Braves

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    Atlanta's Charlie Morton
    Atlanta's Charlie MortonJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 8.9 Percent

    It bears noting up front that Atlanta's postseason odds are just about entirely dependent upon winning the mediocre NL East, as the Braves are 4.5 games back in that race and eight games out of the wild-card picture. So, no, we are not buying sub-.500 Atlanta as a wild-card contender.

    Could this team win the division, though?

    Well, with Ronald Acuna Jr. out for the rest of the season, most likely not.

    Even before losing their biggest star, it felt inevitable that pitching would be their downfall.

    Charlie Morton has been fine, but he's a far cry from the likes of Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes, Zack Wheeler, Clayton Kershaw and Kevin Gausman. And with Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa on the IL and Mike Soroka unlikely to pitch at all this season, Atlanta's starting rotation doesn't get any prettier from there.

    Beyond that, the bullpen is overrun with mediocrity. The only reliever with an xFIP of 3.75 or better is Jesse Chavez, who has pitched all of nine innings for the year.

    Somehow, they've gotten by rather well up until now and boast the best run differential in the NL East. But it feels like the bottom is going to drop out sooner or later, because there's not a single guy Atlanta can turn to if it desperately needs a quality start or a scoreless inning of relief. Couple that with adjusting to life without Acuna, and a playoff push is improbable at best.

    That said, if the Braves swing big at the trade deadline, it wouldn't take that much to improve enough to feasibly catch the Mets.

    Verdict: Selling

Cincinnati Reds

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    Cincinnati's Nick Castellanos
    Cincinnati's Nick CastellanosAaron Gash/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 8.9 Percent

    It's a bit of a miracle that the Reds are above .500 (48-46) and still in the hunt for a playoff spot, considering Mike Moustakas has been both banged up and ineffective, the bullpen is a disaster and Eugenio Suarez (.170) is seemingly determined to break Chris Davis' all-time record (.168) for the worst batting average in a season with at least 500 plate appearances.

    On the flip side of that coin, though, Nick Castellanos is putting up MVP-ish numbers, Jesse Winker is enjoying easily the best season of his career and Wade Miley has unexpectedly reprised his role as an ace in his mid-30s.

    Can the Reds overcome the former and lean on the latter for a postseason push or will they fade out of the conversation altogether?

    Getting swept by the NL Central first-place Brewers to open the second half of the season sure felt like the first nail in Cincinnati's coffin, but here's some fun news for Reds hopefuls: Only 11 of their final 66 games are against teams with at least 48 wins, and they still have 13 games remaining against the Pirates.

    If Castellanos and Winker keep cooking and if they can improve their dreadful bullpen before the trade deadline, it's not hard to envision the Reds resuming their pre-All-Star-Break winning ways.

    In the span of 40 games from May 30 through July 11, the Reds went 26-14. And that portion of the schedule10 games against Milwaukee, seven games against San Diego, zero games against Pittsburghwas a whole heck of a lot tougher than what they'll face the rest of the way.

    If you're asking a straight "Will this team make the playoffs: Yes or No?" question, I would have to lean no. They're six games back of the Padres for the second wild-card spot and 7.5 games behind the Brewers in the Central and they just don't have much in the lineup beyond their dynamic duo. But if you're roughly matching the FanGraphs playoff odds for a betting line and giving me +1000 odds on the "Yes" option, I'd hammer that quite hard.

    Verdict: Selling

Los Angeles Angels

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    Los Angeles' Shohei Ohtani
    Los Angeles' Shohei OhtaniJeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 9.0 Percent

    Within the next two weeks, Los Angeles should be getting Mike Trout (calf), Anthony Rendon (hamstring) and Justin Upton (back) back from the injured list.

    Considering those three guys are making more than $88 million this season alone, that's kind of a big deal.

    But is it too little, too late?

    The Angels dropped back below .500 on Monday night, ill-advisedly losing a game in which Shohei Ohtani gave them six scoreless innings on the mound. They are now 6.5 games behind Oakland for the second wild-card spot, and it's far from just the A's they need to worry about. Los Angeles would also need to bypass Seattle, Toronto, New York and Cleveland before even getting to Oakland.

    Even if those expensive batters were to all return at full strength tomorrow, the sorry state of this starting rotation likely makes that hill too high to climb.

    Ohtani has been masterful and Alex Cobb has at least been throwing the ball well thus far in July, but Griffin Canning (5.52 ERA), Andrew Heaney (5.56 ERA), Dylan Bundy (6.78 ERA) and Jose Quintana (7.22 ERA) struggling through a combined 52 starts this season has been too much to overcome. And unless they can pull a Max Scherzer out of their hat at the deadline, it's hard to imagine much changing in the next two months.

    Speaking as a fan of a National League team who has no horse in this race, though, I would love to see the Angels go for it at the trade deadline. Ohtani and Trout are arguably the two best and most entertaining players in baseball, and it would be fantastic to see them in the postseasoneven if it's just for one wild-card game with Ohtani starting at SP/DH.

    But unless they spend aggressively to improve the starting rotation, it's sadly not happening.

    Verdict: Selling

Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Los Angeles' Mookie Betts
    Los Angeles' Mookie BettsDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 99.5 Percent

    Let's not bury the lede here: The Dodgers are going to make the playoffs. At plus-149, they have the best run differential in baseball, and they would have the best record in the majors if not for both their terrible luck in extra-inning games (1-8) and the San Francisco Giants being a little bit better thus far.

    Even if they were to fade down the stretchunlikely with 21 games remaining against Arizona, Colorado and Pittsburgh and this much talent on the roster, but possiblethe Dodgers are 9.5 games ahead of both Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

    Playoffs odds of 99.5 percent in mid-July would usually be preposterously high, but it might be a bit too low for this team.

    The real question is whether the Dodgers make the playoffs as a wild-card team or as the NL West division winner, which is a much bigger deal than it would have been a decade ago before the addition of the wild-card "play-in" games. (Then again, without the Wild Card Game, L.A.'s playoff odds would be more like 60 percent right now, since it would need to finish ahead of either San Diego or San Francisco.)

    To that end, it'll mostly depend on whether the Dodgers or Giants have more star players available the rest of the way.

    The Giants are paying six guys more than $6 million this season, but half of them (Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria and Brandon Crawford) are on the IL. However, with Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Dustin May and Gavin Lux all on the IL and Trevor Bauer out indefinitely on administrative leave, the Dodgers aren't in much better shape.

    As of the morning of July 20, the Giants are ahead by two games with six head-to-head meetings on tap before the end of the month. Should be a critical 10 days to help determine who enters the final two months in the driver's seat.

    Verdict: Buying

New York Yankees

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    New York's Gerrit Cole
    New York's Gerrit ColeEric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 40.3 Percent

    By no stretch of the imagination did Yankees fans enter the season thinking they would be four games behind the second wild-card spot in late July, but at least they are well within striking distance.

    Will the bats ever wake up to do that striking, though?

    New York's pitching staff has been great, second only to the Chicago White Sox in FanGraphs WAR. Gerrit Cole has been at the forefront of a lot of Spider Tack speculation/drama, but he's still very much in the AL Cy Young conversation. The bullpen has been rock solid. And the starting rotation trio of Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon and Domingo German has been sufficient enough for what was supposed to be an unstoppable offense.

    Instead, the Yankees have been mostly disappointing at the dish, slugging just .395 as a team and averaging around 4.1 runs per game.

    Injuries and COVID-19 absences have played a significant factor (for Luke Voit in particular), but a lot of it is just guys falling well short of expectation.

    Where's the version of Gleyber Torres who clubbed 38 home runs two years ago? Or the DJ LeMahieu who led the majors in batting average last season? Giancarlo Stanton's slugging percentage (.462) is the worst thus far in his 12-year career. And at 37 years old, Brett Gardner no longer has anywhere near as many extra-base hits in his arsenal as he used to.

    With the exception of Gardner, though, I'm choosing to believe those guys will rebound to some extent over the next two months. And when Luis Severino (maybe soon) and Corey Kluber (maybe by early September) return to the Yankees rotation, they'll be even better positioned to make a postseason run.

    Verdict: Buying

Oakland Athletics

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    Oakland's Matt Olson
    Oakland's Matt OlsonDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 50.4 Percent

    Oakland's postseason odds more or less boil down to whether the starting rotation can continue to exceed expectations.

    Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea, Cole Irvin and James Kaprielian each has a sub-3.50 ERA that is lower than both his FIP and xFIP. For both Irvin and Kaprielian, there's a substantial gap between the ERA and an xFIP in the 4.50 range for a pair of young guys who made a combined total of three MLB starts prior to this season.

    Far be it from us to question Billy Beane's ability to "Moneyball" his way into the postseason, but the A's could be headed for some serious negative regression on the mound.

    And if that happens, is Matt Olson's bat enough to carry this team across the finish line?

    Oakland's All-Star first baseman is batting .287 and slugging .578 with 24 home runs. He's well behind both Shohei Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but he has been arguably the third-best hitter in the American League this season.

    But this lineup drops off in a hurry from there with no one else slugging even .450. The A's do have six guys with 11 to 14 home runs, but they are 10-15 in their last 25 games and have been held to three runs or fewer in more than half of those contests.

    And, again, that's with the starting rotation exceeding expectations. If Bassitt and Co. start to regress with 20 of the next 25 games coming on the roadpredominantly against opponents with a playoff pulse—the A's could falter in a hurry.

    Verdict: Selling

Philadelphia Phillies

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    Philadelphia's Zack Wheeler
    Philadelphia's Zack WheelerKathy Willens/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 24.7 Percent

    As with the previous discussion about Atlanta, Philadelphia's postseason odds are primarily of the "Win the NL East" variety. The Phillies are one good series away from bypassing the Mets, but they would need a more prolonged hot streak to catch one of the three teams thriving in the NL West.

    That said, if anyone from the East or Central is going to make a run at the Dodgers-Giants-Padres triumvirate, you're probably looking at them.

    For starters, the remaining schedule is pretty doggone favorable. They still have seven games each against the Pirates and Diamondbacks, four home games against the Rockies and three home games against the Orioles. Meanwhile, just six total games (three vs. LAD, three at SDP) against those top West teams. Factor in the combined 24 remaining games against the sub-.500 Braves, Marlins and Nationals and the path to wins is certainly there.

    As far as the team's schedule-independent potential is concerned, the talent is definitely there, too.

    The Phillies can't seem to get everyone healthy at the same time and Alec Bohm has sputtered through a sophomore slump, but their full-strength lineup is plenty good enoughor is at least being paid handsomely enoughto go to war with any opponent. And with Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin and Aaron Nola each averaging better than 5.4 K/BB—something only five other pitchers with at least 70 innings of work can boast—the starting rotation is in mighty fine shape.

    The big problem for Philadelphia is the bullpen.

    FanGraphs rates Philadelphia's relievers as the 27th-best (fourth-worst) in baseball, and even that feels generous on most nights. Ranger Suarez was starting to emerge as a guy they thought they could trust in the ninth inning, but it only took him seven pitches to blow a two-run lead on Saturday. Even if he manages to regain the confidence of the fans, there's still the fickle issue of trying to get outs in the seventh and eighth innings.

    If the Phillies can snag Craig Kimbrel or add a couple of promising middle-relief arms before the trade deadline, a postseason push is well within the realm of possibility. But if we're talking specifically wild-card odds and evaluating the team in its current state, don't count on it.

    Verdict: Selling

San Diego Padres

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    San Diego's Manny Machado
    San Diego's Manny MachadoNick Wass/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 94.2 Percent

    San Diego is six games ahead of Philadelphia and Cincinnati in the chase for the second wild-card spot, but it would be wise to build up more of a cushion between now and Labor Day weekend.

    For the next month-plus, the Padres have the schedule to do just that. After this week's series against Atlanta, 24 of their next 36 games are against either Arizona, Colorado or Miami.

    After that, though, they have to start playing the game on a much harder difficulty level. Each of their final 27 opponents currently has at least 45 wins, nearly half of which (13) will be road games against either the Giants or Dodgers. They'll also have three home games each against the Astros and Giants, so that's a lot of games against playoff teams in the lead-up to the playoffs.

    Meanwhile, as previously mentioned, both Cincinnati and Philadelphia have rather favorable schedules the rest of the way. So if the Padres are still only ahead by six games (or fewer) by early September, things could get interesting in a hurry.

    We're going to assume that the Padres are about to have the best record in baseball in August, though, given how healthy they are right now and how easy that upcoming schedule is. And once Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Yu Darvish and Co. stretch that wild-card lead to 10 or more games, the final month of the season will just be about determining the order in which the NL West's top three teams are seeded.

    Verdict: Buying

Seattle Mariners

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    Seattle's J.P. Crawford
    Seattle's J.P. CrawfordElaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 4.2 Percent

    Despite a 50-44 record that puts them just three games behind the Oakland A's for the second wild-card spot, the projections are none too kind to the Mariners.

    Of course, that'll happen when you're six games above .500 in spite of an unsightly run differential of negative-51. (It's especially wild to see the M's half a game ahead of Toronto when the Blue Jays have a run differential of plus-86.)

    The only player on Seattle's roster with a WAR greater than 2.1 on either FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference is shortstop J.P. Crawford, who is at 2.7 WAR on B-R largely because of his Gold Glove-caliber defense.

    Their lone All-Star representative was Yusei Kikuchi, who's making $17 million for a 3.92 ERA.

    They don't have a closer.

    With a .219 batting average and .295 on-base percentage, they rank dead last in the majors in both categories.

    It's fascinating, really, and it would be amazing if this is the team that manages to snap the franchise's 20-year postseason drought.

    But a losing record the rest of the way is far more likely.

    Verdict: Selling

Tampa Bay Rays

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    Tampa Bay's Austin Meadows
    Tampa Bay's Austin MeadowsCharles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 66.0 Percent

    Will Tampa Bay ever recover from losing Tyler Glasnow to a right elbow injury?

    On June 14, the Rays were 19 games above .500 and had the best record in the majors by a 1.5-game margin over both the White Sox and Giants. However, that was the most recent time their Cy Young candidate took the mound, as Glasnow continues trying to rehab from a partially torn UCLthe type of injury that usually necessitates Tommy John surgery.

    Since then, they're 12-15 overall, and it's mostly the product of poor pitching.

    Opponents have averaged 5.0 runs during that 27-game stretch, compared to 3.67 in the 67 games prior. Rich Hill hasn't made a quality start since May 25, and he has the best ERA (3.87) among the healthy starters.

    And they don't exactly have the bats to withstand pitching like that in this division.

    At .277, Joey Wendle is the only player on the roster batting north of .252. Primary DH Austin Meadows has just two home runs in his last 143 plate appearances. Mike Zunino has 19 home runs but only 19 other hits.

    If they're able to get Glasnow back this season, maybe that will help them turn things back around. Or maybe the 5.5-game cushion over Toronto and 6.0-game cushion over New Yorkcoupled with 24 remaining games against Baltimore, Minnesota and Detroitwill be enough to carry them to the finish line.

    But whether Tampa Bay makes the playoffs at all feels like a coin flip. What a drastic change from five weeks ago.

    Verdict: Barely Buying

Toronto Blue Jays

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    Toronto's Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
    Toronto's Vladimir Guerrero Jr.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Playoff Odds: 40.8 Percent

    As previously mentioned, Toronto has a run differential of plus-86. That's the best in the AL East, third-best in the AL and sixth-best in the majors. Each of the five teams with better run differentials has at least 55 wins.

    This team should be better than 48-43, and it could go on a tear at a moment's notice—like its 25-2 three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers to open the second half of the season.

    At any rate, the bats are more than good enough. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would be running away with AL MVP if not for Shohei Ohtani. Marcus Semien is having the best season of his career at 30 years old. Bo Bichette has blossomed into an All-Star. Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez have been solid all year. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and George Springer have been heating up as of late.

    Not easy to find outs against this lineup is the moral of the story. Toronto has averaged six runs over its last 23 games, boasting a 15-8 record during that time.

    While the pitching staff hasn't been spectacular, six runs per game is going to get you the win far more often than not with Robbie Ray, Hyun-Jin Ryu or Steven Matz on the mound.

    Got to love that remaining schedule, too.

    The Blue Jays have a tough road trip coming up against the Mets and Red Sox, but as long as they tread water through that stretch, they'll be in great shape with only seven of their final 62 games coming against a current division leader—home against Boston August 6-8 and home against Chicago August 23-26.

    At the opposite end of the spectrum: 10 remaining games against Baltimore, seven against Minnesota, six against Detroit and three against Kansas City. Take care of business against those squads and more or less split the series with Tampa Bay, New York and Oakland, and that should be enough for the Blue Jays to get right in the thick of the playoff chase.

    Verdict: Buying


    Statistics, records and odds current through the start of play on Tuesday, July 20.