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Making Sense of the Sad, Yet Fascinating Race for the 2nd NL Wild Card Spot

Abbey MastraccoContributor IISeptember 16, 2021

St. Louis Cardinals' Harrison Bader (48) celebrates with Paul Goldschmidt (46) after Goldschmidt hit a home run during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

We're in the home stretch of the 2021 MLB regular season, which means it's crunch time for potential wild-card teams. 

The AL Wild Card race has all of the drama, the star players and the intrigue of the AL East. Will the New York Yankees, a team many had pegged as a World Series contender before the season began, hold on for a wild-card spot and face the Boston Red Sox in a play-in game? Or will one of those two be undone by the upstart Toronto Blue Jays?

You have to like the odds of a team with two MVP candidates in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien. And don't count out the Oakland A's or the Seattle Mariners out west, the latter of which appears to be heading toward the end of a long, arduous rebuild and could end a 19-year postseason drought. 

The NL Wild Card race, on the other hand, feels more like a race to the bottom. 

The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers have already clinched playoff spots, with the Dodgers occupying the top Wild Card spot and a ridiculous 17-game lead in the standings. One of them will win the NL West while the other will appear in a wild-card game, leaving just one spot left. A group of middling teams are vying for that one spot. It's entirely possible the Giants or Dodgers end up facing a team with a .500 record or worse. 

These teams seem more like pretenders than contenders. 

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The San Diego Padres started the season with World Series aspirations but have collapsed in recent weeks. The New York Mets led the NL East throughout the first half of the season but failed to take advantage of a bad division. The ineptitude of the coastal teams has opened the door for two NL Central teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. 

What can we make of the NL Wild Card race? Let's try to break down the odds for each team with some help from FanGraphs and the site's playoff odds calculator. 

     

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

St. Louis Cardinals (76-69) 1.0 Game Lead, Playoff Chances: 40%

The only team playing like it wants to win is the Cards. This team might not have blown away the competition at the trade deadline, but the St. Louis front office did enough to give the them a fighting chance in this exact scenario.  

Veteran starting pitchers Jon Lester and J.A. Happ have been a boon to a Cardinals staff ravaged by injuries. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty have been injured for most of the season, Carlos Martinez is out for the season and Kwang Hyun Kim had a stint on the IL as well. 

Entering Wednesday night's game against the Mets, Lester had a 1.90 ERA over his last four starts. The 37-year-old limited the damage in the 11-4 win over against the Mets and even pulled a double down the right field line in the fourth inning.

Happ has had one bad outing for the Cardinals, but otherwise he's gone 4-3 with a 4.15 ERA in seven starts. Happ and Lester are backed up by one of the best defenses in baseball. 

A sweep of the Mets has the Cards in the driver's seat. They can step on the throats of the Padres in their next series and solidify their lead.

St. Louis could just be feasting on weaker competition. The Cardinals split a four-game series with the Dodgers earlier this month and lost one to the Brewers. They saw a lot of bad teams in August and took advantage but didn't fare well against the two best teams they faced (swept by the Atlanta Braves, lost 2-1 to Milwaukee). 

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

San Diego Padres (75-70) 1.0 Games Back, Playoff Chances: 28.2%

The Padres had lost five straight against the Dodgers and Giants and been outscored 23-2 in the previous three leading up to Wednesday's 9-6 victory over the Giants. They still have one more series against San Francisco, one against the Los Angeles and series with St. Louis and Atlanta, so it's an uphill battle with the schedule. 

The problem with the Padres has been inconsistent pitching. Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner, went 4-3 with a 3.24 ERA in 11 first-half starts. Since then he's gone 3-3 with a 4.99 ERA. He's on the injured list, along with Chris Paddack. But even Paddack has been inconsistent when healthy. 

The Padres took a big swing at the trade deadline and missed, with the Dodgers getting ace Max Scherzer from the Nationals. And now the Padres are trying to gain ground with 35-year-old Jake Arrieta and his 7.05 ERA (8.25 ERA since he was claimed on waivers by San Diego). 

     

Jeff Dean/Associated Press

Cincinnati Reds (75-71) 1.5 Games Back, Playoff Chances: 22.5%

The Reds have been hanging around the wild-card standings all season, but the streaks and slumps have done them no favors. They've gone 3-7 over their last 10 games and lost their last four straight after a 5-4 defeat to Pittsburgh Wednesday. 

The bullpen has been a disaster all season. Cincinnati has the third-worst relief ERA in baseball (5.10). This stat should tell you all you need to know about the team's downfall this season. 

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Today the Reds became the first team in MLB history to lose despite hitting 6+ home runs and having its starting pitcher allow 2 runs or fewer.

Despite the pitching, they do have one of the hottest hitters in baseball in outfielder Nick Castellanos (.313/.367/.574 with a .941 OPS). Second baseman Jonathan India should be in the conversation for NL Rookie of the Year (.842 OPS leads all qualified rookies). The Reds have the building blocks moving forward, but they'll need to make some serious upgrades to the bullpen in the offseason in order to go from also-ran to a World Series contender. 

As for this season, they still have a chance, albeit a slim one. The schedule works in Cincinnati's favor, with 11 games against the cellar-dwelling Pirates and Washington Nationals. The five games against the Dodgers and Chicago White Sox could hold the Reds back.      

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Philadelphia Phillies (73-72), 3.0 Games Back, Playoff Chances: 19.7%

The Phillies have arguably the best catcher in baseball (JT Realmuto) and one of the best overall players (Bryce Harper) playing for a World Series-winning manager (Joe Girardi). 

So what's the problem?

Similar to Cincinnati, the bullpen has hamstrung the club for the last few years. There were improvements made at the trade deadline, like bringing in Ian Kennedy from the Texas Rangers. Starter Kyle Gibson came from the Rangers as well, but he's been roughed up in his last three starts. 

The problems go beyond the pitching corps, however. The Phillies were so bad in the 6-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs Tuesday that the longtime radio voice, Larry Andersen, ripped the entire team, including Harper for bad baserunning and Girardi for his decision-making. 

The numbers don't add up for Philadelphia. The Phillies would need to go 9-7 over the final 17 games to finish with a winning record. The good news is the schedule: Atlanta is the only winning team left on the Phillies' slate.        

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

New York Mets (72-75), 5.0 Games Back, Playoff Chances: 2.2%

I've watched a lot of Mets games this year, and there are some nights where you don't know what their identity is. At times, they've looked like the most fun team in baseball and others they've looked like the most dysfunctional. But then again, the Mets have always put the "fun" in "dysfunctional," so it shouldn't be a surprise. 

The Mets were a .500 team through June and July and went 9-19 in August. Over the weekend, they took two from the Yankees in the Subway Series before losing three straight against the Cardinals. 

Jacob deGrom has been out for much of the second half of the season, and the front office did little to fortify the pitching staff at the trade deadline. The front office has been a disaster since before the season even started.

Sandy Alderson now has the roles of team president, president of baseball operations and general manager since the club fired Jared Porter prior to the start of the season and placed acting general manager Zack Scott on administrative leave. Porter admitted to sexually harassing a foreign reporter and Scott was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence last month.

It's been a chaotic beginning to new owner Steve Cohen's tenure. 

The hitting has been problematic all season, and starter Taijuan Walker has looked like a different pitcher in the second half. This team won't have it easy over the next few weeks with series against Philadelphia, Boston, Milwaukee, Miami and Atlanta. 

      

My prediction

The Cardinals have a clear path to wild-card spot No. 2. The NL East is bad, so is the Reds' bullpen, and the Padres are in free fall. Good luck to the Cardinals when facing Scherzer and/or Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium in a winner-take-all game next month. They'll need it.

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