Last season saw a rumbling tectonic shift in the battle for the National League’s two Wild Card playoff slots.
The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies shook up their front offices prior to the start of the 2017 season and saw instant returns as both teams dropped their old school approach to the game and went on to capture the league’s two Wild Card playoff spots.
In 2018 we can expect the battle for the NL Wild Cards to get tougher and even more competitive as the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, and San Francisco Giants join the Rockies and D’Backs in the hunt for Wild Card gold. (Maybe it’s more like Wild Card tungsten or aluminum.)
Let’s go ahead and recklessly stipulate that the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, and Los Angeles Dodgers will likely take their respective divisions in 2018. Which allows us to focus on the predictable winners and possible pretenders in the Wild Card races.
The Two Previously Dominant Teams
I don’t see either Arizona or Colorado taking a step back from their 2017 gains in the upcoming season.
So let’s look at the teams who will push the D’Backs and Rockies for a 2018 Wild Card birth.
The Two Newly Improved Teams
Last year the Milwaukee Brewers (86-76) missed tying Colorado (87-75) for the second Wild Card spot by one game. While the Rockies have improved their bullpen, the Brewers have seriously retooled their offense and defense.
Milwaukee signed free agent CF Lorenzo Cain (5 years/$80m) and picked up OF Christian Yelich in a multi-player deal with the Marlins on January 25th. The Brewers also saw OF Domingo Santana, 25, have a break-out season in 2017 (.875 OPS, 151 games), and have several other viable outfield options on their roster.
But the Brewers need starting pitching. And maybe a lot of starting pitching.
Count on them to sign one of the following free agent starters in the next ten days: Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, or Alex Cobb. A trade with Tampa Bay for SP Chris Archer is less likely, but that also has to be on the Milwaukee front office’s front burner.
Despite the holes in their starting pitching, the Brewers are the number one contender to join Arizona and Colorado in the hunt for the Wild Card. But seriously pushing the Brew Crew to get some National League Wild Card glory are their Central Division neighbors, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cards’ offense (7th in the NL last season with 761 RS) was dramatically strengthened by the acquisition of power-hitting outfielder Marcell Ozuna, picked up in mid-December from the Miami Marlins.
Ozuna (145 OPS+, 191 hits) is easily one of the top three hitters in the National League and will provide the Cardinals with the additional power bat they needed to get.
With the St. Louis Cardinals joining the Brewers in pursuit of the 2018 NL Wild Card sweepstakes, it means that for the Chicago Cubs to win the NL Central Division title, they’ll have to perform well in the 38 games they have against two greatly improved teams in their own division.
The Two Outlier Teams
And the envelope for the two longshot Wild Card contending teams of 2018? It’s the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants.
The Mets have two factors playing in their favor this season. First, their starting pitching has the potential to bounce back from a terrible 2017—a 5.01 team ERA that pushed them to 14th among NL pitching staffs.
Few Major League teams have the opening power punch of 25-year-old RHP Noah Syndergaard and 29-year-old RHP Jacob deGrom in their rotations. Add to that the Mets talented group of (admittedly injury-prone) young starters, any of whom could make 2018 a breakout year.
The second factor in the Mets’ favor this season is the deconstructed Miami Marlins and the not-quite-there-yet rebuilding Atlanta Braves. That’s 38 total games against one floundering team and one rebuilding team— which should give the New York Mets a good opportunity to snag a bunch of wins.
The San Francisco Giants have a more difficult path to the land of the Wild Cards.
The Giants are built, in a sense, not to last. Unlike teams constructed with depth, when predictable injuries hit key San Francisco starting players this season there will be a precipitous drop-off in offense and pitching.
San Francisco has certainly improved last season’s historically bad offense (29th in MLB with 639 RS and a -137 run differential). But the upgrades (3B Evan Longoria, RF Andrew McCutchen) are older and don’t bring a lot of additional power to the table.
It remains to be seen if the Giants’ bullpen (4.34 ERA, 19th out of 30 MLB teams) will be improved enough with the return of soft-tossing closer Mark Melancon from injuries.
The 2018 season should bring an intense second-tier battle for the two NL Wild Card slots. And the prediction here is that Milwaukee and St. Louis will have a lot to say about which teams travel to the postseason via the Wild Card train.