Monday, August 21, 2017

Arizona Still Wild Card Favorites Despite Slide

By Steve Brenna

Let's get one thing straight, right off the proverbial bat. The best decision the MLB has made since expanding the playoffs following the 1993 season was adding a second wild card after the 2011 season.

Some might say former commissioner Selig and Co. took a page from the NFL, which has had a two wild card system for years. However, every game of the NFL playoffs is win or go home, so there is nothing special about two non-division winners making the playoffs. They are postseason teams just like the division winners, albeit without home-field advantage. What Major League Baseball has done is make the intense excitement of a game 163 tie-breaker into a yearly event, pitting the two top non-division winners in a win-or-go-home showdown to kick-off the playoffs in a game seven atmosphere.

The National League wild card game has been especially thrilling in the past two seasons, with the 2015 game pitting two 97+ win powerhouses head-to-head, and the 2016 game featuring two 87-win teams boasting fearsome starting pitchers in a duel to advance to the NLCS. 2017 looks to be headed in the same direction, with two NL West contenders in a back-and-forth battle that appears destined for a wild card game showdown in early October.

Yes, the NL Central is yet to be decided, but with the West and East races all but decided, the collision course the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies appear to be on looks like the most intriguing race in the senior circuit. So, when all the chips are down, who will be heading to Los Angeles to face the juggernaut Dodgers in the NLDS?

Both Arizona and Colorado got off to surprisingly fast starts, announcing themselves as playoff contenders early in the season. However, both have fallen back to the pack as Los Angeles has steamrolled ahead to become World Series favorites. Colorado has gone 16-16 since the break and is currently clinging to a 1-game lead over the D-Backs, who have gone just 14-20 in the second half. But when it comes to winner-take-all games in the MLB playoffs, starting pitching is king, and Arizona has the only true ace between the two clubs in former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke.

After signing the second richest contract in MLB history prior to the 2016 season, Greinke had a down year by his standards, finishing with just 13 wins and a 4.37 ERA. This season, however, Greinke is back to all-star form, currently toting a 1.08 WHIP that places him right behind National League Cy Young front-runners Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. Ideally, Arizona manager Torey Lovullo would like to lineup his starting rotation to have Greinke on the mound in the wild card playoff game, but the race to get there could mean either the currently-concussed Robbie Ray or Zack Godley could take the ball for the D-Backs.

Meanwhile the traditionally offensive-minded Rockies have been relying on an extremely young starting staff that's included rookies Kyle Freeland, German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela; now reinforced by Chad Bettis, who has pitched well since returning from cancer treatment. Projected ace Jon Gray has been hit-or-miss since returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for 71 games, so at this point it is likely Freeland who would take the ball with the Rockies season on the line in October. If you're a Rockies fan frightened at the thought of a 24-year-old rookie dueling with Zack Greinke with your season on the line, well, those fears are valid. Home field advantage will be huge in a Colorado/Arizona wild card game, as both teams play much better in their home parks.

For Colorado to have a real chance at taking down Greinke, or Ray for that matter, their powerhouse offense must click on all cylinders. Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMaheiu, and Nolan Arenado have proven to be stalwarts at the top of the Rockies order, but the Mile High offense has far more potential than that. After a breakthrough start, Mark Reynolds had a terrible July, but appears to be bouncing back thus far in the month of August. Trevor Story's slugging percentage is down over 100 points from last year, and Carlos Gonzalez is in the midst of the worst season of his career, with a pitiful -1.6 WAR and 66 OPS+. Should those two sluggers find their stride, coupled with Gerardo Parra and deadline addition Jonathan Lucroy, there are truly no holes in the Rockies line up, and they could prove to be a challenge for even the most seasoned ace.

While the race for the AL wild card looks like a royal rumble of mediocrity, the NL race could have serious pennant implications. September is nearly upon us, let the games begin.

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