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MLB - Sifting Through the Wildcards

By Doug Graham
Thursday, September 4th, 2003
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All right, pop quiz: which quantity is greater, the number of classes Maurice Clarett attended in his freshman season at The Ohio State University or the number of teams still in the hunt for the National League wildcard?

If you answered Clarett, well, you're probably wrong.

But the real question revolves around which of these NL teams has an actually chance at winning the playoff spot and, more importantly, make an impact in the postseason.

The Two of Hearts

The Chicago Cubs find themselves, like about half of these teams, in the race for both the wildcard and the NL Central crown. They won't win either.

The Cubbies should be thankful that they hung around this long in both races, but they just don't have it to make their way to the top in either race. Aside from Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, their lineup is weak. The pitching is good, but a lot of teams have good pitching at this time of year and they aren't lights-outs to a point where they're going to win just on pitching alone.

The Five of Clubs

The Montreal Expos found their way back into the wildcard race a week ago with a four-game sweep of Philadelphia, the then-wildcard leaders. Do the Expos pose a real threat to anybody, though? Well, they have a hot tandem of Vlad Guerrero and Jose Vidro, coupled with some good starters, namely Javier Vasquez.

It would have been interesting to see where this team would be at if Vlad hadn't been injured for a while. The hardest part for the Expos is probably in getting to the postseason. If the Expos got to the playoffs, they would be a tough team to go against because they can hit at any moment, and hold their own with their pitching. It seems like a little too late in the game for the Expos to make up the difference between them and the teams at the top.

The Seven of Diamonds

The St. Louis Cardinals are another team in both races, and are probably the favorites to win the NL Central at this point, but that bullpen? The Cardinal bullpen make the dishes they serve on NBCs "Fear Factor" look like Emeril Classics.

Even if the Cardinals some how slip through and into the playoffs, the Cardinals have no chance in winning a series in the playoffs. They can beat the hell out of you with the bats, but then they give it all back up in the next half-inning. Besides Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, their other top-hitters are a bit erratic and can't be counted on down the stretch or beyond. Their offense can get them to the top of the Central, but the Cardinals will likely finish five or more back in the wildcard race.

The Ten of Spades

Let'a just finish up the Central with the Houston Astros. The Astros are in pretty much the same boat as the Cardinals. They have just about zero shot at winning the wildcard, but hey, there's the NL Central to fall back on.

The NL Central has been wacky this season. Not one team in the Central is good enough to do damage in the playoffs, yet it receives more attention than any other division because of the race. More people would probably pay to see a race between Refrigerator Perry and Roseanne. It's not a race in the Central, it's a slow crawl and a game of, "I don't want it, I'll lose some games so you can take it." The Pirates and Reds were in this race at one point. It's been dreadful.

The Jack of Hearts

The Los Angeles Dodgers are kind of hovering around the wildcard. They have good pitching, no worries there, but you never know when the Dodgers are going to have a string of about 10 games where they score a total of six runs. That factor alone keeps the Dodgers at having only an outside shot at making the playoffs.

If the hitting were to come around and the pitching stay where it is at, the Dodgers would have a good shot at winning in a short series. That factor alone, puts them ahead of the Central teams who would do nothing in the playoffs.

The Queen of Clubs

The Arizona Diamondbacks can make a run at any minute. Will they? Maybe not, but they've been there and made noise in the playoffs before, seeing as they are recent world champions.

While they probably don't have a better chance than the Central teams that are doubling down on their chances, the Diamondbacks would at least beat the Braves or Giants in a couple games.

If you get the drift, then at this point you probably realize that these teams have been pretty much ranked in what they can do when getting to the postseason. Why? Because despite all of the teams perpetrating to be in this race, it's a two-team show.

If the Phillies and Marlins didn't decide to drop eight of nine games a few weeks ago, there wouldn't be a traffic jam for this wildcard spot.

The King of Hearts

The Florida Marlins are the nation's favorite right now for the wildcard spot. Who doesn't love the "D-Train," Dontrelle Willis? Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo play the game at the top of the order like it is meant to be played. The Marlins don't care about individual stats, what their numbers are, they just care about getting the win.

The Marlins do what they need to do to move runners along. They put guys into scoring-position when they need to be. This is a team that doesn't just sit back and wait for a homerun to drive-in the runs. What they lack in superstars, they make up in determination, and you really can't say enough about how Ivan Rodriguez has played.

The Marlins know where they are at in the standings and don't let the analysts tell you differently, these guys are no doubt becoming scoreboard-watchers as the season progresses.

On Labor Day, the Phillies were embroiled in a slugfest with the Boston Red Sox. The Phillies eventually lost that game on a Grand Slam by Trot Nixon in the ninth. After the Marlins finished play Monday night, several players admitted to catching peaks in the clubhouse at the Phillies and Sox as their game that day began.

It's natural, and the last few weeks have shown that you're not just playing against yourself, you're in this race with another team. You need to know what they're doing and use that as motivation. The Marlins could have packed it in after that 1-8 string, Philadelphia could have done so, as well, but neither team did, and the race is still on.

The Ace of Spades

The Philadelphia Phillies have led the wildcard picture for a good part of the last-half of this season. With the Atlanta Braves hopping out to that division lead, that was a good thing. The Phillies might throw it all away with clubhouse turmoil.

Last week, after the Phillies were swept by Montreal to start a road-trip 1-8, Phils manager Larry Bowa went off on the team in a tirade that would either motivate players or shock the hell out of them. Bowa's anger had been bottling up and apparently, he just let it all out. Also that day, young Phillies pitcher Brett Myers was involved in a heated verbal exchange with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.

All of this would be ignored, if they were winning. To top all of this off, on Saturday, the Phillies released the guy that was probably the top pinch-hitter in the National League in Tyler Houston. Houston was a good part of the clubhouse and a good buddy of Pat Burrell. After the release, Bowa called Houston a "loser" and Houston fired back saying that he was a scapegoat.

It isn't a pretty situation in Philadelphia from that standpoint, as the speculation behind Houston's release is that he was part of a group of players in the clubhouse that had been planning on publically taking a stand against manager Larry Bowa.

Players are said to be upset of how Bowa handles himself during games -- Bowa certainly isn't a calm presence. Also, Houston reportedly spoke out about his role on the team, wanting to be more than just a pinch-hitter. When the Phillies called up Chase Utley, Houston reportedly complained that his playing time would go down.

What is there to make of all this? Well, on one hand, Houston could be right, which Phillies fans are not hoping for as it would mean that there is a riff between players and the manager and that the ballclub has lost a respect for the game itself. On the other hand, Houston has been with six clubs in eight seasons and it isn't because of his level of talent. He's a fine bench player and he has shown that this year.

Putting all of that aside, do the Phillies have what it takes to win the wildcard? No doubt, not only that, but the Phillies have a good chance of doing something in the postseason. They have played tough against the Braves all season and would absolutely love to see them in the playoffs.

The pitching staff is solid, although they should brought up minor-leaguer Ryan Madsen over Amaury Telemaco as their fifth starter. Their bullpen is good, but they need to get Jose Mesa back on track, or simply name Dan Plesac or Rheal Cormier as the closer.

The offense has been the biggest problem for the Phillies this season. Utley's call up addresses some of those offensive needs, and Burrell is showing signs of getting back to where he once was as a ballplayer.

Oh yeah, they have a guy named Jim Thome, as well.

So there you have it, the candidates for the NL wildcard. When you look at it, though, it really only comes down to two. Is the wildcard a great thing for Major League Baseball? Are there really more teams in the race like SportsCenter tells you every night?

Well, think about it like this. If you went to the old standings, you would have a battle between the Braves in Giants which would be legendary and you would have the rest of these teams, with the exception of Los Angeles and Arizona, fighting for the Eastern Division crown. This season, we're going to have two deserving division champions, a joke of a division champion, and a wildcard team. You decide.

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