The 30 Finale: Throw Your Hands Up Like Max Scherzer and Say Goodbye to the Regular SeasonAl Bello/Getty Images
One hundred and sixty-two games are in the books, and it’s been a hell of a ride. For the fourth straight season, a team with a monumental playoff drought has crashed the October dance. We’ve seen underdogs flourish and the defending champs come up a little short. Rookies made a bigger impact than ever before, and the old guys taught us a few tricks, too.
All that’s left is one final spin of the rankings wheel, followed by the glorious, monthlong spectacle that is postseason baseball.
This is the end, beautiful friend. It’s the final 2015 edition of The 30.
Best Gold Glove Fodder of the Week
In 2011, the Gold Glove awards rules changed. After decades of giving “best outfielder” honors simply to the best outfielders, the new rule stipulated that awards must be granted for a left fielder, center fielder, and right fielder. That might seem fair — until you look at the American League this year and realize most teams put their best defenders in center.
Mike Trout and Mookie Betts have made multiple jaw-dropping plays this season, but the advanced defensive numbers see them only as good-not-great glovemen. Lorenzo Cain has been a five-tool beast with the fancy defensive numbers to match.1 Yet, the player who might end up claiming the award is Kevin Kiermaier, who, according to Wins Above Replacement, has been worth more than four wins with his glove alone, and he has plenty of highlight-reel plays to back his case.
Worthy picks, all. But it would be a damn shame if Kevin Pillar didn’t get something for his defensive heroics this season. By the numbers, he trails only Kiermaier and Cain among center fielders in Defensive Runs Saved. Meanwhile, his Spider-Man grab off Tim Beckham in April remains my favorite play of the season. Yes, even better than Trout’s recent over-the-wall acrobatics.
On Friday night, Pillar might’ve made his second-best play of the season, again victimizing the Rays. With one out in the seventh, Rays catcher Luke Maile crushed a ball toward the gap in right-center that looked like at least a double. The Jays center fielder had other ideas.
Not bad for a player who was expected to be the team’s fourth outfielder coming into the spring.
30. Cincinnati Reds (64-98 record, minus-114 run differential, no. 28 last week)
Here’s Joey Votto since the All-Star break:
Sorting out their young pitchers will be a painful process that will take the Reds some time. But a healthy Votto is capable of going on extended runs in which he does a pretty good Ted Williams impression. If you ever needed a reminder that one player can’t possibly carry a baseball team to glory by himself, just take a look at Votto and the moribund 2015 Reds.
29. Philadelphia Phillies (63-99, minus-183, LW: 30)
When noncontending teams trade away veterans for future help at the deadline, short-term results normally get even worse. Not so for the Phillies, who went a miserable 29-62 in the first half, only to rally for a respectable 34-37 mark in the second half. For that they can thank a range of factors, including some natural regression toward the mean and some addition-by-subtraction from the jettisoning of struggling vets like Chase Utley. However, the biggest surprise came after they traded staff ace Cole Hamels. The Phillies got six players in return for Hamels and reliever Jake Diekman — and one of those six players has topped Hamels’s post-trade contributions by himself.
By Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, rookie Jerad Eickhoff has delivered more value in eight starts for the Phillies than Hamels has in 12 with the Rangers. With Philadelphia, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound right-hander has fired 51 innings, striking out 49 batters while allowing just 40 hits, 13 walks, and five home runs to go with a 2.65 ERA. Plus, his numbers in his final four starts were borderline illegal: 28 innings and 33 strikeouts, with just 17 hits and seven walks allowed, and an 0.96 ERA.
It’s tough to know if those results might carry over to next season, or if they’re just the result of a random hot streak. A 15th-round pick by the Rangers four years ago, Eickhoff has never been regarded as an elite prospect, and he failed to make Baseball America’s top-10 list for Texas in 2015. Still, this year’s finishing kick has been tantalizing: Although Eickhoff’s fastball only checks in around 92 mph, his secondary stuff has dazzled, with opponents batting just .102 against his curveball and .174 against his slider. For a team in the midst of a total teardown and rebuild, Eickhoff and fellow youngster Aaron Nola have started to raise some hope for an eventual pitching-led revival in Philly.
28. Atlanta Braves (67-95, minus-187, LW: 27)
• Julio Teheran’s first-half numbers: 18.7 K%, 8.5 BB%, 1.3 HR/9 IP, 4.56 ERA, 4.71 FIP
• Julio Teheran’s second-half numbers: 22.2 K%, 8.9 BB%, 1.1 HR, 3.42 ERA, 4.05 FIP
A huge jump in Teheran’s strand rate (68.4 percent in the first half, 80.7 percent in the second half) helps explain that much improved second-half ERA. And since virtually no pitchers suddenly pitch better with men on base, Teheran’s second-half jump could’ve been a fluke. Still, the second-half uptick in Teheran’s strikeout rate and an improvement in fastball velocity as the season wore on suggests that while Teheran might have been lucky, he also was better. Rediscovering the staff ace who tossed 406.2 innings with a near 4-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 3.03 ERA over the 2013 and 2014 seasons would go a long way toward helping the Braves in their own rebuilding effort.
27. Colorado Rockies (68-94, minus-107, LW: 29)
Whenever a Rockies hitter puts up gaudy numbers, there’s a tendency to dismiss it as nothing more than a Coors Field–inflated season. Nolan Arenado deserves no such flippancy. In just his third major league season, the 24-year-old third baseman has posted some truly jarring stats, cranking 42 homers and piling up 89 extra-base hits — and, sure, his RBI total (130) ain’t bad, either. Those 89 extra-base hits represent the highest total in a single season by a third baseman, ever.
Granted, Arenado’s batting average and on-base percentage looked a lot better this year at home than on the road. But when it comes to power numbers, good luck telling the difference: 22 of his 42 long balls and 42 of his 89 extra-base hits came at less than mile-high altitude. Arenado’s also excelled defensively, leading all third basemen in Defensive Runs Saved — no easy task given how good players like Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and Adrian Beltre are with their gloves.
With Troy Tulowitzki gone and Carlos Gonzalez extremely productive but also about to turn 30, Arenado is Colorado’s new franchise player. He’ll also test arbitration for the first time this winter, he can test free agency after the 2019 season, and his agent is none other than Scott Boras. If the Rockies’ numbers guys have any contract negotiation voodoo they’ve been saving up for a special occasion, now would be a great time to break it out.
26. Oakland A’s (68-94, minus-35, LW: 25)
Although Barry Zito’s matchup with Tim Hudson elicited lots of warm feelings, some Astros fans were less thrilled about seeing Zito start against the Angels on Wednesday in a game with major playoff implications. But here’s the thing: The A’s had simply run out of healthy pitchers, making that final Zito start not only a nod to the illustrious career of an all-time great Athletic, but also a simple necessity for a team with no other options.
Pitching health can be tenuous for any team, and it certainly figures to be a potential issue for the 2016 A’s, too. That will likely prompt about-to-be-promoted-to-GM David Forst to shop for some more arms this winter. Still, close your eyes, imagine a few healthy breaks, and picture this as the starting point for next year’s rotation: Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman, Jesse Chavez, A.J. Griffin, and Jarrod Parker. Granted, Griffin and Parker are both recovering from Tommy John surgery (the second one for Parker), and Hahn suffered a forearm injury that looked like a precursor to TJ before doctors said that likely wouldn’t happen. But all six pitchers could be ready before Opening Day, giving the A’s an impressive collection of right-handed starters, all but Chavez well under 30, and all inexpensive. After a weird and highly disappointing season, the mere possibility of having all of those arms ready to go next year should help tide A’s fans over this offseason.
25. Milwaukee Brewers (68-94, minus-82, LW: 26)
His 2013 season was an eye-opener, with a big power binge portending an exciting future. But his 2014 campaign was ugly, as an avalanche of strikeouts curbed his overall production, with his power numbers dropping off sharply. Another slow start this year raised further doubts over this slugger’s ability, leaving observers to wonder if a player who flirts with the Mendoza Line and strikes out constantly is worth the hassle, even if he’s capable of Nintendo-level home run jags. When one of those jags finally came, and lasted for weeks and weeks, we got our answer: Khris Davis, like his similarly named boom-or-bust compadre in Baltimore, is worth all the heartburn.
Davis ended the season with strong overall numbers: .247/.323/.505, with 27 homers in 121 games. Already strikeout-prone, he also set a career high by whiffing in nearly 28 percent of his plate appearances. On the other hand, fewer swings on pitches out of the zone, combined with pitchers giving him fewer fat pitches to hit for fear of the long ball, ramped up his walk rate to a career-best 10 percent. Plus, his numbers over the final eight weeks were phenomenal: .261/.325/.609 with 20 homers in 53 games.
With Gerardo Parra gone, the everyday left-field job should be Davis’s next season. If he plays 150-plus games next year, he’ll be a dark-horse pick to contend for the 2016 National League home run crown.
24. Miami Marlins (71-91, minus-65, LW: 24)
We’re big fans of quirky stat lines here at The 30 HQ. And it doesn’t get much quirkier than Dee Gordon’s 2015 season. Among 141 batting-title-qualified hitters, only four walked less frequently than Gordon. Of those same 141 batters, only nine fared worse by Isolated Power. Not great, huh? Well, Gordon also became just the second player in National League history to lead the league in batting average, hits, and stolen bases. Throw in one of the biggest year-to-year defensive turnarounds in baseball,2 and you have a season that looks a lot like one of Ichiro’s best.
23. Detroit Tigers (74-87, minus-114, LW: 22)
When we checked in on Justin Verlander a month ago, he’d parlayed a heavier diet of fastballs and an adjustment in pitch sequencing into some impressive gains. How’s he done since then? Six starts, 40.2 innings, 38 strikeouts, 11 walks, two homers, a 3.32 ERA, and opponents batting just .224/.280/.336 against him over that span.
The 2011 version of Verlander who won the Cy Young and MVP awards probably isn’t coming back — not with so many miles on his pitching odometer. But this year’s post-injury version looks similar to what we saw in 2013, when Verlander tossed 218.1 innings, struck out 217 batters, posted an ERA 20 percent better than league average, and made the All-Star team. If the Tigers can get that from him next year, and a couple of the deadline-haul youngsters (Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris, Michael Fulmer) can develop as hoped, Detroit might be able to engineer a quick turnaround after a brutal season.
22. San Diego Padres (74-88, minus-81, LW: 23)
Here’s a sentence I never expected to type: Melvin Upton Jr. is good again.
Upton finished the season at .259/.327/.429, a line 10 percent better than league average after adjusting for pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Sure, it’s only 228 plate appearances. Yes, Upton’s a long shot to start for the Padres (or anyone else) next year. And fine, he’s only on the roster because GM A.J. Preller was so determined to nab Craig Kimbrel from the Braves that he was willing to eat the last three years of Upton’s contract, which lasts through 2017 and will cost San Diego another $32 million. But given how far Upton has fallen since signing that monster deal three years ago, and how badly the Padres’ all-in 2015 season has turned out, both sides can at least settle for a small consolation prize.
21. Chicago White Sox (76-86, minus-79, LW: 21)
Let’s keep going with our slow-start/strong-finish brigade. Here’s Adam Eaton:
• First 22 games: .189/.240/.256, nine runs scored
• Last 131 games: .304/.381/.462, 89 runs scored
That’s the All-Star-caliber center fielder and leadoff man the White Sox hoped they were getting from the Diamondbacks two years ago. And that’s the player the 26-year-old Eaton can be when he stays healthy: His 153 games played blew away his previous career high of 123 from last season.
20. Seattle Mariners (76-86, minus-70, LW: 19)
The catchers for your 2015 Seattle Mariners: .160/.208/.259.
Amid a terrible season in which the organization’s inability to develop productive major leaguers resulted in GM Jack Zduriencik’s ouster, the offensive black hole at the catcher position might’ve been the single-biggest disaster. As a palate cleanser, please enjoy this oral history of the 1995 Mariners.
19. Tampa Bay Rays (80-82, plus-2, LW: 18)
Jason Collette passed along a jarring stat: The Rays’ 2-13 record in extra-inning games is the fourth-worst winning percentage (.133) of any team in such contests over the past 30 years.3 Take all of those losses in close games, the plague of injuries that ripped apart the rotation, and the moves made with an eye toward retooling (trading away Ben Zobrist, etc.), and Tampa Bay’s 80 wins despite residing in a competitive AL East look pretty good.
18. Arizona Diamondbacks (79-83, plus-7, LW: 20)
The story of how 28-year-old Venezuelan outfielder David Peralta made it from independent ball to the big leagues is a good one. Peralta’s season, which ended with a .312/.371/.522 line that placed him eighth among all qualified National League hitters on a park-adjusted basis, was a great one. And his second half, in which Peralta batted .360/.401/.577, was a spectacular one.
If Peralta can maintain a good chunk of his 2015 gains — a .368 batting average on balls in play suggests at least some regression ahead — the Diamondbacks will boast one of the best hitting trios in the league next year between him, Paul Goldschmidt, and A.J. Pollock. Now, all they need to do is upgrade their Swiss cheese pitching staff.4 If you’re looking for a sleeper team that might throw a bunch of money at someone like Jordan Zimmermann, this might be it.
17. Baltimore Orioles (81-81, plus-20, LW: 16)
Remember that short list of qualified hitters who walked less frequently than Dee Gordon? Lower the plate appearance threshold to 300 and several more players pop up on the list, including Orioles hacker Jonathan Schoop. In 321 plate appearances, the second-year second baseman struck out 79 times … and walked just nine times. Yet Schoop also showed excellent power, homering once every 21 times up — the most prolific rate of any major league second baseman. If Schoop can combine the big offensive gains he just made in his age-23 season with a slate of health closer to 2014’s — he missed two and a half months this year with a knee injury — that’s a helluva player to have for the league minimum next season.
16. Boston Red Sox (78-84, minus-5, LW: 17)
• Mookie Betts: .291/.341/.479, 6.0 WAR,5 turns 23 on Wednesday.
• Xander Bogaerts: .320/.355/.421, 4.6 WAR, turned 23 last Thursday.
Yes, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were disasters, the pitching staff had lots of problems, and a sub-.500 season is far from the playoff berth many pundits predicted. Still, the story of the Red Sox moving forward is the story of Betts and Bogaerts. Nearly any other team would kill to have two up-the-middle stars this good and this young.
15. Cleveland Indians (81-80, plus-29, LW: 15)
How good was Francisco Lindor in the second half? Between his highlight-reel defense and his torrid bat, he racked up more WAR in the second half than Bogaerts did all season. The only players to outpace Lindor by that metric in the second half were all-world pitchers Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw, along with the Williams-eque Votto. The team’s strikeout-heavy pitching staff, in addition to key veterans like Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley, will be much needed contributors as the Indians try to shake off a disappointing 2015 campaign. But the hopes of the franchise rest squarely on the 21-year-old shoulders of a player with just 99 major league games under his belt.
14. Washington Nationals (83-79, plus-68, LW: 14)
Here are some facts and figures from Max Scherzer’s Saturday no-hitter against the Mets, which put a surreal bow on a season that every Nationals player, fan, and employee not named Max Scherzer or Bryce Harper will quickly want to forget:
• Scherzer became the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter with at least 17 strikeouts and no walks. A sixth-inning throwing error by Yunel Escobar is all that separated Scherzer from a perfect game.
• Scherzer became just the sixth pitcher to throw two no-hitters in one year. The others: Johnny Vander Meer (1938), Allie Reynolds (1951), Virgil Trucks (1952), Nolan Ryan (1973), and Roy Halladay (2010).
• Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout performance in 1998 earned a best-ever 105 per Bill James’s Game Score stat. Scherzer’s dominating effort on Saturday earned him a 104, meaning, by that measure, he threw the second-best nine-inning game in baseball history.
• That also made him the first pitcher to reach a 100 Game Score in a nine-inning game twice in the same season. His previous no-hitter, on June 20 against the Pirates, was the other one.
• Matt Harvey, whose fantastic post–Tommy John season got overshadowed by silly pitch-count controversy, fired six brilliant innings on Saturday. Harvey allowed no earned runs on four hits, with 11 strikeouts … and still finished with a Game Score 31 points below Scherzer’s.6
• Scherzer’s final 2015 numbers: 228.2 innings pitched, 276 strikeouts, 34 walks, 176 hits, a 2.79 ERA, and a 2.77 FIP. Yet, in this insane year for elite National League starting pitchers, he’s going to finish no better than fourth in Cy Young voting.
13. Minnesota Twins (83-79, minus-4, LW: 13)
Here’s a fun stat from last week’s podcast with HardballTalk writer and Twins podcaster Aaron Gleeman: While 12 percent of all plate appearances this year went to a full count, Miguel Sano got to 3-2 28 percent of the time, the highest figure in baseball. In fact, more than half of his plate appearances ended in a walk or a strikeout. Of course, Sano’s calling card is his enormous power, and he didn’t disappoint in that regard, either. On those full counts, Sano batted .240/.581/.700 and walloped a home run for every seven 3-2 at-bats.
Get your season tickets in Target Field’s left-field bleachers ASAP. It’s going to be souvenir city out there for the rest of the decade.
12. San Francisco Giants (84-78, plus-69, LW: 11)
Few people expected big things from Kelby Tomlinson when he made his major league debut on August 3. A 12th-round pick out of Texas Tech four years ago, he never made a top-10 prospects list for San Francisco. Before this year, his minor league numbers weren’t very good; a strong 39-game rookie ball cameo in 2011 was drowned out by three years of mediocrity. Even when he hit over .300 at Double-A and Triple-A this season, nobody expected much. Old for a rookie at 25, and generating little power from his 6-3, 180-pound frame, Tomlinson looked like a long shot to hold the fort after starting second baseman Joe Panik hit the disabled list.
Instead, the Giants got a two-month dynamo. With a strong finishing kick, Tomlinson ended his rookie campaign batting .303/.358/.404; adjust for the hitter’s horror show that is AT&T Park, and those were actually better numbers than the ones posted by our batting champion friend Mr. Gordon. Granted, you can poke all kinds of holes in Tomlinson’s numbers, from his likely unsustainable .382 batting average on balls in play to his nearly three strikeouts for every one walk. Still, the Giants were so impressed with Tomlinson’s debut that they plan to work him out in center field in the hopes of forming an effective, low-cost platoon with Gregor Blanco.7 It’s a bold plan, but also typical of an organization with a strong recent history of getting the most out of players by focusing on their strengths rather than fixating on their weaknesses.
But really, no matter where they play Tomlinson in the upcoming #EvenYear, he’s guaranteed a World Series ring.
11. Los Angeles Angels (85-77, minus-14, LW: 12)
A big September and a valiant grab for the American League’s final playoff spot, including a 15-2 record in their final 17 one-run games, fell just short. Where the Angels go from here — armed with the American League’s best player in Mike Trout, gobs of money, and an owner willing to spend it, but also a bunch of weaknesses elsewhere on the roster — should be one of the winter’s more compelling story lines.
Here’s one oddity to consider: Jered Weaver threw an amazing 520 pitches slower than 70 mph. According to Baseball Savant, that’s the second-highest total for a right-handed, non-knuckleball pitcher in the PITCHf/x era, which started in 2007.8 The next step for Weaver is to figure out how to use his junkball repertoire to his advantage: Only three players with as many innings pitched rated worse this year by WAR, and only two did by strikeout rate. The Angels better help him figure out how to make it work, because next season’s no. 5 starter will make $20 million.
10. Houston Astros (86-76, plus-111, LW: 10)
It was a bumpy ride, but the Astros are going to playoffs for the first time in 10 years, just two seasons after losing 111 games. Although their 86 wins coupled with a road date in New York for the wild-card play-in might not inspire confidence for what remains of this season, keep in mind how different the Astros are with George Springer in the lineup.
When Springer returned from a two-month DL stint on September 4, it looked like his fractured right wrist hadn’t fully healed and would hamper him for the rest of the season. Instead, over the final 20 games, Springer batted .345/.404/.548, reasserting himself as the team’s best outfielder and maybe its best all-around position player outside of Carlos Correa.
Combine Springer’s healthy return with a remarkable season-long run to the playoffs that shouldn’t lose much luster despite that tumultuous finish, and the Astros have every right to dance.
9. Texas Rangers (88-74, plus-18, LW: 9)
With the season on the line, Josh Hamilton offered far better defense than Mike Napoli could possibly provide out of position in left field:
He delivered a handful of big hits both earlier in the season and in the final weekend:
And he cost the Rangers about $7 million this year, which will be followed by exactly zero dollars next season and just $2 million in 2017:
Given all of that, Rangers fans have a message for the Angels’ impetuous, grudge-holding owner: Thanks, Arte!
8. New York Yankees (87-75, plus-66, LW: 8)
Although it might seem odd to call the Yankees underdogs, they weren’t a popular playoff pick heading into this season. When the Yanks stayed mostly quiet at the trade deadline, skeptics piled on, wondering why GM Brian Cashman wasn’t being more aggressive. While it’s true that the loaded Blue Jays did eventually catch and pass New York to win the AL East, Cashman should still feel good about patiently building a team that will get a shot this postseason. They’ll do so with rookies Luis Severino and Greg Bird potentially playing key roles — and then helping the team for years to come.
Sure, that stand-pat approach might not be how The Boss would have done it. In some ways, that might turn out to be a good thing.
7. New York Mets (90-72, plus-70, LW: 7)
Hey, Mets fans worried about backing into the playoffs after a rough final few days of the season: Don’t sweat it. Momentum is meaningless.
6. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70, plus-72, LW: 5)
While we wait for the playoffs to start and for Zack Greinke to take the lowest starting-pitcher ERA in 20 years into the postseason, check out this piece by Eno Sarris at FanGraphs. In it, Greinke says he’s tried to avoid attacking hitters inside too often, because even though he feels he can induce weaker contact that way, he also found that hitters managed to bloop more balls for hits on inside pitches than on outside ones. As Sarris goes on to explain, Greinke’s suspicion turns out to be well-founded.
Over the years, many misguided writers have tried to argue that Greinke is a head case not fit for the big stage. But as Sarris, Molly Knight in her book The Best Team Money Can Buy, and Greinke himself demonstrate, the Dodgers right-hander isn’t only one of the best pitchers the game has seen in years. He’s also one of the smartest.
5. Kansas City Royals (95-67, plus-83, LW: 6)
We know about the team’s all-world defense (second in the AL behind only the Astros, per Baseball Info Solutions), its loaded bullpen (even without Greg Holland), and the breakout seasons for Cain and Mike Moustakas — all of which helped push the Royals to a runaway AL Central crown and the best record in the American League. But as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs recently wrote, the Royals also went from a really good contact team last year to one of the best contact teams of all time in 2015.
The rotation’s still a question mark, and that could be an especially big issue against a powerful offensive team like the Blue Jays. But when it comes to K.C.’s offense, opponents will need to find a way to overpower it without the benefit of strikeouts. These guys are pathological about putting balls in play.
4. Chicago Cubs (97-65, plus-81, LW: 4)
If you had to pinpoint one notable weakness on an otherwise excellent Cubs roster, it would be the inconsistent pitching results behind the big two of Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Jason Hammel, Dan Haren, and Kyle Hendricks have all been very good at times, but not often enough to be relied upon. Except, then this happened:
Add Haren’s six innings of one-run ball in the season finale, and you have a rotation that allowed just two runs over its final eight starts of the regular season. Now, this could be a function of small sample size, facing weaker teams playing out the string (the final six games came against the Reds and Brewers), or both. But if the Cubs do get past the Pirates in Wednesday’s wild-card game, they’ll need contributions from starters beyond Arrieta and Lester to have a shot at taking down the Cardinals and whoever else. At least one member of the Hammel/Haren/Hendricks trio could hold the key to a deep playoff run by the Cubs.
3. Toronto Blue Jays (93-69, plus-221, LW: 3)
After being strafed for eight runs and lasting only two-thirds of an inning against the Rays yesterday, Mark Buehrle’s astonishing streak of 200-inning seasons ended at 14. With David Price, Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, and Marco Estrada all pitching well down the stretch, the Jays plan to leave Buehrle off their playoff roster, and that’s a cruel blow for one of the best lefties of his generation. Still, even if he doesn’t throw a pitch this postseason, Buehrle’s career-long metronomic consistency will remain a thing of beauty.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64, plus-101, LW: 2)
The Pirates ride into Wednesday’s wild-card playoff sporting arguably the best and deepest bullpen in the National League. Fortified by the unlikely emergence of J.A. Happ, the rotation is also one of the deepest among all the playoff teams.
We won’t dwell on the supposed unfairness of the wild-card system — while I’d love to see playoff seeding decided solely by records, baseball’s unbalanced schedules and haphazard interleague slates make even that proposal a shaky one — so let’s just say this: Like the Cubs, the Pirates are a really, really good team. Whichever club comes out on top Wednesday will be a pretty solid bet to pull a 2014 Giants/Royals and run all the way to a spot in the World Series.
1. St. Louis Cardinals (100-62, plus-122, LW: 1)
Thanks to an ultra-speedy recovery from a torn Achilles, Adam Wainwright’s back. And while three one-inning relief appearances before season’s end weren’t enough to stretch him out into a playoff-rotation spot, Wainwright will fortify a bullpen that’s up there with the Pirates among the league’s best. Given that he’s throwing harder than he has in years now that he doesn’t have to conserve energy over seven or eight innings, the Cards might’ve just added a vital piece to a potential championship roster. And if the Cards and Mets meet this postseason, he’ll also provide some fodder for plenty of broadcaster flashbacks.
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