Reset: How the Cardinals Shape Up In the NL Wild Card Race

Before jumping in I’ll post my usual caveat: if the Cardinals can peel the Cubs’ division lead to under five games and stay there a while, then we can take a look at a potential race for first place in the NL Central.

Matt Carpenter 2
Carpenter has been sidelined since July 6 with a strained right oblique muscle.

For now, I want to take a quick look at the National League wild card derby, with two winning tickets on the line.

Wild Card Standings

Los Angeles Dodgers … 57-45 … up by 1.5 over Miami.

Miami Marlins … 55-46 … and clinging to second WC spot.

St. Louis Cardinals … 54-47 … one game behind Miami.

New York Mets … 53-47 … half-game behind STL; trail Miami by 1.5 games.

Pittsburgh Pirates … 52-48 … hanging in there, 2.5 games behind Miami.

OK, let’s look at the teams, in order of those standings….

THE DODGERS 

The Overview: The bullpen is fantastic, but this team has been plagued by injuries all season and I’m not quite sure why the Dodgers are an impressive 12 games over .500 and continue to stalk the Giants for first place in the NL West. Through Wednesday the Giants led the Dodgers by only 2.5 games … the Dodgers are 24-13 in their last 37 games … remarkably, they’re 16-9 since ace Clayton Kershaw went on the DL with a back injury… the Dodgers have held up despite having a 4.37 rotation ERA and only nine quality starts in the 25 games since Kershaw went down… The offense has been better as of late, averaging 4.8 runs over the last 25.

What they need at the trade deadline: Kershaw may not return, and this vulnerable rotation could break, so securing a starting pitcher is an obvious priority. It’s a think marker. But a lot of baseball people believe the Dodgers are making a strong push for one of Tampa Bay’s young starters … the Dodgers are said to have interest in landing an outfielder; names floated include Carlos Gonzalez and Jay Bruce.

THE MARLINS 

The Overview: After a poor start, the Marlins are 50-35 since April 24, and their winning percentage ranks third in the majors over that time. So this is a very good team that has a couple of advantages over the other WC contenders: (1) speed and baserunning; the Marlins rank 9th in the majors in BRR; (2) defense, as shown by their No. 7 MLB ranking in UZR. The Marlins’ overall offensive numbers don’t leap out as anything special, but much of that can be attributed to their run-suppressing home ballpark. (The Marlins’ offensive stats are much better on the road.) They have a good team OBP, and their No. 14 MLB ranking in weighted runs created plus is a more indicative offensive measure. The Marlins should get a boost with the imminent return of 2B Dee Gordon, who is completing his 50-game suspension for PEDs. This is a team with two big-time stars: starting pitcher Jose Fernandez, and slugger Giancarlo Stanton. And their outfield — led by Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich — has the highest OPS, collectively, of any team in baseball. The Marlins are sneaky-good offensively.

What they need at the trade deadline: Starting pitching, especially with Wei-Yin Chen (elbow) going on the DL. The Marlins rank 10th among the 15 NL teams with 44 quality starts. They’re searching for rotation protection and have been linked to just about every name on the market including Jeremy Hellickson, Rich Hill, Andrew Cashner, Edinson Volquez, Hector Santiago, etc.

THE CARDINALS 

The Overview: Despite ranking a close 5th in the NL quality starts (56), being tied for second in the league in OPS (.745), leading the NL in homers per game (1.37), scoring more runs per game (5.08) than any teams except the Red Sox and Rockies and ranking third in MLB in run differential … well, you know the rest. Based on the metrics the Cardinals should have about 60, 61 wins instead of 54. The Cardinals’ defense, base-running, bullpen problems and home-field struggles have prevented the club from putting together a long stretch of winning. But it still can happen.

What they need at the trade deadline: It’s odd, because there aren’t any massive holes that have to be filled to prevent a disaster, a collapse. Could the Cardinals use more production and consistency in center field? Sure. But at what price? And who would be this magical center fielder? The team’s player-position depth has been a big plus, and the return of Matt Carpenter, Brandon Moss and (to a lesser extent) Jhonny Peralta from the DL should juice the offense. The thin starting-pitching depth is a concern, but the market supply is limited and there are several other teams willing to overpay to fill an urgent need for a starter. Even though the bullpen has improved as of late, the likely focus continues to be on finding relief help. John Mozeliak has surprised us before, but as of now, I think most observers are expecting a roster tweak.

THE METS 

The Overview: After a 21-12 start, the Mets have been ordinary, going 32-35 … there is fraying in the starting rotation, with Matt Harvey (shoulder) lost for the season and Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard pitching with elbow spurs. And the talented Zack Wheeler, who last pitched in 2014, isn’t ready to return from an extensive elbow-surgery rehab… the Mets’ bullpen has good numbers, but it isn’t deep … the season-ending injury loss of David Wright reduced the wattage of the team’s offense; the Mets rank 13th in the NL with an average of 3.71 runs per game. The front office has tried to inflate the offense by adding Jose Reyes, James Loney and Kelly Johnson. But more than anything the Mets could use a resurgence from Michael Conforto and Travis d’Arnaud. The killer stat: the Mets have a horrendous .206 batting average with runners in scoring position.

What they need at the trade deadline: The Mets will be carried by pitching — at least as long as that pitching holds up. They rank third in the NL with an overall ERA of 3.32, are third in the NL with a 3.43 rotation ERA, and are third in the league with 59 quality starts. But this is a fragile staff, and you’d have to think the Mets are trying to add a starting pitcher. If that fails, they have to reinforce the bullpen — which will take on more innings — by acquiring a reliever. But reports always mention the Mets as one of the teams chasing Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

THE PIRATES 

The Overview: The Pirates have been one of the streakiest teams in baseball this season. They’ve worked around some position-player injuries to maintain good offensive production, ranking 5th in the NL with 4.65 runs per game. The Pirates don’t many homers but still have one of the league’s better onbase percentages, and that sets up plenty of run-scoring opportunities. The outfield, as you know, is great. The bullpen isn’t quite as formidable but remains solid. Now, about that starting rotation … yikes. There’s Gerrit Cole, and if you exclude the stats from his 10 starts, the other Pirates starting pitchers have a combined for a 5.17 ERA. The Bucs have turned to esteemed prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow to plug that terrible rotation but problems remain. And Glasnow is on the DL with shoulder discomfort.

What they need at the trade deadline: This is a team that ranks 23rd in the majors in starting-pitching ERA (4.79), and is tied for 21st with only 43 quality starts. The Pirates can’t go on like this. At last year’s deadline GM Neal Huntington made a deal for lefty J.A. Happ, and the trade didn’t get much attention at the time. But Happ was superb down the stretch, and this turned out to be one of the best deadline deals of 2015. Can Huntington find another Happ?

Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, Wild Card Only 

Cardinals,  37.8 percent

Mets,  35.9 percent

Dodgers, 30.9 percent

Miami, 25.5 percent

Pirates,  9.2 percent

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Podcast – What should John Mozeliak approach to the trade deadline be? Covering All The Bases examines