If you’re anything like me, you primarily watch Cardinals games, and pretty much ignore the rest of baseball. It’s not a matter of me not liking baseball, it’s time management. I already spend about 3-4 hours a day watching baseball, I simply do not have the will or ability to watch even more than that. Thus, I end up seeing non-NL Central teams only when they face the Cardinals and the majority of the American League even less.
However, clearly there are going to be no other baseball options on Tuesday and Wednesday. So, again like me, you’ll probably tune into these games. In the case of the Milwaukee Brewers-Washington Nationals matchup, you probably have a good sense of what both teams are and will probably need no update on them. In the case of the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics, you might not be able to name five players on either team. (I only can because of fantasy baseball, so no judgements from me). So think of this as a guide for watching the one game, do-or-die Wild Card round on what to expect from both matchups.
There is little doubt most reading this are extremely familiar with this team, but it would be weird to have a Wild Card preview and just ignore one of the teams. The Brewers spent most of the season in third place, but a ridiculous September run, during which NL MVP candidate Christian Yelich suffered a season-ending injury, catapulted them to a potential NL Central division win. Thus, it was not to be, as they ran out of steam at Coors Field, finishing 2nd in the NL Central, cementing them as the second wild card team.
The Brewers biggest strength, easily, is their outfield. Except not right now. Yelich is out and Lorenzo Cain isn’t a sure thing to play on Tuesday right now. Their second best player is Yasmani Grandal, definitely the most underrated player in baseball, so it’s safe to say catcher is a huge strength. I think it’s fair to say manager is a strength as well, as he has the good sense to take his starter out early and rely on his bullpen. In a close game, that will matter.
Their rotation is a weakness, but that doesn’t matter at all for a Wild Card game. The starter, Brandon Woodruff, is having a fantastic season. He’s under the radar, because he only made 22 starts, but don’t write him off on Tuesday. They also have probably the most glaring hole of any team in the playoffs at shortstop, with Orlando Arcia having back-to-back negative fWAR seasons. They also have a fairly weak bench: Tyler Austin, Hernan Perez, Corey Spangenberg, Tyrone Taylor, Ben Gamel - You don’t expect your bench to be good, but this is pretty bad.
Besides Yelich, Grandal, and the awful play of Arcia, the rest of the team is good, but not great. Eric Thames is average. Mike Moustakas kills the Cards, but against everyone else, he’s merely above average. With a .402 BABIP to start his career, I’m uncomfortable calling Keston Hiura great yet. Trent Grisham looks like a solid 4th OFer. Lorenzo Cain nearly put together an average season. There’s not really even anything that great about the bullpen. Except Josh Hader, but even he gave up a shocking 15 home runs in 75.2 IP, which is probably the most I’ve ever seen from a great reliever (who was still great).
Remember when the Nationals were hovering around .500 for the first two months and people speculated that Max Scherzer might be available? Yeah that changed. Unfortunately for them, the Atlanta Braves got off to a hot start and never really looked back. They finished 2019 with an 8-game winning streak and 93 wins.
Rotation. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Anibal Sanchez. Scherzer is the only one that matters, but you can’t get much better of a one-game starter than him. Good strength to have in the playoffs! They don’t lack for star power with the bats either. Anthony Rendon is a MVP candidate. Juan Soto did not have a sophomore slump and virtually repeated his great rookie campaign. There’s also Trea Turner.
Like every Nationals team, the bullpen. They are second to last in ERA with a 5.68 ERA. They are a little better by FIP, placing 22nd in the majors. But still that’s definitely a weakness. You hope Scherzer can go 9 and I wouldn’t put it past him honestly. Throughout the season, 1B was a weakness. Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman were replacement level in over 500 PAs. Howie Kendrick, though, will probably start at 1B on Tuesday and he inexplicably has a 146 wRC+ this year.
Rounding out the outfield is Adam Eaton and Victor Robles, two above average outfield options. Brian Dozier or Asdrubal Cabrera is likely to take 2B, both of whom are solid options. At catcher, Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki split time and neither are all that remarkable. Not exactly a weakness, but below average. Outside of whoever doesn’t start between Cabrera and Dozier, the rest of the bench is extremely weak: Michael Taylor, Andrew Stevenson, Matt Adams, Gerardo Parra, Ryan Zimmerman.
They’re in the wrong division. They were a full ten games back of the Houston Astros to end the year, which is only remarkable because the Athletics won 97 games. They started the season slow, with a 36-35 record as late as June 14. Obviously they had a pretty good second half.
The entire left side of the infield. Marcus Semien and Matt Chapman combine for 13.2 fWAR this year. Semien took to the ball change better than probably everyone else, hitting 33 HRs with a 13.7 K% somehow. Chapman meanwhile hit 36 HRs and has maybe the best 3B defense in the majors (yes better than Arenado). Matt Olson also hit 36 HRs, so you could say they have a pretty good infield. In the OF, Ramon Laureano and Mark Canha give the Athletics five hitters with at least a 125 wRC+, which is, uh, better than anyone on the Cards. Yes, five of them. They also have an otherworldly closer in Liam Hendriks, who has a 3.8 fWAR season entirely in the bullpen.
Considering Sean Manaea is projected to be the starting pitcher for the Wild Card game, and he is in competition with Mike Fiers, starting pitching. Manaea has all of five starts this year in the majors. Frankie Montas has 3 fWAR and was suspended for 80 games, so he seems good. This is a shockingly underwhelming starting rotation. They have a pretty weak bottom of the order: Khris Davis had a 79 wRC+ as the DH, Robbie Grossman had an 87 wRC+ on the year, Jurickson Profar had a 91 wRC+. The NBC projects Sean Murphy as the starting catcher, and he appeared in 20 (very good) games. If not him, Josh Phegley had an 84 wRC+.
Again, not a great bench. I’m not entirely sure if Stephen Piscotty will make the roster (the NBC site seems to think not), but he only had a 93 wRC+. Chad Pinder was well below average. A 27-year-old OF with 83 career PAs of 120 wRC+ (Seth Brown) might make it, but I don’t see a reason to think he’s for real. Franklin Barreto was atrocious in his limited time in the majors.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are the second wild card team and it’s here where I wonder if perhaps, the win totals of the AL teams are inflated by all the bad teams. There is exactly one team in the AL who had between 80 and 90 wins. There were six teams with 90+ wins and seven teams with at least 89 losses. The Rays got to face a 100 loss team and a 95 loss team in their own division, and went 25-13 against them. Outside of them, they faced three other teams with 100 losses, and went 12-5 against them. Anyway, the Rays got off to a 19-9 start, and pretty much were good all year.
For the purposes of a one-game playoff, the Rays have a hell of a #1 starter. Charlie Morton, who I really, really wished the Cards had signed, had a 6.1 fWAR season and made 33 starts. They also received above average performance from Ryan Yarborough, Tyler Glasnow, and Blake Snell in more limited times in the latter two cases. So good at starter. They also have four relievers with 1+ fWAR, so pretty good at bullpen too. Batting-wise, the only three real standouts are Austin Meadows, Brandon Lowe and, um, Tommy Pham.
Not much of one as far I can tell. Mike Zunino split playing time with Travis d’Arnaud at catcher, but I have to imagine d’Arnaud is starting the Wild Card game. Zunino was awful enough catcher was a weakness as a whole, but unlikely to be one on Wednesday. The Rays don’t have a lot of standouts in their lineup, but they also don’t really have many black holes. Kevin Kiermaier is the worst hitter, but his defense makes up for it a bit. He might be a weakness, as weird as that is to say, given he used to be a 4 WAR player.
The Rays have about three 1B/DH types who will probably make the roster: Ji-Man Choi (121 wRC+), Jesus Aguilar (104 with the Rays), and Nate Lowe (108 wRC+). Avisail Garcia and Yandy Diaz won’t add much with their defense but were well above average with the bat. Willy Adames was a slightly below average hitter with great defense at SS (2.9 fWAR) . And the bench is probably rounded out with Joey Wendle and/or Daniel Robertson, both of whom had massively disappointing seasons.
There you have it. My personal picks are going to have to be the teams with the best starters, so I’m going with the Rays and Nationals. Obviously, the Nats have a bit more going on than just Scherzer so the Brewers would be the upset pick, but I think their run is done. As far as the AL, Morton and the Rays bullpen seems strong enough to shut down an Athletics offense that seems a little too top heavy to me. Then again, if one of the weaker members of the lineup has a good game, seems hard to beat them. But I’m sticking with the Rays.