Which Wild Card team could win it all?

All these teams need is a chance

September 22nd, 2021

With two weeks of the season left, most of the postseason picture has been revealed to us the way a streetside three-card-monte player shows that you've lost yet again. But there is still an all-out battle royale for the Wild Card, with eleven teams all with some kind of claim on the four Wild Card spots. (Sorry, Mets -- FanGraphs may say you still have a 1-in-200 chance of reaching the postseason, but I'm not taking those odds.)

So, while we know that the division winners are the best at playing a six-month schedule, the postseason is a little different. Every pitch matters, every weird bounce can change history and the starting rotation depth which was necessary over the summer is no longer quite so important.

There have been seven World Series-winning Wild Card teams -- a rate of one winning it all about every four years. The Nats were the last to do it in 2019 when they upset the Astros, but just which team is most likely to pull it off this year?

Let's take a look, ranking them from most to least likely. For this exercise, we're not overly concerned with where they are in the standings, but rather how unstoppable they could be once they get to the postseason.

1. Dodgers

Current spot: 1st Wild Card; 1 game behind S.F. in NL West

There's a reason the Dodgers have a roughly 4,000-game lead over the teams hunting for the second Wild Card: They're a terrifying powerhouse that, if you were to simulate the 2021 season 1,000 times, would likely win the division the following 999 times. The rotation is full of Cy Young candidates: Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer share six awards between them and might add a seventh this year, while Walker Buehler and Julio Urías have sub-3.00 ERAs and have combined for 32 wins.

The outfield has former MVP Mookie Betts -- who has the second-best WAR since 2012 behind only Mike Trout. Cody Bellinger may have what can only be called the "hitting oopsies," but he's also a former MVP, who could turn it on at a moment's notice (when healthy). There's Max Muncy and Corey Seager and Will Smith, etc. etc. etc. There's a reason they have the best run differential in the game. They even have the best winning percentage of any team following up a World Series -- and still are somehow not in first place.

2. Blue Jays

Current spot: + 1/2 game for 2nd AL Wild Card

Have you ever tried to escape a James Bondian death trap, something with lasers aimed straight at your solar plexus? Because that's the only metaphor to describe having to pitch to the Blue Jays.

The lineup has Vlad Guerrero Jr. -- who just may win a Triple Crown -- while offseason pickup Marcus Semien has topped 40 home runs and would be in the MVP running if not for his teammate and Shohei Ohtani. That makes them the first team since the 2002 Rangers to have multiple 40-plus home run infielders. There's also Bo Bichette, George Springer, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. -- all dinger bringers, as well -- and they're joined by Teoscar Hernández, who is basically Edwin Encarnacion without the renown (or the parrot).

The team's rotation has also become a strength -- especially in October when they can get by with a combination of Robbie Ray, Hyun Jin Ryu and Trade Deadline acquisition José Berríos. While the bullpen is a concern, the Jays can run up some football scores, making the issue more academic than anything else.

3. Giants

Current spot: First place in NL West, 1 game ahead of Dodgers

Yes, the Giants are in first place, but with such a small lead over the Dodgers, they could slip back into the Wild Card battle easier than the Mets can force their way into the discussion. (Sorry again, Mets fans.)

As for why they're third and not the No. 1 team, well, quite frankly, a part of me still can't believe they're here. Projected to win just 75 games by PECOTA at the start of the year, San Francisco has continued to confound everyone. They lead the National League in home runs, despite Brandon Belt pacing the team with 26 long balls. At the age of 34, Buster Posey has put together his best offensive season since he won the MVP at 25, leading a nation of 30-somethings to ask, "Just what can I do to transport myself back to 25, too?"

Kevin Gausman was the fourth overall pick in 2012 and, after pitching for four teams since 2018, finally became the staff ace that scouts were hoping for a decade ago. Right-hander Logan Webb has nearly matched Gausman's performance despite having a low-90s fastball that is in the bottom fourth percentile in the Majors for spin rate. They're doing it in front of our eyes and still we can't believe what we're seeing.

Lacking a superstar ace to pitch in the Wild Card Game makes us worry, but after the 2010, '12, and '14 World Series championships, you'd think we'd have learned to never count out San Francisco. (Though, to be fair, the Giants did have Madison Bumgarner on hand to shut out the Pirates in the 2014 WC Game.)

4. Padres

Current spot: 5 games back of the NL Wild Card

There are more doomsayers in San Diego than at a 2012 Mayan calendar convention. After a winter of frenzied activity -- acquiring Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish at the top of the list -- and inking the most exciting player in baseball to a 14-year extension, hopes were sky high. This was supposed to be the team that would end the Dodgers' iron grip on the NL West, not the Giants. After staying in the thick of it for the first three months, the team collapsed in the second half, playing 10 games under .500 entering Tuesday's action. With the season on the line, eight of their last 10 games have gone in the L column.

Should the Padres get blistering hot in the next two weeks, they have more than enough talent to run the table. Fernando Tatis Jr. has a chance at a 40-homer, 20-steal season and the NL MVP Award. Add Manny Machado and Jake Cronenworth, and the Padres have one of the best infields in baseball -- even if Tatis is now playing the outfield.

While the starting pitching has been a big concern, with the team having to turn to Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez in recent weeks to stop the bleeding, having Musgrove and Darvish as a front two is plenty threatening. Snell could also return to the roster if the team makes the postseason.

5. Red Sox

Current spot: 6 games back in the AL East, hold first Wild Card by 1 1/2 games

A second-half swoon, a COVID-19 outbreak and the Rays warming up ushered the once-division-leading Sox back into the Wild Card discussion. But they're still plenty dangerous thanks to a 3-4-5 featuring some combination of Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez that is as good as any team in the Majors. The addition of Kyle Schwarber and the emergence of Hunter Renfroe and Bobby Dalbec as contributing pieces makes the lineup about as deep as that of any team. Add the return of Chris Sale to the rotation and they can go toe-to-toe with anyone in a one-game playoff.

The issues for the Red Sox are more apparent in a series. Even though the bullpen has Garrett Whitlock, Adam Ottavino and slider-hurling rookie Tanner Houck on hand, Matt Barnes' 13.50 ERA in August makes the back end a little suspect. This is also a poor defensive team, ranking near the bottom in classic stats like fielding percentage, but also last in outs above average. Boston has already lost key games because of defensive mistakes -- something you cannot do in October.

6. Cardinals

Current spot: +4 games up for the 2nd NL Wild Card

The Cardinals were 8 1/2 games back of the Wild Card on Aug. 10 and had a 1.4 percent chance of going to the postseason. And you can thank the Cardinals' veterans for the team's strong second-half push. Adam Wainwright is 40 years old and is putting up numbers that look like his Cy Young finalist seasons from a decade ago; Paul Goldschmidt is back to hitting dingers and stealing bags; and Jon Lester is reinvigorated with a 2.27 ERA in his last six starts en route to collecting his 200th victory.

Add a breakout season from the heavily biceped Tyler O'Neill, the best team defense in the Majors, and plenty of speed in the lineup, and this team can certainly take advantage of any opportunity left for them.

A few more weeks of this and St. Louis could win the most unlikely World Series since ... they won it all as an 83-win team in 2006.

7. Yankees

Current spot: 1/2 game back for 2nd AL Wild Card

This wasn't the Yankees team anyone was expecting. PECOTA pegged them to run away with the division, and MLB.com experts picked the Yankees to not only win the AL East, but take the pennant, too. With Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton leading the lineup, DJ LeMahieu re-signed to an extension and plenty of powerful complementary pieces, the team was expected to batter the opposition into simply ceding way to the Yankees. That ... hasn't happened.

If anything, the pitching staff behind Gerrit Cole was supposed to be the concern, but instead the team is tied with the Rays for the sixth-best ERA in the Majors. Meanwhile they're 19th in runs scored. The addition of even more Paul Bunyon-esque sluggers at the Trade Deadline hasn't helped either, with Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo scuffling in pinstripes.

The team doesn't currently look like a World Series winner, but as they showed during a 13-game winning streak in August, they can get hot awfully fast.

8. Athletics

Current spot: 3 games back for 2nd AL Wild Card

Just like the hurlers on the "Moneyball" A's, the 2021 starting pitchers in Oakland don't get nearly enough respect. Oakland has the fifth-best ERA in the American League behind Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea and James Kaprielian. It's hardly a name-brand starting rotation, but just like the bagged cereal in the grocery store, it's been just as good. Unfortunately, the offense hasn't been able to carry its weight despite more than 50 home runs combined from Matt Olson and Matt Chapman, with the red-hot Starling Marte joining up at the Trade Deadline.

It's always easier to make decisions in hindsight, but keeping Semien would probably be enough to make up the difference in the race.

9. Phillies

Current spot: 4 1/2 games back of 2nd NL Wild Card

After years of watching players like Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani siphon the headlines, Bryce Harper seemingly decided that was enough. The 2015 MVP Award winner has simply gone supernova, putting up the kind of rarified one-man performance that has dragged his entire team back into the postseason picture. With Zack Wheeler supplanting Aaron Nola as staff ace this season and J.T. Realmuto still one of the best catchers in the game, the Phillies have some incredible star power.

Unfortunately, the team's depth hasn't helped and that's been revealed in their endless hopping back and forth over the .500 line. Andrew McCutchen and Didi Gregorius have both struggled on offense, Rhys Hoskins recently underwent season-ending surgery and the Phillies -- stop me if you've heard this before -- can't seem to put together an effective bullpen.

10. Reds

Current spot: 4 games back of 2nd NL Wild Card

Joey Votto woke up one day and decided that he was just going to start swinging for the fences. Guess what? He did it. Along the way, he, Nick Castellanos, Jesse Winker and rookie Jonathan India proceeded to blast dozens upon dozens of baseballs into the Great American Ball Park seats. Heck, even Eugenio Suarez may reach 30 home runs and post an OPS under .700 -- becoming just the third player in history to pull off such an inglorious feat.

They've even received unexpected ace-like performances from Wade Miley and Tyler Mahle, with Luis Castillo making up for a rough first half by posting a 3.30 ERA in the second. All of that sounds like a postseason team -- one with a long run ahead of it..

Unfortunately, the Reds don't just have a shaky bullpen, they have the fourth-worst in the Majors. The only teams worse than them are the Rockies, D-backs and Orioles -- and the latter two have lost more than 100 games and are battling for the first overall Draft pick. Bet they wish they could take back the Raisel Iglesias trade now.

11. Mariners

Current spot: 3 games back of 2nd AL Wild Card

It's been 20 years since the M's have made the postseason and despite putting together a competitive season while largely missing last year's unanimous Rookie of the Year winner Kyle Lewis, it looks like this will once again not be Seattle's year. Mitch Haniger returned after missing a season-and-a-half to bash a career-best 34 home runs and Kyle Seager is likely bidding adieu to the city with his own 34-dinger season, but the team just doesn't have enough on either side of the ball. They have a .224 team batting average and a -60 run differential (sorry, that should be "fun differential" according to manager Scott Servais).

It was a fun trip and who knows what can happen in the final weeks, but this is not a team built for a title.

Which is probably why they'll be the ones to pull it off.