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Vile Card
2003-08-29 13:25
by Mike Carminati

In the American League, the A's are continuing their tradition as baseball's answer to a Wagnerian opera, passing the Seattle Mariners as if they were standing still even while Oakland lost arguably their best pitcher this year in Mark Mulder. The M's, the first-place A's, and the Red Sox, all with 2 games of each other, are the main candidates for the wild card. The three Central teams are battling for the division crown with the two losers battling only for control of the TV clicker during playoff time.

The NL once had similar battles just two weeks. The Braves and Giants had all but squirreled away their playoff spots, the Central was tight, three-team race, and the wild card was battle bteween two teams, the Phils and Marlins. The Phils had controlled the also-ran spot all season until Florida came on strong after the All-Star game. It looked like the wild card would boil down to the suddenly high-salaried, veteran Phils against the low-salaried, young (except for Jack McKeon) Marlins.

On Sunday, August 17, the Phils had just won five straight, including a three-game sweep of the Cardinals, were heading for Milwaukee to start a 13-game road trip, and led the Marlins by one-half game. No other team was within four games of Philadelphia:

Chicago Cubs6459.5205
Los Angeles6459.5205
St. Louis6460.5165.5

However, things have changed dramatically in the last couple of weeks. The Phillies get swept by the lowly but suddenly hot Brewers, lost two of three in St. Louis, and got pasted by Montreal for a merciless four-game sweep, in which the Expos outscored the Phils 39-17 (or an average game score of 10-4). On August 26, the Phils bullpen relinquished 10 runs in two innings to cough up a 10-4 lead (a game the Phils lead 8-0 in the middle of the fifth inning).

So, the Marlins are now in complete control, right? Uh, no. They have only made up one-half game to tie the Phils. While the Quakers ran off a 1-9 road streak, the Retirees went 1-8.

The wild card lead is now shared among five clubs (well, technically Montreal trails by fractions of winning percentage points) and three other clubs are within a game and a half of the lead:

St. Louis7063.526-
Chicago Cubs6864.5151.5
Los Angeles6864.5151.5

If course, one of the Central teams will have to win the division crown so the wild card is really just a seven-team "race". However, that's still more than half the non-division leaders in the NL.

The AL is the best argument for the wild card possible: there are a couple of very strong teams that may not win their division but could be just as strong as any other team come playoff time.

The NL is the nightmare that all of us wild card detractors have feared all along: a collection of mediocre teams, one of whom is now guaranteed a playoff berth alongside truly dominant teams like the Giants and Braves. Not only that but the NL is assured of two these teams-the wild card and the NL Central winner-of oozing into the postseason. Oh, joy! Short of Larry Bowa going postal, I'm not sure how much excitement this snoozefest will engender.

Consider that nary any of this teams is actually playing well. Despite the Phils/Marlins kamikaze travails of the last two weeks, they both share a piece of the wild card lead. Take a look at the records of the wild card teams since last Sunday:

Since 8/17WLPct
St. Louis63.667
Chicago Cubs45.444
Los Angeles45.444

A .421 winning percentage on average? That's worse that every team in the NL but the Padres for the year. Meanwhile the Brewers won 10 straight.

So leaving aside the ethical dilemma of whether any of, let alone two, of these teams should make the playoffs-they are on a pace to be the worst NL playoff team in a non-strike year since the '73 Mets-, who will go?

Here are their records since the All-Star game, including won-lost record, expected won-lost, ERA, and OPS (On-base Plus Slugging):

Chicago Cubs2116.5681601492017.5333.78.700
Los Angeles1820.4741311351820.4863.19.658
St. Louis2018.5261881881919.5004.80.760

The Phillies finally became the team that everyone expected in 2003, with a powerful offensive and a problematic pitching staff. Houston and Florida should have the best records in the second half. However, the Cubs and the Marlins (despite the 1-8 run) actually have the best records.

What do I think will happen? I expect the Astros to take control of the Central. They have the best team but continue to underwhelm.

The Phils could turn around the current trend and wrest control of the wild card. However, they are just as likely to plummet and take manager Larry Bowa down with them. All of which would not bode well for next season when they move into a new stadium. Though the Phils' brass should last offseason that it is willing to finally open the coffers and get big-name free agents. If they fail to win the wild card, expect Bowa to be fired and the Phils to be very active in the offseason to create some positive PR for next season.

The two Western clubs have been treading water in a sea of mediocrity. I see no reason, and they seem to offer none, why they would take the wild card berth. Their lack of offensive production is a concern. By the same token, the Cardinals lack of pitching is a real concern.

That leaves the Cubs, Expos, and Marlins. Those three have been pretty even since the break-Florida was hotter at the outset and Montreal is hotter now. If I had my druthers, I would love to see the Expos make the playoffs. Something tells me that the Cubs while scrapping for the Central title will take the wild card. They just have that after-school-special feel about them.

Even though the two teams that eke out a playoff berth from this pool will be David-like underdogs. Chances are and history tells us that one or both will advance to at least the NLCS. At least they'll have a better record than the champion Angels, who are sinking into the sunset like their ex-owner at the end of a B movie.

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