The National League wild-card race remains wild, with the Mets (83–74) now one-half game ahead of the Giants (82–74) and 1 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals (81–75). While everybody is waiting to see which two teams will survive to face off in the wild-card game, the Cubs may be the most keenly focused; as the league’s No. 1 seed, they're the ones laying in wait for the winner. Who should they want to face in the Division Series?
Whichever team they draw will be at disadvantage regarding its starting pitching. None of these teams boasts the rotation depth of Chicago, which will be able to set its rotation with a top three that includes Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester; Arrieta won last year's NL Cy Young Award and the other two lead the league in ERA with marks of 1.99 and 2.28, respectively.
Here is a best guess as to how the three teams’ rotations line up over the next two weeks, based upon published sources and the assumption that this race will go down to the season’s final day. The number in parentheses is how many days of rest each pitcher would have. (Note: There are no games scheduled for Oct. 3, 4 or 6; the wild-card game is Oct. 5; the NLDS begins on Oct. 7, with a travel day on Oct. 9.)
Tuesday, Sept. 27
Wednesday, Sept. 28
Thursday, Sept. 29
Friday, Sept. 30
Saturday, Oct. 1
Sunday, Oct. 2
Wednesday, Oct. 5
Friday, Oct. 7
Saturday, Oct. 8
Monday, Oct. 10
The starters from this Wednesday and Thursday are the likely candidates to start in any tiebreaker games on Monday, Oct. 3 or—in the event of a three-way tie for the two spots—even Tuesday, Oct. 4. Those pitchers could then return for Division Series Game 2 on four days’ rest, leaving each team’s 1–2 punch most likely locked into their wild-card and Game 3 slots. Of course, if one of these teams socks away a spot before Game 162, they could reset their rotation. For example: The Mets, if they’ve clinched, could have Noah Syndergaard pitch the wild-card game, as he was lined up to do prior to being scratched on Saturday due to a bout of strep throat.
With that, here’s a closer look at the pros and cons of matching up with each team from the Cubs’ point of view.
Possible opponent: Mets
Pros: Thin rotation; weakness against righthanded pitching; revenge for last year’s NLCS defeat
Cons: Strength of overall run prevention; strength of bullpen; advantage in recent series
New York swept the Cubs in last year’s NLCS and beat them in five out of seven games this season, but it’s not a good idea to read too deeply into either of those results. Six of those 11 starts (including three of seven this year) were made by pitchers now unavailable to the Mets due to injuries: Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz.
Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon are lined up to pitch four of New York's final six regular-season games and two of its first three postseason games. Filling in for deGrom and Matz, rookie righties Seth Lugo (2.61 ERA, 4.13 FIP in 58 2/3 IP) and Robert Gsellman (2.56 ERA, 2.83 FIP in 38 2/3 IP) have both far exceeded expectations, holding their own amid the Mets' soft closing schedule.
However, they've combined for just four innings against Chicago this year, all from Lugo, in a pair of scoreless two-inning relief outings. Overall this season, Lugo has given up a lot of hard contact (40.4% of balls in play) with a fairly even ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio (1.13) and a 4.57 xFIP, suggesting that he could be vulnerable to the home run. Gsellman is a sinker-reliant ground-baller who misses more bats (8.1 strikeouts per nine versus Lugo’s 6.6), so he may be the better matchup, but there's no getting around the fact that New York will need both in a best-of-five series.
All four of those likely starters are righties, which works slightly to the Cubs’ disadvantage: While they have the league’s fourth-highest OPS against righties (.761), they have the second-best mark against lefties (.808) en route to the league’s second-highest scoring rate (4.99 runs per game). Another thing working against Chicago here is the relative strength of the Mets’ bullpen, which has the lowest ERA and FIP of the three contenders overall (both 3.58) and has borne far less resemblance to a smoldering tire fire than the other two, with a 3.23 September ERA. That said, New York is the one team here that doesn't have a particularly stifling matchup lefty; their most heavily-used one, Jerry Blevins, has been hit by same-siders at a .257/.309/.327 clip. The Mets do have the best run prevention of the trio overall, ranking third in runs allowed (3.84 per game) and ERA+ (113) even with the limited contributions from their now-injured starters.
New York's offense is the strongest of the three contenders against lefties, with a .752 OPS (seventh in the league), but Lester is the Cubs’ only lefty starter, and the Mets' .721 OPS against righties is the worst of the three, ranked 10th in the league. They also have the worst defense of the three wild-card hopefuls in terms of both defensive efficiency (.678, 12th) and Defensive Runs Saved (-7, eighth).
Possible opponent: Giants
Pros: Most lefty-heavy rotation; Cueto a question mark; struggling bullpen; slumping team
Cons: Deepest rotation if Cueto is healthy
San Francisco had the NL’s best record at the All-Star break (57–33) but has been the league’s worst team since (25–41). The Giants are thus in danger of being the first team in MLB history to finish with that distinction and could become the first team ever to miss the playoffs after a league-best first half. It won't help that Johnny Cueto left his start last Tuesday after 5 1/3 shutout innings due to what was later diagnosed as a Grade 1 strain of his groin. San Francisco scratched him from his scheduled start on Sunday; he’s set to throw a bullpen session on Tuesday and could take the ball as early as Thursday against the Rockies. Even if he’s back, Cueto isn’t likely to start the wild-card game ahead of Madison Bumgarner, but if healthy, he could be available for a tiebreaker game on three days’ rest on Monday.
Samardzija (3.83 ERA, 3.96 FIP) has not been great this year, but he has posted a 2.84 ERA with 0.7 homers and 8.1 strikeouts per nine since the beginning of August. He stands out as the best of the three teams’ potential No. 3 starters, though he’s been roughed up by the Cubs in both 2015 and ’16. On the other hand, lefty Matt Moore (4.34 ERA, 4.40 FIP), who has never faced Chicago, is as much liability as asset against a team that has demolished southpaws. The Giants’ defense is by far the best of the three contenders, with a .703 defensive efficiency (third) and +50 DRS (second), while their offense is the weakest of the three teams against lefties (.709 OPS, 11th) and just ahead of the Mets against righties (.724, ninth).
What’s keeping manager Bruce Bochy awake at nights is his team’s bullpen, which has a league-high 32 blown saves and nine losses in which it has taken a lead into the ninth inning, five of them this month. The unit has the lowest rate of allowing inherited runners to score (22%) but ranks just eighth in ERA (3.69) and sixth in FIP (3.82). Despite the drama, San Francisco has actually prevented runs at a better clip this month (3.50 ERA), and with Javier Lopez, Josh Osich and Will Smith in the bullpen, the Giants don’t lack for matchup lefties; their southpaws have held hitters to a .587 OPS, the league’s third lowest.
Possible opponent: Cardinals
Pros: Rotation and bullpen both messes; satisfaction of beating closest rivals
Cons: Strong against righties
After winning the NL Central in each of the past three seasons, St. Louis finds itself in an unfamiliar spot. On paper (or pixels), the Cardinals have the league’s easiest remaining schedule, with six home games against the Reds and the Pirates. But after being trounced 15-2 by Cincinnati on Monday night, St. Louis has just a 49.6% chance of making the playoffs according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, with New York at 83.3% and San Francisco at 66.8%.
What’s most uncharacteristic about this year's Cardinals is they just aren’t very good at preventing runs, ranking seventh in the league in both runs per game (4.46) and ERA+ (100). Even despite going a respectable 9–10 against the Cubs, St. Louis was cuffed for 4.79 runs per game against its closest rivals and outscored by 21 runs.
Aside from Carlos Martinez and rookie Alex Reyes—who has all of four starts and 40 big league innings under his belt—every candidate to start for the Cardinals the rest of the way has an ERA of 4.57 or above. That 4.57 belongs to Adam Wainwright, who’s having a career-worst season, though his 3.90 FIP at least suggests he’s been a bit better than indicated. Mike Leake (4.72 ERA, 3.91 FIP) has been a disappointment in the first year of a five-year, $80 million deal, and Jaime Garcia (4.67 ERA, 4.48 FIP), Michael Wacha (4.93 ERA, 3.80 FIP) and rookie Luke Weaver (5.70 ERA, 4.32 FIP) were all pummeled so hard by the Reds on Monday night that it’s difficult to imagine manager Mike Matheny having faith in any of them when that rotation spot comes up again on Oct. 1. Wacha, who's made just three appearances since returning from a five-week absence due to shoulder inflammation, isn’t even stretched out to start, though he did take his lumps for 60 pitches in the aforementioned outing. Reyes (1.58 ERA, 2.74 FIP) placed second on Baseball America’s Midseason Top 100 Prospects list, but its asking a lot for the 21-year-old righty to be one of the pitchers who carries the team.
Another issue for the Cardinals is their bullpen. While they've been better off in the ninth inning with Seung-hwan Oh closing instead of Trevor Rosenthal and have a very good matchup lefty in Zack Duke, the unit has a 4.45 ERA and 1.2 homers per nine allowed since the start of August. Defense is not a strength, either. St. Louis ranks 11th in defensive efficiency (.680), offsetting its sixth-ranked DRS (+5); its shortstops and third basemen—mainly Aledmys Diaz, Jhonny Peralta, Jedd Gyoko and Matt Carpenter—have combined for -12 DRS.
The bad news for the Cubs, and good for the Cardinals, is that St. Louis is third overall in scoring (4.75 runs per game), with the league’s second-highest OPS against righties (.773); the Cardinals are ninth in the league against lefties (.733). That said, they were held to a .219/.283/.380 line against Chicago, and the pitcher they had the most success against and saw the most frequently, Jason Hammel (.262/.333/.495 in 114 plate appearances), isn’t likely to start or be a major factor in the series barring injury.
Ultimately, the Cubs will be heavy favorites no matter which opponent they face, and there’s no clear candidate for the most favorable matchup here. But so much of the postseason hinges on the quality of a team’s starting pitching, and from here, the drop from Martinez to the rest of Cardinals’ starters, their shaky bullpen and weak defense may make them the preferred opponent—St. Louis’ strength against righties be damned.