Thanks to a resurgent start to July, the Pirates have vaulted right back into the heart of the National League Wild Card race. I know that some people still cling valiantly to the idea of the Pirates chasing down the Cubs for the NL Central title, but that’s just not a realistic concept. For purposes of this article, I’m going to size up the competition that the Pirates face to obtain one of the two wild card spots.
In the past ten years, the average number of wins to be assured of a wild card spot has been 89, so you’ll see the record that each team needs to have in order to achieve that hypothetical milestone. Let’s take a look at the teams, starting with the other current division leaders.
CURRENT DIVISION LEADERS
RECORD NEEDED TO REACH 89 WINS (35-37, .486 win%)
NEEDS — The Nationals have a very powerful lineup that is fueled by not only Bryce Harper, but also getting surprise contributions from catcher Wilson Ramos (918 OPS, 13 HR), 2B Daniel Murphy (985 OPS, 17 HR), and SS Danny Espinoza (792 OPS, 18 HR). They do have glaring weaknesses at 1B, where the slow and sad decline of Ryan Zimmerman continues (686 OPS, 78 wRC+) and in CF, where neither Ben Revere nor Michael Taylor have done anything with the bat this year (569, 645 OPS, respectively).
The rotation one through four have been strong and effective, but Gio Gonzalez has had a down year. The Nationals have a ready-made, in-house solution in the form of uber-prospect Lucas Giolito, so they may not be on the hunt for a starter down the stretch. The bullpen is pretty good, with a ton of strikeout artists in it, but could probably use one or two more bullpen arms to get to the fantastically underrated Shawn Kelley and closer Jonathan Papelbon.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
RECORD NEEDED TO REACH 89 WINS (32-40, .444 win%)
NEEDS — In an interesting bit of irony, the Giants also have a need in CF because Denard Span has been very uninspiring (670 OPS) since leaving the Nationals in the offseason (who, as detailed above, have a gaping hole in CF). Second year player, 3B Matt Duffy, has had a down year due to recurring injuries. The rest of the lineup is full of professional hitters, including the criminally underrated Brandon Crawford at SS and perennial MVP-candidate, C Buster Posey.
Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto have formed a potent 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, but (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) Jeff Samardzija has underperformed to his true talent level, especially for the salary he commands. The #4 and 5 spots in the rotation contain the decomposing corpses of Jake Peavy and Matt Cain, so the Giants should definitely be looking to get 1 or 2 starting pitchers. The Giants have a fairly unremarkable bullpen, so they could probably use 1 or 2 relievers, as well.
RECORD NEEDED TO REACH 89 WINS (36-38, .486 win%)
NEEDS — What do you get for the team that has everything? Sure, the Cubs have come back down to the plane of mere mortals, but this lineup and rotation are still fairly well set. The Cubs are going to make the playoffs (97.9% probability by Fangraphs) and they are pretty much a lock to win the division (92.5%).
I’ll keep this one brief. They could probably use a setup man in the bullpen. If he’s left-handed, so much the better. I just described Andrew Miller. The Cubs have a plethora of prospects to deal the re-building (?) Yankees, so this seems like a match destined to happen.
CURRENT WILD CARD LEADERS
RECORD NEEDED TO REACH 89 WINS (38-33, .535 win%)
NEEDS — …and a child shall lead them. The Dodgers’ offense if fairly non-descript this year, aside from rookie phenom, 22-year old SS Corey Seager. Aside from Seager and his 135 wRC+ (35% more offense generated than league average), so other regular is above 115. Yasiel Puig has been in a downturn for two seasons now, culminating in his 93 wRC+ this year. It’s not a very dynamic offense, but due to existing contracts in the infield there’s not a lot of room for upgrades. However, they could definitely use 1 or 2 corner outfielders and there’s no one really blocking that path.
The Dodgers have approximately 10 candidates for their 5-man rotation. The issue is that no more than 4 of them ever seem to be healthy at the same time. With best-pitcher-on-earth Clayton Kershaw’s wonky back acting up, the Dodgers could be circling for 1 or 2 more starters…even after getting 1 or 2 recently and having a wave of them just starting to get healthy, as some guys like rookie phenom Julio Urias needing to be put on inning counts.
RECORD NEEDED TO REACH 89 WINS (42-32, .568 win%)
NEEDS — It sounds weird to say, considering that he commits near-nightly hate crimes on baseballs, but Giancarlo Stanton is having a bad year. He’s not even close to one of the Marlins’ top offensive players, as he’s been pretty much dingerz or bust this year. Youngsters in the OF Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna have had very well-rounded campaigns. 2B Derek Dietrich has filled in admirably during Dee Gordon’s PED suspension and C J.T. Realmuto is quietly having a breakout season. 1B Justin Bour just went down with an ankle injury, but it doesn’t appear to be too long-term. If it is, they may need to find a replacement there. SS Adeiny Hechavarria is a black hole where good offense goes to die at the plate, but he’s here for his defensive chops.
Aside from Jose Fernandez, there’s no one really all that scary in the Marlins’ rotation. There are no teams fretting about having to face Tom Koehler, Adam Conley, Justin Nicolino, or Wei-Yin Chen. The Marlins have been sniffing around young, controllable starters, so it’s no surprise they could and should get 1 or 2 starters. After Carter Capps went out pre-season with Tommy John surgery, the Marlins had to cobble together a bullpen. It’s had mixed results. Again, there’s no one really intimidated by this bullpen, so they be looking to get 1 or 2 back-end types for the bullpen.
NEW YORK METS
RECORD NEEDED TO REACH 89 WINS (42-32, .568 win%)
NEEDS — Last year I said something to the effect that the Mets could use offensive help at virtually every position. They then proceeded to get Yoenis Cespedes and some other veteran stopgaps, turned this season around, and stormed to the World Series. Here we are again and the Mets (aside from OF Yoenis Cespedes, rapidly playing his way to his player opt-out after this season) could use an offensive upgrade at virtually every position. 3B David Wright is probably out for the rest of the year, but they have all sorts of internal options for the infield, in some combination of Asdrubal Cabrera, Jose Reyes, Neil Walker, and Wilmer Flores. 1B Lucas Duda is nursing a bad back and not close to returning, so maybe they look there. They should also be in the market for a corner OF, since youngin’ Michael Conforto has had a sophomore slump this year.
With Matt Harvey’s season-ending surgery and Noah Syndergaard having some arm issues, the Mets should be in the market for 1 or 2 starting pitchers. There aren’t any ace level guys available like the one(s) they lost, but it seems like Rich Hill could be a perfect fit here. The Mets have a solid, if unspectacular, bullpen so I don’t see a pressing need for an addition there.
OTHER WILD CARD TEAMS
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
RECORD NEEDED TO REACH 89 WINS (43-31, .581 win%)
NEEDS — I’m probably just whistling past the graveyard here, but the Cardinals don’t really seem like much of a threat for the playoffs at this point. With Matt Carpenter out for the foreseeable future with an oblique injury, that takes a lot of wind out of the Cardinals sails. They still have a very professional offense left behind, but it’s not one that causes night sweats to opposing pitching coaches. Yes, SS Aledmys Diaz is having a ridiculously good rookie season (to the point they haven’t missed Jhonny Peralta) and OF Stephen Piscotty is an underrated asset, but Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina are shells of their former selves. OF Randall Grichuk and 2B Kolten Wong have greatly underperformed this year as young guys expected to step up. The Cards could probably use a 2B and/or 3B, depending on how they see players like Jedd Gyorko and Greg Garcia moving forward this year.
The only Cardinals starter with an ERA under 4.00 is Carlos Martinez. Adam Wainwright is no longer his Cy Young-caliber self. Mike Leake has been Mike Leake, which isn’t worth his free agent contract. Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia have put together virtually the same seasons, neither of which are spectacular. There’s not really a spot in the rotation to shift one of these guys, mostly for contractual purposes, even though they could use an upgrade. In the bullpen, Trevor Rosenthal has been awful this year, with a stunningly bad 5.40 ERA and a walk rate in the 6’s per 9 innings. Thankfully for them, offseason import Seung Oh can step in to the fray. They still need 2 to 3 bullpen arms, especially with Seth Maness also taking a downturn this year.
RECORD NEEDED TO REACH 89 WINS (43-30, .589 win%)
NEEDS — This team doesn’t need an influx of offensive talent. Rather, it needs two key players to get healthy and put down a semblance of a season that they are capable of — Andrew McCutchen and Francisco Cervelli. Maybe, just maybe, McCutchen is ready to emerge from the doldrums of his 2016 season with the series he put together against the Cubs. Cervelli is resuming baseball activities and would be an incredible upgrade over the Eric Kratz/Eric Fryer/Chris Stewart hydra of sadness the Pirates have had to turn to in his absence.
OK, let’s talk pitching. Yes, the Pirates rotation has resembled the battlefield at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, but what can they really do? Assuming full health (again), the Pirates could have a second half rotation in some order of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Francisco Liriano, and Jeff Locke. That’s relying on two rookies and one Jeff Locke, of course. The Pirates aren’t going to put Liriano in the bullpen if they bring someone in and they’re already actively shopping Jon Niese to try and make rookies for the youngs. If you could tell me that the Pirates get 1 mid-rotation inning eater and figure something out with Liriano/Locke or to help with inning counts on Taillon/Glasnow, I’d be fine with that. I just think that the upside of Taillon/Glasnow is better than finding a Jeremy Hellickson-type of starter that is being bandied about the market. And if you trust the return to form of the Pirates’ bullpen (I do), then there’s really not a need to get an arm for the bullpen, especially with Chad Kuhl able to take over for Jared Hughes, if necessary.
Setting aside the current division leaders, the Pirates need to chase down at least three of the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, and Cardinals for a Wild Card spot. They’re only 1.5 games out of a spot right now, so things are extremely tight. I think the Mets and the Cardinals can both be had due to their current injury situations. I also think that the Marlins don’t have enough in the tank to make it all the way.
So assuming a return to health for the Pirates, I think they will be in the playoffs for the 4th year in a row, albeit in the Wild Card game again.