Around the Horn: Breaking down the MLB Wild Card games and more

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports /

This week, we’re going around the horn, breaking down the MLB Wild Card games, regular-season award races and a lot more.

Sunday was supposed to be filled with chaos. There was a chance for a four-way tie for the American League wild-card spots. There was a chance for a Game 163 between the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League West.

Instead, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees won the two AL wild-card spots. The Giants blew out the San Diego Padres, winning a franchise-record 107 games, and claiming the NL West. Both outcomes were as expected — each team entered Sunday leading in their respective races — but it set up the playoffs to start with a bang.

Gerrit Cole and the Yankees vs. Nate Eovaldi and the Red Sox. Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals vs. Max Scherzer and the Dodgers. In winner-take-all wild card games? Oh yes.

What do the Red Sox need to win the Wild Card game?

One rival evaluator believes that for the Red Sox to maximize their chance of beating the Yankees, and making a deep postseason run, that they need to start Kyle Schwarber every game.

When the Red Sox acquired Schwarber at the trade deadline, Chaim Bloom admitted it wasn’t a perfect fit. They sought his left-handed power and would try to make it work defensively. But the experiment has largely been a failure as the Red Sox have pieced together a defensive-first lineup and kept one of their best hitters on the bench against left-handed pitching.

Perhaps things changed this weekend, with Schwarber starting each game (one vs. a left-hander) against the Nationals as manager Alex Cora has been “looking for a big swing” for almost the entire second half of the regular season.

So, instead of going with a defensive-first lineup and having four players (Schwarber, Alex Verdugo, JD Martinez and Bobby Dalbec) rotating for three spots, expect more Schwarber going forward. The ankle injury to Martinez could make that easier for Cora to navigate if he is out for the wild card game. But why were the Red Sox prioritizing a slight defensive upgrade when they can dominate opponents with the long ball?

OPS with Red Sox:

Schwarber: .957

Martinez: .867

Dalbec: .792

Verdugo: . 777

vs. LHP:

Schwarber: .268/.389/.398 (.788 OPS).

Verdugo: .228/.269/.286 (.554 OPS).

“You play the player who has produced in playoff games and World Series hero. That’s why you traded for him,” the evaluator said. “He’s seventh in baseball in OPS+ and he’s sitting on the bench every other day.”

What do the Yankees need to win the MLB Wild Card game?

At one point, the Yankees looked primed to lose their grasp on a wild card spot. The Blue Jays were going to win, the Red Sox rallied to tie the Nationals before winning 7-5. The Yankees, meanwhile, were tied 0-0 in the ninth inning with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Instead, the Yankees won 1-0 on an infield single by Aaron Judge, and will play the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Tuesday night. The winner will face the Rays, who won 100 games and had the best record in the AL.

To get there, the Yankees will need to be better on offense. A lot better. Yes, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have been better of late, but the offense ranks 19th in runs scored. They rank 13th with a .729 OPS. They rank 17th in slugging (.407) despite having two of the best home run threats in the heart of their lineup.

The Yankees will have Gerrit Cole, their ace and likely runner-up in the AL Cy Young race, take the mound against the Red Sox. But if they don’t give him any run support, it might not matter.

What do the Dodgers need to win the MLB Wild Card game?

The Los Angeles Dodgers won 106 games, tied for the most in franchise history, and have arguably the best roster in baseball history. Yet they have to win a wild card game to avoid being eliminated — and it comes against the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the hottest teams in baseball.

They will start Adam Wainwright, who has a 3.05 ERA in his age-40 season. The lineup features Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson who have carried the Cardinals the last two months. Their defense has a combined 78 DRS, which ranks second in baseball, according to Fielding Bible.

But the Dodgers will counter with Max Scherzer, who is likely to win the NL Cy Young Award. Their lineup is headlined by three MVP-caliber players — Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Trea Turner — and includes Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, Will Smith, AJ Pollock and Cody Bellinger.

One name not listed is Max Muncy, who injured his left elbow Sunday. He is “very unlikely” to play in the wild card game and, should the Dodgers advance, is unlikely to play in the division series. Replacing Muncy, who played like an MVP candidate, will be matchup-based. Albert Pujols is one option, but he entered Sunday with a .979 OPS against left-handers and a .500 OPS against right-handers. Matt Beaty has hardly played and Cody Bellinger, who is playing through rib fractures, is a valuable defensive option in center field.

The Dodgers have the talent and depth to overcome Muncy’s injury. They will still enter the game as heavy favorites, but a wild-card game can go either way — especially against a surging Cardinals team.

Other MLB notes:

Dodgers infielder Trea Turner should be a much more prominent name in the NL MVP discussion. Just take a look at his numbers this season:

  • .328/.375/.536 with 28 homers and 77 RBI.
  • Leads position players in fWAR (6.8).
  • Leads NL in hits (195) and total bases (319).
  • Won the NL batting title.
  • He’s on a playoff team while the other MVP candidates (Fernando Tatis Jr., Bryce Harper and Juan Soto) are not.

“There’s so much to the profile,” one evaluator said, “that it’s almost like WAR was made to properly analyze him.”

Cole, Eovaldi in 2021:

Eovaldi vs. Yankees in six starts this season: 2-2, 3.71 ERA.

Cole vs. Red Sox in four starts this season: 2-2, 4.91 ERA.

The Red Sox are 6-4 against the Yankees at Fenway Park this season, though the Yankees have won three games in a row.

Dylan Carlson for Rookie of the Year?

Since Aug. 1, Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson is slashing: .298/.359/.503 (132 wRC+, .364 wOBA) with seven home runs, 10 doubles and one triple while being the first rookie in AL and NL history to homer from each side of the plate *twice* in a single season.

Carlson, 22, is unlikely to beat out Cincinnati Reds infielder Jonathan India for the NL Rookie of the Year, but the two have posted nearly identical numbers in almost the same amount of games this season (India: 149, Carlson 148).

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