In N.L. Wild-Card Race, Winner and Loser May Be One and Same
By MURRAY CHASS............Published: July 23, 2006
BY staging a four-game winning streak in the last week of September last season, the San Diego Padres saved Major League Baseball from the embarrassment of having a losing team in the playoffs for the first time. This season, baseball again faces the prospect of having a postseason team with a losing record.
This time, it is not a division champion but a wild-card team that could have a losing record. The National League has 10 teams that could be considered wild-card contenders; entering the weekend, seven of them had losing records.
With so many teams vying for the extra playoff spot, they will be playing each other enough that one team has to win those games and improve its won-lost record. If no team dominates those head-to-head games, but instead the teams divide them, the team records could stay level or drop to the losing side.
Who will win the wild card, regardless of won-lost record? Who knows? There are too many possibilities. Even though the Cincinnati Reds have led the race for the past week, the team to watch is the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves are six games under .500 and six games behind the Reds. But with a seven-game winning streak, and winning series against Cincinnati and St. Louis, they have recently played at their season’s best.
The American League, on the other hand, has four wild-card contenders well over .500, with the hottest of them the Minnesota Twins, whose eight-game winning streak ended yesterday. The Twins have slashed the Chicago White Sox’ lead over them from nine and a half games on July 13 to three.
The crowded conditions in the N.L. are affecting the trading market leading to the July 31 nonwaiver trading deadline.
Teams that otherwise may be prepared to trade players, especially those with large salaries, are holding on to them instead, thinking that the players could help them win the wild card. The result is a smaller pool of available players.
“I’ve talked to a number of general managers who have said, ‘We don’t know where we are; we’d like to think we have a chance,’ ” said Doug Melvin, the Milwaukee general manager. “There are a number of clubs that say, ‘We can’t give up too much.’ But by next Sunday, it could change.”
Melvin is, admittedly, one of those general managers. He has a good hitter, Carlos Lee, who can be a free agent after the season, but he doesn’t want to trade him as long as the Brewers (five games behind the Reds) have a chance for the wild card.
“I’ll wait and see with Lee,” he said. “A few clubs have called. I told them it’s a wait-and-see thing, that I hoped we’d play well enough to keep him.”
The Phillies are in a similar position, and this weekend’s series with the Braves could help them decide if they will trade outfielder Bobby Abreu or pitcher Jon Lieber.
The Braves have already decided their direction. They acquired a closer, Bob Wickman, from Cleveland last week.
“I am thinking wild card, but I also know our team is dead set and focused on winning the division,” said General Manager John Schuerholz, whose team has won 14 consecutive division titles. “Everyone in our clubhouse feels that way. It’s a remarkable, focused determination that I’ve seen our team demonstrate.
“If they keep focusing on that, the odds are we’ll get one of them. More likely my goal is more realistic. I’m not saying I don’t want to win the division. I hope we do. But the realist in me says the wild card is more likely.”
Schuerholz said the Braves could compete with any and all of the wild-card contenders. “We were playing horribly,” he said. “Now we’re playing very well.”
While Schuerholz bolstered the Braves’ bullpen by obtaining Wickman, the Reds strengthened theirs in two trades earlier this month, adding closer Eddie Guardado and relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, giving up shortstop Felipe López and right fielder Austin Kearns for the latter two.
“I know I gave up a lot,” said Wayne Krivsky, the Reds’ general manager. “Did I overpay? Time will tell if I did or didn’t. Some people think we did. But we were 9-20 in the last 29 games before the break, and a lot of the losses were attributable to the bullpen in the sixth and seventh inning.
“I knew it would be a controversial trade. The question was, would this trade make us better and give us a better chance to make the postseason? The answer is yes.”
The wild-card race, Krivsky said, is “quite a scramble right now; I’ll be interested in seeing what happens.”
So will Schuerholz.
“I don’t know how you do it,” he said, unaccustomed as he is to wild-card races. “This is going to be a work in progress for me. When I look at the scoreboard with game results and see a team in our division ahead of us playing a team ahead of us in the wild-card standings, I’m not sure who I should root for.”