Previewing the N.L. Wild Card Game

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The Wild Card, cosmically speaking, is usually thought of as a bonus. A playoff “in” for a plucky underdog club that, while falling short of the division title, has bested enough of its other intraleague competitors to have earned a lottery ticket that could propel them forward into the playoffs proper.

That’s usually the setup anyway. It’s certainly not the case for tonight’s Wild Card Game between the Rockies and the Cubs. Indeed, it feels like a consolation game, and both teams are likely ticked off that they have to play in it even if they’re grateful that they get to.

That’s particularly true for the Cubs who led or were at least tied atop the N.L. Central every single day from July 13 through, roughly, 4PM yesterday afternoon, when the Brewers vanquished them in the tiebreaker game. Heck, Chicago led by as many as five games in September. Their losing out on the division title is not really a “collapse” as we have defined that term of late — ask the 2011 Braves or Red Sox about that — but it’s certainly a deflation. Everyone outside of Milwaukee expected the Cubs to win the division and that they didn’t has to bum them out quite a bit. They were never playing for the Wild Card. For the 2018 Chicago Cubs, the Wild Card is a consolation prize. It’s the baseball equivalent of leaving a game show with a case of Rice-a-Roni instead of the brand new car.

It’s not quite so bad for Colorado, who only stood in first place in the NL West for a smattering of games in May and then shared it off-and-on with the Dodgers in September. Still, they had their destiny in their own hands as late as Saturday, before a bad loss to the Nationals forced yesterday’s tiebreaker. That probably does not sting quite as bad as the Cubs’ non-collapse stings, but the fact is they had to make a cross country flight last night with a bad taste in their mouths. They played in the Wild Card game last year. They lost it. They know how it feels to have to win a one-and-done game to move on and they did not want to be in that position again.

Still, they have to play this game and they have to win it if they wish to delay their offseason by another week or so. Let’s break it down, shall we?

The starting pitchers:

An easy call for Chicago. Jose Quintana got yesterday’s start because of how much rest everyone had (and because he usually owns the Brewers), but Lester has been their ace all year. If the Cubs are in an elimination game, and they are, Lester is who Joe Maddon wants on the bump.

Freeland has never pitched in the postseason and he’s pitching on three days rest, having thrown 96 pitches in the Rockies win over Washington on Friday. Still, he’s coming in hot, having gone 5-0 in September and 9-1 with a 2.41 ERA in 14 starts since the All-Star break. Like Chicago, Colorado has its ace working this evening.

The lineups:

The Rockies had the second best run-scoring offense in the National League this year — and Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are a potent 1-2 punch — but the overall numbers are obviously affected by Coors Field and they are a team that certainly can be pitched to. The Cubs offense was sixth in runs scored, led the league in batting average and was second in OBP, but again, that feels misleading. The Cubs struggled mightily to score runs late in the season and couldn’t muster much at all against Milwaukee yesterday. Each team’s bats can go silent for long stretches.

The bullpens:

The Cubs need Lester to go deep and/or the lineup to put them up big early, because their pen is on fumes right now. Cubs relievers were needed to get 20 outs Sunday and Maddon used six relievers in yesterday’s loss. Losing both of their closers to injury — both Pedro Strop and Brandon Morrow are still on the shelf — has been rough for the Cubs. Look for Maddon to use starting pitchers in relief if this thing is close.

Colorado, meanwhile, has Wade Davis, Adam Ottavino, Scott Oberg and Jake McGee, all of whom are fresher than the Chicago relief corps (Oberg and McGee pitched yesterday, but tossed only eight and fifteen pitches, respectively).

Prediction:

Predictions are kind of meaningless in one-and-done baseball games. Anything can happen. One ball getting lost in the lights or one pitch failing to break as expected can change the whole game. As such, I won’t predict a winner here. I will say, though, that for the Cubs to have their best chance to win, Lester will need to be on top of his game to go deep in this game. For the Rockies to win, they will need, at the very least, a non-disaster start from Freeland and to get into the Cubs’ tired bullpen.

Both of these teams are entering this game grouchy. One of them is gonna be way more grouchy around 11pm Eastern this evening. Tune in to ESPN at 8PM eastern to see how that all plays out.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.