Only the Mets Decided to Pursue a National League Wild Card
Meet the Mets. They are the Major League baseball team perhaps best suited to win a National League Wild Card. Why did that happen? Teams such as the Phillies and a host of other teams simply did not seriously want to compete a Wild Card.
When it came to the Phillies trade deadline, Phillies fans were warned. It's simply not worth it to try to win.
Phillies president Andy MacPhail told reporters, including Scott Lauber of the Philadelphai Inquirer:
"[It's] hard for us to make the judgment now that we're one trade away from the World Series"... "As a result, you're going to have to be more judicious with your playing talent. It doesn't mean you can't make a different type of deal, doesn't mean you can't make a deal where a component is taking on somebody's salary. But I think you start to be protective of your crown jewels in the system."
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak had similar things to say to NBC Sports Philadelphia.
“I think the big reality that we need to recognize is that we’re 7½ games out of the division race. We’re a half-game out of the wild-card race, which puts us squarely in the mix for the playoffs. But I think when you’re 7½ games behind in your division, that’s going to lend itself to a slightly different approach than when you’re 7½ games up in your division.”
In other words, if there's not a division crown involved, forget trying.
There seems to be the prevailing opinion in the analytics era that winning a Wild Card is not a risk worth taking. Since each Wild Card team could be eliminated in the one-game playoff, there is the chance the season could promptly end and prospects could have been wasted. So the response is to not take chances and make bold moves geared towards the playoffs, but instead conservative ones that might lead to a Wild Card, or might not.
The Phillies made moves approaching the deadline to acquire players that would make any Phillies fan yawn (and not because they are staying up for these West Coast games). Twice-released Drew Smyly. Two Twins castoffs in Blake Parker and Mike Morin. And finally, Jason Vargas, doing their National League East rival a favor by taking him off their hands.
The New York Mets decided to take a chance at a Wild Card. Once thought to be a seller, ditched their number five starter', they cleared space for someone else's number-one starter. The trade for Marcus Stroman not only gave the Mets a fully-formidable rotation for 2019, but helped them extend their playoff hopes into next season.
The Mets could have traded Zach Wheeler for prospects, but they held onto him, even though they could lose him to free agency.
Oft-criticized (including by yours truly) Mets general manager Brody VanWagenen had a thought: let's boost our chances and try to win a Wild Card. That boost has led the Mets go on a tear. The Mets have won six games in a row, and 12 out of 13.
The Mets and Phillies are now tied in the standings.
Looking at the two teams, who has a better shot at a Wild Card? Certainly one would favor the Mets, whose starting rotation contains the aforementioned Wheeler and Stroman, but also Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz. Reliever Seth Lugo has not given up a run since June. Yes, June. That helps make up for the struggles of Edwin Diaz.
The Phillies were not alone in giving up on a season. The Arizona Diamondbacks have been right around the Phillies in terms of the standings. They decided to trade ace starting pitcher Zach Greinke to the Houston Astros. They acquired Mike Leake to replace him in "maybe we'll hang in there" fashion.
The San Francisco Giants traded some pieces, but held onto Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith to "hang in there". The St. Louis Cardinals did nothing.
All of these teams could have pushed for a Wild Card berth but decided not to.
Since the Phillies failed to add pieces to make a Wild Card push, the team has played in a lethargic, disinterested manner. Fans who once felt like the team was trying to win after signing Bryce Harper and trading the organization's best prospect to acquire All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto feel duped.
Fans should feel duped. Had the Phillies taken the approach of the Mets to add an impact piece, the fans might be excited at the prospect of the Wild Card. Instead, they are bitter, angry, and disappointed.