The Pirates have clinched a playoff spot, and with the Cardinals’ loss to the Cubs last night, they’ve also kept a small amount of hope alive that they can win the National League Central (FanGraphs has them with a 25% chance, but my hopes fall much more in line with BP’s ~10% shot). This actually puts the Pirates in a sort of difficult position: they should try to do everything they can to win the NL Central, because the Wild Card Game is a terrifying house of horrors where you can do everything right and an odd gust of wind can end your season, but they also should be trying to do everything in their power to be prepared for the reality that they will probably end up in the Wild Card Game. So how can they Pirates do this?
Let’s start with the Pirates’ rotation for the remainder of the season. As currently constructed, Jeff Locke starts tonight, Edinson Volquez starts tomorrow, Vance Worley starts Friday, Francisco Liriano starts Saturday, and Gerrit Cole starts Sunday. That construction is no good, because it puts the Pirates’ two best starters (Liriano and Cole, and it’s those two by a mile, and I will brook no discussion on Edinson Volquez being in the discussion for a season-on-the-line game when it can obviously be avoided, thank-you-very-much) either completely out of the discussion for Wednesday’s game (which is where Cole would fall) or on short rest (Liriano). The Pirates will adjust this, but let’s talk about three other realities first.
First off, the Giants are staring Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday, or Bruce Bochy should be fired (out of a cannon and into the sun). That’s all there is to it. Second, Johnny Cueto is starting on Sunday for the Reds with a chance to get his 20th win, and he will absolutely make that start and he would beat the Pirates to get that milestone with a Little League team behind him if the Pirates start Brandon Cumpton on Sunday. And third, the Cardinals want to win the division and will probably have to start Adam Wainwright on Saturday to ensure that they are able to do so. He’s scheduled to pitch Sunday, but he could go on Saturday on regular rest and moving him up a day would leave him as an option on three-days rest for the Wild Card Game. My hunch is that if the division is within a game on Saturday, that’s what Mike Matheny will do, though Matheny has surprised me with his thoughtlessness in the past.
Essentially my thinking on this is along these lines: the Pirates should try to win the division, and in failing to do that they should try to earn a tie for the division to get a one-game playoff against the Cardinals on Monday. Winning the division circumvents the Wild Card Game entirely, and getting a one-game playoff doubles their chances of winning a playoff game to get into the full NL playoffs. I think that the best strategy here is for the Pirates to try and win the division and also set themselves up for the Wild Card Game, and then just deal with a divisional playoff game if it happens.
What that would probably mean is this: instead of having Liriano start on Saturday, have him make a piggy-backed start with Brandon Cumpton on Friday. Liriano has to pitch this week if he’s going to start next Wednesday, because having over a week off before the Wild Card Game would be no good. That means he’ll have to go on short rest at some point, and it makes sense to have him make a short start on short rest on Friday, then be back on regular rest for the Wild Card Game. That would leave Cole to start on Sunday against Cueto, and I think he probably should start that game, both because the Pirates will likely need that win for the division or the division tie and because that would leave him lined up for Game 1 of the NLDS on regular rest on Friday. This is important, too, because if the Pirates are in Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday, they’re going to be facing either Stephen Strasburg or Clayton Kershaw and just handing Game 1 away arguably hurt them more than anything else in the whole of the NLDS last year.
Doing this means that in the event of a one-game playoff in Busch Stadium with the National League Central on the line, the Pirates will have to start either a fully-restd Jeff Locke or Edinson Volquez on three day’s rest. That gives me the howling fantods, and if it doesn’t worry you, then it’s probably because you’re giving Edinson Volquez way too much credit for this season (hopefully we’ll talk more about Volquez soon, because that will mean he’s making some kind of playoff start). I think I’m OK with this scenario, though, for a couple of reasons. One is just that I’m not all that convinced the Cardinals are much better than the Pirates, especially without Wainwright on the mound. Locke and Volquez are both at least capable of making big-time starts, even if they shouldn’t be relied upon to do so. That sort of leads right into the second point which is this: a one-game playoff against the Cardinals next Monday would not be a must-win game. In fact, the reward of winning that game is arguably lesser than the reward for losing on Monday and winning on Wednesday (I’m not suggesting the Pirates should avoid winning the division to avoid the Dodgers and I won’t get into Dodgers vs. Nats here; it’s just that seeing Kershaw twice in a short series is more or less a worst-case short-series scenario). Winning the division is important, but once the division gets boiled down to a one-game playoff, that one-game playoff doesn’t become any more or less important than the Wild Card Game itself.
I guess the summary here is that the Pirates should be focused right now on trying to beat the Cardinals and trying to be ready for a Wild Card Game next Wednesday. If a playoff against the Cardinals next Monday falls into their laps, then they should just deal with it the best they can.