Will the Second Wild Card Hurt the Dodgers More Than It Helps?

If we learned anything from last night’s 2-1 loss to the Giants – other than that Don Mattingly needs to be smacked in the nose with a rolled-up newspaper like a bad dog every time he tries to bunt – it’s that despite all the hysteria over Javy Guerra lately, the bullpen is not this team’s problem. It’s the offense. The Dodgers weren’t facing Matt Cain, or Madison Bumgarner, or Tim Lincecum. They were facing retread Ryan Vogelsong, and the best they could manage was a single run.

This isn’t a surprise, of course. We knew all winter that this team was going to struggle to score runs beyond Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier, and that was without even knowing what a nice find A.J. Ellis would be. But you know, I was okay with that. I’d looked at 2012 as a transitional year, one which would be about treading water while the new ownership group could get situated and begin to right some of the wrongs of the McCourt era next winter. Feeling that the team probably wouldn’t be championship material, I never thought that it made a lot of sense to mortgage the future to try to make a quick impact on a roster that probably didn’t have the horses to get it done.

But now the Dodgers are off to a hot start that will keep them in contention for the division title barring a complete collapse, and even if they do get overtaken by Arizona or someone else for the NL West, the addition this year of a second wild card means that it’s nearly impossible that they won’t be at least on the periphery of a playoff spot. (ESPN currently has them at a 70.7% chance to make the playoffs, one way or another.) I tend to think that getting that second wild card is something of a dummy prize, since all it earns you is one game, but it’s better than not having that game and you know front office types looking to defend their jobs will point to their team “making the playoffs”. For a team like the Dodgers, having that extra avenue to the playoffs is a clear help.

The unintended consequence of that, however, is that the second wild card will keep many more teams thinking they have hope deeper into the summer, to the point where the July 31 trading deadline – always one of my favorite times of the year – could be decimated by a lack of clubs willing to admit they’re out of the race and ready to sell. And while that will affect every contender looking to add, it could be particularly damaging to the Dodgers, who are currently looking at a shocking four starters with an OPS of 76+ or below – Dee Gordon, James Loney, Juan Rivera, & Juan Uribe. Gordon probably won’t be going anywhere, but the struggles of Loney & Uribe have been well-documented; #RBImachine jokes or not, Rivera’s awful .247/.276/.358 line is even worse than I thought it was.

With little hope those three will turn it around and without immediate help coming from the minors – I like to think we’ll see both Scott Van Slyke & Jerry Sands at some point, though neither is likely to be an instant savior – the Dodgers are going to need to look externally to fill those holes. And that’s where the second wild card becomes an impediment; for all of the fan love for David Wright, for example, the Mets are 17-13 and desperately trying to hold on to their dwindling fan base. In the past, they may have thought they had no chance to beat out Philadelphia & Atlanta & Cincinnati & Arizona and whomever else for the lone wild card; now, they’re likely to hold out much longer before admitting they’re out, possibly beyond July.

In fact, there are only a few teams at this ridiculously early date who are clearly falling behind. In the AL, neither Boston nor Anaheim seem likely to be sellers in July; Minnesota, Kansas City, & Seattle might be, but what they have at the 1B/3B/LF vortex of suck the Dodgers have are either not worth pursuing (I’m looking at you, Chone Figgins & Danny Valencia) or not likely to be moved (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon in Kansas City). In the NL, the bottom three teams feature two division rivals in San Diego & Colorado along with the Cubs, who can offer either the bloated corpse of Alfonso Soriano or the potential of overpaying for the hot start of minor league lifer Bryan LaHair.

That’s hardly a complete list, because we don’t know what the standings will be in July; it’d seem likely that teams like Houston, Pittsburgh, & the White Sox could be joining them at the bottom. Still, there’s a reason that teams are willing to sell at the deadline, and that’s because the players they have aren’t winning – I don’t look forward to a potential bidding war over Carlos Lee & Garrett Jones.

The Dodgers are finally owned by a group who seems to have the money to operate them properly. But it takes more than money to see improvement, and between the demand far outweighing supply and the less-than-stacked Dodger minor league system, finding outside reinforcements for a 2012 playoff run may be a tall order.