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September 25, 2023

Which team is the Phillies' ideal Wild Card opponent?

Between the Diamondbacks, Cubs, Marlins, and Reds, who should the Phillies want to see first in the postseason?

It is always advantageous to be able to cruise into the postseason with a handful of stress-free games you can use as a tune-up. The Phillies hope that in the next week or so they can give themselves that opportunity by wrapping up the top National League Wild Card slot, which will give them home-field advantage in all three games of the Wild Card Series.

It is a near statistical certainty at this point that the Phillies will play October baseball as one of the National League’s Wild Card teams. That much seems easy to predict.

But if they go on to clinch the top spot in the race, Philly will host a three-game set from October 3-6 (if necessary) against one of these four teams: The Cubs, Reds, Diamondbacks or Marlins – each of which are currently vying for the remaining two open Wild Card slots.

When looking at the four teams, the obvious question is: which teams do the Phillies want to avoid? 

Here's our ranking, from least to most favorable:

No. 4: Arizona Diamondbacks

vs. PhilliesHROPSERA
3-4163 (22nd).736 (17th)4.53 (20th)

Arizona is surging of late, including an impressive three-game sweep against Chicago. While their lead is small, they currently hold the second Wild Card position, meaning if the season ended today, they would head to Philadelphia for the three-game series.

The Diamondbacks have some similarities to the other teams on the list. They show an aggressive mindset on the base paths which resembles that of the Reds. They hit for average nearly as well as the Marlins. It is a team also led by mostly young talent, most notably the All-Star outfielder and presumptive National League Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll.

One aspect of the Diamondbacks that could be a factor in how the Phillies construct their lineup is that their entire starting rotation is made up of right-handers. That means the Phillies can stick with what appears to be their strongest lineup, which includes Brandon Marsh in left field and Johan Rojas in center field. Cristian Pache and Edmundo Sosa would only be pinch-hitters against a left-handed reliever or defensive replacements late in games. Pache and Sosa have intriguing skills and have hit lefties well for notable portions of the season, but the Phillies are at their best when they have Rojas and Marsh roaming the outfield as two high-level defensive players and providing plate discipline and speed at the bottom of the order.

The Diamondbacks also have firepower at the top of their rotation, though — it is righty-heavy, but it is also very good. Zac Gallen is a true ace, with the 34-year-old late bloomer Merrill Kelly right behind him having perhaps the best season of his career.

The Phillies are a better baseball team than the Diamondbacks. But as the Phillies know from experience, frontline starting pitching is often the swing factor within a short playoff series. Arizona is the Phillies’ only potential Wild Card adversary with a real chance to match their 1-2 punch of Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler blow for blow.

No. 3: Chicago Cubs

vs. PhilliesHROPSERA
1-5189 (14th).753 (8th)
4.06 (14th)

The Cubs are struggling — they lost six of their last eight games. Their playoff positioning isn't even a lock after a three-game sweep to the lowly Colorado Rockies

The Cubs’ best hitter this season has been Cody Bellinger, who has made the most out of his second chance at stardom before he becomes a free agent this offseason. Beyond Bellinger, it’s fair to say the Cubs lack bonafide star power on their roster, but their lineup has tremendous depth.

In fact, nine Cubs position players who have seen consistent playing time have been better than average at the plate this season. Free agent acquisition Dansby Swanson has given them two-way stability at shortstop while Nico Hoerner combines good on-base skills with elite base-stealing numbers.

On the mound, left-hander Justin Steele has experienced a sudden rise into ace status during a career season. Marcus Stroman recently returned from injury after a lights-out first half, though his role for the remainder of the season remains uncertain. Kyle Hendricks, 33, continues to chug along and retire batters, but his declining stuff may not play well against a lineup with as much power as the Phillies’ order has.

The Cubs are likely a bit ahead of schedule right now, and the fact that they are even in this race — let alone a formidable opponent — is a testament to a job well done by their organization at all levels. 

No. 2: Miami Marlins

vs. PhilliesHROPSERA
7-6163 (22nd).723 (19th)4.24 (16th)

The Marlins have been an infamous thorn in the Phillies’ side on many occasions in recent years. And while baseball is not played on paper, the Phillies simply have much more talent than Miami, whose 81-75 record is not backed up by their run differential of -51. They have also won a tremendous amount of close games this season. Like the Reds, this may indicate their win-loss record may be a bit flukey — though both teams deserve credit for being able to take home so many close wins.

The Marlins may enter the postseason without reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara, who reported arm discomfort after his first rehab start following a UCL injury. Alcantara has not been his dazzling self for much of the 2023 campaign, but in a three-game series, the Phillies would not want to face such an accomplished starting pitcher.

The Marlins can hit for contact — led by presumptive National League batting champion Luis Arráez. However, they are last in the National League in runs scored by a noteworthy margin. They lack consistent pop out of their lineup aside from Jorge Soler, who has hit very well against the Phillies.

The Marlins are roughly in the middle of the pack in the vast majority of pitching statistics, but they sport a few impressive bullpen pieces, including multiple viable left-handed arms in Tanner Scott and Andrew Nardi. Each can be used late in games against Phillies lefties — whether they enter games in an attempt to challenge hitters like Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber, or to force a weaker pinch-hitter to replace Marsh, who has excelled versus right-handed pitching but struggled against southpaws.

No. 1: Cincinnati Reds

vs. PhilliesHROPSERA
3-4184 (15th).738 (16th)4.78 (25th)

The Reds, 80-77, took the baseball world by storm over the summer with a youth resurgence. Led by rookies like Spencer Steer, Matt McLain and Elly De La Cruz, one of the youngest teams in all of baseball is looking for just its franchise's second playoff berth in the last decade.

Cincinnati’s team has a dynamic approach on the base paths: they have a massive lead among all MLB teams in both stolen bases and stolen base attempts. The Phillies have struggled quite a bit to hold runners on base, particularly closer Craig Kimbrel and Nola. On top of their ability to hit, the Reds’ speed and aggressiveness as base-runners would introduce a tricky element into the series for the Phillies.

There is no doubt the Reds can score runs. But whether or not they can prevent them is a different story. They are in the bottom five in the National League in ERA, WHIP and batting average allowed, as well as total earned runs, home runs and hits. Their staff has also walked more batters than any other National League club in 2023, and their K/BB ratio is in the bottom five in all of baseball.

There is no doubt the Reds have some exciting firepower in their lineup. But they also have a -48 run differential, indicating that their record may not exactly reflect the ability of the team thanks to a massive collection of one-run victories. While they should be a staple in the National League playoff picture for years to come thanks to their young core, they need to bolster their pitching to become a more serious threat.

MORE: What should the Phillies' postseason outfield be?

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