Plenty of storylines have developed coming into this MLB postseason – some even as recently as the Monday after the regular season ends – and that drama is what every sports fan hopes for going into the playoffs.
It’s why we tune in; it’s why we get excited even if our team has been long out of it since the trade deadline; it’s what the MLB hopes for when they expand the playoff field to include an extra Wild Card team, and it’s here.
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What’s even more exciting is that only four of this year’s playoff teams competed for the Commissioner’s Trophy in 2014, and of those four, only the NL teams – Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Los Angeles – reached October in 2013.
The Blue Jays and Rangers went from being cellar-dwellers at the trade deadline, to winning their respective divisions, and Houston – who lost their lead in the West – backed into the final Wild Card spot in game 162.
Put that with Royals, Cubs, Mets and Yankees teams who are all young and looking to reclaim their place as perennial contenders and you have the field for the American and National League pennants.
As the one-game Wild Card round gets set to start in the Bronx on Tuesday night, here’s your favorite team’s best chance to open 2016 as defending champions.
Toronto Blue Jays
Why will Toronto win the World Series? Surprisingly, the answer is not David Price.
In six playoff series, Price is just 1-5 with a 4.50 ERA. However, on the day of the trade deadline, the Jays were in fourth place in the AL East and rallied back to run away with the division. That is the value of David Price.
But now that they are there, it’s Josh Donaldson and the Blue Jays offense that will steal the show this
October. Donaldson – the likely American League MVP – Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are all in the top five RBI leaders, not just in the American League, but in all of baseball. As a team, the Jays outscored any other team in the MLB by more than 120 runs. Add a healthy Troy Tulowitzki and it’s hard to imagine any other franchise hosting the World Series come the end of the month.
Record against AL Field: 24-15 (61.5% WPCT)
Never mind the shortcomings by Houston, the Rangers earned their keep.
Perhaps the acquisition of Cole Hamels at the trade deadline seemed like a move for the future, but it was Hamels who helped the Rangers clinch the division in game 162, defeating Los Angeles 9-2 by pitching a complete game victory.
It’s hard to overlook momentum, but the Rangers will meet up right away with the Blue Jays, who had their own miracle run into the postseason to end the summer, so expect a battle of intangibles. This is a Rangers team with some age, and while they aren’t the same Rangers that reached back-to-back World Series, there is plenty of playoff experience in the bunch.
In fact, the 2015 Rangers are practically an “all-star” squad of late 2000’s postseason teams. Despite a two-year hiatus in Anaheim, Josh Hamilton returns to round out a core of players including Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Mitch Moreland, who helped that Rangers team in 2011 and 2012. Mike Napoli is also a returning member of that group, and he brings with him a ring for his efforts with Boston in 2013. Round that out with Prince Fielder, often on the opposite side of those teams as a Tiger, and Hamels who was the centerpiece of a Phillies title in 2008 and another pennant in 2009, and this is a team that knows postseason baseball.
For as strong as Toronto has been, they can’t match up against the experience and success that the Rangers will bring to the ALDS.
Record against AL Field: 24-15 (61.5% WPCT)
Likely, fans in Houston are hoping September was a wake-up call for their Astros and October will breathe new life into what was otherwise a dominant franchise this season.
Writing this, I fully expect Dallas Keuchel to turn in an ace Tuesday night and bring the Astros past New York. Keuchel has pitched in playoff-type starts for the last month, starting five games in September, four of which were against either the Rangers or Angels – whom the Astros had to outlast down the stretch – and then a final game in October against the Diamondbacks to reach the playoffs. In those starts, Kuechel was 4-2 with a 3.13 ERA.
Looking ahead, these Astros are built similarly to Oakland of the past years, even employing former A’s third baseman Jed Lowrie and pitcher Scott Kazmir. The difference being, while the Athletics were a small-ball team built by sabermetrics, this Houston squad has shown a love for the long ball, driving in a third of its total RBI via home runs this season, second only to Toronto.
The Astros are another team that fits the build of these playoffs: They are young and built beyond this season. Add the key acquisition of Carlos Gomez at the trade deadline to the pop provided by Jose Altuve and Rookie of the Year candidate, Carlos Correa, this is a team that should be producing as they did all year.
Record against AL Field: 18-21 (46.2% WPCT)
Kansas City Royals
The Royals have unfinished business to attend to.
After an inspired postseason run a year ago – the Royals were eager this season to prove that they were never just one-and-done – this team intends to be a regular in October.
To that end, the Royals made moves this season that solidify them as contender, bringing in Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline. Add that to the youthful core of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon and it is clear how the Royals managed to go quietly about their business locking up the AL Central nearly two weeks ago, distancing themselves by 12 games in the division.
The Royals had their challenges this season, but managed to outlast the injury to Gordon earlier this summer. An untimely injury to Jason Vargas makes the acquisition of Cueto that much more important for October, but he has struggled of late.
With a rotation that didn’t blow doors off the way other teams did this season, yet remained competitive, Kansas City will rely on this youth and this run production to make it through October. Though a small-ball team, the Royals .269 team batting average ties that of the Blue Jays, a likely opponent en route to the Fall Classic. In early August, the Royals came up on the wrong side of that preview; it’s up to that core to turn the tide when they meet again.
Record against AL Field: 10-16 (38.5% WPCT)
New York Yankees
To be fair, given the injuries to major contributors like Mark Teixeira and Nathan Eovaldi, as well as the decline of someone like CC Sabathia – who on Monday removed himself willfully from the playoff picture to receive treatment for alcoholism – it’s hard to feel optimistic about the Yankees. Furthermore, the fact they lost control of the East and will now be hosting the one-game Wild Card play-in on Tuesday is an added challenge to an already beleaguered lineup.
But there is hope, now and for a while to come.
Look around the AL playoff picture and between the Blue Jays, Astros and Royals, the Yankees might seem like an old pro. However, while the franchise is the same, the team is different.
This is the new guard.
Didi Gregarious has taken the reigns – the best anyone could try – from Derek Jeter; Greg Bird has shown how close the future can be after the Teixeira era and now is the time for Masahiro Tanaka to assume a role as patriarch in the Yankees rotation.
That’s the key: Tanaka must win the Wild Card and prey on an Astros team that stumbled in the final month of the season. If the Yankees can survive to the ALDS, Joe Girardi has proven as capable a postseason manager as any and over the course of a series, Girardi knows how to make the most of the pieces, and the time, he has.
Even then, He hasn’t had to do much. Between an offense that was second in runs scored amongst all teams and a bullpen that was third in saves in the AL, the decision is going to be how to get the most utility out of starting pitching. Already the move has been made to have Ivan Nova coming from the bullpen, so look for Girardi to rest on Tanaka and Michael Pineda, while Adam Warren will have to be the “next man up” in place of Sabathia.
Should Eovaldi return for the postseason, the duel-threat of he and Nova bridging the gap to Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller will make overcoming early deficits a tall order for Yankee opponents. To repurpose a Yogism: when it comes to this playoff bullpen, “it’s gonna get late early.”
Record against AL Field: 15-24 (38.5% WPCT)
When it comes to the playoffs, I’m a sucker for the “Team of Destiny.” Last year it was the Royals, other years it’s been the Giants or the 2007 Rockies. They don’t always win, and for that matter, I don’t believe that the Cubs fit that mantra, but the Cubs still have this year’s player of Destiny in Cy Young hopeful Jake Arrieta.
The Cubs seemed to build themselves for a Wild Card berth by acquiring Jon Lester, who has been nothing short of automatic in the postseason and a perfect fit for the one-game series, but it’s been Arrieta who has been unhittable down the stretch and gets the ball in the elimination game against the Pirates. Former Cub Girardi and his 2009 Yankees showed that teams can win on the backs of just two dominant starters; the defending-champion Giants practically did it with one, the arm of Madison Bumgarner.
Put all this together with the supporting cast of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and you have the team that curse-breaking GM Theo Epstein spoke of building when he inked his four-year contract through 2016. The Cubs aren’t just here for now, they’re here ahead of schedule.
Record against NL Field: 29-23 (55.8% WPCT)
Las Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are an all-star team. Literally.
Los Angeles sent five of its starters to the Midsummer Classic in Cincinnati this year, including Rookie of the Year hopeful Joc Pederson. And while the Cubs have one Cy Young candidate, the Dodgers have two in Zack Greinke, who started the All-Star Game and perennial candidate Clayton Kershaw.
For the offensive potential the Dodgers have in Adrian Gonzalez, Pederson, and a healthy Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers were middle-of-the pack in run production this year, driving in 667 runs and batting .250 as a team. The talent is there for the Dodgers to put together a firestorm in the postseason, but it’s the pitching that will shoulder the burden this October, specifically Greinke and Kershaw.
While the NL Central will decide one representative for the NLCS, the Dodgers and Mets will showcase likely the most interesting pitching duel of the postseason. Assuming a five-game series, the Dodgers are set to send Greinke and Kershaw to the mound twice apiece with a combined ERA of 1.90 between them. The Mets will match pace in game one with Jacob DeGrom, who posted a 2.54 ERA this year, and Noah Syndergaard in game two, but game three is where things get interesting with eyes on Matt Harvey’s pitch count.
At the end of the day, the top five pitching staffs in the National League make up the field for the NL pennant race and, as a team, the Dodgers are at the bottom of that pack. They need to win each game Greinke and Kershaw pitch, and that will come to run support. Win those, and the Dodgers can win the World Series.
Record against NL Field: 10-17 (37.0% WPCT)
New York Mets
The Mets’ season has been a story of resilience. Sweeping a three-game series against the Nationals to overcome a three-game deficit in the East and never looking back, the Mets seemed all too eager for October to come.
However, while they waited for the rest of the National League to sort itself out, Harvey was put on a pitch count, Steven Matz was scratched with back stiffness – potentially through the NLDS – and Yoenis Cespedes suffered a bruised finger.
Challenging as that all is, the Mets are blessed with a problem that rarely makes it out of spring training: the six-man rotation. Matz and Harvey are merely bookends to a rotation that also includes DeGrom, Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese and Syndergaard. What spelled disaster for the Washington Nationals is what spells resilience for New York: With so many top-of-the-rotation starters, the Mets are nearly “skid-proof;” there is always a stopper.
As for Cespedes, some may point to his acquisition as the turning point of the Mets’ summer, but I would argue it came one day earlier, when the Mets lost a rain-delayed game to San Diego, 8-7. More importantly, this is the last time Juerys Familia has blown a save. Multiple aces at the start of games with Familia to close them out; that depth will propel the Mets in this postseason.
Record against NL Field: 7-20 (25.9% WPCT)
St. Louis Cardinals
With three of its five teams headed to the playoffs, and all of them winning more games than either the East or West champions, the NL Central emerged as the dominant division in baseball this year, and king of them all are the St. Louis Cardinals.
That’s nothing new for the fans in St. Louis, who have seen their Cardinals in the World Series four times in the last 15 years, winning two of them. An MLB-best 100-win season for the Cardinals is nothing more than a means to an end as the Cards find themselves in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
In addition to the culture of winning that has been status quo at Busch Stadium for the last decade plus, what stands out as the playoffs begin is that everyone is back at the right time. As second-half rookie sensation Stephen Piscotty escaped a nasty collision, Adam Wainwright projects to come out of the bullpen behind a starting rotation of Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and John Lackey, all of who started games in the 2013 World Series. Cardinal starters lead the league in wins and ERA this year, and Trevor Rosenthal anchors a bullpen that leads the MLB in saves.
The only injury that remains a question mark is Cardinals leader Yadier Molina. Fans and franchise alike hope that their patience – Molina missed the end of the regular season – will translate to a speedy and full recovery in the playoffs. If that happens, it’s hard argue against the winningest team in baseball.
Record against NL Field: 30-22 (55.7% WPCT)
It’s clear what challenge Arrieta and the Cubs will present at PNC Park Wednesday night, but the Pirates will send their best chance against it to the mound in the form of Gerrit Cole.
Cole, himself a 19-game winner this season, has the chance to direct the fate of the Pirates this year. Should they reach the NLDS in St. Louis, Pittsburgh has shown they can match up against the Cardinals, having just been edged out 10-9 in the season series, but an even 5-5 since the All-Star break.
As a team, the leadership of Andrew McCutchen is undeniable, and the rotation of Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and Cole is formidable, but it’s their bullpen that is unbeatable. Pittsburgh’s bullpen was the best in baseball this season, with a 2.67 ERA and anchored by closer Mark Melancon, who led the MLB in saves with 51.
Assuming the Pirates can outlast the Wild Card round, it is entirely possible the Pirates can make their first genuine run at the NL Pennant in twenty-five years.
Record against NL Field: 28-22 (56.0% WPCT)