By PETE TEAGLE
The Major League Baseball playoffs are already underway as Wild Card teams look to punch their ticket to October baseball. The Blue Jays beat the Orioles in dramatic fashion, with a walk- off home run in the 11th inning propelling them to a matchup with the Texas Rangers. The Mets also face the Giants on Thursday night in a matchup of some of the National League’s best pitching. Before the playoffs get into full swing, let’s take a look at each of the contenders’ biggest strengths and weaknesses, as well as a couple compelling story lines.
Boston Red Sox
Boston had the most dominant offense in baseball for most of the season. The Red Sox lineup finished first in seven major offensive categories, including Team Batting Average and Runs Batted In. Boston's best chance to make a deep playoff run would involve relying on their lineup, which features a mix of young stars Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts along with proven veterans like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. Betts and Pedroia both hit .318 during the regular season and Ortiz led the American League in Runs Batted In with 127, making this offense one to be feared in the postseason.
As impressive as the Boston offense was in 2016, their pitching was equally frustrating. Though the starting rotation seems to be more stable as of late and features two pitchers who ranked in the top five for wins, David Price and Rick Porcello, the bullpen is a huge question mark. Closer Craig Kimbrel’s velocity has dropped off compared to previous seasons and Boston’s pitching staff ranks below seven other wild card or playoff teams in Earned Run Average, not to mention the fact that Boston's bullpen had more losses than wins in the regular season.
Though the Indians’ starting pitching is up in the air headed into their series with Boston, their bullpen may be able to pick up the slack. Cleveland posted the 2nd best bullpen Earned Run Average during the regular season trailing only Baltimore, who is no longer in the playoffs. Closer Andrew Miller possesses a true wipeout slider and a fastball that hangs in the upper 90s, meaning that if the Indians can take leads into late innings they have a chance to silence the Red Sox’ bats.
Weakness- Starting Pitching
The Indians limped into the playoffs when it came to their starting arms. Ace Corey Kluber is due back any day but Cleveland’s three-headed pitching monster looks a lot less intimidating with Carlos Carrasco out for the season with a broken hand and Danny Salazar listed as “out indefinitely” and questionable to return in time for the postseason. Time will tell if Kluber and talented youngster Trevor Bauer can keep games close, especially against Boston’s imposing bats in their first round matchup.
Strength- Run Production
Among playoff teams, only Boston and Chicago drove in more runs than the Texas Rangers. 37-year- old third baseman Adrian Beltre seemed to defy time as he put together an impressive 2016 season, batting .300 while hitting 32 home runs and driving in 104 runs.
Simlarly, up-and- coming talent Rougned Odor hit 33 home runs on his way to leading the team in that category. The Rangers also struck out less than 23 other teams while having five players hit 20 or more home runs, a great combination when it comes to putting up runs. Weakness- Competition
The Rangers have a talented offense and arguably two ace pitchers in Yu Darvish and Cole Hammels, but their path to the World Series is incredibly difficult. They will face the Blue Jays in the first round, a team that can match them offensively. After that, they would presumably face Boston, barring an Indians upset. This series could come down to the final game, as Boston and Texas both won three games out of their six meetings this regular season. Run production in those games was close as well, 38 for Boston, 41 for Texas.
Toronto Blue Jays
Strength- Longball Offense
Toronto hit the most home runs of any remaining playoff team. They also finished in the top ten in Runs Batted In. Their offense has been impressive most of the year and if that trend continues, “the 6” may be able to ride the long ball to postseason success.
Though the Blue Jays have been trending upward since 2015, they still lack the playoff experience that many of the other teams bring to the table. Their closer, Roberto Osuna, is only 21 years old and blew several consecutive saves to finish the regular season. Though they were able to win against the Orioles with an 11th inning walk-off in the Wild Card round, that is not a sustainable path to a title, especially if your closer has not been finishing games.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Strength- Pitching Staff
The Dodgers had one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball this season, finishing 5th in Earned Run Average, 1st in Strikeouts, and 2nd in opponent On Base Percentage. They also have the benefit of starting arguable the best pitcher in the game, Clayton Kershaw. Though Kershaw was pedestrian last playoffs, it is still difficult to bet against one of the best arms in the game.
Weakness- Getting on Base
The Dodgers’ lineup was 22nd in Batting Average, 18th in On Base Percentage, and was 26th in Stolen Base Percentage. Los Angeles definitely has the talent to make a playoff run, but if they cannot get or keep runners on base they will not go very far.
Strength- Keeping Opponents Off Base
The Nationals pitching staff excelled at keeping runners off base in 2016. Behind the arms of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and closer Mark Melancon, the Nats finished second in strikeouts, third in opponent On Base Percentage, and allowed the third fewest hits. Though Strasbourg is questionable to return and may not play until the National League Championship Series, the Nationals’ pitching staff looks solid. As John Madden once said, “You can’t win if you can’t score”, and the Nationals allowed fewer baserunners and fewer runs than almost any other team in baseball. If the Nationals can continue this trend in the postseason they can make a deep playoff run.
Weakness- Getting on Base
Interestingly enough, while they excelled at keeping opponents off base, the Nationals were mediocre when it came to generating baserunners. They ranked below almost most other playoff team in Batting Average and On Base Percentage.
The Cubs are one of the finest collections of talent in recent memory. Their lineup has been jokingly called a “beer league softball lineup” by ESPN for their ability to generate home runs from seemingly any spot in the lineup. Jake Arrietta and Jon Lester are a fearsome one- two punch at the top of the rotation and recently acquired closer Aroldis Chapman holds the world record for fastest pitch ever thrown at 105 mph. The team is skippered by Joe Madden, a playoff veteran himself from his time with the Tampa Bay Rays. Throw in the fact that the Cubs had the best record in baseball and everything seems to point to a World Series appearance.
The Cubs are carrying the hopes of a city that has not seen a World Series title in over a century and their task has not been made any easier by sports pundits predicting a deep playoff run since before the season even started. Even though luck is not a quantifiable statistic, the Cubs historically have caught about as many lucky breaks as Steve Bartman has caught foul balls. If the Cubs are eliminated this postseason, look for it to be because they lost, not because their opponent won.
In addition, there are several story lines that are worth keeping an eye on. Boston looks to win their 4th World Series since 2004 in David Ortiz’ last season with the Red Sox. In the Windy City, General Manager Theo Epstein of the Cubs has constructed a potential dynasty in Chicago. If Epstein could bring a title to Chicago he would have ended the two longest World Series droughts in MLB history (Boston in 2004 being the other) and could go down as one of the greatest GM’s in Major League Baseball history. Lastly, in a year that has seen the Cleveland Cavaliers return from a 3-0 deficit to win a championship over the odds-on favorite, can the Cleveland Indians continue the magic and overcome injuries to bring the city and its loyal fans another title.
The first round of the MLB playoffs begins on Thursday, with the Blue Jays taking on the Rangers at 4:38 p.m. and the Red Sox facing the Indians at 8:08 p.m. Both games will appear on TBS, or channel 18 for all of you with university cable.