It's nice to finally be invited to the dance.
It's one of my favourite times of the year. Like March Madness but with baseball, and like a hundred fewer teams. Lets take a look at what we might be in for...
AL Wildcard Game -- Yankees versus Astros
New York Yankees
Ugh. Don't let some tell you otherwise, they're a good team. A lot better than you want to believe. That bullpen terrifies the heck out of me in a short series with multiple off-days, Dioner Navarro heroics or no. And they hit lots of home runs, which again in a tight ballgame: trouble. But they gotta win one game or it's all over, and I'd be worried about the 1962 Mets in a one game take all (though mostly for the risk of obscene embarrassment).
Eeph Factor (like an X-Factor, but cooler. Tell your friends): Carlos Beltran. Look up his career playoff numbers, then look them up again. Okay,.. one more time. Yarp. We're at the point where you could make a HoF case for Beltran and I think those playoff numbers have to be considered. It's why David Ortiz probably makes it even if he finished around 460 home runs instead of 500ish.
What a weird team. They hit tons of home runs, but strike out a bazillion times. Which I guess isn't that weird. They were awful for years and years and now have perhaps the most exciting young shortstop to come along in decades. Again, probably not that weird. I dunno, there's just something weird about the makeup of this squad. Let's call it the Rasmus Effect, since this team seems full of similar hitters. Also, I still like Colby Rasmus.
Anyway, Houston has had excellent pitching all season, by both bullpen (which should serve them well in a one-off versus New York) and starters. Their starting pitching is deep enough that it's difficult to decide who you'd want to go after Keuchel. Scott Kazmir is the big trade deadline addition, Lance McCullers Jr. is the hotshot arm with strikeouts galore, Mike Fiers has been very good and threw a no hitter, and that would be a pretty solid 2-3-4. Oh, and they have a 19 game winner lying around in Colin McHugh. There's a lot of youth (position players especially) which could be a concern against the Yankees (they're very good at creating concerns), but having a lefty arm like Keuchel go up against a lefty heavy lineup (Ellsbury, McCann, Gregorious, Bird) probably gives the Astros their best chance. We'll see.
Eeph Factor: That stupid hill in centerfield. I just imagine somebody like Lorenzo Cain about to make a game saving Willie Mays-esque catch when that sudden incline ruins his route, giving Evan Gattis an inside-the-park home run or something. It'd be Gattis and you know it.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals are guaranteed a free pass to the LDS, unlike last year when they had to rely on multiple miracles to win the wildcard game over Oakland. This is a good team, but there are some concerns. First is the starting rotation. Their two best starters all season have been Edison Volquez and Chris Young (the pitcher, not the lefty mashing Yankee outfielder), which makes you feel like we're in the 2009 NL West or something. Volquez has had some issues in the postseason: in the 2010 NLDS he started Game One for the Reds and Philadelphia knocked him out of the game in the second inning. (Not that it mattered, since the Phillies hurler that night was a pitching cyborg incapable of allowing base hits of any kind. There's a good trivia question FYI). Edison got a second chance last year with the Pirates to start the wildcard game, and while this time he was at least able to get through five (allowing five) he had the misfortune of matching up against one Madison Kyle Bumgarner, who like that Phillies cyborg was destined for some bigger history. Volquez is likely playing a big role in anything the Royals are trying to do in October, and it'll be interesting to see if he was just one of "wrong place, wrong time" guys, or if it's something more problematic.
Young has likewise had a strange career: he came up with the Texas Rangers in 2004 and pitched there for two seasons until he was a part of the heist (I mean trade!) that gave the San Diego Padres Adrian Gonzalez and Young for Adam Eaton (the pitcher, not the scrappy White Sox outfielder). Young was excellent as a Padre for a few seasons, particularly at preventing hits despite a below average fastball speed, until shoulder problems crashed his career into a wall. He bounced around, getting opportunities with the Mets and Nationals until finally sticking with Seattle in 2014 and staying healthy enough to make 29 good starts for the Mariners. The Royals picked him up for under a million and he's been switched between the rotation and bullpen much of the season, despite his 17 starts with a justifiable 3.30 ERA. His face while throwing a pitch is my Eeph Factor for the entire playoffs: he looks like an enraged turtle politely holding his tongue. Seriously look it up, it gives Dickey Face a run for it's money.
Yordano Ventura and Johnny Cueto are also surely penciled in for postseason starts, so we're likely to see some shenanigans or some... shimmying... from that. Meanwhile the KC bullpen, a Kevin Pillar of strength a year ago, is suddenly questionable. Greg Holland had been human all season, thanks to a serious drop in fastball velocity, before succumbing to the dreaded visit to Dr. James Andrews. Wade Davis (A.K.A the Best Reliever in Baseball) has filled in excellently as the Royals 9th inning stopper, but that same invincibility of depth we saw during their run last October isn't quite the same. Kelvin Herrera is still pretty good and Ryan Madson has emerged from Frankenstein's garage sale, but the possibility of scoring a run off these relief guys seems possible this time. At least, before the ninth inning.
This is still a really good team. Their bats are superb at making contact, which I wrote about earlier in a Game of the Month article (remember those?) and are diverse enough lefty-righty to make a Matchup Manager have headaches all through the winter. If the Royals go up against Joe Girardi, these games might never end. Just imagine an extra inning playoff game between the Royals and Yankees. You'll be pleading for the cold kiss of death!
It's been quite a ride for these Rangers. Some people (me!) predicted that everything would have to go right for this squad to compete in 2015, and by early May it looked like the exact opposite was happening. They were 8-16 through 24 games, Adrian Beltre had an OPS of .599, the expensive Shin Soo Choo was batting .141, and Pain Ann Misery was spotted setting up camp outside the Arlington ballpark. Then in late May, they quickly turned it around. They won seven in a row and twenty-one of twenty-eight, sitting at 37-31 and just two and a half back of first place Houston. Almost immediately, their fortunes twisted back the other way. The Rangers suffered a six game losing streak and another fiver within three weeks of each other, limping into the all-star break three games under .500. On July 28th after losing 21-5 to the Yankees, Texas was 47-52, eight games behind the pace in the NL West. In other words, a perfect time to trade young players for an expensive pitching ace, am I right? Cole Hamels was brought aboard and the pendulum of the 2015 Texas Rangers once again swung back. They're 41-22 since the trade and steadily overtook the plateauing Astros to snatch away the AL West crown.
One glance at the Texas rotation and it's hard not to raise an eyebrow. Hamels has been very good (7-1, 3.66 in 11 starts) and Colby Lewis is back from the dead (um, again) but the rest of the staff is full of hittable (+9.0 H/9) non control artists (+3.0 BB/9) who mostly have ERAs under four somehow. Pendulums, I guess.
There's enough top heavy offensive power (Fielder, Choo, Beltre, Odor and Moreland), top rotation material (Hamels, Lewis), bullpen-ish-ness and modest depth to take them seriously as a postseason threat, especially in a short five game series. You'd think a team with left-handed starting pitching would be favorable against these guys, since most of their best bats are left-handed, but their L/R splits for the season are fairly even (.734 versus .738). The worthwhile split here is Home/Away, where the Rangers lose 90 points of OPS when they leave Arlington (.782 versus .692, or the difference between Justin Smoak and Dioner Navarro in 2015). They certainly don't look like the best team kicking about the American League, but October has made legends of squads less impressive than this.
Eeph Factor: It's gonna be someone nobody expects, and everyone on this site will hate him forever no matter what happens in the series. It's what playoff baseball is all about. My pick is Rough Ned.
Toronto Blue Jays
Part of me worries that we've built them up just a bit too much. That in our minds they're invincible, like the flashing star from Super Mario, when they're probably more like the Sledgehammer Suit. Not completely indestructible, but for gawds sake they can throw sledgehammers! They duck and fireballs don't hurt them! There's only like five or six of them in the entire game, and that what makes it (and this team) so special. Enjoy it while you have it, and hopefully with some luck we can get really far with the suit on.
Eeph Factor: Not even gonna touch this one.
National League Wildcard -- Cubs versus Pirates
In what has seemed a forgone conclusion since like, June, these two NL Central rivals will duke it out in the one game playoff for the National League wildcard. The Pirates are enjoying their third straight trip to the MLB postseason (all as a wildcard team) since suffering through twenty consecutive seasons without a sniff of the playoffs. As usual, Pittsburgh has been powered by excellent starting pitching: Gerrit Cole has firmly established himself as a top pitcher in the National League at only 25 years of age, while a supporting cast of former American League hurlers like A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and J.A. Happ (!!!) have also been extremely effective. Their real strength however, especially in a tight playoff game, is a strong bullpen. Mark Melancon, lefties Tony Watson and Antonio Bastardo, former closer Joakim Soria and the fabulously named Arquimedes Caminero have all been varying shades of excellent. Heck, the Pirates somehow even transformed Joe Blanton (5-0, 1.57 in 21 appearances) into a bullpen weapon. Joe Blanton!
The Buccos are an interesting offensive team as well. Fourth the NL in runs scored (the most of any NL playoff team), just tenth in home runs but second in doubles. Their attack is led by the fearsome Andrew McCutchen, having another star caliber season despite the loss of his locks. But seriously, he's really really good. Starling Marte has done well as McCutchen's first mate, and old shipmate Aramis Ramirez has come back aboard to help fill the void of losing Jung-Ho Kang, who sadly was declared overboard for the season a few weeks ago. Francisco Cervelli has also filled in for Russell Martin quite admirably, providing his trademark blend of contact hitting, solid defensive work and frustratingly tough at-bats. I'm glad he's out of the AL.
Eeph Factor: As mentioned earlier, this is the third straight year the Pirates' season has come down to the wildcard game. They crushed the Reds in 2013 (grrrr) but were themselves crushed in 2014 by the Giants. They have experience going down this path before, however significant that is in a one game winner-take-all.
Coming into 2015 the northsiders were an intriguing young team though not considered a title contender, despite the prediction of a certain Michael J. Fox movie (where's my hoverboard, damn it!). Well the plan seems to have skipped a few years, as now the Cubs are back in the postseason with what would've been the best record in the American League. Unfortunately for them, they play in the 2015 NL Central, where 97 wins was only good enough for third place, meaning they now have to play a one game elimination on the road in Pittsburgh. Sounds like a very Cubs thing.
However, they do have an ace up their sleeve. Um, literally. Jake Arrieta has been simply brilliant since coming over from the Orioles (36-13, 2.26 as a Cub) and his numbers this season have been just absurd. He's 22-6 with an ERA of 1.77, he leads the NL in fewest hits allowed and fewest home runs allowed per 9 innings (5.9 and 0.4 respectively) and has been worth 8.6 wins over a replacement level pitcher. It gets more absurd. In the second half, Arrieta is 12-1 with an ERA of 0.75 (!!!) in 107.1 innings. He has as many victories (12) as runs allowed over that span, which is... interesting. Any success Chicago has in the playoffs is going to be largely dependent on how he performs, and he'll get his first audition in that wildcard game against the Pirates Wednesday night.
Chicago does employ some very interesting players aside from Arrieta. Their offense is embarrassingly rich in young position players: third baseman Kris Bryant (OPS .858 with 26 dingers, only 23 years old), outfielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber (16 bombs in 272 plate appearances, 22), shortstop Addison Russell (13 bombs, 2.6 dWAR, 22), and of course the big bopper first baseman Anthony Rizzo (31-101 HR/RBI, 899 OPS, 26). Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler (23) also figures to get significant at-bats, as perhaps does infielder Javier Baez (22). Baez spent most of 2015 in the minors and missed time with injury, only emerging with the big club when the rosters expanded in September. He has played well enough not only to earn consideration on the postseason roster, but even to maybe steal starting ABs from veteran-ish player Starlin Castro, who has already lost the shortstop role to Russell.
Eeph Factor: one issue the Cubs might have in the playoffs is an inability to make contact: they led the NL with 1518 batter strikeouts, which was 174 ahead of the next team (Washington).
Los Angeles Dodgers
The blue summer boys of Los Angeles find themselves in the playoffs yet again thanks to a third straight division title, which amazingly is the first time they've ever done that. Some complimentary pieces have changed (hello, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Howie Kendrick and Yasmani Grandal) but the core of the Dodgers is mainly the same. Clayton Kershaw continues to imitate some kind of pitching deity, Adrian Gonzalez continues to do Adrian Gonzalez things, Yasiel Puig continues to frustrate everybody, Carl Crawford continues to get old, and Zack Greinke continues trying to impersonate Clayton Kershaw (and quite well this year!)
These Dodgers arguably have the best 1-2 punch (Kershaw-Greinke) the MLB postseason has seen in some time, and presumed #3 starter Brett Anderson has burst off the operating table to have a nice season of his own (10-9, 3.69 in 180.1). And as usual, there looks to be enough offensive punch to compliment the top quality starting pitching. And, as usual, the bullpen looks... undefined. Kenley Jansen is pretty unhittable, but beyond that there is some unproven unproven-ness that could prove problematic. Maybe if they avoid the Cardinals for a change, they'll be fine. Big if.
Eeph Factor: Corey Seager. Jimmy Rollins is the Established Veteran Former All-Star Intangibles Guy(TM), but Seager is likely the far better player in every measurable way. It won't be an easy decision for Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly to go with the talented youngster over the vet, and I kinda don't expect it to happen.
New York Mets
I'm just gonna get one thought out of the way: the Mets picked the perfect year to return to the playoffs. If this had happened a season ago, when the Blue Jays were frustrating everybody with a foot-in-the-door campaign, just imagine the insanity. It'd be like a football in the groin played over and over again, except Hans Moleman had nothing to do with it and there's no comedic sound effect. But... that didn't happen, so give that man the ten thousand dollars.
I want the Mets to win the National League. Here's why. First is the crazy possibility of a Mets-Blue Jays World Series (not... likely? But it's a genuine possibility!) and Syndergaard and Dickey somehow facing off (even... less likely? IT COULD STILL HAPPEN!!!!!1). Second, that pitching staff. Kershaw and Greinke are fun in their "scoring is hopeless" kind of way, but the Mets have a crazy young staff and they all have electric stuff. None of them really quite know how to pitch yet (except maybe Harvey) so they're up there trying to overpower everybody, and their stuff is so good it usually works. Also, don't you want to see Bartolo Colon start at least one more playoff game? Dang right.
The Mets weren't a particularly strong offensive team for most of the season and as such I assumed this remained true. However, their lineup is full of guys either coming off injury, getting hot at the right time, or having a sneaky quiet good year. Category One is David Wright, who looked like his old self for the first week of the season, and then didn't play again until late August. Fortunately for the New Yorkers he hasn't skipped a note since returning, likewise with catcher Travis d'Arnaud. That Guy(TM) missed about two months from mid-April to mid-June, missed another month from late June into the end of July, and since then has been able to give the Mets an offensive spark just by staying in the lineup (none of the Mets backup catchers have been at all useful with the stick). Category Two features Lucas "The Dude" Duda, who went through a terrible slump for about two months between May 29th (OPS .947) to July 24th (.754). Duda came back to life in late July, hitting six home runs in a week and has since re-established himself as their big time slugger. They also got Yoenis Cespedes in late July, and he's been... uh...
Category Three is Curtis Granderson, who has been somewhat forgotten after back-to-back 40 HR seasons with the Yankees only four years ago. Granderson wasn't bad as a Met in 2014, though the .227 average, .388 slugging and minus defensive rating (-1.2 dWAR) certainly suggested his contract as an instant write-off. He bounced back significantly in 2015, though not quite with the thunderous attention his previous 40+ bomb seasons commanded. All his numbers jumped across the board, from HR (20 to 26), runs scored (73 to 98), OPS (.714 to .821) and defensive WAR (-1.2 to 0.5) while only getting 28 more plate appearances. An impressive bounceback for a 34 year old, to be sure.
Eeph Factor: Young arms to be sure. It's their first taste, and they'll be going up against two of the very best in Kershaw and Greinke. Should be fun.
St. Louis Cardinals
Ugh geez, these guys again. If I give you the 3.50 will you go away?
They were best team in baseball by W-L record this season, the first team since the 2011 Phillies to win 100 games or more, and the first team to finish a season with an ERA under 3 since the 1989 Dodgers. None of that really means anything, but it's kind of interesting and plus it took a while to look up.
The Cardinals are surely among the favourites to win the Whole Darned Thing(TM) but there are some concerns. Yadier Molina has a severe finger injury and is going to try to play through it, because catchers hardly use their fingers at all right? (Yikes). Emerging starter Carlos Martinez (14-7, 3.01 in 179.2) hurt his shoulder and is done for the postseason, outfielder Stephen Piscotty has a concussion and it isn't clear when/if he'll return, and slugger Matt Holiday has been jumping on the bed of the DL all year and has only 4 home runs in 277 appearances (though he still has 16 doubles and a .804 OPS, so... ???). Depending on your love affair of Jason Heyward types, The Cards really have one elite hitter (Matt Carpenter, who I love and is awesome. He bats like a corkscrew.) so the key to their success all year hasn't been scoring runs but preventing them. Even without Martinez, the Cardinals should be pretty good at that. Their rotation is stacked with a bunch of very effective arms, from the experienced (John Lackey), the young and talented (Michael Wacha), the crafty (Jaime Garcia), to the "Always way better than you think" (Lance Lynn). The bullpen doesn't blow you away with numbers, especially when you consider how shaky Trevor Rosenthal has looked lately, but they made some smart veteran additions (Jonathan Broxton and Steve Cishek) that will probably be useful. They've also got former Blue Jay Carlos Villanueva kicking around, and he's been terrific for St. Louis in multi-inning stints out of the pen.
Eeph Factor: Adam Wainwright. I know, I know. They lose Martinez but all of a sudden this guy is back. Apparently the plan is to use Waino as a reliever, just like in 2006. That worked pretty well for them.
Overall Prediction: Nobody ever gets this right, so I'm going as extreme as possible. The Cubs make it back to the World Series thanks to Jake Arrieta learning to pitch with his left hand between playoff starts, and thus winning Game Seven in relief against the Dodgers. Chicago comes within one out of finally ending the misery, but the vengeful ghost of Frank Chance possesses Anthony Rizzo, causing him to drop every throw from his infielders. The Cubs lose the title in the most heartbreaking way imaginable, but the vengeful ghost of Frank Chance then teaches Rizzo how to invent the hoverboard and he makes billions of dollars, thus giving us a happy ending.
I think I stayed up too late writing that last part.