TGS SPECIAL REPORT...MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYOFFS PREVIEW!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Unlike the past two seasons, one team we are not fearing is the Oakland A’s (5/1) , who had MLB’s best record as of August 8, but proceeded to lose 30 of their next 46 and had to wait until the final day of the regular season before clinching a postseason berth. It looks like GM Billy Beane made one move too many at the trade deadline, as dealing OF Yoenis Cespedes to the Bosox in the Jon Lester trade would significantly hamper the offense and remove its most-intimidating element; after leading MLB in runs scored prior to the Cespedes trade, Oakland has been the AL’s lowest-scoring team. Midseason rotation additions Lester and Jeff Samardzija make it hard to dismiss the A’s in a short series, but the offense has been too easily shackled minus Cespedes. We are more wary of Oakland’s wild card opponent, the Kansas City Royals (7/1) , who also have a parade of arms and an overflow of quality in the rotation led by James Shields and recently-dominating Danny Duffy. Though Kansas City is apt to slump at the plate, it has enough pitching to cause serious problems for any foe in a short series and gets to host the A’s in Tuesday’s wild card game at the Big K.
We do not believe the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2/1) have a smooth ride awaiting to the World Series despite their home-field edge as long as they stay alive in the postseason. Mike Scioscia has hinted that he could go with a three-man rotation (Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Hector Santiago should rookie Matt Shoemaker’s oblique strain not heal in time) in the playoffs. But it’s the Angels’ win percentage vs. playoff-quality foes, hovering around .400 all season (compared to near-.700 vs. also-rans), that is a postseason red flag. Mike Trout’s propensity for strikeouts (a whopping 183) is also too easily dismissed by his many supporters. Without the Astros, White Sox, Rangers, or Twins to knock around in October, the Halos might be more vulnerable than many believe.
If the Angels meet the Baltimore Orioles (3/1), it won’t happen until the ALCS, and the Birds would have no fear of that matchup after taking 4 of 6 from the Halos this season. There has been some magic about this version of the O’s, who have kept scoring runs and winning despite injuries to 3B Manny Machado and C Matt Weiters and the suspension of 1B Chris Davis. And while many wonder if the Birds have enough starting pitching (Bud Norris? Chris Tillman? Wei-Yin Chen?) to survive in the postseason, Buck Showalter has squeezed every possible ounce out of his versatile bullpen. If the relievers’ arms haven’t fallen off by now, they probably won’t in October, either.
How about the Detroit Tigers (5/2)? Although having dealt with myriad bullpen issues in recent years, the problems seem especially acute this season as manager Brad Ausmus has shown less and less faith in erratic closer Joe Nathan as the season has progressed. Moreover, the staff seems a bit less menacing than recent years, with Justin Verlander having lost considerable velocity, and David Price proving inconsistent since his trade-deadline acquisition from the Rays. The Tigers need their offense clicking, because the rotation and bullpen have performed so inconsistently, which should give the edge to the Birds in the ALDS.
Sometimes, “addition by subtraction” really is meaningful in pro sports. And we suggest the injury to 3B Pedro Alvarez has in fact made the Pittsburgh Pirates (11/2) more of a postseason threat. It is no coincidence that the Pirates won 17 of 21 down the stretch with Alvarez sidelined and with do-everything Josh Harrison handling duties effectively at the corner. The Bucs have star power with Andrew McCutchen and a staff with plenty of momentum, as Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez have been two of the NL’s hottest starters since the All-Star break. The Pirates just missed winning the NL Central, so they must go the wild card route, but they have postseason experience now after advancing from the wild card to the NLDS last season. We suspect the Bucs are more of a threat than their wild card foe, the San Francisco Giants (7/1) , who have been playing sub-.500 ball (45-53) since early June, a far cry from their World Series winners of 2010 & ‘12 that hit stride following the All-Star break. The Giants must go on the road to PNC Park for Wednesday’s wild card game.
We look forward to the rematch of last year’s NLCS, this year a round sooner, between the Los Angeles Dodgers (2/1) and St. Louis Cardinals (7/1) . Interestingly, normally unhittable Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw was anything but in playoffs vs. the Cards last season. But even with Kershaw in untouchable form, the Dodgers performed in an uneven manner much of the campaign, barely getting above .500 at home until late in the season (though the Blue owns MLB’s best road mark at 49-32), and there are depth problems in the rotation beyond Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Mercurial OF Yasiel Puig has also failed to smooth the many rough spots in his game that were exploited by the Redbirds last October. Considering the Dodgers’ inside-out home-road pattern this season, perhaps it’s a break for St. Louis to open the NLDS on the road. If Adam Wainwright (1.62 ERA in five September starts) can outduel Kershaw in the opener, the momentum of the series shifts completely in St. Louis’ direction. No team has fared as well in the postseason lately as the Cardinals, who can still manufacture runs effectively and own proven October forces in Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina. Mike Matheny also has more bullpen options than Don Mattingly, though closer Trevor Rosenthal did blow six saves this season.
But if it’s not the Pirates emerging from the in the NL, we expect it will be the Washington Nationals (2/1), who like the Bucs also have had a recent taste of the postseason (2012), though they would rather not recall blowing a 6-0 lead in the deciding Game 5 vs. the Cards in the NLDS. There is more experience and depth on the roster than in 2012, though we wonder about the offense beyond reliable contact hitters CF Denard Span and 3B Ryan Zimmerman. Manager Matt Williams was also forced to realign his bullpen, where the Nats fortunately have several options and recently anointed Drew Storen the new closer after Rafael Soriano began to wobble in August. The pressure is also on flamethrower Stephen Strasburg, who missed the playoffs due to arm problems two years ago. But Jordan Zimmerman is certainly in top form after no-hitting the Marlins in Sunday’s regular-season finale. And the Nats earned home-field edge in the NL mainly because of MLB’s best ERA, the NL's third highest-scoring offense, and arguably best defense of any contender.
It would not surprise us to see a Beltway World Series. But if the Nats have to hook the Pirates in the NLDS, we might eventually be treated to a rematch of memorable 1971 and '79 Fall Classics between the Bucs and O's instead.
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