TGS SPECIAL REPORT...MLB PLAYOFFS PREVIEW!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
(Editor’s note: The MLB Playoffs begin this week and THE GOLD SHEET will feature MLB releases on game days, with a top pick featured on Top Choice for $15 and multiple selections for $29.95 as part of Bruce’s Daily Plays.)
With an expended postseason lineup of 16 teams ready to commence action, we’ll handicap the teams in a bit different manner than previous years. Keep in mind that the first round will be a best-of-three, the second round a best-of-five, and not until the third round for the ALCS and NLCS will any series be best-of-seven. First-round games will all take place at home fields of the higher-seeded team, with neutral sites and NHL/NBA-like “mini-bubbles” thereafter including Minute Maid Park (Houston), the new Globe Life Field (Arlington), Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles), and Petco Park (San Diego). The World Series will take place at Globe Life Field in Arlington.
Pennant win prices (as listed by Bet 365) are included next to each team’s name, followed by a brief TGS analysis.
Tampa Bay Rays (3/1)... With the thought of a “Title Bay Triple” (Lightning NHL, Rays MLB, and Bucs NFL) dancing in the minds of all fans in Tampa-St. Pete, the Rays have secured the top seed in the AL and will be able to unfurl their deep and versatile pitching staff to great effect, we suspect. Blake Snell is already lined up to start the first playoff game at the Trop and manager Kevin Cash has myriad options including several “openers” which mostly fared well this season. Did we mention pitching depth? Into last weekend, twelve different bullpen Rays recorded saves this season, trying an MLB record, and this was only a 60-game season. Lots of contact hitters in the lineup, a few legit power threats, good speed on the bases, with 2B Brandon Lowe a longshot MVP candidate. But it’s pitching and defense that could push Tampa Bay to its first Fall Classic since 2008.
New York Yankees (7/2)... For much of the past two months we simply didn’t think the Yankees had enough pitching, as their rotation looked threadbare at times beyond Gerrit Cole, and even he has been victimized far too much by the long ball. Without proper reinforcements at the trade deadline, the Yankees seemed vulnerable. And that’s where they still could be vulnerable, in the rotation, though the offense started to sock the ball in mid-September and set a franchise record (which means something, as these are the Yankees!) in one three-game stretch vs. the Blue Jays when clouting at least six homers in each game! But does Aaron Boone have enough pitching to get the Yanks to the World Series for the first time since 2009?
Oakland Athletics (21/4)... The edge for the A’s? With all due respect to the many relievers in the Tampa Bay bullpen, the A’s had the best relief corps in baseball this season, with Liam Hendricks emerging as the premier closer in AL. The lineup got a late-season boost from ex-Diamondbacks 3B Jake Lamb, who had eight hits in his first 22 at-bats for Oakland. Caution for the Athletics? It’s the playoffs, actually, as Oakland has often teased across the past two “Billy Beane decades” but that entire span of time has won just one playoff series, an ALDS sweep of the Twins back in 2006. After which Oakland was swept out by Jim Leyland’s Tigers. Last year it was a wild card elimination at the hands of the Rays. Like the Nats last October, if Oakland can get by a mini-series at the outset, could that slay the recent postseason demons and prove a launching pad to a deep-October run?
Minnesota Twins (11/2)...Before we go anywhere with Twins talk, we must point out their 16 straight losses (that’s right, 16 straight losses!) in postseason play, with the last win in Game 1 of the 2004 ALDS vs. the Yankees. Sheesh! New York has delivered numerous postseason beatings since and safe to say that is not a matchup that recent history suggests would be a good one for the Twins. But this has the look of a better-balanced Minnesota team than the homer-happy entry of a year ago, with Rocco Baldelli already lining up ex-Dodger Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, and now-healthy Michael Pineda in a solid-looking playoff rotation. Four players with 12 or more homers (Sano, Buxton, Rosario, and ageless Nelson Cruz) suggest the Twins still have more than enough pop. But can they overcome their ongoing playoff bugaboo, which has become as much psychological as anything else in recent years? If Minnesota can't win a game vs. wobbly-looking Houston in the first round, it's Dr. Phil time at Target Field.
Chicago White Sox (13/2)... The Chisox were in contention for the top seed in the AL into the final week before a disastrous 4-game sweep at the hands of the Indians, part of a 6-game skid that has the Pale Hose dropping all of the way to the 7 seed. For much of the past two months, however, Chicago had the look of a team that could make some real noise, especially with Dallas Keuchel back on the mound in mid-September after back issues and threatening to team with no-hit man Lucas Giolito as a dangerous 1-2 at the top of the postseason rotation. The bats, however, cooled in the last week, and there is concern about a recent foot injury to slugging LF Eloy Jimenez. Even with the late slump, the Chisox have the requisite arms both in the rotation and bullpen to rate a dangerous contender no matter where the early-round assignments place them (it's at Oakland to start things in the best-of-three).
Cleveland Indians (8/1)... Not among the AL favorites, but the team no one really wants to face because of that depth in the pitching staff. Shane Bieber has been dominant this season and is odds-on to win the AL Cy Young Award, with Zach Plesac and Carlos Carrasco forming an imposing 1-2-3 in the rotation. Brad Hand has also been one of the AL’s best closers in 2020. The offense, however, has a serious lack of punch outside of 3B Jose Ramirez, who might rate peripheral consideration in the MVP race. But with their rotation, the Tribe make an intriguing longshot pick...especially if they can get past the Yankees in the first round.
Houston Astros (13/1)... Nope, not going to happen. The Astros, despite their many recent successes (however they were gained), still had a mostly-anonymous look for much of the season, with Dusty Baker forced to move many new faces into the lineup and especially the rotation after Justin Verlander went down. The result was that Houston rarely inched above .500 (in fact finishing only 29-31) and needed until the last weekend before finally backing into a playoff berth made available because the rest of the AL West was so flawed. Without Verlander, Zack Greinke now leads the postseason rotation, but this team would not likely have been able to make a run at the playoffs without the expanded format. Even considering Minnesota's many recent playoff failures, doubt the ‘stros escape the first round vs. the Twins.
Toronto Blue Jays (14/1)... The precocious Blue Jays and their young “legacy lineup” (Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio) might have arrived a year sooner than expected, and their ride the past two months was even more jumbled than most teams as the team had to scramble for a temporary home at a AAA park, Buffalo’s Sahlen Field. Out on the road for the first round, we won’t get any playoff action in Buffalo where the “over” was always a good idea and where Toronto scored 6.2 runs pg. The bullpen, except against the Yankees, was solid all season, and ex-Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu was comfortable as the new ace and will likely take the ball for the playoff opener vs. the Rays. LF Teoscar Hernandez was also on a 50-homer pace for a full season for much of the past two months. Toronto is capable of causing some trouble, and was pretty competitive (4-6, with many close games) vs. first-round foe Tampa Bay, but not sure there’s enough depth in the rotation to make a deep run. Check back next year, when the story could be different!
Los Angeles Dodgers (27/20)... The Dodgers are rapidly approaching the point where they are being considered one of the best teams to not win a World Series over a 5 or 6-year span, and have vowed that this year will be different after having almost 12 months to stew about the latest playoff exit courtesy the Nats last October. The recent return of Walker Buehler to the rotation, and Clayton Kershaw (though never as good in playoffs as regular season in past) looking sharp in recent weeks suggests all is ready on the mound. The Dodger offense also now has Mookie Betts and his MVP-caliber numbers added to an already dangerous lineup. But many recent playoff failures and 32 years since the last World Series crown hang over Chavez Ravine, so pressure is immense, and we’re not sure about manager Dave Roberts pushing the right buttons in October. With a couple of shorter series in the first two rounds, the Blue could yet be vulnerable, especially as many insiders believe the best chance to get at the Dodgers, on the NL side, at least, will be early (longshot Milwaukee gets first crack).
San Diego Padres (5/1)... Compared to past false alarm campaigns, the Padres did things differently from the start in late July, much more selective at the plate and drawing more walks than before, part of GM A.J. Preller’s Billy Beane-like grand plan (which also helped partly explain the spate of grand slams Padres batters smashed in the summer). Along the way, Fernando Tatis, Jr. (who slumped recently) and Manny Machado crafted MVP cases. The bullpen, however, wasn’t quite as reliable as expected, and a pair of rotation pieces being counted on for the playoffs, ex-Indian Mike Clevinger (a big-time deadline addition) and emerging staff ace Dinelson Lamet, both had to be pulled from games in the last week of the season due to arm problems. If neither can go, first-year skipper Jayce Tingler, who could be in the mix for Manager of the Year, might be scrambling for options in his playoff rotation. This looked the second-best team behind the Dodgers in the NL for much of the season, but Tingler is probably going to need Clevinger and Lamet available to make a deep run.
Atlanta Braves (5/1)... The NL East didn’t end up as menacing as most believed so the Braves cantered to their third straight division crown. Now it gets trickier for manager Brian Snitker, as among his starting pitchers, only young Max Fried (a Cy Young possibility) has worked in the postseason before. In fact, beyond Fried and rookie righty Ian Anderson, the other ten who started games for Atlanta this season had an ERA close to 8. The Braves have a chance to advance a round if 1B Freddie Freeman continues to post MVP-like numbers, but with games coming rapid-fire in October, not sure Snitker has enough reliable arms for the Braves to advance very far. Cincinnati will be the first-round foe.
Chicago Cubs (7/1)... New manager David Ross pushed enough of the correct buttons in his first go-around as a skipper for the Cubs to return to the playoffs with a roster that looks pretty similar to some of Joe Maddon’s playoff teams (with several World Series holdovers from 2016 still in the mix, too). A plus from recent years is that Yu Darvish gives Ross a real ace at the top of the rotation, and with Darvish, recent no-hit man Alec Mills, and Kyle Hendricks (who has posted a 1.45 ERA in September), Ross might not have to risk struggling Jon Lester. Some good news in the everyday lineup with 3B Kris Bryant, who has endured an injury-plagued two months, returning to action on Saturday from his latest absence. Can Darvish, Hendricks, and Mills perhaps give Ross the sort of postseason sizzle from his rotation that Maddon lacked the past few years?
Cincinnati Reds (15/1)... We never thought we’d see an MLB team hit .210 (none has in 110 years), much less that team make the playoffs. Welcome to 2020, as the Reds are in after a late-season surge, even though play-by-play man Thom Brennaman has been forced out of the booth for an unfortunate on-air mistake. Like we said, it’s been a crazy year! So why do so many NL teams fear the Reds? Because of a lights-out rotation consisting of Cy Young hopeful Trevor Bauer, plus Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and now Sonny Gray (returned from a recent back injury), enough to make even the Dodgers blink at the prospects of a short series vs. that caliber group of arms. The bullpen also solidified in September after the deadline addition of ex-Diamondback Archie Bradley, whose 1.17 ERA in six September appearances provided a nice bridge to closer Raisel Iglesias. Into last weekend, the Reds also won the last five games in which Bradley appeared. Dangerous, dangerous underdog with the most-tempting longshot prices on the board; first-round foe Atlanta has been warned.
St. Louis Cardinals (15/1)... Talk about a roundabout route to the playoffs, the Redbirds overcame almost 2½ weeks of Covid-influenced inactivity before spending the past six weeks hurriedly trying to catch up with the rest of the NL teams. Thanks to 11 doubleheaders (seven-inning games, but still!), the Cards made it and now get the Padres in the first round. Hats of to the rotation, especially 39-year-old Adam Wainwright, whose ability to get past the 6th inning helped save a bullpen that could have been worn out otherwise, and Austin Gomber (1.86 ERA) has emerged as a reliable option for manager Mike Schildt. Given the circumstances of this season and their near-.500 level of play, we’re not expecting much, but we don’t want to dismiss the Cards, either, as they have often stepped up in the playoffs (such as the NLDS win over the Braves last October).
Miami Marlins (15/1)... Here’s an interesting tidbit...the Marlins have never lost a playoff series! They’ve only made it twice, in 1997 and 2003, and won the World Series both times. But the bar is not really set high because no one expected Miami to make it this far, especially after 105 losses in 2019 and missing over a week due to coronavirus issues after the opening series in Philadelphia actually left the team stranded far away from home, not playing at Marlins Park until August 14. In the live-armed young trio of Pablo Lopez, Sixto Sanchez, and Sandy Alcantara, Don Mattingly has a potential powderkeg of a rotation and a team that is playing with absolutely nothing to lose. And there is some postseason history vs. the first-round foe Cubs (2003...remember?).
Milwaukee Brewers (20/1)...Thanks to the Phillies and Giants falling apart in the last week, the Brew Crew was able to back into the playoffs with a 29-31 record. The reward is a first-round series vs. the Dodgers, hence the higher price. Milwaukee’s plight as a middling team the past two months summed up mostly by indifferent form from former MVP Christian Yelich, who slumped badly in the early weeks and hovered near .200 all season. Is there a chance? Maybe, as Brandon Woodruff (2.79 ERA away) and Corbin Burnes (2.11 ERA; check status with strained oblique) could be a tough 1-2 at the top of the rotation, with hopes a lead can be turned over to Devin Williams and Josh Hader out of the pen. Against a first-round foe other than the Dodgers, perhaps, but these long odds look justified for the Brewers, who regressed this season from recent NL playoff teams and serious contenders.
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