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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.)

Following is our quick preview of the postseason, with pennant win prices (as listed by Bet 365) included next to each team’s name.
 
AMERICAN LEAGUE

Tampa Bay Rays (2/1)... Once again the Rays confound the experts as they work effectively outside of the box. The payroll is MLB’s fifth-lowest; three of the key rotation pieces from last year’s AL champs are not available (Blake Snell-traded; Charlie Morton-FA Atlanta; Tyler Glasnow-Tommy John surgery); they dealt with an uber-competitive AL East; they feature various rookies (SS Wander Franco, SP Shane McClanahan, SP Luis Patino; OF Randy Arozarena, technically still a rook though a key cog in last year’s playoff run). Yet somehow the Rays set a franchise record with 100 wins, put away the rest of the East by mid-September, and have the deepest bullpen in the AL, used effectively by manager Kevin Cash. The relievers also tend to keep Tampa Bay in games it might be trailing, which is one reason the Rays led the AL in comeback wins. It’s a bit of a swing-and-miss lineup, heavily dependent upon homers for runs, often scoring runs in bunches, and Tampa Bay also does all of the little things well, such as baserunning and defense. Add it up and a return to the Fall Classic wouldn’t surprise.

Houston Astros (9/4)... Dusty Baker gets one more shot at a World Series after coming close to winning it all before, never more so than in 2002 with the Giants. And, now 72, one wonders how many more opportunities Baker will have. The Astros are a proven playoff commodity, even with the many “a-hems!” for their sign-stealing tactics of years past. Even last summer, when stumbling into the expanded postseason two games below .500, Houston was one game from getting back to the Series for a third time in four seasons. The offense has great balance and plenty of clutch performers led by Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa; enjoy what might be your last look at one of the all-time DP combos, with Correa due for free agency in the offseason. Pitching, however, tended to blow a bit hot-and-cold, and the Astros had all sorts of trouble with Tampa Bay during the regular season. But the Rays aren’t the immediate concern, rather the Chisox, and the Astros will feel plenty confident about that matchup after beating the Pale Hose 5 of 7 this season. An ALCS rematch vs. Tampa Bay would not surprise.

Chicago White Sox (10/3)... The return of 76-year-old Tony LaRussa to the dugout, 38 years after first leading the Chisox to the ALCS in 1983, has been its own storyline in the Windy City. And how about the managerial matchup of septuagenarians vs. 72-year old Dusty Baker in the ALDS? As noted above, that matchup didn’t work great for the Pale Hose this season, especially the four games at Minute Maid Park that they lost. We also wonder how sharp Chicago is going to be, having essentially wrapped up the weak AL Central before the All-Star break, and effectively biding time since. LaRussa’s ace-in-the-hole is his hard-throwing bullpen that got deeper and tougher when adding Craig Kimbrel at the trade deadline, though the power pitchers on the Chisox staff will be challenged by an Astros lineup that strikes out less than any in the AL. Granted, in SS Tim Anderson and CF Luis Robert and other live bats, the Pale Hose have the star power to turn any series in their favor. It’s just that the matchup vs. Houston looks an especially tricky one.

New York Yankees (6/1)... The Yanks took it to the last inning of the last day of the season before finally sewing up a playoff ticket, at that a win-or-else wild card showdown vs. the hated Red Sox. But keep in mind the recent sweep of the Sox at Fenway Park, when Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge both hurt Boston pitching with the long ball. It’s those two, in the middle of the batting order, who likely hold the key to how far New York progresses, as Aaron Boone’s options get pretty limited if both of his big boppers should slump at the same time. The absence of star 2B D.J. LeMahieu is hardly a positive development, either, and staff ace Gerrit Cole wasn’t always pitching like one down the stretch as he battled hamstring issues. The Yanks were streaky this season, their upticks almost always coinciding with Stanton and Judge getting hot at the same time. We’re reluctant to reduce the Bronx Bombers’ chances to their two power hitters delivering, but hard to draw many other conclusions at Yankee Stadium.

Boston Red Sox (7/1)... The Bosox ended up having to fight for their lives to simply make it to the wild card round after proving one of the surprises of the league, especially in the first half of the season. Two losses in three games at lowly Baltimore in the final week could have been a final, lethal blow to the playoff hopes before righting the ship on the final weekend in Washington, and catching the Nats at the end of their helpless summer (and early autumn). The offense can be prolific at times, and the deadline yielded Kyle Schwarber, who delivered with some great at-bats down the stretch. Chris Sale’s return to active duty in August also bolstered the pitching staff, though Sale remains on a pitch count and might not be able to go as deep as Red Sox fans would hope. With Nathan Eovaldi scheduled to go in the wild card game vs. the Yankees, Sale likely gets the call to open the ALDS vs. the Rays if the Bosox win on Tuesday, though we wonder if Alex Cora has enough pitching to make a deep postseason run.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Los Angeles Dodgers (7/4)... Rare to see a wild-card entrant listed as the playoff betting favorite. Then again, when has a wild card team ever won 106 games before? Meet the Dodgers, who keep replacing missing parts with better parts, and confirmed their status as the team to beat when adding Max Scherzer and Trae Turner at the deadline from the Nats. Along with Mookie Betts, the speedy Turner gives Dave Roberts two of the most-exciting players in the game hitting within the top three spots of his batting order, and few teams seem able to string hits together any better. Though Clayton Kershaw looks doubtful, at least for the early portion of the playoffs, a Scherzer-Walker Buehler-Julio Urias trio gives LA all of the starting pitching it needs, while closer Kenley Jansen seemed to regain confidence in September. The worry in LA, however, is the do-or-die wild card vs. the hot Cardinals, and various sources report that Adam Wainwright is the perfect pitcher to have on the mound against the Dodger lineup that is also likely to be without top home run threat Max Muncy, injured over the weekend vs. Milwaukee. LA is going to be favored in any series it plays, but getting past the wild card game might not be easy.

San Francisco Giants (9/4)... Perhaps the most unlikely MLB development we can ever recall in our 65 years of TGS publishing is the Giants winning an astounding 107 games this season with a team that most felt might top out in the mid 80s win-wise...if all went well.  Gabe Kapler did not make any friends in his last managerial assignment in Philadelphia but has certainly pushed all fo the right buttons at Oracle Park, with an amazingly well-balanced lineup that led the bigs in homers, getting power contributions from practically everyone (1B Brandon Belt, out for the time being with a broken thumb, led the team with only 29 dingers). Names like LaMonte Wade, Jr. and Darin Ruf became highlight staples on Heidi Watney’s nightly MLB Network reports thanks to their clutch hitting. It is an old lineup, too, heightening the belief this is a one-time shot for SF, but Kapler’s ace-in-the-hole is his dominant bullpen, which was the best in the bigs, leading MLB in ERA and WHIP. They also beat the Dodgers 10-9 in the season series as the Giants repelled every LA threat to break the Dodgers’ 8-year run of NL West wins. As former SF star (and current D-back) Madison Bumgarner warned last week about the Giants’ postseason chances, “There’s something about wearing that uniform in the playoffs.” A possible cataclysmic NLDS vs. the Dodgers awaits, unless Adam Wainwright has something to say about it. Regardless, in 2021, the Giants have some magic about them, and we wouldn’t bet against them.

Milwaukee Brewers (7/2)... Much like the White Sox in the other Central, the Brew Crew effectively had their division in the bag since mid-summer and were in a form of cruise control since. Which might partly explain why Milwaukee looked a bit listless losing 9 of 10 vs. the Cardinals and Dodgers across the last two weeks of the season. As long as Craig Counsell can get his boys refocused, Milwaukee presents various problems, especially a potentially-dominant rotation that will roll out Corbin Burnes-Brandon Woodruff-Freddy Peralta in perhaps the best 1-2-3 in the playoffs. Facing Burnes, in particular, is a frightening prospect, as the Brewers won in his last 12 starts. Counsell’s problem, one he didn’t have a few weeks ago, is that the bullpen is suddenly short a key arm, with set-up man deluxe Devin Williams now out with a broken hand after punching a wall (use your non-throwing hand next time, Devin!), leaving it up to rookie lefty Aaron Ashby as the likely final bridge to closer Josh Hader. Perhaps as a result of not having Williams, bullpen numbers dropped precipitously the final few weeks of the season, so getting to Hader with a lead is looking more problematic than it did almost all of the summer.

Atlanta Braves (13/2)... The Braves come in a bit more under-the-radar than last season when they posed an acknowledged threat to the Dodgers and were in position to knock the Blue out of the NLCS until some unforgivable Atlanta  baserunning blunders proved costly. Blowing that series seemed to put the Braves into a funk they didn’t shake until August when they finally moved above .500, blew past the fading Mets and then put away the Phillies in the NL East. Across the past two months, Atlanta’s performance suggests it cannot be overlooked, with pitching really on the upswing as the Braves posted the third-best ERA in MLB past the trade deadline. The bullpen also improved as the season progressed. The offense was a bit erratic all season, however, even accomplishing the rare feat of all infleld starters hitting 25 or more homers, and most of the top RBI men in the league (including deadline addition OF Adam Duvall, plus Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley, all above 100 RBIs) are in the lineup. Jorge Soler also proved a worthwhile deadline addition who softened the absence of the injured Ronald Acuna Jr., though we suspect if the Braves do make a deep run, the pitching will be the reason. Oldtimers (like Bob Uecker) might also get a kick out of the Braves returning to Milwaukee for a playoff series in the NLDS, and one wonders if there might be an opening for Atlanta now that the Brewers are minus a key bullpen piece (see above.)

St. Louis Cardinals (8/1)... Those not giving the Redbirds much of a chance probably didn’t watch them play across the past three weeks, when St Louis would set a franchoise record with a 17-game win streak to blow by the Reds and Padres in the race for the second NL wild card, which seemed out of reach for the Cardinals for most of the summer. We’re not dismissing them, however, because Mike Shildt was moving pieces all summer and finally seemed to land upon some answers in September, with a reshuffled bullpen one of the keys to the late surge. Not to mention gambling on oldsters like JA Happ and Jon Lester for rotation help at the deadline and watching both mostly deliver after their additions. In Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, the Redbirds also have enough big bats to cause concern. And, as mentioned earlier, there isn’t a pitcher we’d rather have going in the wild card game vs. the Dodgers than Adam Wainwright, who beat the Blue at Busch Stadium earlier in September. If the Cardinals can knock out LA, the Giants would be next, but playing with house money, St. Louis looks mighty dangerous to us.


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