[Many purists hated (and perhaps still hate) the expanded number of playoff series and games. As a Royals fan, I can tell you that it was an absolute joy to follow the ups and downs of the postseason the last two years. And so, October and postseason baseball are finally upon on us.
As I have consistently noted on the site, NYC-based Adam Shemesh is one of the best junior writers on baseball today. Some readers will recall my earlier article on the great Peter Gammons. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Adam follow in his footsteps. Shemesh delivers once again here with three key questions that loom large in the postseason for each of the teams still lacing it up in October.]
Let’s ask the big questions for each of the American League and National League teams that made it to the 2016 postseason:
I. AMERICAN LEAGUE
A. Baltimore Orioles
1- How will the starting pitching perform?
The Orioles have been heralded for their vaunted offense all year, but you can’t slug your way to a World Series. Baltimore’s starting staff posted an ERA of 4.74 during the regular season, by far the worst of any playoff contender. They also tossed just one complete game all year and issued 336 walks (6th worst in MLB). While the O’s offense is the main attraction, their pitching will ultimately decide their fate.
2- Will overuse of the bullpen catch up to the O’s?
Because of their poor starting staff, Buck Showalter has been forced to heavily lean on Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton- or ‘BOB’ as the trio of former starters is known in Baltimore. Brach has been leaned on the heaviest- his 78 IP put him at 8th most amongst relievers. And the wear showed, as Brad pitched to a bloated 5.06 ERA in August and allowed 4 runs over .1. IP in his final outing of the season. While Britain has done just fine (.75 second half ERA), O’Day posted a 4.91 second-half ERA. If Baltimore’s starters only give them 5 innings in the playoffs, it will be tough to bridge the gap to Britton without any hiccups.
3- How will rough home crowds affect Baltimore’s players?
This might seem like a weird question, but it could come into play should the Orioles make it past the one game playoff with the Jays. This year, they drew just 26,000 fans per game, or 5th worst in the American League. Superstar center fielder Adam Jones called the scene “eerie” and even “pathetic”. If the Orioles are playing a playoff game and half the ballpark is empty that might start to get in the back of a player’s mind.
B. Toronto Blue Jays
1- Will the Jays be able to find momentum after stumbling into the playoffs?
For most of the year, Toronto were favorites to repeat in the AL east. They have great hitting and the best starting staff of any AL squad, at least on paper. However, they nearly missed the playoffs altogether thanks to a 11-16 September slide. While they are coming off a nice series win in Fenway, the Jays need a big win to get themselves going again.
2- How will the Jays’ complementary pieces fare on offense?
The Jays lineup is headed by a three-headed monster that’s the best in the game- Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion. The trio combined for 101 homers and 295 RBI this season. However, things get a bit murky after there. The real key to the Blue Jays’ playoff hopes is how well players like Kevin Pillar, Russell Martin, and Michael Saunders (along with the oft-injured Troy Tulowitzki) will be able to contribute in October.
3- Will the Jays be able to keep their emotions in check should they reach an ALDS matchup with Texas?
Last year, Jose Bautista’s epic bat flip in game 5 of the ALDS capped of an incredible comeback for the Jays and ignited a feud with the Rangers that still hasn’t calmed down, a statement that is backed up by the fact that Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor punched Bautista earlier this year. Unlike in 2015, the Rangers are the top dog this time around with the Blue Jays being a WC team. Will Toronto be able to (literally) roll with the punches and stay focused against a Ranger team that’s out for revenge?
C. Texas Rangers
#1- How will Texas manage its pitching staff in October?
The Rangers’ ace Cole Hamels was in the running for the AL CY Young as recently as a month ago. However, he finished the season by posting a horrendous 5.86 September ERA, allowing 6 or more runs twice. However, Cole has a wealth of playoff experience and the real question comes after his turn in the rotation. Yu Darvish is surely the Rangers’ #2 option, but how long of a leash will GM Jon Daniels allow manager Jeff Banister to give Darvish following his Tommy John surgery? After You, Banister will most likely call on lefty Martin Perez, who brings in a host of problems as well. His 5.87 road ERA ranks among the worst in the league. After those three, the Rangers will be forced to put together a combo of Colby Lewis/ Derek Holland, two hurlers that missed significant time this year, in the 4th spot.
#2- How will Texas’ bullpen fare?
The Rangers’ pen posted the worst ERA of any playoff team at 4.40 and struck out the least amount of batters of any Open. They’ve been through multiple closing changes this year- from Shawn Tolleson to Sam Dyson to the embattled former #1 overall pick Matt Bush. Everyone knows that you can’t win in October without a strong pen, and the Rangers may be in serious trouble after they refused to address their bullpen needs at the deadline in favor of acquiring more hitters.
#3- How will the Rangers be affected by last year’s shenanigans with the Jays?
Texas was up 2-0 in last year’s ALDS before imploding by losing the last three games of that series en route to a crushing defeat. This year, they are on a mission and I think this club will channel its fiery energy and use it for good as they try to finish what they started against last year’s Toronto squad.
D. Boston Red Sox
#1- Will David Price alleviate his playoff woes?
I have not singled out a player yet in this article, but David Price is worthy- albeit for all the wrong reasons. The Sox $200,000,000 man suffered an up-and-down season in 2016 and is now thrust back into the playoffs, a scene where he has been notoriously bad as a starter. Last year, Price allowed 5 runs on two separate occasions, including blowing a lead in the Royals’ game 6 clincher in the ALCS. If Price can pitch well this October, Sox fans will certainly forgive him for this year’s poor campaign.
#2- How will the Sox young superstars react to the big stage?
There are not many players left from the Sox 2013 World Series Championship squad. In fact, only four players remain from that roster (I’m including Clay Buchholz, who may not even crack the playoff squad). Since that year, Jackie Bradley, Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez and Rick Porcello have burst onto the scene. While those guys are all stars, we’ve seen how the bright lights of October can humble even the best players (See: Price, David).
#3- Will Craig Kimbrel’s September struggles continue in October?
Craig Kimbrel has been excellent for the most part of 2016. However, he posted a 6 ERA and 0-3 record in September. He also holds a suspiciously high 3.38 ERA in save situations. As we noted before, you can’t go far in the playoffs without a good bullpen, and the Sox will need Kimbrel to turn the page on maybe his worst Major League month if they want to hoist the WS trophy again.
E. Cleveland Indians
#1- How will the Indians makeshift rotation do in the playoffs?
Going into the year, the Indians had a very underrated starting corps led by Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. After injuries to Carrasco and Salazar, all that remains is Kluber. After him is Trevor Bauer, a starter who has shown flashes of dominance in the past but posted a poor 4.26 ERA this year and has literally no postseason experience. After him is the up-and-down
Josh Tomlin and then Zach McAllister to round out a suddenly hittable rotation.
#2- How will Terry Francona manage a team with little to no playoff experience?
For most of the Indians squad, a 2013 WC game loss to the Rays is all they know about the postseason. Terry Francona is obviously a seasoned manager, but it may be hard to keep a bunch of 20-something’s focused in October.
#3- Who will close games for the Indians?
While this is not necessarily a vital question, I’d be interested to see how Francona manages his bullpen in the playoffs. Earlier in the year, he did not shy away from putting in prized acquisition Andrew Miller in as early as the 7th inning, but I wonder if Francona will use Miller as a full-time closer in the playoffs.
II. NATIONAL LEAGUE
A. New York Mets
#1- Will the team figure out how to hit with runners in scoring position?
Just like there are no World Series winners with bad bullpens, there are also no World Series winners who can’t hit with men on base. This year, the Mets’ .225 RISP average put them at dead last in that category. They also finished last with runs scored with a man in scoring position and on-base percentage in that scenario. If they want to make another deep playoff run, the Mets’ will have to transform into more than just a one-dimensional team.
#2- Will the makeshift rotation be able to keep up the good work?
Going into the year, the Mets’ pitching staff composed of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard, and Bartolo Colon with Zach Wheeler set to make a return to the hill sometime in July. Since Opening Day, Harvey, Matz, and deGrom have been sidelined for the entire year and Syndergaard has dealt with bone spurs, leaving Colon as the only man who has not missed a start this year. After it was announced that Matz and deGrom would be missing the rest of the year in late August, the Mets called up starters Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo. The two rookie hurlers have combined for 15 starts and a sub-3 ERA over 108.2 innings. However, these young Mets had the benefit of playing only sub-.500 teams in September and will now be forced to compete with the best of the best for the first time in their careers, bringing us to my final point on the Mets.
#3- Is this team ready to face playoff teams?
Over the final month of the season, the Mets’ played only one team above .500 (the Nationals). Outside of that series, New York only played the Braves, Phillies, Reds and Twins the rest of the way- those 4 teams are probably the worst baseball has to offer. As we know, any team that makes the postseason is extremely tough to beat. The Giants are coming off a sweep of the Dodgers, while the Mets haven’t played a good team in over a month.
B. San Francisco Giants
#1- Will Madison Bumgarner be able to turn the page on his second half struggles?
After Clayton Kershaw’s injury, MadBum looked like the clear CY Young favorite going into the All-Star Break. After the Midsummer Classic, he posted a very pedestrian 3.80 ERA to go along with 50 less strikeouts than he had in the first half. While I acknowledge that he is a totally different player in the postseason, you cannot totally ignore his most recent two months and a half.
#2- Is the bullpen capable of closing games?
You’ll hear many a Giant fan brag about their “even year” success. None of that would have happened without a sturdy bullpen. In 2010, Brian Wilson wowed us with his amazing beard. In 2012, it was Sergio Romo’s turn. In 2014, Santiago Casilla shut the door on many crucial victories. This might seem like a silly question, but it is totally applicable to these Giants. They blew a remarkable 30 saves in 2016- that means a blown save once per week. Those 30 games could have gave the Giants an easy ride to NL West glory, but instead they’ve had to go the hard way. Santiago Casilla is certainly not the answer- his 9 blown saves were the most in the majors. Nor is deadline acquisition Will Smith- he ranks in the top 10 with 5 blown saves. It will be very hard for the Giants to navigate through the playoffs without a solidified closer role.
#3- Will Buster Posey return to being… Buster Posey?
Buster Posey was on his way to becoming an All-Time great- he already has three World Series rings, an MVP award, and three Silver Sluggers. However, Posey has hit a brick wall in 2016. In his 8th year in the bigs, the Georgia native posted season-lows in batting average (.288), homers (14), and OPS (.796- David Ortiz posted a 1.021 mark to lead the Majors in that category). While still maintaining his status as a solid receiver (three errors all season), Posey will need to rediscover his middle-of-the order bat or the Giants will be doomed.
C. Chicago Cubs
#1- How will the Cubs handle playing meaningful baseball?
After winning the WC game last year, Chicago held the top spot in the NL central for all but 7 days in 2016. It’s fair to say they’ve coasted throughout the entire season. While Joe Maddon is heralded as one of baseball’s brightest minds, it will be a tough task for him to motivate this Cubs team due to the fact that they have not played in anywhere near a playoff-type atmosphere this season. Additionally, Maddon and the Cubs will experience a long layoff (about a week). That week can help teams (See- ‘15 Royals) or hurt them (See- ‘15 Cardinals). While I’ll still give the Cubs a good chance to hoist the WS trophy, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
#2- Will the rotation perform as advertised?
The Cubs have been said to have the best playoff rotation- Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey. Lackey and Lester have had a wealth of playoff experience, so I’m not worried about them. However, it’s a different story with Hendricks and Arrieta. Let’s start with Jake. After winning the 2015 NL CY Young, he has regressed mightily this year. Arrieta issued a whopping 78 free passes (46 last year), and his 3.10 ERA ranked a good run and a half higher than 2015’s 1.77 mark. Cubs fans may remember that after Arrieta tossed a shutout in the NL WC game, Jake surrendered 4 runs in his NLDS and NLCS starts last season, two games that the Cubs lost. As for Hendricks, he enjoyed his breakout year in 2016, posting a miniscule 2.13 ERA while quietly emerging as the Cubs’ regular season case. Like Arrieta, Hendricks faltered in last year’s playoffs- lasting no more than 4.2 innings over his two starts (One vs. STL, One vs. Mets).
#3- How will the Cubs handle Jason Heyward in October?
Baseball’s newest $200,000,000 position player recorded an awful .230 AVG and .309 OBP while only hitting 7 homers in 2016, by far his worst season statistically. However, both GM Theo Epstein and MANAGER Joe Maddon have lauded Heyward’s defensive prowess- he posted a career-high 28 defensive runs saved (A new stat started by Baseball Reference, consider it like WAR but fielding-exclusive). However, can you really be playing a .230 hitter in the playoffs? I’ll be interested to see if the Cubbies have the guts to start Jorge Soler or Willson Contreras in right while only using Heyward as a late-inning defensive replacement.
D. Washington Nationals
#1- How will injuries to the team’s best players affect their playoff chances?
After not being hit hard by the injury bug all year, the Nationals superstars have gone down in droves during September. Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and backstop Wilson Ramos were all sidelined for significant amounts of time in September. Murphy just enjoyed his best year at the plate, falling just one point shy of winning the batting title. Harper has had a down year, but he can still make a valuable difference in the field and in the clubhouse. Strasburg didn’t lose his first game until July, but has now announced that it’s unlikely he will pitch in the playoffs, furthering the stereotype that he’s not a big-game pitcher. As for Ramos, he was arguably the best hitting catcher in the Majors in 2016 and held the pitching staff together. With no Strasburg, no Ramos and limited availability of Harper and Murphy, I don’t think a championship is in the cards for these Nats.
#2- How will the rotation be affected by the loss of Ramos?
A catcher will tell you that his number one priority on any given night is to be on the same page with the starting pitcher. Over the course of 2016, Nats starters grew to be comfortable with Wilson Ramos behind the plate. All of a sudden, Ramos’ season-ending injury has forced backup catcher Jose Lobaton into a starting role- Lobaton caught only 39 games this year, or around 100 less than Ramos.
#3- Will Dusty Baker be able to avoid more bad playoff luck?
Dusty Baker has been the victim of unlucky breaks and bounces for around a decade now. Baker was at the helm in 2003, when Steve Bartman infamously reached over the stands and probably cost the Cubs a world series birth. A few years later, he was in the dugout as Roy Halladay threw just the second no-hitter in playoff history against Dusty’s Reds. Will Baker finally be able to receive a stroke of October luck or will it be more of the same for the loose, outgoing skipper?
E. Los Angeles Dodgers
#1- Will the Dodgers be able to avoid another early playoff exits?
After years of winning the division only to be knocked out in the playoffs, the Dodgers decided to get rid of Don Mattingly after the 2015 season. They hired the soft spoken Dave Roberts to take the helm. Under Roberts’ leadership, this short-handed Dodger team has somehow found its way to the NLDS yet again. Being a Yankee fan, I know of Roberts’ 2004 ALCS Heroics. Will his playoff experience allow for a deep October run?
#2- How will the Dodgers handle Clayton Kershaw?
Ever since signing their star ace to a $300,000,000 deal a few years ago, Dodgers management has coddled their prized possession. This year, they eased him back from a mild back injury that ended up costing the Dodger ace over two months. It will be intriguing to see how the front office directs Roberts to manage Clayton in October, or if they will give him free reign to go for a championship.
#3- Will Clayton Kershaw dispel of the myth that he can’t pitch in October?
Clayton Kershaw has a bad reputation in the playoffs. However, I looked up his postseason stats and realized that all of his postseason starts have been Kershaw-like save for a poor performance in the 2013 NLCS, when he allowed 7 runs to the Cardinals. In last year’s postseason, Kershaw shut down the Mets on the road in an elimination game, striking out 10 over 7 frames. With a few more good starts, he can buy himself a new playoff reputation.