***Let me start with an explanation – I haven’t posted anything in 6 months, and as some of you know, my absence was due to my son’s car crash and subsequent brain injuries. He’s lucky to be alive and it’s been a VERY long summer, but I’m happy to report that he’s improved markedly over the past month. I want to thank EVERYONE who has helped through this ordeal, in large ways or small – you are all VERY much appreciated!
In October 1992 I was a freshman at Penn State. Many of the memories from that year have faded, but one that will never fade is the memory of Game 7 vs. the Braves. You know the details, so I won’t re-hash that game here…Pirate fans knew that team’s run was over, but NO ONE could have guessed we’d have to wait 21 years for a .500 season, much less a postseason berth.
Thanks to Bud Selig’s new wild-card format, the Pirates have indeed made the playoffs – but Uncle Bud giveth, and he taketh away…the reward is a high-stress, winner-take-all game to get to the Division Series. In other words, the equivalent of a coin flip. Still, ANY honest Pirate fan would tell you that a 50% chance at the Division Series is a.) far more than they ever expected in March, and b.) worth waiting for. Things are harder to appreciate ‘in the moment’, and if Pittsburgh loses Tuesday night there will be a lot of broken hearts…but as time passes we will all keep a fond place in our hearts for this group, the team that brought hope to PNC Park for the first time.
This year’s preview is going to be a little different. Instead of going team-by-team, I’m going to rank the playoff teams’ offense, starting pitching/defense, bullpens, and end with how I rank their World Series chances. We’ll get to the American League later this week. Let’s start with the bats.
3 Los Angeles
1 St. Louis
NOTES: The Pirates are BY FAR the lowest-scoring team to make the postseason this year, and will be the lowest-scoring team to make the playoffs since at least 2002 (I stopped looking at that point). Interesting to note that the Bucs have actually scored 30 LESS runs than they did last year – they have truly won in spite of their offense. Making matters worse was their atrocious situational hitting – they batted only .229 with runners in scoring position, only the Cubs were worse.
The Dodgers are actually the second-lowest scoring team, but they’ve dealt with a myriad of injuries all season and their second-half production was much better, so I bumped them ahead of the boom-or-bust Braves.
Atlanta led the league in home runs, but two of their regulars hit under .200 and as a team they hit only .247. The Reds are extremely top-heavy – Choo, Votto, Bruce and Philips are great, but the bottom half of the lineup struggled all season.
The Cards don’t feature the longball, but they do have five regulars hitting .295 or better, plus great production from Philipsburg’s Matt Adams (.285 with 17 HRs in about a half-season of at-bats). One concern is that the Cards’ run production is largely built on their spectacular hitting with runners in scoring position – as a team they hit .330 in those situations, which blew away the all-time record and led second-place Colorado by 59 points! One has to wonder if they can sustain that through the postseason.
Of these five teams, only St. Louis will score 700+ runs this year – only three years ago, scoring less than 700 meant you had virtually no chance to make the playoffs. How quickly times have changed in MLB!
5 St. Louis
2 Los Angeles
NOTES: None of these teams has POOR starting pitching, but the Cards have more questions than most. Their ‘ace’, Wainwright, has good overall numbers but stumbled quite a bit down the stretch, their #2 is a rookie with a relatively high innings count, and they have a bit of a mess for their #3 and #4 slots.
Cincy is solid, but not overpowering, especially with Latos injured and Cueto rusty due to injury. Mike Leake had their second-best ERA, but he’s a finesse pitcher and could get knocked around by a good offense, and fourth starter Bronson Arroyo faded badly down the stretch.
Atlanta has three quality starters, but no one stud pitcher they can count on for two guaranteed dominant starts, and their fourth starter is also a concern.
The Dodgers have the best pitcher in the NL and good depth with Grienke and Ryu, but they also have fourth-starter issues and you have to account for their pitcher-friendly ballpark.
The Pirates have the best 1-4 rotation in the NL with Liriano, Burnett, Morton and Cole. Cole has become the horse everyone envisioned when he was drafted 1st overall, and Charlie Morton has quietly had an incredible run the past two months after returning from elbow surgery…in his last 10 starts he’s allowed two or fewer runs eight times, and never walked more than three batters in an outing. In addition, the Pirates have excellent defensive numbers, particularly in the outfield, while the Reds and Cards in particular have question marks on defense.
5 Los Angeles
4 St. Louis
NOTES: The Dodgers’ Achilles heel has been their bullpen, as their 3.56 ERA is 10th in the NL – and that number would be a lot worse without the yeoman work done by closer Kenley Jansen (75 innings, 109 K’s, 1.90 ERA). Paco Rodriguez has done well in a setup role, but the rest of the pen has been up and down and by and large lacks elite arms.
St. Louis also lacks depth in their bullpen – closer Edward Mujica has had a superficially great season, but he is not a strikeout pitcher and his walk rate (only five walks in 64 innings) is simply not sustainable going forward. Trevor Rosenthal has had a great season, on par with Jansen’s, and lefty Kevin Siegrist has been good in a limited role, but after that it gets mediocre very quickly.
Pittsburgh was in contention for the #1 slot on this list until Jason Grilli’s injury. When Grilli is at full strength the Bucs boast a quartet of relievers that can match up with any in baseball – Grilli rang up 74 K’s in only 49 innings, Mark Melancon has a 1.41 ERA (even after recent struggles) and has walked only eight in 70 innings, and the lefty duo of Tony Watson and Justin Wilson have combined for 143 innings of excellent relief with high heat (each throws 95-98 MPH). Unfortunately the injury to Grilli, and the late-season hiccup by Melancon, has left a few questions for the playoffs – who is the closer, and does Grilli have enough stuff to succeed now (his fastball is down 3-4 MPH from its pre-injury level)? The middle relief is fairly mediocre aside from long-man Jeanmar Gomez. The Grilli/Melancon situation could determine how the Bucs fare in October, as this team has played close games all season.
Cincinnati ranks ahead of the Bucs because of Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall. Chapman has recorded an absurd 112 K’s in 66 innings, and Marshall is a top lefty set-up man when healthy. Sam LeCure and JJ Hoover provide above-average depth.
Atlanta led the league in reliever ERA, and it was no fluke – Craig Kimbrel recorded 49 saves and a 1.25 ERA, Luis Avilan and David Carpenter are great set-up men, and there’s quality depth with Alex Wood, Anthony Varvaro, and Jordan Walden. Among the relievers with 3+ innings, not a single one posted an ERA above 3.30.
World Series Probability:
3 St. Louis
1 Los Angeles
NOTES: Let’s start out with the same thing I say every year – there are NO UPSETS in the playoffs, in baseball any team can beat any other team over a 1, 5, or 7 game series. This NL group in particular looks to be fairly close and very unpredictable – the Pirates stand out for their poor offense, but their great starting pitching should keep them in every game, and close games are historically 50/50 affairs throughout MLB history.
I rank the Bucs fourth because I do think they can and will beat the Reds, but given they are in a one-and-done game both teams have no margin for error and have to be ranked lowest on this chart. I would favor either Cincy or the Bucs over the Cards in a best-of-five, because I do not believe the Cards have the pitching to match up, and sooner or later their clutch hitting will regress to the mean. If the Cards’ bats perform even close to their regular-season level, though, they should be the league champions.
Atlanta is going to be a very tough out for anyone – if they take a lead to the 8th inning, the game is just about over – but they have big problems at the bottom of their lineup, and their starting pitching is just a touch too uncertain for me to make them the favorites.
The Dodgers are not without flaws – their crazy August hot streak masked what was a sub-.500 team for most of the year, and the bottom of their lineup isn’t exactly Murderer’s Row either – but Puig, Ramirez, Gonzalez and Kemp make for a very solid core. More importantly, however, to beat LA you’re going to have to solve Kershaw, Grienke, and Ryu at least twice, possibly three times in a 5-game series. That’s a tall task, and their dominance is enough to make the Dodgers my favorite to be NL champions.