The long marathon is over and the month-long sprint has begun. It’s playoff time. When baseball switches from leisurely diversion to one intense showdown after another. Here are the characters:
Angels: Owners of the best record in all of baseball and the best offense in all of baseball. Employer of the man, Mike Trout, who is most likely to win the AL MVP award. A team which fell far below expectations the past couple of years despite signing all sorts of big name players like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson. But it coalesced for them in 2014. Trout was Trout, the pitching was considerably improved and those big names, while still not quite earning the big paychecks they received, were good enough. STRENGTHS: The power here is the offense and, to some degree, a bullpen which manager Mike Scioscia crafted and perfected on the fly, reminding people why he used to be considered one of the best managers in all of baseball. WEAKNESSES: The starting pitching is a bit thin due to injuries, with Matt Shoemaker is coming back from a mild oblique injury. If he returns to the form he had before he went down, things should be OK. If not, Scioscia will have to keep spinning plates and plugging in relievers at a pretty quick pace. OUTOOK: Home field throughout the playoffs, including the World Series thanks to Trout’s heroics in the All-Star Game. Probably the betting favorite, but not without flaws and, in some key players, playoff inexperience.
Orioles: They lost their starting catcher, third baseman and their 2013 offensive MVP to injuries, ineffectiveness and, finally, a drug suspension. Yet they were barely challenged all year, running away with the AL East. A combination of good luck — who would’ve thought Steve Pearce would come in and be an offensive hero or that Nelson Cruz would hit 40 homers following his 2013 drug suspension? — and good leadership. If you’re looking for an X-Factor, how about Buck Showalter. In an age where there are so many inexperienced managers inexplicably being placed at the helm of playoff-caliber teams, Showalter’s experience and ability to improvise like he has may do more to explain Baltimore’s pretty good three-year run than anything else. STRENGTHS: They feature a powerful, home-run heavy attack, as they lead all of baseball in bombs, though they didn’t strike out as much as big bopping team like this might be expected to, finishing the year only 11th in team strikeouts. WEAKNESSES: For all of that power, they had a pretty pedestrian team on-base percentage, and it’s never too surprising when big bats go cold in October and pitching comes to the fore. As for pitching: they don’t have any big-name aces in that rotation, even if they have several competent starters. One wonders if there is a starter here that trade bullets with some of the aces the Tigers, Royals and A’s can trot out there. OUTLOOK: If the Orioles win it all, some new heroes — at least guys who are new to non-Orioles fans — will have emerged. Chris Tillman or Miguel Gonzalez, anyone?
Tigers: Their fourth straight division title and the now-expected return to the playoffs. It’s the same basic story, too: a potent offensive attack, even if Miguel Cabrera has had a downish year (for him anyway). Multiple Cy Young Award winners in the rotation. A bullpen which makes Tigers fans and manager Brad Ausmus reach for the antacids. STRENGTHS: The 1-2 punch of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello are easily the best 1-4 arms in the AL playoff pool. They have playoff experience out the wazoo too, if that sort of thing means anything. WEAKNESSES: Joe Nathan and the rest of the Tigers pen has been shaky as all get-out all year. If the starters don’t stifle the opposition and if Detroit ends up in 6-5 games in the sixth inning, say, well, things aren’t going to go well for them. OUTLOOK: The less the bullpen matters, the father the Tigers will go. But when was the last time a team made it through the playoffs without the bullpen mattering?
Royals: A healthy portion of you all weren’t alive the last time the Royals made the playoffs. Heck, a healthy portion of the Royals’ roster wasn’t either. That narrative will be pushed down our throats for as long as Kansas City remains alive in the playoffs. Even if they only manage to play in the wild card game before exiting we’ll likely be tired of it. That stuff is more about the fans than the players, though. For the Royals as a team it will be all about scraping together enough offense to allow their excellent pitching to carry them. STRENGTHS: An amazingly good bullpen. If you’re losing to the Royals by the seventh inning, odds are that you are not comin’ back, what with Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland throwing bullets at you. The rotation is excellent too, with Danny Duffy, James Shields and Yordano Ventura leading the way. WEAKNESSES: Oh, that offense. The Royals were the first team since 1992 to not get 100 homers. To put it mildly, you can pitch to these guys. Also: Ned Yost may be a nice man, but no one considers him a tactical genius. If it comes down to strategy vs. strategy, Yost may be more of a hindrance than a help to this club. OUTLOOK: if they get even a little offense, they could be a dangerous team.
Nationals: The best team in the entire playoff field? Hard to argue against that. A solid offense with no real holes, even if they don’t have an MVP candidate. A deep and experienced pitching staff with three guys who could be ace starters on multiple playoff teams. Once they got healthy in the second half it was smooth sailing. They look like they could keep up a winning pace indefinitely. STRENGTHS: Veteran experience and lots and lots of guys who can just kill you. If Jayson Werth goes cold, Adam LaRoche, Anthony Rendon or Bryce Harper can step up. It’s somewhat like those 1990s Yankees teams in which there are no easy outs. They’ll exhaust the opposition. The 1-2-3-4 of Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann, Tanner Roark and Stephen Strasburg is quite a thing. WEAKNESSES: There was uncertainty at the back of the bullpen late in the season, with Rafael Soriano losing his job. Drew Storen has come roaring back this year, however, so even if the roles are a bit upset, the arms are all pretty darn strong. OUTLOOK: They look to be the best team in baseball as the playoffs begin. And their path through the NL is easier than any of the AL contenders’ paths. They have to be considered the favorite.
Dodgers: The most glamorous team in the playoff race? Probably the one Major League Baseball wants to see go the farthest, in the interests of TV ratings and marketing, anyway. And they certainly have the talent to make it, led by show-in Cy Young winner and MVP favorite Clayton Kershaw. Yasiel Puig is the most exciting and frustrating player in the game, depending on what day it is anyway. Or even what moment. STRENGTHS: Kershaw, of course, and the other starting pitchers such as Zack Greinke and Hyu-Jin Ryu, though each of them has had some physical problems in the second half. The offense will be a strength if Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez stay hot. Puig is great, but he is prone to slumps and can’t be expected to do it alone. WEAKNESSES: The middle relief and setup guys are kind of scary. Getting the ball to closer Kenley Jansen can be an adventure. OUTLOOK: Certainly a strong contender, but it’ll be the second bananas — Greinke, Ryu, Gonzalez, Kemp — who determine how far this team goes.
Cardinals: Even when they were down in the middle of the season you always got the sense the Cards would win the division. They’re more a force of inevitability than any team in baseball, frankly. And history has shown us that when the Cardinals limp into the playoffs with a subpar year, they tend to, you know, win the World Series (see, 2006, 2011). Maybe that’s just flukey, but a lot of people have been wrong to undersell the Cards in October over the years. STRENGTHS: The old reliable guys are still who matter here: Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina. All of them have forgotten more about playoff baseball than the rest of the field will ever know. Wainwright has come on strong late in the season following a dead arm period early in the second half. But it’s not just Wainwright. Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn have been solid down the stretch. WEAKNESSES: Michael Wacha has been a playoff hero in the past, but was shaky in his last start and it’s unclear if he’ll even be in the playoff rotation. Overall the offense has been the Cardinals’ big liability this year. They need a hero to emerge. Someone to get hot for a couple of weeks. No one has really done that for the Cards all year. OUTLOOK: Never count out the Cardinals, but they are certainly a step down from the Nats and Dodgers overall.
Pirates: They were in the hunt for the NL Central title until the very last day and, for some reason, seem stronger than a mere wild card team. I guess having the best all-around player in the National League in Andrew McCutchen will do that for you. And while they made the playoffs last year, expect them to get the same treatment the Royals will get: “How about those Pirates! After so long in the wilderness!” A certain segment of people will probably be rooting for a KC-Pittsburgh World Series. If it happens, the “Baseball is Dying” people will snark about ratings, forgetting that part of their narrative was about how small market teams have no chance to compete. Could be fun! STRENGTHS: McCutchen, of course. Russell Martin may have just had the most unnoticed amazing year in history and gets on base like crazy. Josh Harrison has been an all-around threat, playing five positions and having a great offensive year. Solid defense has been the Pirates’ calling card for two years and it may be the most underrated part of their game. WEAKNESSES: They had the 10th best starting pitching ERA in baseball this year, but still, starting pitching is a big question mark. Edinson Volquez is the Pirates’ starter in a win-or-go-home game on Tuesday. That doesn’t exactly instill fear in anyone. OUTLOOK: They’ll go as far as their starting pitching takes them. That may not be far.
Giants: It’s an even numbered year and the Giants win the World Series when that happens, right? Eh, OK, I guess that’s not very scientific, but they have a ton of playoff experience, performers like Hunter Pence and Buster Posey who are capable of carrying the team and rising to the occasion and in Bruce Bochy, one of the surest hands in all of baseball. STRENGTHS: Having Madison Bumgarner for the wild card game is key. And Jake Peavy has been a revelation since coming over in a midseason trade. Beyond that, well, uncertainty. The offense has a lot of guys who had really good years, but a whole lot of that was front-loaded, as the Giants early season offense was shockingly strong. Since then it’s been more uneven. WEAKNESSES: That unevenness. They may be the most up-and-down, inconsistent team in the playoffs. They’re better off than Oakland in this regard — not all of the Giants’ ups were confined to the first half — but this is a box of chocolates team. You never know what you’re gonna get. OUTLOOK: Nothing can surprise you with a veteran team like San Francisco, but if they beat the Pirates in the wild card, they match up with the Nationals, and that matchup does not favor them. It’s gonna be an uphill climb.
Those are the invitees to the party. The party begins tomorrow with the Royals and A’s facing off in Kansas City and then continues on Tuesday with the Pirates and the Giants battling in Pittsburgh. After that things begin in earnest with the Division Series beginning on Thrusday.