The regular season is over and the playoffs begin tonight. Over the course of the next month the ten remaining clubs will battle for baseball supremacy, with a champion crowed no later than November 1.
You can be forgiven if, before now, you weren’t 100% acquainted with the main storylines connected with the path each playoff took to the postseason and the path each playoff team hopes to take through it. You all have busy lives. Which is why we’ve put together this handy-dandy guide to get you up to speed to what’s going on with the contenders.
The Cubs are aiming for a repeat
The defending champs are back in the playoffs and they’re trying to buck recent history. No team has repeated as World Series champs since the 2000 Yankees completed their 1998-2000 threepeat and no National League team has repeated since the 1976 Reds. Breaking 108 years of futility last season was a more historic feat, but the Cubs would love to complete this somewhat lesser one.
They’re not as dominant a club as the 2016 edition, winning 11 fewer games than the 2016 Cubs. That was mostly due to a slow start, however. In the second half, this year’s Cubs team went 49-25, which was the best record in the National League after the All-Star break. Last year’s went 50-23. They righted the ship after a lot of uneven early season play and, with a few exceptions — most notably the absence of closer Aroldis Chapman and the addition of starter Jose Quintana— it’s the same group of guys you got to know in 2016.
The Indians are back too
Cleveland came oh so close to winning it all and breaking their own championship drought last year, losing in Game 7 to Chicago. They’re back this year and they are a much better, much healthier club. The oddsmakers have them as World Series favorites, in fact. And why not? The won an AL record 22 consecutive games in September and won 33 of their last 37. They’re a deeper team this year, with a healthier rotation and, if possible, an even better bullpen than the dominant group they assembled last year thanks to the addition of Danny Salazar and Mike Clevinger, who will back Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Expect Terry Francona to call on those four early and often in the playoffs, looking to shorten games and bring the trophy that eluded them last year to the shores of Lake Erie in 2017. Anything less will be considered a disappointment.
Remember the Dodgers?
For much of the 2017 season the Los Angeles Dodgers looked like not only the best team in baseball but one of the best teams in baseball history, at one point winning at a pace that rivaled the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners and 114-win 1998 Yankees. Los Angeles still finished with more wins than any other team in baseball — 104 — but they stumbled badly in late August and into September, going 13-17 in the season’s final month. They righted the ship somewhat late, winning eight of their last ten, but seven of those ten games came against the woeful Phillies, Giants and Padres. What kind of team does Dave Roberts have as it enters the playoffs? It’s hard to say. It’s easy to say, however, that as the Dodgers play in their fifth straight postseason, another Division Series of LCS failure will cast what once seemed to be a magical 2017 season as a failure.
The Astros will try to bash their way through the playoffs
No one scored more runs than the Houston Astros did in 2017 and only one team — the Yankees — hit more homers than the Astros did. We have no questions whatsoever about that lineup, anchored by batting champion Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa. The question will be what sort of starting pitching they get to go with it. The pickup of Justin Verlander at the end of August was big for Houston, and he was fantastic for them down the stretch, going 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA and with 43 strikeouts and only five walks in 34 innings across five starts. Beyond him, however, are questions, with Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers and Collin McHugh having up-and-down years, with injuries besetting all of them at one time or another. The bullpen is not dominant either. The conventional wisdom holds that playoff baseball is low scoring. The Astros will try to flip that script this October.
Are the Nationals healthy enough to live up to their potential?
The Nationals cruised all season long, effectively ending the NL East race before the kids got out of school. They are a phenomenally talented team, but health is a question mark at the moment. Ace Max Scherzer left his final start of the season with a hamstring injury that, while not knocking him out of the playoff picture, could impact his durability and could alter manager Dusty Baker’s playoff rotation. Likewise, Bryce Harper is just coming back from a deep bone bruise that kept him out of action from mid-August until the final week of the season, during which he showed rust, going only 3-for-18 with no extra base hits.
It’s a new-look Red Sox team in 2017
Boston won the division, which is not a shock. How they did it, however, is quite different than what we’re used to. In a season which saw league home run records shattered, the Red Sox hit the fourth fewest in baseball and the least among all playoff teams. For the Sox to make noise in the postseason they’ll do it with young hitters Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi hitting line drives, applying pressure on the base paths and running down the ball on defense. Chris Sale was either the best or second best pitcher in the American League this season (depending on how you rank Corey Kluber) and he’ll anchor the rotation, with Drew Pomeranz slotting behind him. Beyond that there are questions, both with the back of the rotation — we may see Sale on short rest — and the guys in the bullpen not named Craig Kimbrel.
Welcome to the national stage, Aaron Judge
The Yankees were supposed to be in a rebuilding year. Aaron Judge’s 52-homer, 1.049 OPS season went a long way toward chucking that plan, leading the Yankees to 91 wins and the Wild Card. Judge swooned for much of the second half before a strong finish, however, and while the spotlight in New York is always bright, more experienced players than he have failed to rise to the occasion in the postseason before. The Yankees have other offensive weapons — most notably catcher Gary Sanchez — and the Aroldis Chapman-led bullpen is dominant. Their starting pitching has been something of a weak link this year, however, with Luis Severino looking like an ace most of the season while CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka were uneven at times.
The Wild Card teams are a Cinderella story
The Yankees certainly surprised on their way to snagging the top Wild Card in the American League, but they didn’t surprise anywhere near the way the other three Wild Card teams did. The Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies were a combined 203-283 in 2016 and now all three are in the playoffs. Given that the Dbacks play the Rockies in a one-and-done tomorrow night, at least one of them will make the Division Series. Anything any of the three of these teams do against division winners — three of which won over 100 games and another of which won 97 — will be the stuff of Cinderella stories.
So that’s how things shape up as we begin the playoffs, just after 8PM Eastern time tonight, when the Twins take on the Yankees in the American League Wild Card game. Strap in for a wild month, folks.