With the Toronto Blue Jays outlasting the Baltimore Orioles in extra innings and the Conor Gillaspie’s dramatic 9th inning home run lifting the San Francisco Giants to victory over the New York Mets, the playoff field is set for what is sure to be another wild final push of the Major League Baseball season. In the first games of playoff action, the Blue Jays dominated the Texas Rangers 10-1 in Arlington and the Indians beat the Red Sox 5-4 in a game that featured six solo dingers (which ties a playoff record).

If there is one guarantee in baseball, and especially in the playoffs, it is that nothing is guaranteed. Remember when the Chicago White Sox were the hottest team in the MLB? When the playoffs roll around, streaking at the right time can make all the difference. Last year, 2B Daniel Murphy put an upstart Mets team on his back with an MLB record six consecutive playoff games with a home run en route to the World Series, before going just 3-for-20 as the Royals won in five games. However, sometimes even the players themselves won’t have control of the outcome of the game. Fans of the Chicago Cubs still cringe at the name Steve Bartman, though this year their club is in great position to end the longest championship drought in major American sports. The Cleveland Indians, who have won zero titles since 1948 but whose futility inspired three installments of the Major League movies, are also trying to avenge years of poor play. On the other end of the spectrum, the San Francisco Giants are pinning their hopes of continuing their odd trend of winning the World Series in even-numbered years on the arm of Madison Bumgarner (0.60 playoff ERA is lowest in MLB history). Buckle up baseball fans, because this is going to be a good one.

American League

  1. Texas Rangers (AL West Champion, 95-67)

Game 1: Toronto 10, Texas 1

Game 2: 12 pm CT in Arlington, TX

Strength: Veteran Hitters

Even after the loss of DH Prince Fielder, the Rangers remain a team built on experienced players. Just three of the Rangers’ everyday players are under the age of 30, and rookie phenom Nomar Mazara is the only player under 28. Future Hall-of-Famer 3B Adrian Beltre remains the linchpin of one of the league’s better offenses, batting .300 with 32 dingers and 104 runs batted in during his age-37 season. The Rangers were major buyers at the trade deadline, bringing in former All-Stars C Jonathan Lucroy, OF Carlos Gomez, and DH Carlos Beltran. Texas should hope that the collection of postseason experience in the locker room will be enough to win the series.

Weakness: Pitching Depth

The Rangers have let up the most runs out of any playoff team, which could be foreshadowing big issues later on. A lack of pitching depth makes it very difficult to take the 3rd or 4th games of a series, especially when Texas will be playing away from home during the American League series during that stretch. Though Cole Hamels had a great regular season, posting a 15-5 record with 200 strikeouts and a 3.32 ERA, the Blue Jays tagged him for 6 runs in just 3.1 innings of work in Game 1. And while 4th starter Yu Darvish showed signs of his old self this year, the collection of Marcus Perez, Derek Holland, and AJ Griffin can’t be trusted.

X-Factor: OF Nomar Mazara

The slugging rookie has been a good source of power for the Rangers, batting .266 for 20 homers. Mazara’s batting average is 30 points higher against lefty pitchers, so he could become a game-breaker if the Rangers wind up facing a southpaw heavy rotation.

Prediction: Loss in 4 games to Toronto in ALDS

  1. Cleveland Indians (AL Central Champion, 94-68)

Game 1: Cleveland 5, Boston 4

Game 2: 3:30 pm CT in Cleveland, OH

Strength: Balance

The Indians have been one of the most balanced teams in the league in 2016, as they have scored the 5th most runs and conceded the 7th least. They have a budding superstar at shortstop in five-tool player Francisco Lindor, who is in the talks for AL MVP despite being just 22 years old. Lindor isn’t the only young stud on the team, as utilityman Jose Ramirez and OF Tyler Naquin have both shown considerable potential. The youth is countered with experience from 1B Mike Napoli, DH Carlos Santana, and OF Rajai Davis. On the hill, the Indians have a former Cy Young award winner in Corey Kluber as well as one of the best young pitchers in the game in Danny Salazar.

Weakness: Injuries

It would have been really fun to see what this Indians team could have done if they had everyone healthy. The Indians’ best player, OF Michael Brantley, hasn’t swung a bat this season, and #2 starter and All-Star Carlos Carrasco was placed on the 60 day disabled list with a fractured right hand on Sep. 30. To make matters worse, Kluber has been sidelined with a quadriceps injury, but threw a bullpen session last Sunday and should be able to start tonight. Salazar has been out since early September, but may be able to pitch a game against the Red Sox.

X-Factor: SP Danny Salazar

In order for the Indians to topple the Red Sox in the divisional round, they need Salazar to not only pitch, but pitch well. The Red Sox have the most explosive offense in the game, and 5th starter Mike Clevenger and his 5.26 ERA are a long way away from Salazar.

Prediction: Loss in 5 games to Boston in ALDS

  1. Boston Red Sox (AL East Champion, 93-69)

Game 1: Cleveland 5, Boston 4

Game 2: 3:30 CT in Cleveland, OH

Strength: Offense

The Sox have put together the most potent offense in baseball, pacing the league in nearly every single batting category. They have scored 80 more runs than the next closest playoff team, and carry a ridiculous .282 batting average. OF Mookie Betts is the front runner for the AL MVP award, DH David Ortiz has put together a vintage season in his farewell tour, and SS Xander Bogaerts is an emerging star at shortstop. Boston hit three homers in Game 1, but is wasn’t enough to win.

Weakness: Depth

Boston has had their struggles with injuries this year, with former World Series MVP 3B Pablo Sandoval as well as promising OF Blake Swihart being the primary casualties. With these losses and a large rotation, the Sox have a thin bench. According to ESPN’s depth chart for the team, Travis Shaw is starting at both 1st base and 3rd base, and Brock Holt is the primary backup at every single field position except for catcher. While this is obviously not true in reality, it does accurately represent the team’s issue.

X-Factor: OF Jackie Bradley Jr.

The enigmatic outfielder’s short career has been characterized by short spurts of terrific play followed by droughts of poor play. Bradley, prior to the All-Star break, was batting .296 behind a 29 game hitting streak. After the All-Star break, his average plummeted to .233. If Bradley can get hot, the Red Sox can hop on the 26 year old’s back and coast to a World Series title.

Prediction: Loss in 6 games to Chicago in the World Series

  1. Toronto Blue Jays (2nd Place AL East, 89-73)

Game 1: Toronto 10, Texas 1

Game 2: 12 pm CT in Arlington, TX

Strength: Star Power

The Blue Jays are pinning their hopes on the big bats of the established stars in the middle of the lineup. Toronto is doing a pretty good Murderer’s Row impression with the middle of their lineup; pitchers will face reigning AL MVP 3B Josh Donaldson, 5-time All Star SS Troy Tulowitzki, 2-time MLB home run leader and the league’s best bat flipper OF Jose Bautista, and the AL RBI leader Edwin Encarnacion all in succession. Bautista, Donaldson, and Tulowitzki all played major offensive roles in their Game 1 triumph.

Weakness: Age

2B Devon Travis is the only starter in a field position under the age of 29, as the team is reliant on players in their mid-thirties. The rotation is dotted with older players like 41 year-old knuckleballer SP R.A. Dickey, 39 year-old RP Jason Grilli, and a crew of four 33 year-olds. While those players, like SP Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, have performed well above expectations, the duration of the MLB season can take its toll on a pitcher.

X-Factor: SP Marcus Stroman / SP Aaron Sanchez

The Blue Jays could make a serious run at the World Series if their young pitchers can heat up. Stroman entered the season as the established ace of the staff, though his season didn’t produce the numbers expected of him. He did get the win when it counted over the Orioles in the wild card game, but the Blue Jays won’t go far if his ERA remains well above 4. Sanchez was restrained by the coaching staff towards the end of the season, but the 24 year-old enters the postseason with a 3.00 ERA and a 15-2 record. The duo can wreak havoc on opponents, and is the key to the Jays’ success.

Prediction: Loss in 6 games to Boston in ALCS

National League

  1. Chicago Cubs (NL Central Champion, 103-58)

Game 1: 8 pm CT in Chicago, IL

Strength: Everything

There is no one attribute that stands out as the league’s best team’s defining quality, which makes sense considering the North Siders had 7 players named to the All-Star game. The Cubs have scored the 3rd most runs in the league, and let up the least. The rotation, anchored by reigning Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and All-Star Jon Lester, has conceded an ERA of just 3.15 and held opponents to a batting average of .212. The Cubs have a batting order that could inflict pain throughout, headlined by NL MVP candidate 3B Kris Bryant.

Weakness: Curse of the Billy Goat / Maybe Fielding?

The Cubs are somewhat towards the back end of the league in fielding percentage, but that likely won’t matter. The curse of the billy goat, however, is probably the biggest obstacle Chicago will face. While a cursed baseball team may not be a real thing (unlikely), the pressure of having to deliver a title to a franchise that hasn’t been on top since 1908 after being one of the better regular season teams in baseball history could hamper inexperienced players like OF Jorge Soler or SS Addison Russell.

X-Factor: RP Aroldis Chapman

After serving a suspension for domestic abuse over the first part of the season, the flame-throwing Cuban whose fastball has topped out at 106 mph has returned to form. The closer arrived via trade with the Yankees, and has been dominant in 2016. Chapman has 36 saves and 90 strikeouts in only 58 innings. The bullpen increases in importance when the playoffs roll around, and Chapman must close out games if the Cubs want to win it all.

Prediction: Beat Boston in 6 games in the World Series

  1. Washington Nationals (NL East Champion, 95-67)

Game 1: 4:30 pm CT in Washington, DC

Strength: Defense

All season, Washington has been able to win consistently despite cold streaks from top players largely in part to tremendous defense. Having likely NL Cy Young winner SP Max Scherzer and SP Stephen Strasburg (who probably would’ve beaten out Scherzer if not for injury) on the hill helps, but the Nats are tied for the MLB lead in fielding percentage and have committed the 2nd-least errors in the league. The outfield of Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, and Jayson Werth are more than just mashers; they are strong defensive players as well (Werth leads all left fielders in fielding percentage).

Weakness: Injuries

Just before the postseason came around, All Star C Wilson Ramos tore his ACL on Sep. 26, ending the best season of his career prematurely. Ramos was batting .307 and had hit 22 homers, and was one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Though the status of Stephen Strasburg is still up in the air, his loss could be even more devastating. Strasburg was dominant through the first half of the season, but elbow issues hampered him and the Nationals were forced to place him on the DL on Sep. 7. Manager Dusty Baker has ruled him out of the NLDS against the Dodgers, and stated that his star pitcher may not play at all this postseason.

X-Factor: SP Stephen Strasburg / OF Trea Turner

When Strasburg pitches, it is very difficult to beat the Nationals, so whether or not he plays could be a major determinant in how far Washington advances. They do have another X-Factor type player in rookie OF Trea Turner, however. Turner has been electric since he was called up to the majors, batting an impressive .342 with 13 dingers and 33 stolen bases in only 73 games. If he isn’t prepared for the bright lights of postseason ball, it will be hard for the Nationals to make a World Series run.

Prediction: Loss in 7 games to Chicago in NLCS 

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers (NL West Champion, 91-71)

Game 1: 4:30 pm CT in Washington, DC

Strength: Top Pitchers

The discussion of the best pitcher of this decade starts and ends with SP Clayton Kershaw. The 3-time Cy Young Winner and the 2014 NL MVP, Kershaw has been slowed by injuries this year. Kershaw still sported an ERA of 1.64 and 172 strikeouts in his shortened season, though his first round opponent, Max Scherzer, is one of the few hurlers who can rival him. After Kershaw, former Oakland A SP Rich Hill and Korean export SP Kenta Maeda have put together strong seasons. Opponents also can’t overlook closer Kenley Jansen, one of the best in the business.

Weakness: Offensive Players not named Corey Seager or Justin Turner

The Dodgers are average or below average in most offensive categories, including a team batting average of just .249. SS Corey Seager and 3B Justin Turner have been tremendous this season, and former franchise player 1B Adrian Gonzalez has been solid, but the rest of the team has been underwhelming. The offense will have to keep pace with explosive teams such as Washington or Chicago, and that may be out of their reach.

X-Factor: SP Julio Urias

The stud rookie pitcher is 4th in the Dodgers rotation, making it likely he will start a game or more if the Dodgers make a playoff run. While still one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, Urias is a long way away from Kershaw, Hill, and Maeda. How he responds to the high-pressure situations he will face could determine the Dodgers’ fate.

Prediction: Loss in 5 games to Washington in the NLDS 

  1. San Francisco Giants (2nd Place NL West, 87-75)

Game 1: 8 pm CT in Chicago, IL

Strength: Experience

It’s an even year, so that means the Giants will win the 2016 World Series. While that statement, may not be accurate, the Giants’ titles in 2010, 2012, and 2014 mean they have been the most successful team of this decade. Manager Bruce Bochy has led the team since 2007, and OF Denard Span and 3B Eduardo Nunez are the only starters who haven’t won a World Series title. Their NLDS opponents, the Chicago Cubs, have only one everyday starter, OF Ben Zobrist, who has a ring.

Weakness: Power Hitting

Though the Giants rank 11th in batting average, they are 28th in home runs and 25th in slugging percentage. San Francisco’s best home run hitter, 1B Brandon Belt, hit just 17 home runs on the season, good for a tie for the 117th best mark in the MLB. C Buster Posey has had better power numbers in the past, as his 14 homer season was the lowest mark of his career in a season where he had at least 400 at-bats. Home runs can bring huge changes in momentum, and the Giants will have trouble keeping pace with opponents on days when Madison Bumgarner isn’t pitching.

X-Factor: C Buster Posey

Widely regarded as the best catcher in the bigs, the 2012 NL MVP and 4-time All Star has not been himself lately. Posey has hit just 3 home runs since the All-Star break, and his batting average dropped to .282 over the second half. If the Giants want to continue the even-year streak, they will need a vintage Posey performance. Unfortunately for them, Posey has batted just .111 against the Cubs in 2016.

Prediction: Loss in 4 to Chicago in NLDS


Photo courtesy of Deadspin