The 2012 MLB regular season has concluded. Friday, the first-ever wild card games will be played in Texas and Atlanta. There are some familiar faces returning to the postseason such as the Yankees, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Cardinals.
But with these traditional contenders come some surprise teams that are trying to prove they belong with the big boys. Baltimore, Oakland, Washington and Cincinnati all made the playoffs after losing seasons in 2011.
But who will get through the grueling path of October baseball? Can the Cardinals bring back their postseason magic of last year and repeat as champions? Will one of the powerhouses reign supreme once again? Or will one of the surprise teams crash the party and cap off an already amazing season?
Here are my predictions as to who will hoist the Commissioner's Trophy in November.
Wild Card Games
In the first wild-card matchup, I think the Braves will defeat the Cardinals in a low-scoring affair. It will be a pitcher's duel between Kyle Lohse and Kris Medlen. Both had double-digit win seasons and ERAs under two. St. Louis has the stronger lineup, but Medlen will shine in his postseason debut and lead the Braves to a 3-1 victory.
In the second wild-card game, I like the Rangers to beat the Orioles, ending Baltimore's dream season. As hot as the Orioles have been, they probably would have matched up better against Oakland. The Rangers, as bad as they've been playing lately, are still one of the most talented teams in baseball. Their lineup is one of the deepest in the league, and they will surely find a way to get to Joe Saunders, who has a 4.07 ERA. Yu Darvish will pitch well enough to win, and Texas will survive 7-4.
Braves vs. Nationals
If the Braves were to win the first game, they will most likely start Tim Hudson for Game 1 followed by Tommy Hanson in Game 3 and possibly go to Medlen on four days of rest. Paul Maholm and Mike Minor are also viable options.
Washington will be well-rested, and Gio Gonzalez will get the Game 1 start for the Nats. Washington could go to a four-man rotation with Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. The Nationals hit 192 home runs, which was second in the NL, to go along with a pitching staff that led the NL in ERA and had the third-most strikeouts. Atlanta's offense isn't as impressive, but they make up for it with some pretty good pitching. The Braves pitching staff accumulated a 3.42 ERA and led the league in shutouts.
The biggest question will be whether the Nationals can make a run at the title without Stephen Strasburg. A championship may be a stretch, but I like Washington to get past Atlanta in four games.
Giants vs. Reds
This will be a series about pitching. Cincinnati's rotation is one of the most underrated in the game. Led by ace Johnny Cueto, the Reds were tied for second in the NL in ERA. Don't sleep on Mat Latos either; he went 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA and could be a crucial pitcher for the Reds in the postseason.
The Giants pitching staff is great as well. Matt Cain will start the series for San Francisco, and Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong should both make an impact for the Giants. There isn't much great to say about the lineups. Both the Giants and Reds are middle-of-the-pack in runs scored. San Francisco has a considerably better batting average than Cincinnati, but the Giants have only hit 103 homers this year. Joey Votto and Buster Posey will be relied on heavily to be big-time producers in this series.
These two teams are both very even, but I like San Francisco's rotation just a little bit more than Cincinnati's. I'm taking the Giants in five, with a complete game from Matt Cain clinching the series.
Rangers vs. Yankees
The World Series champion could be decided in this series. This series will feature the top two offenses in the league. Texas holds slight edges in total runs scored and batting average, but the Yankees own the lead in home runs and on-base percentage.
The Yankees lineup has been injured all season, and Joe Girardi has been switching his lineup since the spring. The Yankees will most likely start CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte in games 1-3. The question is whether Phil Hughes or Ivan Nova will make it a four-man rotation.
Texas's rotation has been inconsistent all season, and they acquired Ryan Dempster in July. Dempster, despite stellar numbers in Chicago, struggled at times with the Rangers. Yu Darvish is starting the Wild Card game, so Ron Washington would have to choose between Dempster, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison to be his Game 1 starter.
Both these offenses can score and score often, but I'll take Sabathia, Kuroda and Pettitte over Dempster, Darvish, Harrison and Holland. I'm taking the Yankees in four games.
Athletics vs. Tigers
I had to double check this before typing it because it's still so surprising. The A's made up a 13-game deficit to overcome the Rangers and win the AL West. The Tigers were up and down all season but made a push during the final month of the season to steal the AL Central from the White Sox.
The A's lineup is nothing special. They have a .238 batting average, which is second to last in the AL, but can hit the long ball with 195 home runs. Their lineup is very balanced, but Yoenis Cespedes is the guy to look out for on the A's roster.
Detroit's lineup is led by Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Austin Jackson. Cabrera is coming off of a season where he was the 10th player in league history to hit for the Triple Crown. Cabrera and Fielder are arguably the scariest 3-4 duo in the playoffs. The A's and Tigers' pitching staffs are the second- and third-best rotations in the league respectively. The A's are led by Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone, but Detroit has the best pitcher in the series in Justin Verlander.
Detroit may have the star power, but Oakland is the hottest team in the majors. Oakland will find a way to win this series in five games.
League Championship Round
Giants vs. Nationals
This will be a competitive series. Both offenses are very even in runs scored and batting average. The Giants' lack of home-run hitters could be their downfall if they cannot manufacture runs. Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval will have to be hitting well if the Giants are to win this series.
It will be interesting to see Bryce Harper in the brightest of lights, but look for Ryan Zimmerman to be the spark of the offense. This series will be a great pitchers' series. I'm hoping we get to see a Gonzalez and Cain matchup at least once during the series.
San Francisco's pitching staff is top-notch, and if Vogelsong and Bumgarner can continue their great seasons, the Nationals may have trouble scoring runs.
If Strasburg is pitching in this series, I'd take the Nationals. But he isn't, and San Francisco's depth in the rotation will make the Nats question their decision to shut Strasburg down. I like San Francisco to make it in six games.
Athletics vs. Yankees
The battle of the payrolls. Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics will hope to ride its storybook season into the sunset with a title. To get a chance to do that, they'll first have to get past the high-spending Yanks.
Earlier in the season, the A's began to draw attention with their four-game sweep of the Yankees. The Yankees have the far superior offense, but the rotations are even. The A's have the edge in ERA and batting average against, but the Yankees struck out more hitters and surrendered fewer walks. The Yankees are the deeper team offensively, but the A's are the hottest team in the game and are tough to pick against.
The Yankees depth is too good to pass up. Oakland may be the hottest team in the league, but I don't think they have the playoff experience to win four games against New York. Derek Jeter will carry New York to the World Series in six games.
World Series: Yankees vs. Giants
An East Coast vs. West Coast battle. The battle between the Giants' arms and the Yankees' bats would be an intriguing matchup. The Yankees have the clear advantage with the bats and bullpen, but San Francisco has the edge in the rotation. Can you picture a Matt Cain vs. CC Sabathia matchup? Although the Yankees have the offensive fire power to beat anyone, the Giants have the stuff to shut them down.
The Giants have a good mix of excellent pitching and just enough offense to win, and it will help them win the World Series in seven games.