Can the Nats do it without Strasburg?
It’s the best time of year for baseball: The playoffs.
The crowds are amped up and every pitch and hit counts. Players get excited and show emotion when they do anything of consequence.
The playoffs are baseball’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup , where out of nowhere the atmosphere takes it up a few notches and is exciting to watch even if you do not have a rooting interest.
At this point, the best teams are usually still alive and typically it's a battle between the hot wildcard teams and the division winners that generally played their hottest ball during the summer months to clinch their positioning.
This always makes for a high level of unpredictability in October for Major League baseball. If you have hot pitching and a few hot bats, no matter what the name on the front of your jersey is, you have a shot.
This year, Bud Selig’s latest genius was on display as the playoffs allowed two wildcard entries, one of which was guaranteed to be sent home after one ballgame. The Braves and Rangers found out the hard way how it feels to play good enough all season to earn the first wildcard slot yet, have their hard work go up in flames courtesy of a one game playoff.
This is a rather unfair way for teams that good to go out, but the message is definitely clear now. It is definitely in your best interests to win a division if you want to advance far into the playoffs. The Orioles and Cardinals certainly have a shot, but they could have easily been sent home after one game as well.
The stage is set and Division Series play is underway. Now that the playoffs are set at eight now.
Who are the teams that have the best shot of winning?
The defending champion Cardinals are still alive, the upstart Nationals are experiencing their first trip since being in Montreal and the mighty Yankees are around to represent the old guard. No team has it easy.
The Orioles and Athletics are as hot as hot can be and were not expected to be here. Can they win it all?
It will be interesting to see.
Here are the five teams with the best shot at making a World Series run.
Are the A's back?
If there is a team on this list that no one saw making the playoffs, it would be the Oakland Athletics.
As usual, they are blessed with loads of young talent, but after being down 13 games on June 30 to the mighty two-time defending AL Champion Texas Rangers, it seemed that the A’s would be more than happy finishing above .500 with great hope for the future.
After all they have the league’s lowest payroll at $59.5 million.
Instead the A’s walked the Rangers down in surprising and historic fashion, playing torrid baseball throughout the second half of the summer and into the fall.
The A’s have the pitching to make a run at the title led by young pitching studs Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, and Tommy Millone. The names will not excite you but the numbers will. Parker was 13-8 with a 3.47 ERA and Millone 13-10 with a 3.74 ERA.
Anderson was injured most of the season, but he looked great in his six starts going 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA. Most of that ERA came from his last two starts when he was likely suffering from an oblique strain that has had him out for much of the last month.
During this scorching hot stretch, the A’s had help from some more notable names like Bartolo Colon, who was having a great resurgent year (10-9 3.43 ERA) before being caught for with PEDs and Brandon McCarthy (8-6 3.24), who pitched quite well before being struck in the head by a scary line drive in September.
Losing them would have seemed to be too much to overcome, but instead they picked it up and kept surging en route to their first AL West Crown since 2006.
The bottom line with this team is that they have been the hottest team in baseball.
Often, it’s the hottest team that makes the deep surprise run through the playoffs.
The A’s are a good candidate for this. They have young talented players that got their feet wet this year in impressive rookie Yoenis Cespedis (.292 23 HR, 82 RBI), rising stars Brandon Moss (.291, 21 HR, 52 RBI) Josh Reddick (32 HR,85 RBI), and steady vet Coco Crisp.
The A’s can pound the ball with anyone, despite their team stats, and it will be interesting to see which team will be able to put them out.
The Tigers look like they have a good shot but do not count out the 94-win Athletics who technically have home field advantage and a lot of magic on their side.
The Orioles seem to have fun and bring great energy to the ballpark every night. Will this translate into a winner?
There is something special about this team.
Coming out of the AL East, which is easily recognized as the toughest division in baseball and has been dominated by the NYY and Red Sox for the last decade, the Orioles have finally broken through to reach the playoffs again for the first time in 15 years.
The Orioles have a well rounded squad that just has lived and died by the close ballgame. Time after time they have won close games and they have had the confidence to protect leads given they have the League Leader in saves Jim Johnson at the back of their pen. They were 29-9 in one run ball games and undefeated this year in the 74 games in which they had a lead in after 7 innings.That is astonishing.
Their starting pitching is not very sexy. Their pitching seems to keep them in games, and then their bats always find a way to score enough runs to stay in games and their bullpen is lights out.
There is something special about these O’s. They won 93 games and hung in there with the Yankees until the end.
They came back in dramatic fashion to win numerous games this year, won in extra innings, won in last at bat and won slug fests with teams.
This team is versatile and just seems to have that “it” factor that championship teams have. Their manager Buck Showalter is a great baseball mind and has this team ready to play ever night.
They deserve to be taken seriously.
The Cardinals are trying to rise up one more time
The Cardinals are coming off of a championship season last year.
That magical championship run was somewhat surprising given they were a wildcard team and they BARELY made it in—thanks to the Braves completely choking last year.
Once they got in, the Cardinals carried on with the smoking hot baseball they played down the stretch to overtake the Braves.
This year, there are some similarities. Again they are a wildcard team that did not always look that solid this season, but managed to play some of their best ball at the end of the season.
They almost got overtaken by the Dodgers and were pursued by other teams, but they managed to get in.
In the inaugural Wildcard game, they took it to the Braves once again, thanks in part to a pretty bogus infield fly rule call that changed the complexion of the game.
The Cardinals have a tough matchup with the Nationals in the Division Series, but they have the pitching and hitting to make another run.
They are playing great baseball and have several starting pitchers capable of winning in the postseason.
Adam Wainright and Chris Carpenter are proven themselves over the years and Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia, and Lance Lynn are all capable of winning a game or picking up the slack for one of their teammates—as Lynn did in Game 2.
The lineup is filled with solid hitters that seem to love the big stage.
Based on last year’s results, there may not be a bigger big game hitter than David Freese. In the dominant playoffs last year, he was responsible for a number of huge hits and he batted .397 in the playoffs with 21 RBI.
Newcomer Carlos Beltran, who has been historically magnificent in the playoffs with an OPS that currently ranks as the best all-time in front of the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (1.297).
He became the big name player he is today thanks to his 2004 performances for the Houston Astros when he batted .485 with 8 HR and 14 RBI.
Add to the equation Allen Craig, who has always hit when it mattered and other reliable hitters like Yadier Molina, John Jay and Matt Holliday and you have a team that will be a very tough out.
Once they get leads, their bullpen is very intimidating capped by flame thrower Jason Motte. Do not sleep on the Cardinals!
Do the Nationals have enough pitching to win it all? The jury is still out.
If the Nationals had not shut down their ace Stephen Strasburg due to their mismanagement of his innings-count this year, I might have be tempted to make them No. 1.
The Nationals are probably the best team in baseball and their 98-64 record is a great demonstration of that. All year they had great pitching and their hitting has been well above average.
They have the energy boost what they needed from hard nosed, exciting teenager Bryce Harper and they have several productive hitters like Jayson Werth, Ian Dezmond, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and heavy hitting Matt Morse.
This team was consistent throughout the year and pounded the ball like few other teams in the league.
The loss of Strasburg however, may be the difference.
Pitching is the key ingredient to a long, deep, playoff run and with him, the Nationals would have had the type of formidable staff that many championship teams have ridden to a Championship. The most recent example of this is the San Francisco Giants of 2010.
Without Strasburg, they have Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez, who is good enough to match up with any other team’s ace, but after that, it’s a little bit more of a toss up.
Jordan Zimmerman is a solid pitcher and Edwin Jackson is an effective power pitcher but after them, there is a bit of a drop-off. If you combined them with Strasburg, you are talking about a championship pitching staff.
Currently, this pitching staff can be beaten by solid pitching and better hitting.
It will be interesting to see if the Nationals can hang in there and play with the necessary poise to sustain a run.
I would not count them out, but I would feel a lot more comfortable with them if they had a dominant pitcher—like Strasburg—complimenting their good hitting and solid intangibles.
The jury is still out.
Can the Reds do it?
I feel queasy picking the Reds because there is something about them that makes me think they will somehow fall short and play short of their potential, but there is something special about this team.
As shown in their early games against the Giants, they are ready to roll and overcome their recent one-and-done playoff performances.
Dusty Baker’s recent healthy issues could very well be a rallying point for this team. Even without that intangible, the offensive talent that they have in their lineup is going to be a handful.
Lights-out slugger Joey Votto is complimented by cold-blooded hitter Brandon Phillips and slugger Jay Bruce (34 HR, 99 RBI).
The pitching staff is not very sexy, but Bronson Arroyo has the experience and is always liable to turn in a couple gems when you least expect it.
Matt Latos is more than capable of stepping in and winning games for the Reds as he has all season. He is a pitcher that has won consistently and struck out scores of batters (185 Ks).
The key to this run however is Johnny Cueto who could be the guy to lead them to the promised land. He is a top of the line ace, who can face up with any other team’s ace. The problem is, he suffered from some back issues in Game 1.
If he can return healthy, he will be a key component to their run.
The bullpen is very impressive this year. Aroldis Chapman is of course the headliner with his 100 MPH fast balls coming in from the left side, but the setup men have been magnificent all year.
Jonathon Broxton came over from the Royals to be a setup man for Chapman, but he has willingly filled in for Chapman when his arm started to fatigue. When all is normal he is a formidable setup man along with ever so steady Jose Arredondo, JJ Hoover, and Sean Marshall.
If this Reds team can continue to hit like they have and play with the energy that they have throughout the season and early in these playoffs, look for them to make a deep run into this year’s playoffs and maybe hoist their first World Series title since 1990.
I don’t want to jinx them, but this is a special team that won 97 wins and has the talent to back it up.