Last year, the Oakland A's were thrilled just to be taking part in October baseball. This year, however, the expectations have changed altogether for the back-to-back American League West champs.
To take care of that business, though, Oakland will have to take down some of the top clubs in all of baseball. So, the question is this: Which team would be the toughest potential matchup for the A's in the postseason?
There are many contenders, and on the surface no clear answer. The tricky part about making postseason predictions is that playoff baseball is so consistently unpredictable. However, there are certain characteristics that all successful playoff teams share.
To varying degrees, all clubs that make deep postseason runs possess the following traits:
Two aces or four quality starters
A highly effective back end of the bullpen
A lineup that can score in more ways than one
Clutch bench players
With those criteria in mind and a particular focus on the specific deficiencies of the A's roster, let's break down the toughest potential matchup that stands between Oakland and the club's “unfinished business.”
Contender No. 1: Detroit Tigers
When They'll Meet: ALDS
When facing the Detroit Tigers, the trouble starts with Miguel Cabrera. In 2013, the third baseman posted a .347/.441/.637 slash line as he connected on 44 home runs for a second straight season.
The ailing slugger, though, is far from the only Tiger who can do damage with his bat. Prince Fielder swatted 25 home runs and topped 100 RBI, which for him qualifies as a down year.
Grant Balfour knows all too well about the pop of veteran outfielder Torii Hunter. Plus, with Austin Jackson atop the lineup, the Tigers have the ability to manufacture runs in tight ballgames.
Detroit's starting staff is loaded as all five of the club's starters won 13 games or more. A potential weakness of the rotation, though, could be the lack of a left-handed starter as the platoon-heavy A's lean to the left side.
As for Jim Leyland's relievers, closer Joaquin Benoit along, with Jose Veras and Drew Smyly, will be the top three options, but after that the bullpen is a bit of a question mark.
Contender No. 2: The Wild Card
When They'd Meet: ALCS
Nobody wants to face the AL Wild Card if they reach the ALCS. To have advanced to that point, the team would have needed to win the play-in game and to knock off the Boston Red Sox.
The A's definitely don't want to run into the Wild Card if that team happens to be the Cleveland Indians. In 2013, the A's have not played well against the Tribe. The season series is 2-5 in favor of Cleveland.
The potential meeting would also be quite the managerial battle. Outside of Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay, no AL skippers have done more with less than Cleveland's Terry Francona and Melvin.
If the A's end up drawing Cleveland, the team would also be coming up against former Oakland standouts in Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi. The 41-year-old Giambi might have hit under .200, but he's still as clutch as ever. As per the MLB Stat of the Day Twitter account:
Based on the terrible luck the A's have experienced against Cleveland this year, Giambi is not the guy to face in a late-inning situation with the game on the line.
The Toughest Potential Matchup: Los Angeles Dodgers
When They'd Meet: World Series
The Los Angeles Dodgers would be a brutal matchup for anybody, but for the A's it's a particularly challenging task.
Yasiel Puig headlines the Dodgers' offensive attack. However, the scary part is that the 22-year-old rookie, who batted .319 with a .925 OPS, isn't even the Dodgers' most dangerous hitter. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports recently ranked Hanley Ramirez No. 9 on his projected NL MVP ballot, one spot ahead of Puig.
The remarkable part is that Ramirez barely played in half of the team's games. In his limited time, the 29-year-old Ramirez hit .345 with 20 home runs and a 1.040 OPS.
|Projected Starting Lineup:|
|Yasiel Puig RF|
|Carl Crawford LF|
|Hanley Ramirez SS|
|Adrian Gonzalez 1B|
|Juan Uribe 3B|
|Skip Schumaker CF|
|A.J. Ellis C|
|Mark Ellis 2B|
The stacked lineup translates to a bench populated with experienced veterans and even a former All-Star. Mattingly can call on Michael Young and his nearly 2,400 career hits to pinch hit. Andre Either could be an option if his ankle heals in time.
To round out the end of the bench there are guys like Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr., who have both claimed World Series rings.
The team's pitching staff is equally loaded. Lockdown closer Kenley Jansen leads the Dodger bullpen. The tall right-hander had 111 strikeouts in 76.2 innings of work. Paco Rodriguez has posted impressive strikeout numbers from the left side, and Los Angeles also has late-inning options in right-handers Ronald Belisario and Brian Wilson.
The Dodgers signed the former closer of the San Francisco Giants as a free agent in late July after the reliever had recovered from Tommy John surgery. Wilson, who was instrumental to the Giants' World Series run in 2010, brings plenty of experience recording bigtime outs on the biggest of stages. He's also allowed only one run in 16 outings for the Dodgers.
As for the starting staff, Clayton Kershaw is the ace of the rotation and the heavy favorite to take home the NL Cy Young. The tall left-hander ended his season 16-9 with a 1.83 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP. The 25-year-old devastates left-handers to the tune of a .165 batting average against.
The Dodgers also have rookie left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is second among all first-year pitchers with 14 wins. Between Kershaw and Ryu, the Dodgers would effectively knock Brandon Moss out of the starting lineup for three games or more.
That would deprive the A's of the club's top home-run hitting option. That wouldn't necessarily be disastrous for Oakland since the team has five players with 15 long balls or more, but it would be far from ideal.
From the right side the Dodgers have Zack Greinke and Ricky Nolasco. In the first season of his six-year, $159 million deal, Greinke has lived up to expectations with 15 wins. Nolasco meanwhile has reeled off an 8-3 record with a 3.56 ERA since the Dodgers picked him up in a trade back in early July.
In many ways, the understated productivity of the veteran right-hander embodies what makes the Dodgers such a dangerous postseason opponent.
The Dodgers' roster has been stacked since Opening Day. However, the front office has done an excellent job of adding vital contributing pieces via minor league promotions, trades and midseason free-agent signings.
Puig would grab all the attention, but it's the Dodgers' remarkable depth that truly makes them the toughest potential postseason matchup for Oakland.