MLB Playoffs: Each Contender's Most Glaring Weakness
As we approach the completion of the 2011 MLB regular season, the time has come to see where each team most needs improvement if their World Series aspirations are to be fulfilled.
The playoffs present each team with a very different atmosphere than that of the regular season. What may have seemed like a minor weakness in series against inferior teams will become exposed as an Achilles heel when pitted against the most talented lineups in the major leagues.
Here I will analyze where each contending team requires the most attention as they prepare themselves for the gruelling month of October.
Boston Red Sox: Starting Pitching from Top to Bottom
The Boston Red Sox have been one of the most dominant teams in the Major Leagues in 2011. And while they have enjoyed some bright performances from their starters, their success is in large part due to the run production from their stellar lineup.
Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have been the lone bright spots in the Sox' rotation, contributing a combined 23 wins to the team, and 2.46 and 3.16 ERAs, respectively.
Their performances throughout the regular season will likely translate to success in the first and second spots of the rotation in the playoffs.
However, to win a five or seven game series in the postseason, Boston will need to see some consistency from the bottom of the rotation.
The aging Tim Wakefield has been just that in 2011: an aging Tim Wakefield.
His mediocre career ERA of 4.40 is sitting at an unacceptable 4.97 in 2011, with only six wins.
However, it isn't necessarily his ERA that would cost the Red Sox crucial postseason wins, as Wakefield has allowed a .267 batting average to his opponents this year.
Against the strong hitting lineups of New York, Texas, or Detroit, that .267 opponent batting average could inflate in a seven game series where they could potentially see him twice.
The second candidate for the third spot in the postseason rotation, John Lackey, has fared even worse than the breaking down Wakefield.
Lackey has been a massive disappointment in 2011, and has posted an ugly 6.02 ERA and .301 opponent batting average.
While Fenway Park offers a luxury to right-handed power hitters to begin with, allowing hitters to hit pitches the way he has been all season also has the potential to work against him in the postseason.
Clay Buchholz would be the ideal third starter for Boston, but seeing as how his back injury will likely keep him out of at least the rest of the regular season, the Sox' best options will lie in the less efficient Wakefield, and the underachieving Lackey.
New York Yankees: Hitting Against the Division Rivals
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The Yankees will once again be playing in October.
However, this year won't be like other years, where we've seen the Bombers dismantle the league's most successful teams on their way to what seem like familiar visits to the World Series.
This will be the case if New York can't bring their league-leading run production or home run abilities into a series against the team who they could very likely face in the ALCS.
While the Yankees rank fourth in the AL in batting average, first in runs scored and home runs, and third in ERA, none of this is translated into games when they play Boston.
Against the division rivals, the Yankees' most talented hitters have done some of the worst hitting you'll see from any team.
Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira have hit .189, .222, .194, and .136 respectively against the inferior pitching of Boston; and have gone 2-10 on the season against them.
You can be certain that if the core of the Yankees lineup continues to put up numbers like these against World Series favorites like the Red Sox, their postseason flame will be extinguished by an embarrassing, unacceptable sweep that would have George Steinbrenner turning over in his grave.
Although the Yankees have hit much more exceptionally against other American League division leaders, in the postseason, consistent hitting will trump just about everything else.
The Red Sox will likely be their toughest competition in the playoffs and with the season long performances they've put up against them on everyone's mind, something will have to change before October arrives or they'll be seeing it leave quicker than they hoped.
Detroit Tigers: Preventing Teams from Scoring
Aside from the absolutely stellar season that has been put up by Tigers ace Justin Verlander in 2011, Detroit's rotation has been pedestrian.
Verlander's 2.31 ERA is accompanied by far more earthly numbers by Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Brad Penny, and Doug Fister who represent ERAs of 4.23, 5.17, 4.97, 3.49, respectively.
While the acquisition of Fister was indeed a smart one for the Tigers, their pitching staff sits at 11th in the American League, behind every other playoff contender.
Excluding the San Francisco Giants, who have us all scratching our heads from the overall success of a team with questionable offensive talent, the playoffs this year are loaded with offensively deep lineups.
This being said, Detroit is going to need to prevent as many runs as possible, as they are fifth in the league in runs scored and need to avoid having teams pull away from them on the scoreboard.
Verlander has been the definition a Cy Young pitcher throughout the entire regular season, and will certainly be able to get the job done. But in a five or seven game series, the Tigers will have to expect strong performances from Scherzer, and Doug Fister or Rick Porcello.
Cleveland Indians: Offensive Depth
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At the beginning of the season, the Indians looked like the team to beat and had, for a time, given themselves some legitimate World Series aspirations.
However, the last month and a half has shown why the Major League Baseball season is a marathon, and not a race.
Unlike the deeper, more experienced lineups of such teams as the Phillies, Yankees, and Red Sox, the Tribe has tailed off and are now chasing the Tigers in the American League Central.
At this point in time, the most obvious weakness I can see on the Indians' team is the depth of their offense.
They have been led by the young bats of Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, and Matt LaPorta during the season, and they have all put up quite respectable numbers.
However, with the bases empty, the most efficient hitter on the Cleveland roster is Shin-Soo Choo, who is hitting a fairly average .277.
Cabrera, Santana, and LaPorta are hitting .255, .247, and .249, respectively, when the bases are bare. As the young, electric offensive producers on the team, these averages need to be higher for a playoff team hoping to create necessary offensive surges against superior lineups.
Texas Rangers: Replacement of Cliff Lee
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The Texas Rangers have very few aspects that you could identify as a weakness.
In fact, I struggled to find something that has legitimately led to shortcomings for the Rangers this season.
After making a World Series appearance in 2010, and falling short to the puzzling roster of the San Francisco Giants, Texas is poised to repeat their postseason success.
What I will say will be the most difficult adjustment to make for the Rangers' lineup to make is that for the loss of Cliff Lee.
As one of the most dominant pitchers in the Major Leagues, Lee delivers in the postseason as well as any other hurler in the game.
In 2010, Lee went 3-2 in the playoffs, averaging seven innings per start and posting a 2.78 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 35.2 innings.
Although Colby Lewis and CJ Wilson enjoyed success in the playoffs as well, and despite Alexi Ogando's standout first season as a starting pitcher, Ogando has no experience as a starter in October and replacing Cliff Lee's spot in the rotation will likely be an impossibility.
This being said, we have all yet to see Ogando lose focus and I am as interested as anyone to see whether or not his regular season performances will translate into the postseason.
Philadelphia Phillies: Weakness?
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I would be hard pressed to find an Achilles heel in the Philadelphia Phillies this season.
Philly has arguably been one of the best baseball teams of the last five years, and with a lineup consisting of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and Placido Polanco there are virtually no holes in one of the strongest, experienced, offensively and defensively gifted batting orders in baseball.
This can also be said with greater certainty to probably the most talented pitching teams in the Majors.
A three-man rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels will almost definitely get Philadelphia through the first six innings of every game; and with Ryan Madson (3.25 ERA, 23 saves, and 47 strikeouts in 44.1 innings) being one of the most reliable closers throughout the regular season, and Antonio Bastardo (1.48 ERA, 57 strikeouts in 48.2 innings) continuing to be a dominant setup man, the Phillies will be a very difficult team to score against, regardless of the strength of the opposing lineup.
I know the headline reads "Each Contender's Most Glaring Weakness", but I cannot in good conscience identify any weakness in this team.
They simply are the best team in the game, and at this point, the World Series looks to be theirs to lose.
Atlanta Braves: Stepping Up the Offence
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Atlanta has been solidified in the Wild Card position for quite some time now, and they look ready to make a run in the postseason this year.
However, the National League is chock-full of teams whose records can vouch for the strength of their rotation.
The Braves are eighth in the league in average, and seventh in runs scored.
These will be the two crucial elements that will give them the run in the playoffs that they're looking for, and they will need to be improved.
Jason Heyward is an extremely gifted athlete, and possesses five tool talent that could give the Braves a real competitive advantage at the top of the order.
However, Heyward has come back from a stellar rookie season with a very diminished performance in 2011.
He's hitting a disappointing .218, and has only accumulated 31 RBI in the second spot of the order (Prado has amassed 49 in the leadoff spot, and has only one less home run with 11).
Heyward will be a critical player for Atlanta's postseason success and will need to return to his 2010 form if the Braves want to hold on to hope for a World Series.
Another contribution to Atlanta's shortcomings on the scoreboard is evident in the fact that Dan Uggla, who is hitting .231 on the season after a 33 game hitting streak, holds the team lead in RBI with only 65.
There is a great deal of talent in this team's lineup, but it hasn't been fully exploited this season, and it certainly will keep the Braves from postseason success if they aren't able to do that heading into October.
Milwaukee Brewers: Middle Infield Talent
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The Brewers have been quite the pleasant surprise in 2011, as they now seem to be dominating the National League Central Division.
They are poised to enter the postseason with a remarkable three man rotation consisting of former Cy Young winner Zach Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Yovani Gallardo (who also happen to fare quite well in the batter's box), and a shut down late innings duo of Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.
In addition to a very talented pitching corps, Milwaukee possessed some very talented hitters in Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart, who will be key elements to their success in October.
However, there seems to be a massive hole in the middle infield of Miller Park.
With the loss of Rickie Weeks to the 15-day DL, it has consisted of Yuniesky Betancourt, and one of either Jerry Hairston, Craig Counsell, or Josh Wilson.
Betancourt is hitting .261 with 10 home runs on the season, and has less than desirable abilities on defence, and neither of the three replacements at second base are able to offer any significant production at the plate.
Rickie Weeks will likely be back in the lineup before October rolls around, which will give them back a valuable bat (if he recovers properly), as well as fill part of the hole in the middle infield.
However, in the very talented lineup of Milwaukee, Betancourt's abilities at shortstop are not desirable for a team looking to become World Champions.
This being said, a team whose biggest weakness rests on a mediocre shortstop doesn't have a whole lot to worry about, so long as the rest of their lineup continues to produce at a high level.
San Francisco Giants: Hitting as a Team
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The marvel that is the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants is still very much alive after what seemed to be World Series victory from out of nowhere in 2010.
It's hard to believe a team as offensively challenged as the Giants is able to continue to perform at such a high level in a league dominated by talented hitters, but San Francisco has kept us on our toes for another year.
This being said, the miraculous run will end in 2011, as the All-Star pitching staff and bullpen will not be enough for a new set of rings in San Francisco.
Aubrey Huff holds the team lead in RBI with 54, while batting a mediocre .248 average.
When Aubrey Huff is your biggest run producer, you have a problem.
The Giants have the 13th worst average in the National League, accompanied by the 15th worst amount of runs created, and 11th worst home run total.
Their strongest home run hitter is also Aubrey Huff with 12, followed by Cody Ross with 10.
But the key to their success in October 2011 is in the possession of the latter.
Cody Ross was a hero in the 2010 playoffs when he hit a .294 average, .390 on base percentage, and five home runs. He was named the MVP of the NLCS and was the man with the plan in San Francisco.
If Cody Ross is able to reclaim his postseason fame in 2011, and the Giants are able to receive some added strength from Aubrey Huff and rookie Brandon Belt, I wouldn't be surprised to see them make a case for themselves to defend their World Series title.
However, in the event that this doesn't occur, and offensive production from the regular season carries over into October, the Giants don't stand a chance against the pitching staffs of the rest of the National League entrants, let alone the American League Champions.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Staying Hot for the Rest of the Season and Beyond
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The Arizona Diamondbacks are looking similar to the San Francisco Giants in that sneak up behind you and dismantle your team kind of way.
The team who many believed could be the worst in baseball in 2011 has knocked us all off of our feet, as they now hold a slim one game lead over the Giants in the National League West.
The weakness that I can identify here goes with the notion that they are riding one of the longest hot streaks ever; one that has lasted into August of the regular season.
Arizona will not be able to slow their production for any amount of time, or they will watch their postseason dreams slip through their fingers, and into the hands of the Giants, who are now capitalizing on the D-Backs' six game losing skid.
Arizona has shown that they have what it takes to be the best, and to beat the best this season, but unlike Philadelphia or Milwaukee, they will not be able to coast on their talent into the postseason.
They will absolutely need to make the push through August and September as aggressively as they have been playing all season long, and there is no doubt that they will need to earn their playoff spot.
If they can do this, all I can say is look out to the rest of the league, because I wouldn't like to be the team in the postseason on the receiving end of this hot streak.
I am truly torn on whether or not Arizona has what it takes to make it down the stretch with San Francisco breathing down their necks, but I am also certainly not able to rule it out.