Biggest Takeaways from MLB's 2016 ALCS, NLCS Action
The 2016 baseball season is down to two organizations, and it just so happens they're the sport’s most tortured.
But after winning the American League Championship Series and National League Championship Series respectively, each seemed to craft a blueprint for how to get to October’s Fall Classic.
Pitching Rules in October
In the end, the two teams left standing are those that boasted the best pitching staffs in their respective leagues.
Heading into the ALCS, there was some thought that the big bats of the Toronto Blue Jays could best the Indians' depleted rotation. But Cleveland’s outstanding starting staff and stout bullpen held Toronto to three runs in the team's four wins.
Likewise, in the NLCS, the deeper Cubs staff outdueled a Dodgers staff that, at times, was forced to pitch on short rest. The Cubs, meanwhile, went four deep, throwing Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey on normal rest.
The unreliability of rookie Dodgers starters Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda, who are both likely to develop into top-of-the-rotation pitchers, put undue pressure on Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill. In order to advance to the World Series, the Dodgers would have had to win a combined four starts between Kershaw and Hill. Had Los Angeles won on Saturday, Hill would have started Sunday’s Game 7.
The Trade Deadline Proved Important
Both World Series-bound teams made acquisitions at the trade deadline that proved to be vitally important in their advancing to the World Series.
On July 31, Cleveland acquired left-handed reliever Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees for a quartet of prospects. Miller appeared in four of five games in the ALCS, pitching 7.2 innings, allowing only three hits, striking out 14 Blue Jays and saving a game. He didn’t issue a single walk.
The performance earned him series MVP honors. He was the first pitcher to win the award without starting a game or entering one in the ninth inning.
Likewise, the Cubs made a crucial deal with the New York Yankees on July 25 for reliever Aroldis Chapman, sending a package of four prospects, including Gleyber Torres, one of the game’s most promising minor league shortstops.
Chapman pitched the final 1.2 innings in Chicago’s series-clinching Game 6 win and the final inning of the team’s Game 5 win.
Chicago’s front office also orchestrated a deal to bring versatile left-handed reliever Mike Montgomery to the bullpen. Manager Joe Maddon has used Montgomery, a player with starting experience, in a variety of relief roles, from left-handed specialist to longer relief appearances. He pitched in four NLCS games, notably pitching the fifth and sixth innings in the team’s must-have Game 4 win.
Baseball Gets Epstein vs. Francona
The two men who helped to end the Boston Red Sox’s 86-year drought will face each other in this year’s Fall Classic, each hoping to end one of baseball’s two longest streaks of futility.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein (then Boston's general manager) and Indians manager Terry Francona were with the Red Sox when they won World Series in 2004 and 2007. They both left the organization after the 2011 season, and Epstein immediately accepted a job with the Cubs. Francona took over as Cleveland’s manager prior to the 2013 season.
Each has an opportunity to endear himself to another tortured fanbase.
Cleveland has not won a World Series title since 1948. The Cubs have suffered through a championship drought since 1908, last playing in a World Series in 1945. The Indians lost the 1997 World Series to the Florida Marlins.
Regardless of the outcome of this year’s World Series, both Epstein and Francona, two of the best baseball men of their era, are shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame.
The 2011 Draft Picks Played Huge
The 2011 MLB draft class will be represented in the upcoming World Series after having had a huge impact on the league championship series.
Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and Cubs second baseman Javy Baez were selected with the eighth and ninth overall picks, respectively. Lindor, considered among the game’s best young shortstops, followed up a .301/.358/.435 regular season by hitting .368/.400/.579 in the ALCS. Baez slashed a .318/.333/.500 with five RBI in the NLCS.
Baez was Chicago’s most consistent hitter, despite the team’s overall struggles in Games 2 and 3, and he earned co-NLCS MVP honors with Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester.
But Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks may have proved in the NLCS that he was the steal of that 2011 draft.
The Texas Rangers selected Hendricks in the eighth round, and he arrived at the Cubs in a 2012 trade that sent starting pitcher Ryan Dempster to Texas. Hendricks had a breakout season in 2016, posting an MLB-best 2.13 ERA.
In his Game 2 start in the NLCS, he allowed only one run in an outing that lasted 5.1 innings. He followed that up with arguably the best start from any pitcher this postseason in the Cubs’ series-clinching Game 6 win. Hendricks went 7.1 innings, allowing only two hits in a game in which the Cubs faced the minimum 27 batters. He is likely to pitch Game 2 of the World Series in Cleveland.
This Era of Blue Jays Baseball Is Over
The Blue Jays may have been a victim of circumstance this postseason, swinging hot bats in the AL Wild Card Game and ALDS before running into a Cleveland team that has played MLB’s best postseason baseball.
Nonetheless, the Game 5 ALCS loss marked the end of an era in Toronto.
Both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, who combined with 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson to form baseball’s most feared power-hitting trio, will officially become free agents this winter. Given the lack of impact players in this free-agent class, both Bautista and Encarnacion, who are among the few players capable of hitting 40 homers next season, will command huge contracts on the open market.
Signing Donaldson to a long-term deal should be the organization’s priority. That means Toronto is unlikely to be able to keep both Bautista and Encarnacion and may not even be able to re-sign either.
It doesn’t mean Toronto won’t be competitive in the AL East, but the power-hitting identity that has propelled the team to back-to-back playoff appearances won’t exist in 2017.