MLB Playoffs 2017: Round-by-Round Picks and Predictions
With the board all set, it's time to predict how the pieces will move in the 2017 Major League Baseball postseason.
The first moves will be made Tuesday in the American League Wild Card Game and Wednesday in the National League Wild Card Game. After that, it's on to the Division Series, the League Championship Series and, finally, the World Series.
Sorting all this out will take a few weeks and dozens of hours of actual baseball. But for now, it'll take just a few minutes to read the tea leaves and make predictions for how each round will play out and who'll ultimately take home the Commissioner's Trophy.
Let's get to it.
AL Wild Card Game: New York Yankees over Minnesota Twins
Pitching Matchup: Ervin Santana vs. Luis Severino
Ervin Santana is a crafty veteran who's coming off a strong season, and working on his behalf will be a red-hot offense and one of MLB's better defenses. Underdogs though they may be, the Minnesota Twins have a fighting chance in the AL Wild Card Game.
But beyond having home-field advantage in a stadium where they went an AL-best 51-30, the New York Yankees will have the advantage of extreme heat.
The Yankees won't be as overmatched against Santana and Minnesota's soft-tossing bullpen. Aaron Judge and the rest of their high-powered offense are especially dangerous against finesse types, who they knocked around to the tune of an .847 OPS.
With a 9-21 record in Yankee Stadium since the park opened in 2009, the Twins haven't made many fond memories. The pattern will continue.
The Pick: Yankees
NL Wild Card Game: Arizona Diamondbacks over Colorado Rockies
Pitching Matchup: Jon Gray vs. Zack Greinke
After seeing MLB's hardest-throwing starter in the AL Wild Card Game, baseball fans will see MLB's second-hardest-throwing starter in the NL Wild Card Game.
Colorado Rockies right-hander Jon Gray featured a 96 mph heater that served him well when he was healthy. He may have made only 20 starts, but his 3.67 ERA encapsulates how they were darn good starts.
Unfortunately for Gray and the Rockies, the Arizona Diamondbacks absolutely rake at Chase Field, and aren't the Twins when it comes to hitting high velocity. Mainly thanks to big boppers J.D. Martinez, Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb, they hit .257 with an MLB-best .483 slugging percentage against 95-plus heat.
It's likely Gray will need to be rescued by Colorado's bullpen. Pat Neshek, Chris Rusin and Mike Dunn are equal to the task, but supposed relief aces Jake McGee and Greg Holland haven't been sure things of late.
How much offense the Rockies can conjure against Zack Greinke is another matter. The elite ace faces a lineup that struggled away from the thin air of Coors Field—and at a ballpark where Greinke aided a 52-29 home record with a 2.87 ERA in 18 outings.
All told, everything here comes up snakes.
The Pick: Diamondbacks
ALDS: Cleveland Indians over New York Yankees
As their absurd plus-254 run differential proves, the Cleveland Indians didn't luck their way to 102 wins. They also went 27-22 against winning teams, which included a 5-2 run against the Yankees.
One thing that makes the reigning American League champions a tough matchup for New York is their starting pitching. Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco were arguably the AL's two best starters in the second half, and Trevor Bauer didn't lag far behind them in overall strikeout rate.
On the other side of this trench is a Cleveland offense that had an .867 OPS and averaged 1.6 home runs per game over its final 37 games. Big contributions from Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor and Edwin Encarnacion led the way, but it was generally a team effort.
Having Severino for just one start won't make it easy for the Yankees to contain Cleveland's offense. The club's bullpen would be an equalizer against most teams but would be matched up against one of similar hotness in a series against Cleveland.
To put it bluntly, the Indians are too much of a juggernaut.
The Pick: Indians in 3
ALDS: Houston Astros over Boston Red Sox
A year after both their pitching and their offense let them down at the hands of the Indians in an ALDS sweep, the Boston Red Sox are taking a different team into October.
An offense that previously fed off David Ortiz's power now relies on putting the ball in play and running wild on the bases. Chris Sale and his 308 strikeouts top the club's pitching staff, and he's backed by a solid No. 2 in Drew Pomeranz and a Craig Kimbrel-led bullpen that finished 2017 on fire.
Some of these things make them a problematic opponent for the 101-win Houston Astros. ESPN.com's Brian Reiff has a case in ranking Houston's defense as the worst of the American League field. Its bullpen, meanwhile, has as many questions as it does answers following a rocky second half.
The single biggest advantage in this series, however, lies with Houston's offense.
It was the best in MLB this year, and it's not going to be intimidated by the left-handed power arms of Sale and Pomeranz. Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and company posted an MLB-best .830 OPS against lefty starters and, thanks to an MLB-low strikeout rate, an MLB-best .760 OPS against power pitchers.
The Red Sox aren't equipped to win an offensive shootout with Houston. While the Astros bullpen comes with questions, they have the starters to ensure one never breaks out. The Justin Verlander-Dallas Keuchel duo is just as good as Sale-Pomeranz. If not better.
The Pick: Astros in 4
NLDS: Los Angeles Dodgers over Arizona Diamondbacks
The Los Angeles Dodgers may have won 104 games, but their 8-11 record against Arizona reflects how the Diamondbacks might be their nightmare October matchup.
Of particular concern for the Dodgers is that they'd be a cold offense against a warm pitching staff. The Dodgers managed just a .710 OPS in September, whereas the Diamondbacks posted a solid 3.74 ERA.
Since Greinke will be limited to one start, it's a good sign for Arizona that it was Robbie Ray, Zack Godley and Taijuan Walker who led the way in September. Shifting more innings to them won't doom the Diamondbacks.
The Dodgers' hope, however, lies in wearing down Arizona's pitchers. They hit the strike zone less often than any other NL team's pitchers in 2017. That's a recipe for trouble against MLB's most disciplined offense.
Arizona's offense wasn't as disciplined, and that's something the Dodgers have a means to exploit. They don't throw many fastballs and will likely be inclined to throw even fewer against an offense that's easily rendered less high-powered by off-speed stuff.
Tasked with carrying this out will be a starting trio of Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Yu Darvish that features some of the game's best breaking balls. Los Angeles' bullpen is more straightforward, but it culminates in arguably the most unhittable pitch in the sport: Kenley Jansen's cutter.
It'll be a close one. But ultimately, the Dodgers will find a way.
The Pick: Dodgers in 5
NLDS: Chicago Cubs over Washington Nationals
It's a strange twist of fate that one of the Washington Nationals' biggest strengths right now is their bullpen. A series of upgrades in July and August turned it from a laughingstock into the most dominant pen in the National League down the stretch.
"You feel a lot more comfortable because you don't necessarily have to mix and match left-right, left-right and run out of your guys in the bullpen," manager Dusty Baker said in August, according to the Associated Press. "You feel a whole lot more comfortable. On the real good teams I've been on, we had that."
Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs bullpen trended in the opposite direction and now looms as their biggest unknown. So if this series turns into a battle of the bullpens, the Nationals will have the edge.
But this hinges on questions looming over Washington's offense and starting pitching. The former needs Bryce Harper to be at full strength. The latter needs Max Scherzer to be at full strength. Harper's knee and Scherzer's hamstring cast clouds over both.
Similar clouds don't appear over Chicago.
Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber spearheaded a charge to MLB's best OPS in the second half. With help from Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana, Cubs starters had the NL's best ERA in the second half. Complicit in that was an elite defense that puts Washington's to shame.
Been waiting for an upset pick? Here you go.
The Pick: Cubs in 4
ALCS: Cleveland Indians over Houston Astros
As battles for league supremacy go, it doesn't get any better than a showdown of two 100-win teams.
In the case of an Astros vs. Indians ALCS, said 100-win teams would be solidly matched. It would be MLB's best offense against MLB's hottest offense, with the potential for matchups between elite starting pitchers.
In a search for advantages, however, two things turn up in favor of the Indians.
Their bullpen is the first. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw are safe in their places as resident relief aces, and Danny Salazar and Mike Clevinger are two more outstanding arms ready to join the mix. It's an embarrassment of riches for Terry Francona, who knows how to push the right buttons.
Houston's bullpen isn't necessarily bad and stands to get a boost as Brad Peacock and Lance McCullers join the fray. But it would look a lot better if Luke Gregerson and Tyler Clippard were pitching up to their track records and if Chris Devenski was pitching up to his first-half form.
In so many words, Cleveland has what it needs to put games and, ultimately, the series away.
The Pick: Indians in 7
NLCS: Los Angeles Dodgers over Chicago Cubs
The Cubs dispatched the Dodgers in the NLCS en route to winning the World Series last year. It's now tempting to come down on the side of history repeating itself.
The Cubs spent the second half of 2017 looking a lot like the team that beat the Dodgers last October. Meanwhile, it's no secret that the Dodgers ruined a potentially historic regular season by fading late.
Then there's the Kershaw factor. He gets the benefit of the doubt for the NLDS, but his NLCS track record raises red flags. He's made four NLCS starts since 2013. Two were very good. The other two pushed the Dodgers out of the postseason.
But if there's a difference this time around, it's that Kershaw doesn't have to do it all himself.
Beyond Hill and Darvish, Kershaw is backed by a third excellent starter in Alex Wood and a bullpen that, for the first time, has a solid bridge to Jansen in the quartet of Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, Tony Cingrani and Luis Avilan.
The Cubs wish they had that kind of bridge to Wade Davis. That wish would only grow more desperate against a Dodgers offense that can exploit their bullpen's recent problem with walks. And with Jake Arrieta hurting and Jon Lester struggling, their rotation isn't as set for a seven-game series as a five-game series.
Breathe easy, Dodgers fans. They're finally going to get over the hump.
The Pick: Dodgers in 6
World Series: Cleveland Indians over Los Angeles Dodgers
A year after they came within a win of capturing their first World Series title since 1948, the Indians don't have a legitimate weakness that will prevent them from getting it done this time around.
When they entered the 2016 playoffs, one could point to a banged-up pitching staff and a relatively non-lethal offense as potential deal-breakers. Neither of these issues exists this year, and there aren't any trade-offs. The Indians really have everything.
Of course, one can also say the Dodgers have everything.
Despite the slide that marred the end of their 2017 campaign, both their offense and pitching staffs are star-studded and rounded out with more than enough depth. Also deserving of an overdue mention is their defense, which was the most efficient in MLB this season.
In a matchup between the two teams, however, Cleveland's everything would overpower Los Angeles' everything.
Since it collects strikeouts and suppresses walks better than anyone, the Indians pitching staff is ideally suited to beat a Dodgers offense that can be patient to a fault. And beyond simply being the better of the two, Cleveland's offense is also more well-balanced. It can handle patience, contact, power and baserunning.
The Indians are perfectly designed to win the World Series. Let's all have a seat and watch them do so.
The Pick: Indians in 5