MLB Playoffs 2010: Top Storylines To FollowOctober 5, 2010
MLB Playoffs 2010: Top Storylines To Follow
Baseball is all about stories. The game is beautiful, tactical, and intense, but more than any other professional sport in world history, baseball fans crave more storylines and drama. Babe Ruth was a legend because of his larger-than-life personality. Josh Hamilton is a hero because of the drug addiction he overcame to become one of baseball's best sluggers.
In the playoffs, this sense of added drama is even more heightened. Stories of redemption, persistence, and (sometimes) sheer dominance demand to be told. Given the level of coverage the postseason receives in our modern media-crazed world, those stories will find their way into the headlines and television segments to which we will all pay more attention as the World Series draws near. Here are five of the best ones you can expect to see.
5. The First-Timers
You don't have to be a Rangers fan to be happy for Michael Young.
Young is in his 11th season of big-league ball, all with Texas. He is a career .300 hitter, a versatile player who has played at least two full seasons at three different infield positions, and a four-time 20-homer hitter. Until this year, however, Young had never played past game 162 of the regular season.
Nor is Young alone in this regard. Roy Halladay had to change teams to get his first taste of October, but one 21-win season into his Phillies career, there he is. Aubrey Huff of the Giants has mashed well enough to merit Comeback Player of the Year honors, and he's a major reason why San Francisco made the playoffs, making his 11th season the charm, as well.
4. Money Men
Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee, and Jayson Werth (in some order) will be the three most sought-after free agents this winter. None seem likely to return to their current team, though Lee could stay a Ranger. The trio all reached the playoffs, and Crawford and Lee square off in one American League Division Series.
Whether or not each performs well this October, they will each register deals approaching or exceeding $100 million over the offseason. For Lee, however, another dominant playoff run could solidify his reputation as a clutch performer and Yankee killer, hiking up his value somewhat. Werth (whom everybody calls the quiet one; you can see but you can't hear him) could do himself some favors by raking his way to the World Series and gaining an ever-brighter share of the spotlight.
Crawford is the wild card here. He could be courted by a dozen or more teams, most of whom will watch from home as he takes on Texas. If he gets an opportunity to showcase his stellar defense or if he steals, say, five bases in one playoff contest, his market value could go through the roof.
3. A Game of Second Chances
Before the season started, it seemed like the Rangers had come to the brink of self-destruction. Josh Hamilton, the team's best hitter, had lost nearly half the season to injury in 2009 and continued to battle nagging injuries throughout spring training. Then in March, manager Ron Washington admitted to having tested positive for cocaine in July 2009, despite the presence of recovering drug addict Hamilton on the team.
Washington kept his job (over the objections of many, myself included) and the season began three weeks later. Within weeks, all was forgotten.
Texas has reached the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Hamilton is the runaway favorite for the AL MVP award. And Washington, after deftly managing around injuries to Hamilton, second baseman Ian Kinsler, and others, makes a poignant (if not air-tight) case for Manager of the Year. Today, we spell redemption R-O-N.
2. The Last Ride Cowboys
When the Braves brought in Billy Wagner to fill their newly vacant closer's role, they could hardly have imagined it would turn out quite this well. After two injury-plagued seasons that put his career on the brink of extinction, Wagner signed with Atlanta almost as a flier, a low-risk, high-reward investment by Braves GM Frank Wren and one last chance to ride the rodeo circuit for the fireballing Texan closer.
He took advantage of the opportunity, posting a 1.43 ERA and saving 37 games. He whiffed 104 batters, the first time he had crossed the century mark since 2003. Wagner announced that he will retire after the season, going out on top with a rock-solid, legacy-sealing season of dominance.
Wagner's new manager, Bobby Cox, knows a thing or two about that kind of dominance. He led the Braves to 14 consecutive playoff appearances from 1991-2005 and has his place in Cooperstown on reserve. Yet, the past half-decade had been a tough one for Cox. He had not returned to the October stage since '05, and had lost the men who helped him build that dynasty—Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Stan Kasten, and John Schuerholz especially—in the meantime.
In what he had long intimated would be his final season, Cox has led a Braves resurgence with a new crop of players very much in the mold of his last: They are patient hitters, control-oriented pitchers with high ground-ball rates, and quietly excellent defenders. Together, Cox and Wagner hope to lead Atlanta into the sunset in style.
1. He's the Man
You could easily have been forgiven for believing, after a tough 2009, that Jim Thome was making a mistake by not merely calling it quits. What did Thome have to prove? He had over 550 home runs already, had never been linked to steroids, and ranked inside the top 50 all-time in adjusted OPS.
Instead of retiring, though, Thome signed on with the Twins for less than $2 million on a one-year deal. As Rudy Tomjanovich would say, though, one should "never underestimate the heart of a champion."
Thome has made his final crusade for a World Series ring a memorable one, smashing 25 homers and posting an other-worldly 1.039 OPS. The homers mark the 16th time he has notched 20 or more bombs, all in the last 17 seasons. His .627 slugging average marked the first time he had topped .600 since 2002. He took over full-time designated hitter duty in late June, when the Twins lost Justin Morneau to a concussion. From then on, Thome hit .310/.435/.714 with 19 bombs in just 207 plate appearances.
Thome has 17 home runs in 64 career playoff games, but has never won the World Series. He and the Twins play the Yankees in the first round.
The Best of the Rest
How Long is the Year of the Pitcher?
Pitchers made headlines across the league this season, and many of the league's most dominant and remarkable hurlers—Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Lee, just to name a few—will take center stage in October. Can they retain their edge when facing the best offenses in baseball?
Rays of No Hope
Pitiful attendance despite a tremendous team has Rays ownership promising severe salary cutbacks this winter. Whether or not Tampa wins the title, they seem destined for a fire sale a la the 1997 Marlins. It's sad, but it's hard to blame the Rays this time around: They just don't have the support of their community, which is inexplicable under the circumstances.
The Giants have played baseball on the West Coast since 1958, but have no World Series titles since abandoning the Polo Grounds. Led by Lincecum and Matt Cain, they will look to end the drought by shutting down opponents all month.
Who Are These Guys?
The Reds were a popular but very dark horse this spring, and quickly made their command over the NL Central known. Dusty Baker has been here before, but many of his charges haven't. Cincy faces the mighty Phillies in the first round, but could pull an upset in the mode of Baker's 2003 Cubs, who unseated heavy favorites Atlanta to reach the NLCS.
Matt Trueblood is a student at Loyola University Chicago and B/R College Writing Intern. Follow him on Twitter.