Yankees vs Astros
#2 Astros (Max Brill)
The #2 seeded Astros will face off against the #4 seeded Yankees in the ALCS in what figures to be a series chock-full of hitting. Eleven Astros hitters finished the regular season with double digit homers, and nine Yankees hitters did as well, not including Greg Bird who missed most of the season but still finished with 9. The Astros hitting wasn't their only strong point this year; they finished fourth in the American League in pitching fWAR, and had the second highest strikeout rate of any pitching staff on the Junior Circuit. This will be only the fifth championship series appearance for the Astros in franchise history, and the team's first since their move to the American League. Ladies and gents, your 2017 Houston Astros:
- Jose Altuve. George Springer. Carlos Correa. Alex Bregman. These four guys are all under 27, are all regular starters for the Astros (at second, center field/right field, short, and third), and hit a combined .307 with 101 HR and 56 SB. The core of this team is young, under team control for the next few seasons, and dangerous. Look for these four guys to carry the offense in the ALCS, and I expect them to make mincemeat of the Yankees relatively weak starting rotation.
- Marwin Gonzalez. The dude is a swiss army knife. In addition to triple-slashing .303/.377/.530 (which is 44% above league average), he played six different positions this year, and appeared at each of the four infield positions plus left field at least 19 times (he only played right field for two games). Look for Gonzalez to be a difference-maker in this series due to his versatility.
- The Astros 1-2-3 punch of Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, and Brad Peacock. Two of these three guys have won the Cy Young in their career, and while Peacock hasn't, he has pitched lights-out this season (3.22 ERA, 10.88 K/9 in 111.2 innings pitched). These three hurlers pitched to a 3.70 ERA in the ALDS and added a 7.94 K/9, which is not stellar, but is still solid. They clearly didn't live up to their full potential though, so look for them to improve on their already-solid ALDS performance.
- The bullpen. The Astros were 6th in the American League in reliever WAR (that's in the middle third). When the worst thing your team does is still better than most of the teams in your league, you're doing something right. That being said, The Astros do not really have any stand-out relievers besides Chris Devenski and Ken Giles, so it will be hard to matchup with the absolutely stacked Yankees bullpen. However, if the Astros hit the Yankees starters like I expect them to, it shouldn't make much of a difference.
Wild Card Yankees (Jack Molino):
No one really expected the Yankees to make it to the ALCS. Not at the beginning of the season when they were supposed to have a rebuilding year. Not after the top of the first inning in the Wild Card game when they pulled Severino out of the game and were down 3-0. And especially not after they went down 0-2 in the ALDS to the Cleveland Indians. Nonetheless, they are here and and they are ready for the Astros. They have a lot of power: Sanchez, Judge, and Gregorius fill a stacked heart of the order. However, their pitching rotation has been hot and cold this year, and it will be the big question against the extremely high-powered Astros offense.
- Joe Girardi has arguably the best bullpen in baseball. And that sure helps in postseason baseball. This was seen in the AL Wildcard game when Luis Severino, their ace, only recorded one out against the Twins. Girardi turned to his bullpen for the other 823 innings—and the “bullpenning” worked. The Yankees have Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, and Aroldis Chapman to top it all off. This bullpen helped the Yankees close out extremely high pressured games in games 3, 4, and 5 of the ALDS against the Indians. In this next series, be ready for Joe Girardi to come out to the mound in the 3rd or 4th inning and turn to his bullpen arms.
- As mentioned before, the Yankees have a lot of power in the heart of the order. They are the most productive offense in postseason thus far, with 29 runs and 10 home runs. They were second in runs during the regular season in MLB, only to the Houston Astros. They were first in home runs during the regular season—edging out, you guessed it, the Houston Astros by a couple of home runs.
- With power hitting, there is also the other side of the coin—strikeouts. And the Yankees sure have a lot of them, led by strikeout king, (ironically a possible AL MVP candidate as well) Aaron Judge. He set the record for the most strikeouts in a playoff series last week against the Indians with a whopping 16. With this extremely talented Astros rotation with newly added Verlander (and Keuchel who has had great success again the Bronx Bombers this season), watch out for lots of strikeouts from the Yankees this week.
- No one really knows if the Yankees pitching rotation will be able to slow down Houston’s extremely hot bats—they are batting .333 in the postseason! After Severino, Sabathia, Tanaka and Gray have been solid this season but nothing more. It was a good sign to see veteran Sabathia pitch well in Game 5 of the NLDS. But will Tanaka and Gray step up the challenge and contain baseball’s best hitting team? (the Astros led in about every single hitting category after the regular season).
Cubs vs Dodgers
Talk about a roller coaster season. The Dodgers won 53 straight games in which they had a lead at any point in the game. On August 6, the Dodgers were projected to win 116 games, tied for the most of all time with the 2001 Seattle Mariners. Around this same time, they unbelievably had a winning record in games they were losing at any point in the game. They were 51 games over .500 on September 2. However, September was not too kind to this ballclub. They became the first team ever to win 15 of 16 games and lose 15 of 16 games in a season. The only win in that span was a 1-0 victory over the lowly Padres, in which Clayton Kershaw pitched a gem. They went into the playoffs not looking too strong. But this is not the same team that we saw in September, as they knocked out the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team many thought would have been a World Series Contender, in three games. Now that they appear back on track, this team is deadly no matter how you look at it, and the depth they have combined with the elite managing under Dave Roberts could and should propel the Dodgers to their first World Series appearance and title since 1988.
- Chris Taylor. Cody Bellinger. If you look at the Dodgers opening day roster, you do not see these guys here. That is because they were both in the minor leagues. Taylor had not played more than 47 games in his prior three seasons, and had a career WAR of just 0.6. The Dodgers picked him up from the Mariners in the middle of the year last year as nothing more than organizational depth. Cody Bellinger was projected to be pretty good for the Dodgers in the next couple years, but Adrian Gonzalez, the model of consistent, elite production, was at first base and there were a plethora of guys looking for playing time in the outfield. However, a back injury to Gonzalez and an ACL injury to Andrew Toles later, Taylor and Bellinger got their chances and shined. Bellinger hit the most home runs ever for a rookie, 39, and he missed the first month of the season. Chris Taylor played the infield and all the outfield positions (and did so very well), batted leadoff, and hit .288 with 21 home runs and 72 RBIs. These two guys went from not being on the roster to being the 1 and 4 batters in the lineup, and are a big reason why the Dodgers sit as the favorites to win the championship.
- Alex Wood. Rich Hill. Kenta Maeda. Brandon Morrow. Everyone knew Kershaw would be an elite Number 1 pitcher. Everyone knew Jansen would be an elite closer. But the rest of the Dodger rotation and bullpen was in shambles. However, everything pieced together almost perfectly. Alex Wood, a pretty average pitcher his first four years in his career, shined, going 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA. Rich Hill, who had blister problems ever since coming over from Oakland at the trade deadline in 2016, figured it out a few months into the season and became another solid arm. Kenta Maeda, who never became the star starting pitcher Los Angeles hoped he would become, turned into a weapon to pitch multiple innings in relief, a position that is becoming ever so valuable in the MLB. And Brandon Morrow, who the Dodgers picked up at the beginning of the season to pitch in the minors, where he struggled, somehow turned himself into an elite setup man with a 2.06 ERA. All of the pieces are coming into place, and there really is not a weakness with this franchise at the present time. It’s a World Series or bust year for LA, and the reigning manager of the year Dave Roberts hopes not to disappoint in year two with his squad.
- The loss of Corey Seager. Everyone talks about Yasiel Puig, his great comeback season, and crazy attitude. Everyone talks about Justin Turner and his high average and clutch play. Everyone talks about Kershaw being the best starter in baseball, Jansen being the best closer in baseball, and Bellinger being the best rookie in baseball not named Aaron Judge. But it seems everyone has forgotten about Corey Seager, last year’s Rookie of the Year. Sure, Seager doesn’t kiss his hitting coach when he hits a home run, he doesn’t have a large red beard, and he doesn’t have three Cy Young Awards and an MVP. But last year he was the most talked about rookie and hit .308 with 26 home runs and 72 RBIs, and this year, he quietly put up nearly the same numbers (.295, 22 home runs , and 77 RBIS), all while playing a great shortstop. But now he has been left off of the NLCS roster with a back injury, and Charlie Culberson has taken his place. Sure, the Dodgers have depth, and if any team can handle this is would be Dave Roberts’s club, but without their elite number two hitter and shortstop, the team now has a hole that could open the door for the defending world champs.
The World Champion Cubs were expected to defend their NL Central title with ease, as they brought back nearly their entire roster from 2016, making them World Series favorites among most experts. However, a rough first half of the season put their playoff status in doubt, with the team going 43-45 through the all-star break. Fortunately for Chicago, the Brewers failed to break away from the NL Central pack, and they were able to gain the division lead in September thanks to a torrid 50-24 pace after the break. Despite a late push from both Milwaukee and St. Louis, Chicago held on to claim their second straight division title and reach the postseason in three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1906-08. This hot stretch has continued so far into October, with Chicago beating the favored Washington Nationals in 5 games.
- Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo form one of the most formidable duos in baseball in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup. They both finished in the top five of MVP voting last season and continued that form into 2017, posting .946 and .899 OPS, respectively. They are, of course, renowned for their power (over 60 combined home runs in back to back years) and great on base ability but they also have under-the-radar speed with 17 combined steals this year and 30 in 2015. These two often create runs on their own--8 combined RBI in the DS--but if not, the hitters behind them will often be hitting with men in scoring position. Their righty-lefty combination, meanwhile, poses difficulty for opposing managers.
- The depth of the starting rotation. The Cubs might not have a true ace, depending on your view of Kyle Hendricks, but they also have no flaws in their top four. Excluding Hendricks’ 4 ER in 4 IP in game 5, Cubs’ starters game up 1 earned run in 22.2 innings against a powerful Nationals lineup in the NLDS. Jon Lester had a bit of a down year but he had a 2.44 ERA and finished second in Cy Young voting last year, Jose Quintana has a 3.74 ERA since moving to the north side, and Jake Arrieta had a sub-3.00 ERA after the all-star break and is only two years removed from a Cy Young victory of his own.
- Joe Maddon. Cubs fans may criticize their manager for moves such as leaving in Carl Edward Jr. to give up a series-changing home run to Bryce Harper in game 2 but he has proven his status as an elite manager time and time again over the last decade. Since coming over from Tampa Bay, he has led the Cubs to the NLCS in three straight seasons, won a manager of the year award, and changed the culture of Chicago Cubs baseball.
- Kris Bryant. Yes, he’s also in the good, but Bryant struggled seriously in the last few games of the Washington series and needs to turn it around before the NLCS. He went 1-12 with a walk and seven strikeouts in the last three games, breaking up multiple rallies and nearly costing the Cubs a trip to the NLCS. In his defense, four of his strikeouts came in a masterful game 4 from Stephen Strasburg but Bryant needs to do a better job of laying off balls out of the strike zone to be the impact hitter the Cubs need him to be against the Dodgers.
- The bullpen before Wade Davis. Brian Duensing was lights out in his two performances and Pedro Strop wasn’t bad but the Cubs will need more from Mike Montgomery, and Carl Edwards Jr. in the NLCS. Montgomery’s two appearances involved him giving up a game-winning three-run homer to Ryan Zimmerman in game 2 and allowing up a double, walk, and double to let the Nats back into game 5. Edwards was even worse in his five appearances, allowing 2 hits, 4 walks, and 6 ER, the most crushing of which came from Harper’s mammoth blast in game 2. With these holes, the Dodgers will feel as if they have a chance if they can get the Cubs’ starters out by the 6th innings so Chicago’s bullpen will need to right the ship to reach another World Series.
- Starting rotation fatigue. Games 4 and 5 of the NLDS were nearly as damaging to the Cubs’ rotation as they were to the blood pressure of Cubs and Nats fans. All four of the Cubs’ starters pitched with Wednesday or Friday, meaning John Lackey--their fifth pitcher--is the only one who could pitch game 1 of the NLCS on full rest. Alternatively, they could go to Jose Quintana, who pitched less than an inning in game 5 but in a very high-stress situation. If Maddon goes with Lackey, as most assume he will, that sets up either Lester or Arrieta on three days’ rest in game 2. With a fully rested Clayton Kershaw and either Yu Darvish or Rich Hill going in those first two games for LA, the Cubs could easily be down 2-0 going back to Wrigley.