by Paul West
After the Tampa Bay Rays pummeled the Oakland Athletics in a surprisingly lopsided Wild Card game, the American League Divisional Playoffs are underway. The Houston Astros are the clear favorite, but they’ll face a tough draw.
Houston Astros (107-55) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (96-66)
Loaded in seemingly every department, the Houston Astros are almost the best team in baseball. Their starting rotation is stacked, with Wade Miley in its bottom tier and Zack Grienke and Gerritt Cole behind future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander. Cole had a 2.50 ERA, struck out a whopping 326 batters, and became the 18th pitcher to cross the 300 strikeout mark before he’d pitched his 200th inning. The bullpen is a strength, too, anchored by Roberto Osuna‘s 38 saves. Meanwhile, their offense is loaded with speed, power, athleticism, and the experience of having won the World Series just two years ago. Alex Bregman is one of the most complete players in the game; and he’s set up in their lineup by line drive machine Michael Brantley, spirited speed-power threat George Springer, and former MVP Jose Altuve. Josh Reddick has lost a step, but still has a cannon in the outfield and supplies speed and occasional power; 22 year old Yordan Alvarez his .313 with 27 home runs and isn’t even one of the best hitters in their lineup; and Yuli Gurriel, like Brantley, often seems like a line drive waiting to happen. Athletic roleplayers Jake Marisnick and Kyle Tucker round out a strong bench that includes versatile veteran Aledmys Diaz. All of this happened with shortstop Carlos Correa missing an enormous amount of time. It seems a wonder they lose at all–except that the Rays actually went 4-3 against them this year. All four runs were close, and the Astros outscored the Rays 40-27 in the season series, but it bears noting that the Rays are not only capable of challenging the AL’s juggernaut–they know it, and won’t come in intimidated.
Veterans Tommy Pham and Travis d’Arnaud have postseason experience and have been major run producers in a middle-of-the-road offense that churns out timely hits and the occasional flurry. Austin Meadows is an athletic young outfielder with power from the left side, who hit .291 with 33 homers, 29 doubles, and 7 triples. The Rays win with timely hitting and strong defense behind a deep, versatile pitching staff that led the AL in ERA. Resurgent veteran Charlie Morton wriggled out of trouble against the Athletics, and has performed well in postseasons past for this year’s opponents. Lefty Blake Snell had an up and down year, but has the stuff of an ace. Unlike the Astros, who can roll out an old school platoon of six-inning starters followed by a strong ‘pen, the Rays win by mixing and matching a diverse array of oft-electric arms–led by Tyler Glasnow, will will likely be their Game One ‘opener.’ This difference in rotations could be the difference in this round: if the Rays’ pitching collective has a strong series and keeps them within striking distance, the Rays can strike late in games and steal a couple. If not, they could get rolled in short order.
Who wins? The Rays will battle, as they’ve done all year, but the Astros are too good in every phase. Astros in five.
New York Yankees (103-59) vs. Minnesota Twins 101-61)
The New York Yankees steamrolled the AL East for most of the season, despite a staggering array of injuries to pitchers and position players alike. They led the league in runs, were second in home runs, and in their home ballpark they were seemingly never out of a game. In the shadow of the well deserved star power of Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, and Giancarlo Stanton, their best overall hitter might be second baseman DJ LeMahieu; acquired during the offseason, LeMahieu led the team in runs, hits, RBI, and batting average while banging 26 home runs and 33 doubles to complement solid defense. Their biggest question, aside from team health, is the performance of their starting rotation. CC Sabathia has begun to show the wear and tear of a remarkably durable Hall of Fame career, and early on the eve of the series his postseason spot was still up in the air; James Paxton, who’s had an up and down season despite occasional flashes of brilliance, is dealing with a ‘lower body’ issue; and Luis Severino, JA Happ, and Masahiro Tanaka have similarly interspersed brilliance with injury and disappointment. The Yankees have won a lot of games by virtue of their ability to strike late and in bunches, but their first round opponent is similarly built.
Like the Yankees, the Minnesota Twins won the AL Central decisively, largely via a lineup will of power threats. They were second in the league in runs, one behind the Yankees; they were the first team in MLB history to top 300 homers in a regular season, and their league-leading 307 home runs was just one ahead of–you guessed it–the Yankees. They, too, score early or late, and in bunches. They set another homer-related record, as the first team to have five players hit 30: Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano, part-timer Mitch Garver, and resurgent veteran Jose Cruz with 41 . Switch-hitting utility man Marwin Gonzalez had an uneven year, but he’s a dangerous line drive hitter who hit .303 for the 2017 world champion Astros. Even the pitching matchup is fairly even, with the Twins and Yanks coming in fifth and sixth (respectively) in the AL in ERA. Closer Taylor Rogers and veteran reliever Sergio Romo are a solid pair at the end of the bullpen, though they lack the name recognition of the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman and Adam Ottavino; though Chapman has struggled at times, the Bombers’ bullpen is more of a strength with Ottavino, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, and Zack Britton. Still, both pens were comparable in ERA and saves versus blown saves, and this is an extremely evenly matched series.
Who wins? The Twins’ longball potential might neutralize the Bronx Bombers’ home field advantage, and if starters Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi can miss bats and eat innings, the Twins could steal this series. Twins in five.
Bracket sleeper: The Rays. They’ve got pitching, depth, versatility, and experience, and they can match up well with anyone in the draw.
The best player you might not have heard of: Austin Meadows. He led the rays in batting average, runs, home runs, and RBIs, and he’s an athletic lefty who rarely wastes at bats.
Who wins the American League pennant? The Astros. They haven’t got any glaring weaknesses, there are just too many ways they can beat you, and they have home field advantage throughout.