Overtime: MLB playoff preview

BEN SIECK | ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

After 162 regular season Major League Baseball games, 10 teams are left to see who will be crowned as 2013 World Series champions.

This year’s playoff bracket features plenty of fresh faces with five different teams than last year making the postseason. One of those teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates, will be playing in a postseason game for the first time in 21 years.

The Pirates join the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays as teams making the playoffs after missing out last year.

The Detroit Tigers, Oakland Athletics, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves are all making return trips to the postseason, rounding out this year’s field.

Every postseason is made up of contenders and pretenders. This year, both the American League and the National League have two true contending teams, one fringe contender, and two teams lucky to be where they are.

The NL has captured four of the last five World Series titles, and as the calendar flips to October, two NL teams are poised to continue the tradition.

Neither of those teams call Atlanta, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati home.

Both the Braves and Pirates are coming into the playoffs off 90-win seasons, but their regular season resumes are weaker than they initially appear.

The Braves won 96 games this season, but only played 61 of their 162 games against teams .500 or better. To compare, the Red Sox, who had the best record in the AL, played 106 games against teams .500 or better.

The Braves’ biggest strength over the course of the season was their pitching. Atlanta was ranked by FanGraphs.com, a baseball analytics website, as the sixth best pitching team in the majors over the regular season.

Starting pitchers Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, and Kris Medlen all turned in seasons of 180 plus innings with earned run averages [ERA] just over 3.00, and closer Craig Kimbrel led the majors in saves with 50.

However, Atlanta lacks a true ace in its staff. Minor, 25 years old and Teheran, 22 years old, might get there eventually but no Braves pitcher ranked in the top 15 in strikeouts, ERA, or wins above replacement [WAR].

As pitching rotations shrink to three starting pitchers in the postseason, dominant pitchers become even more valuable. The Braves simply don’t have those kinds of arms.

The Pirates may have the best position player in the postseason not named Cabrera, in outfielder and NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen.

However, the Pirates are a team just happy to be in the playoffs, period. 21 years is a long time for a franchise to go without a playoff game. The first time the Pirates experience any type of playoff adversity, Pittsburgh fans and players are liable to freeze up like Shaq at the free throw line.

If the Pirates can shake off the playoff jitters, they can be a dangerous team. FanGraphs.com rated the Pirates in the top half of the league in both pitching and hitting while facing the ninth hardest schedule, according to ESPN.

The Reds are the NL’s fringe contender. They are made up very similarly to the Pirates and rate close to the Pirates in pitching, hitting, and strength of schedule. The reason I give them the edge over Pittsburgh is their playoff experience.

The Reds are playing in the postseason for the third time in four years and don’t have the weight of a playoff-starved city on top of them. If anyone is beating the Dodgers and Cardinals in the NL, the Reds have the best shot.

Regardless, St. Louis should prevail over whoever comes out of the NL Wild Card round.

The St. Louis Cardinals were the class of the NL this past season, finishing with the best record in the league. The Cardinals were led by their offense, finishing first or second in the NL in batting average, on-base percentage, runs scored and total hits.

However, the Cardinals’ offense took a big hit in early September when first baseman Allen Craig suffered a foot injury that has kept him out of the lineup since. Craig is expected to be out until at least mid-October, according to Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak

Matt Adams has done a good job filling in for Craig, but St. Louis will miss Craig’s .315 batting average and league-leading .454 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals still have starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, who appears to have completely recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2011. Wainwright posted a 2.94 ERA and 219 strikeouts this season. If not for the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Wainwright would have a case for the NL Cy Young Award.

With Wainwright, Lance Lynn and rookie sensation Shelby Miller, St. Louis figures to have the second or third best playoff rotation.

But the Los Angeles Dodgers are in the best position to win the World Series out of any NL team. After famously stumbling out of the gate, the Dodgers have been the best team in baseball since righting the ship. Beginning June 22, the Dodgers have gone an astounding 62-28.

The Dodgers will have the best playoff rotation, anchored by the best pitcher on the planet, Kershaw. Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu will round out Los Angeles’ playoff rotation, giving the Dodgers no starters with an ERA more than 3.00 on the season.

The Dodgers also rank as the third-best hitting team in the majors, according to FanGraphs.com. On top of that, the Dodgers should be getting All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier back for the postseason after he missed the final few weeks of the regular season.

St. Louis has a shot to beat them, but I expect Los Angeles will represent the NL in the World Series.

The AL features two teams that are more pretender than contender, the Cleveland Indians and the Oakland Athletics.

The Indians are another team that will just be happy to be in the playoffs. This is the first year that the Indians have had a winning record since 2007, and while this year’s team has been impressive, they have capitalized on beating inferior opponents.

The Indians are 56-18 against teams below .500, but only 36-52 against teams above .500. The Indians will only see the best of the best from here on out, so an early playoff exit appears to be in their future.

The Oakland A’s are one of the MLB’s more remarkable teams, winning back to back division titles with one of the lowest team payrolls in the majors. However, they are another team that has benefitted from its schedule.

Oakland played the second easiest regular season schedule, according to ESPN. Playing the Tigers in the first round should be a reality check for the A’s.

Depending on how you feel about 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, the A’s don’t have anything close to a top-tier starter. The A’s offense has been consistent throughout the year, but third baseman Josh Donaldson is the only A’s starting position player to bat over .300 for the season.

The Tampa Bay Rays have become the model small market team in MLB. Under manager Joe Maddon, the Rays consistently do more with less, and this is why I’m not counting them among the pretenders in this year’s playoffs.

FanGraphs.com ranked the Rays as the second best offensive team this season, and their pitching staff finished 15th in the majors despite missing number one starter David Price for two months of the season.

All that said, I’m not putting them with the true contenders either.

There’s only so much Maddon can do to make up for his team’s shortage of natural talent. Talent will eventually win out as the Rays fall to Boston in the ALDS.

The two true contenders in the AL are the Tigers and the Red Sox. The Red Sox posted the best record in the AL, just one year after finishing at the bottom of the AL East. Essential in that turnaround was the resurgence of Boston’s offense.

FanGraphs.com rated the Red Sox as the best hitting team in the majors. The Red Sox finished first or second in the AL in runs scored, batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and total hits.

Boston was also near the top of the majors in pitching. FanGraphs.com rated the Red Sox as the third-best pitching team in the majors. Red Sox starters Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz have all been solid for Boston. Buchholz has been a force when healthy, posting a remarkable 1.74 ERA this season in 108.1 innings.

The Red Sox were arguably MLB’s best team in the regular season. However, it will be difficult for Boston to get by Detroit. The Tigers are simply built for the postseason.

The Tigers are the reigning AL champs and should be back in the World Series once again. Led by last year’s MVP and Triple Crown winner, Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers were ranked as the fourth best offensive team in the majors and led the majors in pitching according to FanGraphs.com.

Detroit’s potential three-man rotation ranks close to the top of those that made the postseason. This year’s AL Cy Young Award frontrunner, Max Scherzer, will be joined by former AL MVP Justin Verlander and either Annibal Sanchez or Doug Fister.

Ultimately, the Tigers have one thing the Red Sox don’t—Cabrera. He is going to be the AL MVP for the second year in a row, and when two teams like Boston and Detroit are so evenly matched, he is enough to tip the scales in Detroit’s favor.

The Tigers were the runners-up last season and I expect them to correct this mistake in 2013. The Dodgers seem to be poised for a deep run, but I think Detroit’s playoff experience pays off in the end. My only caveat is Kershaw isn’t losing a game seven. Other than that, Tigers in six.

 

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