2019 MLB Postseason Preview

October 1, 2019

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2018, file photo, the Boston Red Sox celebrate after Game 5 of baseball's World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles. The Red Sox won 5-1 to win the series 4 games to 1. The photo was part of a series of images by photographer Mark J. Terrill which won the Thomas V. diLustro best portfolio award for 2018 given out by the Associated Press Sports Editors during their annual winter meeting in in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

The 2019 MLB postseason begins with a bang at Nationals Park Tuesday night with a win-or-go-home contest between the Nats and Brewers. But if you’ve been singularly focused on the hometown nine’s charge to a playoff spot, here’s a quick guide to the entire playoff field.

American League

Who They Are

Houston Astros (107-55), AL West Champions

Why They’re Fun

They’re just really, really good. We saw what they were capable of on the biggest stage in a wildly entertaining World Series two years ago, and there’s every argument this team is even more talented than that one, both in the lineup and the rotation.

A Guy to Know

Yordan Alvarez. In a murderer’s row of a lineup, including potential AL MVP Alex Bregman, the 22-year-old rookie didn’t get called up until June 9, then homered in four of his first five games. He hit 27 in all and drove in 78 runs in just 87 games.

Potential Difference-maker

The starting rotation was built to dominate October. Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander may as well flip a coin for the AL Cy Young, and THEN you get Zack Greinke in Game 3. If you’re going to beat the Astros, you have to find a way to beat more than one of those guys at least once in a series.

Potential Downfall

The Astros, who have home field advantage throughout the playoffs, have only lost one home series since June. That series? When the A’s came in and took three-of-four three weeks ago. Houston was 11-8 vs. Oakland on the year, but lost six of the final eight matchups between the clubs.

Who They Are

New York Yankees (103-59), AL East Champions

Why They’re Fun

They’re not (just kidding). If you find yourself struggling to find a reason to find the Yankees compelling, consider they have been so banged up this year that the top three home run hitters on a team with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were 22-year-old middle infielder Gleyber Torres, catcher Gary Sanchez, and 35-year-old outfielder Brett Gardner.

A Guy to Know

Even though he won a batting title in Colorado, D.J. LeMahieu’s been no more than an average big league hitter (career OPS+ of 92 through 2018) before breaking out in the Bronx. He’s brought some stability to the lineup as one of just a dozen big leaguers this year with 100 runs and 100 RBI, and the highest batting average (.327) of that group, while playing all over the infield, posting a six-WAR campaign.

Potential Difference-maker

Giancarlo Stanton. The 2017 NL MVP spent two long stretches on the injured list this year and only made it back for nine September games, in which he slashed .286/.382/.571 with a couple home runs. If the Yankees are able to inject a healthy Stanton back into the lineup, that might just be what they need to help cover for their biggest deficiency.

Potential Downfall

Starting pitching. The Yanks have a single starter with an ERA under 4.00 (James Paxton, 3.82) and will be without 18-game winner Domingo German, who is serving a suspension for an alleged domestic violence incident. That leaves Masahiro Tanaka (5.26 ERA since All-Star break), J.A. Happ (34 home runs allowed, fifth in AL), and recently-returned Luis Severino as options to try to keep them in the game before the bullpen can take over.

Who They Are

Minnesota Twins (101-61), AL Central Champions

Why They’re Fun

In a year of funhouse home run stats, the Twins surprised everyone by crushing the all-time team home run record (previously 267) by swatting 307 this season. Designated hitter Nelson Cruz led the way with 41, but it was more about balance in Minneapolis — eight players hit at least 22 long balls.

A Guy to Know

Mitch Garver. The Twins’ backstop hit 31 home runs in just 359 plate appearances and was worth 4 WAR in only 93 games played. He positively crushes lefties, and rather than wear down as the season went along, actually was stronger in the second half.

Potential Difference-maker

The Minnesota bullpen is full of guys plenty of baseball fans have never heard of who are having excellent seasons. The back-end, all-T trio of Tyler Duffey, Trevor May and closer Taylor Rogers gives the Twins three high strikeout rate relievers with sub-3.00 ERAs to close out games.

Potential Downfall

The Twins beat up on a lot of bad teams this year, especially in their own division, where they went a combined 41-16 against the Royals, Tigers and White Sox. But they finished just 32-37 against teams above .500, going just 2-4 against the Yankees, their ALDS opponent.

Who They Are

Oakland Athletics (97-65), AL Wild Card 1

Why They’re Fun

They bash and they play great defense. No team in baseball has a better infield trio than Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and Marcus Semien, who each hit at least 33 home runs and were worth nearly 20 combined WAR. They might also each win Gold Gloves at season’s end.

A Guy to Know

Sean Manaea. The A’s 2018 ace no-hit the eventual World Champion Red Sox before being shut down for shoulder surgery last year, which was expected to cost him all of 2019 as well. Instead, Manaea rehabbed in time to make five September starts, in which the Throwin’ Samoan went 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA. That not only got the A’s to the postseason, it earned him the start in Wednesday’s Wild Card Game.

Potential Difference-maker

Mark Canha. Formerly a lefty-mashing platoon player, Canha was forced into everyday action when Ramon Laureano was injured earlier this year. All Canha’s done is smash 26 home runs and post a 146 wRC+, which would be fifth-best in the AL if he had enough at-bats to qualify. Canha injured his groin in the final week of the season, but played again over the weekend — the A’s will need him.

Potential Downfall

Last year’s A’s bullpen was dominant. This year’s team blew 31 saves, tied for the most in baseball. Last year’s closer and set-up man Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino are both hurt, leaving the back-end duties to All-Star Liam Hendriks and a collection of question marks. Don’t be surprised if heralded rookies Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk are asked to get big outs.

Who They Are

Tampa Bay Rays (96-66), AL Wild Card 2

Why They’re Fun

Go ahead, name four Rays. Did you know they’ve got both a Yandy and a Yonny? Did you know they have a two-way player actually pitching and hitting? The Rays are a treasure chest of fun facts just waiting for America to discover them.

A Guy to Know

Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow. Yes, that’s two guys. Yes, that’s cheating, but I’m justifying it because they’ve been the team’s best hitter (team-leading 33 HR, 143 OPS+) and pitcher (1.78 ERA, 0.89 WHIP in 12 starts) and because the Rays got BOTH of them for Chris Archer. Poor Pirates.

Potential Difference-maker

The Rays have 10 walk-off wins including eight since Aug. 6 and three in their final six-game homestand. They’ve played 19 extra-inning games, most in baseball, and won 11 of them.

Potential Downfall

The Rays are bucking the home run trend of 2019. They’ve hit the fewest of any playoff team and have allowed the fewest in all of baseball (181). Combined with the lowest staff ERA in the AL (3.65), the pitching staff’s ability to shut down the prolific playoff offenses will make or break the Rays’ chances.

National League

Who They Are

Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56), NL West Champions

Why They’re Fun

Despite being a big, bad, rich legacy team that’s easy to root against, the Dodgers have built their success largely on the back of excellent scouting and development. They’ve got young, homegrown stars all over the roster, and have turned around two of baseball greatest reclamation projects in Justin Turner and Max Muncy.

A Guy to Know

Walker Buehler. While Hyun-Jin Ryu will probably draw more Cy Young votes with his gaudy ERA, Buehler’s secondary numbers suggest he’s been at least as good. In an almost identical number of innings, he’s struck out 52 more batters, actually posting a lower FIP (3.01) than Ryu (3.10). Likely the only postseason rotation member in his 20s — and just 24! — he’s poised to be a breakout star.

Potential Difference-maker

David Freese. Yes, that David Freese. With Turner a little banged up, there’s a chance that Freese, normally a bench guy, could see some more at-bats in the playoffs. Considering he slashed .409/.435/.727 since rejoining the Dodgers in September (and we all know his postseason history), that might not be the worst thing in the world.

Potential Downfall

The Dodgers have blown 29 saves, tied with Washington for the most in the National League. Once a shutdown closer, Kenley Jansen has been anything but, his 3.71 ERA more than a run-and-a-half worse than his career mark. How the Dodgers use some of their younger, back-end rotation options in relief could dictate whether they make their third straight World Series.

Who They Are

Atlanta Braves (97-65), NL East Champions

Why They’re Fun

(Scans roster)

Uhh, Dansby Swanson is dating Mallory Pugh? I’ve got nothing. Except…

A Guy to Know

Ronald Acuña, Jr. took the last few days of the season off once the Braves had clinched to let him get ready for the postseason, which cost him a chance at the final three stolen bases he needed to become MLB’s first 40-40 player since Alfonso Soriano hit the milestone for the Nats in 2006.

Potential Difference-maker

Josh Donaldson has been overshadowed by Freddie Freeman a bit this year, who leads him by small margins in most of the counting categories. But he’s Freeman’s right-handed counterpart in the lineup, and the cleanup hitter for a reason. He’s dealing with a minor hip injury, but Atlanta needs his bat.

Potential Downfall

The Braves are where they are because they’ve leaned heavily on a young starting rotation — particularly Max Fried and Mike Soroka — and seen them deliver. Last year, Fried threw 113.2 total innings, Soroka just 56.1. Each has pushed past 160 innings this season, before we hit the playoffs. How well will they hold up as they enter new territory, dozens of innings past their career highs?

Who They Are

St. Louis Cardinals (91-71), NL Central Champions

Why They’re Fun

The Cardinals were overshadowed by the Nats’ larger turnaround and the Brewers’ late surge, but this team was under .500 after the All-Star break (44-45 on July 12) before finishing on a 47-16 kick, including four win streaks of five games or more during that stretch. So they’re certainly capable of tapping into that #CardinalDevilMagic to get hot at the right time.

A Guy to Know

Jack Flaherty. Incredibly, Flaherty shared the same high school rotation with both Max Fried and Lucas Giolito, but was two years behind in school. He’s made his mark more quickly in the big leagues, making a late push into fringy Cy Young contention win a 6-WAR season as a 23-year-old.

Potential Difference-maker

Tommy Edman. Used mostly as a pinch-hitter to start, Edman started regularly at both second and third base in the second half and scorched to the finish line, slashing .350/.408/.589 over his final 40 starts. On a Cardinals team that’s seen its major stars struggle for stretches this year, his 120 OPS+ is best among anyone with at least 300 at-bats.

Potential Downfall

See that line above about Edman? That means Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter and Marcell Ozuna all fell short of that line. For the first two, that marks a severe drop-off from career norms, while Ozuna has yet to prove his 2017 season wasn’t a fluke. Will there be enough offense a lineup that finished below the NL average in both on-base and slugging percentage and only hit more home runs than the Giants, Pirates and Marlins?

Who They Are

Washington Nationals (93-69), NL Wild Card 1

Why They’re Fun

Home run dances. Baby sharks. If there’s one thing this version of the Nats seems to have rediscovered — ironically, after the departure of the guy who wanted to Make Baseball Fun Again — it’s having actual fun.

A Guy to Know

You already know all the guys, so let’s talk about Howie Kendrick. Coming off an Achilles surgery, the now-36-year-old slashed .344/.395/.572 as the first bat off the bench. Expect him to get (at least) a crucial at-bat if Tuesday night’s Wild Card Game is a tight one.

Potential Difference-maker

The Nats are 75-47 when Trea Turner starts. Do the quick math, and you’ll see that makes them 18-22 when he doesn’t. It’s not coincidental that his injury lined up with the worst stretch of their season. but Turner’s struggled in postseasons past, slashing just .233/.277/.256 with just three walks, one extra-base hit, and 18 strikeouts in 47 plate appearances. The Nats need him on base to kick start the offense.

Potential Downfall

Oh, that bullpen. Do we need to talk about it? I feel like we’ve talked about it enough, but still, even with a cleaner final weekend, the Nats relief corps finished with the worst bullpen ERA in the big leagues. Each of the other nine playoff teams finished in the top 11 in MLB. The Nats have other options for the Wild Card Game, but barring a blowout, there’s going to be plenty of nail-biting once that bullpen door opens.

Who They Are

Milwaukee Brewers (89-73), NL Wild Card 2

Why They’re Fun

This team lost the reigning MVP and a front-runner to win the award again, in the middle of the playoff chase, still looking up the standings at a spot in the postseason, then somehow rattled off 14 wins in their final 19 games to get into the postseason.

A Guy to Know

Keston Hiura’s rookie campaign has been completely overshadowed by Pete Alonso’s monster year in Queens, but he’s stepped into the everyday role at second base in Milwaukee and slashed .303/.368/.570 with 19 home runs in less than 350 plate appearances.

Potential Difference-maker

Josh Hader has a good claim as the best closer in baseball over the last couple years, striking out better than 16 batters per nine innings since the beginning of 2018. But he has allowed 15 home runs this year. As a guy who has thrown at least 2.0 full innings in 14 of his appearances this year, he may well be asked to get the biggest six outs for the Brewers Tuesday night.

Potential Downfall

Yelich is gone for the year. Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain are banged up. It’s been a wild ride to get here, but it’s unclear how much this crew has left in the tank for a serious playoff run.

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