Postseason outlook, American League

Boston Red Sox

With the American League winning the All-Star Game, Boston has clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Home-field advantage is typically observed to be roughly eight percent, meaning that the crapshoot nature of the postseason is tilted ever-so-slightly in favor of the Red Sox.

Strengths

The Red Sox ran away from the tough AL East competition by combining the best offense in baseball (per wRC+, wOBA, and good, old-fashioned runs scored) with top-notch pitching and above-average fielding.

The Sox pieced together a fantastic lineup over the offseason, building in multiple redundancies and excellent platoon options. There is a core of players that starts most games and provides the backbone of the offense, including Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.

But role players like Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, David Ross and Xander Bogaerts are a big reason why the Sox won the division. Only Will Middlebrooks has provided less than an average offensive contribution, and he’s been much better since being recalled from the minors in mid-August.

The lineup also is well suited to take advantage of the starting pitcher’s handedness. Bench options like Gomes and Carp ensure that opposing managers will have trouble using relief specialists. Ross is one of the most chronically under-appreciated backstops in baseball, and the Sox may opt to carry Ryan Lavarnway as well to increase their pinch-hitting options against lefties.

Koji Uehara has quietly provided superb relief work for years now, but 2013 saw him blossom into a historically elite closer. At one point, he retired 37 straight batters. For those counting at home, a perfect game is 27 straight outs. If the Sox hand him a lead in the ninth, you can expect the game to be over soon.

Weaknesses

As applied to the Red Sox, weakness refers to non-strengths. The starting rotation has been a critical part of Boston’s regular-season success. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the formidable feel that fans and analysts love to drool over in a short series.

However, Jon Lester, Jake Peavy, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey make a fine postseason unit. All four pitchers have the potential to shut down an opposing offense, but they’re more likely to turn in a six-inning, three-run performance. Given the Red Sox offense, that’s probably just fine.

The bullpen is the biggest area of concern. The Sox have played mix-and-match with the ‘pen all season long in the hopes of having it ready for the playoffs. Junichi Tazawa has been excellent, briefly serving as closer before Uehara supplanted him.

In front of that elite end-game combo is a panoply of relievers who have been solid in small samples. These include Matt Thornton, Drake Britton and Brandon Workman. Ideally, a playoff-bound club knows exactly who to turn to in the sixth and seventh innings when the starter needs a quick hook, but the Sox will need to muddle through those scenarios.

Outlook

As befits a team tied for the best record in baseball, the Red Sox’s top concern is the intrinsically fickle nature of the postseason. They have all the components of a winner, with a dynamic lineup and the pitching to keep them in ballgames. This club clearly is superior to several recent World Series winners. Going purely by the numbers, they have to be considered the favorites to win it all.

-Brad Johnson

Cleveland Indians

The Indians end the season on a 10-game winning streak. A couple of wins from now, we’ll be hearing an awful lot of people say, “It’s better to be hot than good.” While it would be easy to characterize the Indians roster as the ugly duckling of the postseason, the Tribe also has a lot of things working in its favor.

Strengths

The Indians lay claim to the sixth-best offense in baseball per wRC+, but it’s comparable in quality to the third-place Athletics. The lineup is especially well primed for left-handed pitching, which could help the club if it reaches the ALDS and sees either Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz.

Cleveland has good depth and utility, allowing the Indians to play match-ups and string together rallies. Players like Jason Kipnis, Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, and Drew Stubbs will welcome the opportunity to swipe some high-leverage bases, which always seems to be a critical part of postseason success. However, Bourn is dealing with a hamstring injury that may limit his thievery in the early rounds.

As with several postseason teams this year, the Indians have a few platoons at their disposal. Ryan Raburn and Stubbs draw starts against left-handed pitching due to their favorable platoon splits over career-long samples. Mike Aviles could fill the role of super utility player, having spent time at five positions in 2013, mostly shortstop and third base. He’s been used as the primary third baseman since around mid-August.

They also have flexibility at catcher, with Yan Gomes handling most of the late-season starts and Carlos Santana starting most days at first base or designated hitter.

The rotation lacks the elite ace that analysts prefer in a postseason staff, but there is no shortage of options to provide multiple innings and go deep into games.

Rookie Danny Salazar is penciled in to start the play-in game against the Rays. Ubaldo Jimenez, Corey Kluber, and Scott Kazmir likely will fill out the remainder of the rotation. Kazmir has the worst FIP of that group at 3.51. Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister will serve as options out of the pen. It’s unclear if Masterson will be available for multiple-inning appearances.

Weaknesses

The Indians pen actually was fairly decent overall, but the struggles of Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano with health and effectiveness leave the Indians as the only AL playoff team with a closer controversy. Manager Terry Francona hasn’t officially committed to a closer-by-committee approach, but it’s a likely outcome.

Perez hasn’t had a clean outing since mid-September and allowed a combined six runs and three home runs in his final two appearances. He’s had a huge problem with home runs this season—one-fifth of fly balls against him have gone over the fence—which is the last thing anyone wants from a late-game reliever.

Pestano is still working his way back from injury and may be left off the playoff roster. Cody Allen seems like the most logical candidate among a group of successful middle relievers due to his 95-mph fastball and over 11 strikeouts per nine (11.26 K/9).

The club isn’t the most adept defensively, with advanced metrics rating the unit at around 40 runs below average on the season. It’s worth noting that 10 of those runs can be attributed to Mark Reynolds, who is no longer with the club. Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Nick Swisher were the other chief offenders, combining for negative 24 runs.

Outlook

The Indians will have one of the most difficult paths to the championship. First, they must defeat Alex Cobb and the Rays in a one-game playoff before facing the Red Sox juggernaut. If they make it to the ALDS, their lefty-mashing lineup may help them to overcome the odds in the first round. Even that advantage is short-lived, since the winner of the Tigers-Athletics series will feature an entirely right-handed rotation.

-Brad Johnson

Detroit Tigers

In a lot of ways, the Detroit Tigers’ 2012 postseason was a microcosm of how the team has fared the past three years. At times, they’ve looked like the best team in baseball (like when they rolled over the New York Yankees), at others a mediocre team (like when they were swept last World Series by the San Francisco Giants), and they’ve also had their share of drama (like their nail-biter series in the ALDS against the Oakland Athletics).

And while the Tigers have won three straight division titles, they always seem to underperform based on expectations heading into the season. This year, they finished with 93 wins, yet they play in one of the worst divisions and were expected to win more.

Still, anything can happen once you hit the postseason, and if they can find that magic that got them into the World Series last year, the Tigers just might be able to pull off the big World Series win in 2013.

Strengths

The Tigers’ big strengths are their starting rotation and the top of the lineup. Four of the Tigers starting pitchers are in the top nine in WAR, with Max Scherzer (6.4) leading the American League. Anibal Sanchez (6.2) also has been very effective, and even in an off year, Justin Verlander (5.2) kept himself at the sixth spot through sheer volume of good-but-not-great innings.

Finally, Doug Fister (4.5) finished ninth, and with his propensity for the ground ball, he should benefit more than anyone else from the Tigers picking up Jose Iglesias at the trade deadline.

And then there’s Miguel Cabrera. Arguably the best hitter in baseball, Cabrera anchors a lineup that has its share of over-achievers (Torii Hunter and Jhonny Peralta) but also its share of underperformers (Prince Fielder and Alex Avila).

The Tigers can score runs (they finished second in the American League) but they seem to score—or more importantly, not score—runs in bunches. They were shut out 12 times this year, which was only one less than the Houston Astros.

Peralta also will be back in the lineup, and he’ll be playing left field, a spot he’s never played at the professional level prior to the team’s last three regular-season games. Whether the upgrade at offense is worth the hit to the defense will determine whether this is risky ingenuity or desperation.

Weaknesses

At the top of the list is the bullpen. With Rick Porcello being the odd man out of the rotation, his move to the bullpen should make the pen better. Once you get past the Tigers’ top three relievers (Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras and Drew Smyly), things thin out pretty quickly.

Scherzer already has thrown more innings than he ever has before, and while that wear hasn’t shown up yet, you hope he doesn’t hit a wall in one of the later series. Cabrera is nursing a groin injury that has seen him missing time during the season, and if he’s not in the lineup, that significantly reduces the Tigers’ chances.

Finally, I don’t have a lot of faith in Jim Leyland. His management of the bullpen is by the book and not very creative (despite what he was able to do with patchwork bullpens in his Pittsburgh Pirates days), and his propensity to get cute (in 2010, he batted Ramon Santiago second solely so he could bunt guys over in the first inning) worries me.

Against mediocre managers, Leyland seems to do fine, but when faced with someone I’d consider a good manager (like Bruce Bochy last year in the World Series), his flaws seem to be accentuated.

Outlook
The Tigers have a fair shot at winning it all. Unless there’s an upset, they’ll be on the road for the ALDS and the ALCS (sorry, Wild Card winner) but would have home-field in the World Series, and they’ve played considerably better at Comerica Park. All it will take is two of their starters to catch fire in a series to win their first World Series since 1984. And for the Tigers, those two starters could vary from series to series.

-Brian Borowski

Oakland Athletics

As the Rangers faded in the dog days of summer, the Athletics punched the gas, taking the lead in the AL West and eventually clinching the division. The A’s have a deep roster that was well suited for regular-season play but may be one of the weaker units in the postseason. This is a common criticism of Billy Beane‘s approach to reaching the postseason, but perhaps 2013 is the year they win the dice game.

Strengths

The Athletics always have been masters of getting the most out of their assembled talent. Despite winning 96 regular-season games, the A’s patchwork offense is the only part of the team that excelled. Josh Donaldson anchors the lineup and is an also-ran in the MVP race after posting a .384 wOBA with superb defense at third base. While his contributions don’t stack up to Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout, he’s an easy third-best in the league.

Platoons are a big part of the Athletics’ game plan. Only Donaldson and shortstop Jed Lowrie were not used selectively based on the match-up. This will allow manager Bob Melvin to optimize the lineup for each game and counter relief specialists at will. This sort of roster flexibility can be critical in a short series.

Playing match-ups likely helped the club to its 186 home runs, the highest total of any postseason team. The offense can string together hits, but it works best when it swats a couple of home runs with runners on base. Aside from Donaldson, no one hitter is especially important to the offense, with 11 players posting average stats or better per wRC+.

The bullpen lacks an elite shutdown reliever, but it is solid top to bottom, giving the A’s the ability to turn to it early with confidence. Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle will take the bulk of the relief innings. Brett Anderson has been working out of the pen since returning from the disabled list in late August and could turn out to be one of those surprise starter-to-bullpen conversion stories that seem to pop up every postseason.

Weaknesses

Unfortunately for the Athletics, they possess several identifiable weaknesses. The lineup performed best against left-handed pitchers, and the A’s first-round opponent, the Detroit Tigers, will be using four good right-handers in its rotation. The handedness split isn’t a huge concern given the roster construction, but the quality of the Tigers rotation could be a problem.

More importantly, the rotation is iffy, consisting of Bartolo Colon and a fistful of youngsters. Sonny Gray has the best stuff on the staff and has pitched excellently since being activated. Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin all have FIPs above 4.00, and two of those three will have to fill out the playoff rotation.

With the spacious Oakland Coliseum as their home park, the A’s have not been shy about acquiring flyball-oriented pitchers—both in the rotation and bullpen—but this could come back to bite them against high-powered offenses like the Tigers or Red Sox.

Outlook

The Athletics may be faced with more adversity in reaching the World Series than their fellow American League foes. While it cannot be questioned that they get the most out of their players, it’s hard not to wonder how they will fare against stacked, big-budget clubs. Still, all it takes is a little timeliness to get from the ALDS to the Fall Classic. The lineup will need to bring its bats, as it seems unlikely Oakland will advance far without thumping more than its share of home runs.

-Brad Johnson

Tampa Bay Rays

David Price and the Rays cruised past the Rangers in Game 163 of the regular season. Now they will turn to Alex Cobb to stymie the Indians.

The Rays outlasted the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles in the regular season. While 2012′s AL East representatives faded to irrelevance, the Rays strung together enough wins to force their way into the postseason. They bring a team that isn’t elite in any one area but is above average across the board.

Strengths

Like many of the teams that reached the postseason, the Rays have a deep roster with plenty of effective platoons. This has allowed them to receive average or better offense from a whopping 13 hitters. The roster flexibility makes the Rays a nightmare for opposing managers hoping to play match-ups.

The lineup lacks big names, yet they tied for the third-best wRC+ in baseball and posted the second-highest combined WAR. Evan Longoria is the player analysts will focus on given his fame and penchant for clutch heroics, but the whole unit is worth careful inspection.

The team posted the most walks in baseball while limiting strikeouts (ninth-fewest), which translates to plenty of base runners and balls in play. Plate patience can be critical in the postseason, as long at-bats early in a series could reap benefits in later games.

While the Rays weren’t quite elite defenders, they maintained their standing as one of the best, with advanced metrics grading them out at around +25 runs on the season. The Rays have been known for their early adoption of new positioning techniques that are now being used by at least half of major league teams, and those techniques can save seasons.

Case in point: in their final game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, the score was 7-4, and the Jays had loaded the bases with one out and Adam Lind at the plate. Lind hit a fairly well struck grounder up the middle—right to Yunel Escobar, who turned a potential two-RBI single into a routine double play. (Escobar did make things interesting with a bad throw.) The Rays went on to win, 7-6.

The bullpen is another area of strength. Fernando Rodney recovered from his early-season struggles to post another fine season, while Alex Torres emerged as a nearly elite, multiple-inning option late in games. We’re likely to see that skill set feature prominently if the Rays experience postseason success. Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and Jamey Wright provide plenty of depth for the middle innings and match-ups.

Weaknesses

The rotation is top-heavy. Price and Cobb are excellent anchors, but they both will be used to reach the true postseason. If the Rays manage to reach the ALDS, they will have to open the series with either Matt Moore or Chris Archer. Both pitchers had successful 2013 seasons, but they showed inconsistency and some signs of fatigue down the stretch. Jeremy Hellickson is an unlikely option due to season-long struggles.

The Rays have a strong lineup, but it is certainly less explosive than those of the Red Sox, Tigers and Athletics. This concern may prove unfounded, but it’s difficult not to worry about an offense that relies on getting the most out of retreads and platoon-only players like James Loney and Kelly Johnson.

Outlook

The Rays possess only a few chinks in their armor, which certainly bodes well for their postseason hopes. They still have a difficult road ahead of them ito reach the World Series, but their roster matches up well against any team in the league. As with any team’s postseason hopes, big plays and timeliness will tell the story.

-Brad Johnson

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