The 2011 Boston Red Sox had the best roster I had ever seen. They missed the playoffs by one excruciating game. The 2015 Washington Nationals might have been even better on paper. Sometimes things don’t work out as planned.
On any given evening, any major league baseball team can beat any other baseball team. This is true of baseball, when the players on the field change from day to day, more than any other sport. Over 162 games, things tend to settle, with the most talented teams rising to the top. Nothing is ever guaranteed, though, as a rash of injuries or a team-wide slump can make a good team look bad over an extended stretch.
In 2015, the American League standings look almost upside down, with massively talented rosters in Seattle, Cleveland, and Boston spending much of the season in last place, while surprises like Houston, Texas, and Minnesota remain in contention for the postseason. In contrast, the National League has followed the script, with the exception of Washington’s August swoon, which has knocked it out of first place.
As August fades and September beckons, the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. Following are one fan’s predictions for the rest of the regular seasons and the playoffs:
In the American League East, the already stacked Blue Jays added ace David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, along with a few key bullpen pieces, at the trade deadline. Even with just average pitching, they look like the best team in the American League. Over the weekend, Toronto overtook the elderly Yankees, who have succeeded so far on the backs of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Brett Gardner, three injury-prone players who have been surprisingly healthy in 2015. Teixeira’s recent knee bruise could signal that the team’s uncanny luck is finally running out.
The Royals are clearly the class of the AL Central, and will sail to the division title on the backs of their strong defense and dominant relief pitching.
Out west, Houston played .500 baseball between their 18-7 start to the season and this weekend’s exhilarating sweep of the Dodgers. Three months of mediocrity may not inspire extreme confidence, but the Astros are peaking at the right time and new acquisitions Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers are dealing. Even another month of .500 ball should be enough to hold off the middling Angels and Rangers for the division title.
The Yankees look like a lock for no less than the first Wild Card spot. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Angels and Rangers will continue to jockey for position in the Wild Card standings with Minnesota, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay. Baltimore certainly has the strongest offense of the five, and may have the pitching to claim the final AL playoff spot.
In the National League East, after the weekend’s games, the Mets had a five-game lead over Washington, which, given the talent gap between them, makes for a compelling race down the stretch. The Mets’ history of September collapses shouldn’t affect this team, but the youth of their pitching staff might, as two of their three young pitching stars, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, have already surpassed their career highs in big-league innings and Matt Harvey is approaching his. With Stephen Strasburg healthy again and Bryce Harper leading the MVP race, watch for the Nats to eclipse the Mets in the final days of the season.
The NL Central has been the strongest division in baseball, home to the three best records in the league, but it offers little to watch down the stretch. The Cardinals are running away with the division, the Pirates are way out in front for the first Wild Card, and the Cubs have a six-game edge for the second.
It’s a familiar picture in the NL West, with only the Dodgers and Giants relevant once again. The Giants continue to squeeze more than can be expected out of a pedestrian roster and can never be counted out, but the Dodgers have a reloaded rotation with Mat Latos and Alex Wood slotting in behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, possibly the two best pitchers in the league, and despite their no-show in Houston over the weekend, they have the bats to hold off their rivals for the division.
Predicting the winner of a one-, five-, or seven-game series is a fool’s errand, as recent history reminds us that any team can get hot and catch a few breaks and topple a more talented team in October. That said, I’ll give it a try so you have someone to make fun of at your Halloween party.
First, the Wild Card games: The Yankees will reprise the eighth-inning magic that has kept them afloat this August and beat the Orioles despite Baltimore’s strong bullpen. Jon Lester will reprise his role as Wild Card goat when the Pirates score six in the sixth to come back against the baby Cubs.
In the American League Division Series, the Blue Jays will make quick work of the Astros, welcoming them back to the playoffs with nine home runs in a three-game sweep. The Royals and Yankees will pit their league-best bullpens against each other in five epic games, the Royals’ depth providing the edge as they win more than one in extra innings.
The first National League Division Series will pit baseball’s two best rosters and two bumbling managers. Fans of other teams will be in awe of Bryce Harper’s and Yasiel Puig’s dazzling feats of athleticism, while fans of the Dodgers and Nationals will watch through their fingers as Don Mattingly and Matt Williams fight to give each game away, letting Jonathan Papelbon and Kenley Jansen rot on the bench while weaker relievers pitch high-leverage innings. The magic that carried Washington past the Mets in September will finally fade as Los Angeles prevails in five.
After watching the Cardinals win more than 100 games in the regular season, fans across the country will get a glimpse of the superior Pirates, who hit better and run better and whose pitchers have nearly identical strikeout, walk, and home run rates to the superficially elite Cardinals’ rotation. The Cards’ historically great strand rate won’t help them when the Pirates blow them out in games one and two in St. Louis. As America falls in love with Pittsburgh, the Cardinals will break our hearts again, winning three one-run games to claim the series.
In the American League Championship Series, America’s other team will see its magical run fade. Toronto will take advantage of Kansas City’s mediocre starting pitching by hitting balls where the Royals’ great fielders can’t get to them. Two showdowns between trade acquisitions Price and Johnny Cueto will be the highlights of a five-game Toronto win.
The National League Championship Series will see the Dodgers exact revenge on the team that has knocked them out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. Kershaw and Greinke will carry the Dodgers in six games.
A Blue Jays-Dodgers World Series will guarantee someone’s first championship in over two decades. It will also pit the majors’ best offense against the best playoff rotation. Kershaw and Greinke against Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion constitute must-watch baseball. Pitching will win the day, as the Dodgers take the series in six.
After the Series, we’ll learn that Josh Donaldson was named American League MVP, dealing Mike Trout his third second-place finish in four years. Bryce Harper will easily win the NL’s award. Greinke and Oakland’s Sonny Gray will win the Cy Young Awards, while Houston’s Carlos Correa and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant will be named Rookies of the Year.
If you feel compelled to take any of these picks to Vegas, please don’t send me the bill when you lose.
Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids. For more baseball musings, follow him on Twitter @replevel.