It always amazes me that at the most critical time of the baseball season many sports radio outlets turn their attention almost exclusively to football.
Granted, there is tremendous interest in both sports, but betting on football has become almost a national obsession. While fantasy baseball still captivates tons of fans, many fantasy baseball teams have been eliminated from contention by this time of the season. As a result, fantasy football carries the day for many people. But you and I are hanging in there.
We love our baseball.
The addition of another baseball playoff berth has added interest in cities still in contention for a valued spot playing baseball in the fall.
Today I will take a “first look” at the divisional leaders in the playoff picture as it now appears.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST-
The Houston Astros are in the driver’s seat and are coasting to the postseason. They have an outstanding club and their postseason was boosted with the arrival of right-handed starter Justin Verlander.
In my evaluation of postseason contenders, everything must start with the pitching.
Verlander brings a terrific veteran presence to an Astros staff that was injured at times this year, has scuffled at times this year and really lacked a true “ace” for most of the time this year. Yes, they have lefty Dallas Keuchel, who until Verlander’s arrival was the top of the rotation starter. Keuchel has missed considerable time with a sore neck. Upon his return, he has not been as dominating as he was in the past. He’s still a very good pitcher, but maybe not what I would deem to be an “ace”.
When Keuchel is on his game, he induces ground balls in bunches with great sink on his pitches. In this final month of the season, we will have to watch to monitor the ground ball factor regarding Keuchel-how many ground balls is he inducing?
Verlander is not the Verlander of the past. But the Verlander of the present is likely a better option than any of the other Astros starters prior to his arrival in Houston.
Charlie Morton could be the third starter. Also an injury concern, Morton has the third highest winning total on the club with ten. It is likely Mike Fiers, Colin McHugh and/or Brad Peacock will be the other starters used in the playoffs. To me, that’s simply meh.
The offense is where it really gets exciting for the Astros.
Navigating a lineup that includes Jose Altuve, one of the most exciting players in the game is a difficult task. Altuve can do everything on a baseball field. He hits for average, hits for power, steals bases, and plays superb defense. But he can be pitched to. I witnessed the Arizona Diamondbacks pitchers induce strikeouts from Altuve by feeding him a steady diet of breaking balls. However, miss that pitch and hang it high, and a fan could easily be retrieving a home run souvenir.
Most of the offense for Houston begins with All-Star outfielder George Springer. He has power and speed, a lethal combination. He and Altuve set the stage for the incredible young Carlos Correa, one of the finest hitting shortstops in the game. Recently returned from injury, Correa is once again firing up the Astros as a scoring machine.
There are some hidden gems on the Astros. For example, in my opinion super versatile Marwin Gonzalez should have been on the All-Star team, but he was snubbed. He’s an amazing guy because he can play anywhere on the diamond with the exception of pitcher or catcher. He was a .300 hitter for most of the season. He has power. And he can break up a game with a double to either gap. He’s scuffling a bit now, but I think he’ll rise to the playoff occasion.
Another under the radar player is Yuriel Gurriel, a star in the making from Cuba. Gurriel plays both corner infield positions and is close to a .300 hitter with a great barrel of the bat approach.
Cameron Maybin adds speed to the team. He and Altuve should be able to steal plenty of bases, along with Springer.
Josh Reddick is really heating up as the team’s primary right fielder. He’s just another guy that can take the ball to the gap or over the wall.
Alex Bregman is gaining experience as a strong hitting third baseman. He may not have progressed as quickly as the Astros had hoped, but he’s a solid .280 hitter with over 16 home runs. And he’s improving all the time. It seems he’s getting hot at the right time. Now.
The Astros bullpen isn’t the strongest among the three division leaders at this point, but they may be able to get the job done. Ken Giles is the experienced closer. He also has Will Harris and Chris Devenski along with Luke Gregerson as the primary players in the pen. They can do the job, but there may be some shaky moments. Acid reflux moments. Blown save moments.
As of this point, much will depend on the success of Justin Verlander. Can he bring his fire and flare to the Astros in the form of lengthy outings with good velocity and excellent secondary pitches? Will he sustain or increase velocity late in games as he did for years with the Tigers? Will he set the pace for the rest of the rotation by keeping his team in the game during the stretch run and into the playoffs? The guy is a bulldog and he could be a difference maker for Houston.
Will any of the hitters between and among Altuve, Springer, Gurriel or Correa lead the offensive charge with a hot bat that can carry the team for at least a month? Or might it be Reddick, Maybin or Bregman who light it up? Or how about catcher Brian McCann? Might he be the guy that shows his capable power and adds offense to a really solid lineup? Time will tell.
Strengths=explosive offense with power and speed
Weakness=starting pitching depth and shaky pen
Key player= Justin Verlander
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL-
The Cleveland Indians represented the American League last year and came within a run in an extra-inning game of being the World Champions.
This year they are back in the postseason hunt with a fortified lineup and healthier starting pitching.
Since I believe that everything begins and end with pitching, I think the Indians have the potential to be among the best starting rotations in the American League.
Corey Kluber would get my Cy Young vote if I had one. I think he’ll win the award. He’s been dominant with a complete repertoire and almost pinpoint command and control. His back issues could crop up at any time, making his availability uncertain. I have seen the inconsistent Kluber and I still have a bit of a concern about the home run ball. Can Corey Kluber keep the ball in the park? That’s the question that brings heartburn.
Carlos Carrasco has the potential to become another Kluber. However, his command is far less consistent and he can lay an egg from time to time. The postseason would not be the time to serve up a plate of cookies. The ball has to move and his stuff has to play. I’m not sure it will. Last year he was injured and did not pitch. This year he’s healthy and alternates between good starts and…there’s that word again…meh!
If healthy, Danny Salazar is probably the best No. 3 starter in the league. Elbow and forearm issues have been a concern now for the past two seasons. Who knows which Salazar, if any, show up for the postseason.
Trevor Bauer has been very good after he reduced his repertoire and stopped throwing five to eight different type of pitches a game. He is driven to succeed and his demeanor is just what a winning team needs. He can be really nasty when his curveball is curving, his slider is sliding and he gets his arm action correct.
The biggest issue the Tribe will face entering the playoffs may be selecting a roster from series to series should they win their opening round. This is a very well balanced club with potential stars at every position and depth that sets them apart.
Their MVP and a possible MVP for the league is Jose Ramirez.
He can play anywhere with the exception of pitcher and catcher. And he can hit for average and with power. He also steals bases. A clutch performer, nothing bothers Ramirez.
To me, he’s the MVP of the American League. Clutch and consistent.
The addition of Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion provide plenty of thump in the middle of the order.
Francisco Lindor has left lots and lots of men on bases while trying to hit home runs, but he clearly is an elite player. I do, however, think his defense has declined since his Gold Glove season. When he doesn’t swing for the fences he can hit home runs and crush the ball.
Here’s the rub: Bruce, Lonnie Chisenhall, Bradley Zimmer and Michael Brantley (now injured) are all left-handed hitting outfielders. Austin Jackson and Brandon Guyer are two right-handed hitting outfielders. That’s six outfielders for five spots, at the most. And Carlos Santana can play right field as well, giving the club another right-handed bat against a left-handed pitcher.
Santana, Encarnacion, Lindor and Ramirez have four infield roster spots for sure. Then add in Jason Kipnis (if healthy) and a utility infielder like Giovanny Urshela, a tremendous defender. That adds six more players to the six outfielders. Are you with me so far?
The two catchers will be Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. Both are throwing out runners at over a 40% clip and contribute occasionally on offense. The roster is now at 14.
That leaves room for only nine pitchers. That’s the rub. Do the Indians go with four starters and five relievers in a seven game series? I doubt it.
I have not mentioned Yandy Diaz, a terrific young hitter. Where does he fit? Or is he out of the picture? Will the team leave Guyer off the roster and go with Santana in right field as a right-handed hitter? That would reduce the outfield to five players, with four of them left-handed hitters? Will Brantley’s ankle be strong enough for the postseason? What about the hamstring injury to Kipnis? Can he hold up? Diaz can take that roster spot if Kipnis is deemed too fragile.
For me, the bullpen remains the issue for the Indians. A tremendous strength last year with a healthy Andrew Miller, the team is dealing with his barking knee. Can he be trusted to make it through the postseason?
Will Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen arrive at the postseason with their arms attached to their bodies? Can Shaw be trusted? Both Shaw and Allen have been used and used and used and well, you get the picture.
The remaining bullpen arms are adequate. But Miller, Shaw, and Allen form the trio that must perform for the Indians to advance to the World Series. How many other guys are attached to the pen is anyone’s guess.
Strengths: tremendous balance
Weakness: back end of the bullpen consistency
Key player: Andrew Miller
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
This is where things get murky, at best. Who wins the East? Will it be New York or Boston? Your guess is as good as mine.
I’m going with the Yankees.
The Yankees play the Orioles, Rangers, Rays (twice), Twins, Royals and Blue Jays (twice). Each of those clubs is formidable. As of September 8, the team has 14 home games remaining of the 23 they will play. They finish at home with the Blue Jays.
A starting trio, that, when healthy, is the equal of the Indians. When Masahiro Tanaka’s split is working and the ball gets natural sink, he is very, very tough to hit if his elbow and shoulder hold up and if his arm remains attached to his body. How is this guy doing it? He also throws a four-seam fastball a two-seam sinker, a slider, a cutter and a curveball. I think he’s a very fine pitcher and one that can lead the team deep into the playoffs.
The second starter for New York could remain a question. I believe the very formidable Luis Severino, still under the radar as a potential great starting pitcher, should fire the next bullet. He’s good now, but he’ll be even better.
In a long series, I’d like to get my two starts for sure from Tanaka and Severino and go from there.
Then the Yankees can choose between Sonny Gray and C. C. Sabathia for their third and fourth starter. Much will depend upon the opposition. Will they want a righty or a lefty pitching?
Both are very formidable and capable of winning. Or maybe Severino gets game 3 instead of game 2. That’s the type of options the team has.
While I think the offense is well balanced, I think the strength of the Yankees has shifted from offense to pitching in the second half of this season.
Aaron Judge has returned to being a good baseball player from his status as a first ballot Hall of Famer in the eyes of many earlier in the year.
The return of Starlin Castro must not be taken lightly. His bat is crucial to the team’s success. A healthy Greg Bird adds another potential loud bat to the lineup. Having a healthy Matt Holiday back adds a spark and a terrific bat to the middle of the lineup once again. He’s aging, but he’s very dangerous. That trio can be lethal when they hit on all their cylinders.
Todd Frazier and Chris Headley have to hit for the team to meet a balanced approach. Both are showing great signs of life.
Gary Sanchez is an outstanding line drive hitter. His power behind the plate cannot be denied. However, he must drive in more runs than he yields with his poor blocking behind the plate. He has regressed in that area. Big time. His defense hurts the Yankees and it can be exposed in short series.
Sanchez’ suspension has added undo and careless stress to an already stressful situation.
I can’t say enough about Didi Gregorius. Those who have followed me since Gregorius began back with the Cincinnati Reds know I’m probably more bullish on Gregorius than I am on any player in baseball. I wrote over and over it was a matter of time, patience and experience before he became a star shortstop. He’s there. The Reds first, and then the Diamondbacks should have never traded him. All he had to do was fill the shoes of Derek Jeter. That’s all. He isn’t Jeter, I get it. But man, Gregorius plays All World shortstop and he can flat out hit. But can anyone be Derek Jeter?
Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have to put the bat on the ball or walk and get on base. They can’t bring long swings hunting home runs in the postseason. In fact, the teams can sure use a healthy Aaron Hicks who is a much underrated and under the radar player to fill any void if Gardner and Ellsbury falter.
The bullpen rivals any in baseball and may be the best. Any team would love to have Dellin Betances, David Robertson and oh, right, Aroldis Chapman at the back end of a game.
So yes, I think the Yankees will beat out the Red Sox for the American League East title. In a nutshell, they have the better starting pitching, a very solid offense and a terrific bullpen.
Strengths: balance in every phase of the game
Weakness: Gary Sanchez’s defense
Key player: Masahiro Tanaka
I think the Indians and Yankees will meet in the American League Championship Series. And that, my friends, will be a doozy.
More about that if, and when it happens.
My opinion is that the Yankees will prevail over the Red Sox in the AL East for one simple reason. I believe the Yankees starting pitching and the back end of their bullpen to be better than Boston’s. I realize Chris Sale can be dominant. But believe it or not, I think all the pitches on his quality left arm are taking a toll. He’s still great, but I don’t think he walks on the mound and wins the game just by showing up. I think he will have to fight for every victory, just like Kluber, Verlander, Keuchel, Tanaka and Severino. All are really, really good. Each can have a bad day.
My logic has Sale, Porcello, Pomeranz, Fister and Rodriguez in the same category as the Astros starters. Good but not great. They may bend and they may break. Of course, so could the pitchers for Cleveland and New York.
Things go Boston’s way if Mookie Betts catches fire. But the supporting cast of Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Mitch Moreland, Rafael Devers, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi don’t shake the earth for me like the lineups of the Astros, Indians or Yankees.
Next week: The National League Division winners
How about the Dbacks J.D. Martinez hitting four home runs in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Martinez has brought a tremendous spark to the Dbacks lineup. If Paul Goldschmidt’s injury sustains, Martinez will be invaluable. If Paul Goldschmidt is healthy down the stretch, Martinez will be invaluable. Get the picture? I think the guy is invaluable.
Getting him and the Indians obtaining Jay Bruce may be the best post-All Star Game moves made in baseball.
The sports community has really stepped up to help the victims of flooding in Houston and the Gulf. Now we have to worry about Florida and the east coast. I applaud everyone who has come forward to help those in need. We can all stand to sacrifice a bit to help others who have lost so much.
How good could the Orioles have been this season if they had any pitching? They are a perfect example of how crucial pitching is in baseball. Their lineup is loaded. They just don’t have enough reliable, consistent starters.
Imagine being the Kansas City Royals brass. At the trade deadline, the team was treading water and may have hung around for a playoff berth. The front office rewarded the fans for their seasons of loyalty by making deals for pitching and Melky Cabrera and keeping their core group together. It didn’t work. They are out of the postseason mix. And now they are stuck. Here is their list of prominent free agent players in waiting: Melky Cabrera, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Jason Vargas, Mike Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar.
The question is not why the Royals kept each of them at the trade deadline? They thought the team could reach the playoffs, I get that. The question is why and how could they let those guys get to this point in their career without a) extending them or b) trading them last offseason? Hosmer, Cain, Vargas, Moustakas and Escobar have been around for years. Cabrera came via trade this past July for pitchers Andre Davis and A.J. Puckett. Now Cabrera may be walking out the door. I’m not inside so I don’t know. Did the team try to sign any of those free agent players to extensions? Did they try to trade any of them last offseason, before then or at any time?
What do the Royals do? I will go into greater detail about this dilemma in a future edition of BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD as I discuss the problems associated with free agency.
October 1, 2018 is the last date to contact me regarding your interest in joining our tour to Cuba that takes place from January 19-26, 2018. If you contact me at BPleskoff@aol.com via email, we can hold a spot for you for two weeks.
Join us for a trip of a lifetime to the beautiful island of Cuba. We will spend most of our time in Havana. We’ll likely see a playoff game in the Cuban National Series if they are still playing. In addition, we will visit at least two Cuban baseball stadiums and at least one team shop. So, meet me in Miami on January 19 as we fly to Cuba together.
Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff