The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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Who are the real contenders for AL and NL pennants?

It’s taken until the last week of the season to determine a few of the MLB playoff teams. It was a wild finish, especially in the AL East. That’s the way we like it. However, despite their regular season records and finished, all the playoff teams start in the same place, 0-0. But in reality, there’s only a couple of teams in each league that practically have a chance to advance to the World Series this year.

In the National League, I believe the Giants and Dodgers are head and shoulders over the rest of the playoff entrants, while the Rays and Astros are the teams to beat in the American League. I’m not saying the opposition will be push-overs, but they each have weaknesses that make their case for winning a pennant a tough pick. Below is how I see the playoff teams stacking up.

National League

The Dodgers are the most complete team offensively and pitching-wise. Even with Clayton Kershaw going on the Injured List as late as Saturday, their cadre of starters, led by Max Scherzer, is the best in baseball. And they are deep in the bullpen as well. Manager Dave Roberts can juggle his lineup, depending on the opposition, because of his players’ versatility and a deep bench. Outfielder Cody Bellinger has been abysmal at the plate this year, but it doesn’t matter much with the rest of the Dodgers’ roster. Trea Turner should be a NL MVP candidate just based on his two months with the team.

The Giants don’t have the overall team strength as the Dodgers but winning the most games in San Francisco Giants history was no fluke. Their veteran player presence, combined with their relatively young skipper Gabe Kapler, didn’t fold against tough division opponents Dodgers and Padres, who were favored to win the division. One of the impressive stats about the Giants is that they were 65-25 in games involving one-run differences and blowout games (won by 5+ runs). They can win either way.

The Brewers probably are the most motivated team in the playoffs since their franchise has never won a World Series. Their pitching can compete with anyone, but they lack offensive punch in the lineup. They are near the bottom of the league in slugging. Christian Yelich hasn’t played anywhere near his capability demonstrated in 2018 and 2019, when he finished first and second in the MVP voting. The Brewers will make their opposition struggle at plate but won’t be able to advance past the first round.

No one was hotter down the stretch than the Cardinals. They can cause some trouble in the playoffs if they can manage to keep up their momentum. 39-year-old pitcher Adam Wainwright has found the fountain of youth with 17 wins, but the rest of the staff is not that impressive. The Cards will need all they can get from all-stars Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, but it still won’t be enough offense.

The Braves won their fourth consecutive AL East division title with only 87 wins. Their best player, Ronald Acuna Jr., missed the last 2 ½ months of the season, although MVP candidate Austin Riley and all-star Ozzie Albies picked up a lot of the slack from Acuna’s absence. Playoff veteran Charlie Morton and Max Fried headline a solid pitching staff. They went down to the wire with the Dodgers last year losing the NCLS in seven games. If there’s a sleeper in the NL playoffs, it’s the Braves.

American League

The Rays were impressive in winning a tough AL East division since their starting rotation was largely overhauled from last year. Manager Kevin Cash is the master in managing the in-game use of his pitching staff. The addition of veteran slugger Nelson Cruz and the promotion of Wander Franco late in the season bolstered their offense. Second baseman Brandon Lowe had a breakout season with 39 home runs. He‘s probably anxious to overcome his miserable performance in the playoffs last year.

The Astros have significant playoff experience, led by their grizzled veteran manager Dusty Baker. Their core players are healthy. Two relative newcomers, Jordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, have put up big numbers for the team that leads the league in OPS. Their pitching staff is good enough to make them competitive in all of the playoff series. They have a winning regular-season record against all the playoff teams except the Yankees.

I wasn’t a big fan of Tony LaRussa being hired as the White Sox manager this year. But you have to give him credit for winning the division (their first since 2008) despite losing several key players during the season. Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez being healthy is key in the playoffs. Last year’s AL MVP Jose Abreu turned in his usual 30+ HR and 100+ RBI season. The White Sox have two first-rate starters in Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodon, but the talent level falls off after them. I don’t think their pitching is strong enough to contend. The White Sox had a losing record against other playoff teams.

The Yankees were a streaky team most of the year. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge hit their stride together during the last two months of the season and carried the team. The additions of Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo didn’t produce as much as the Yankees had hoped. The usually reliable DJ LeMahieu didn’t help either. Those three will need to be a lot more productive in the playoffs. Yankees pitching stats rank up there with other AL playoff teams, but you never know what you’ll get from their starters, who often can’t get past the fifth inning. The worrisome part about the Yankees is they had losing records against each of their division foes.

The Red Sox squeaked into the wild card spot, just like the Yankees. They were good during the first half of the season, but barely finished above .500 during the second half. It was as though they had run out of gas at mid-season and couldn’t find the nearest gas station. If they had three or four Rafael Devers on the team and more consistency from their pitchers, I could be more optimistic about their chances in the playoffs. They could very well beat the Yankees in the wild card game, but don’t hold your breath for wins after that.

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