clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 10 Biggest Questions Ahead of the First Round of the MLB Playoffs

Which version of Kris Bryant will show up in the postseason? Can Tampa Bay play like a favorite? And is the AL bracket shake-up good for anyone? Answering those questions and more ahead of the first round.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There has never been a pennant race as weird as 2020’s—or as fruitful: 16 teams made it to the postseason this year instead of the usual 10. With this mix of familiar faces and up-and-coming clubs, many questions remain unanswered: Which youngster will be this year’s Juan Soto or Carlos Correa? Which beloved veteran will finally get a ring? Will we see a Dodgers-Cardinals series for the billionth postseason in a row? Here are 10 questions that bear special scrutiny.

1. How many Padres starters are going to be healthy for the first round?

Heading into the last week of the regular season, the Padres literally had more starting pitchers than they could use. Sure, Chris Paddack (4.73 ERA) has taken a step back from his stellar rookie campaign, but Zach Davies was having a career year, Dinelson Lamet was making a run at the Cy Young, and the team made the splashiest deal at this year’s trade deadline by acquiring Mike Clevinger from Cleveland.

But on Wednesday, Clevinger experienced biceps tightness in his throwing arm and left his start after one inning. He was later diagnosed with “posterior impingement” in his right elbow, which came as news to those of us who thought “posterior impingement” was something that happened when your pants don’t fit anymore. Clevinger received a cortisone shot and his status for the wild-card round is up in the air.

No matter, though, because Lamet has been the Padres’ best pitcher this year anyway, and … oh no. On Friday night, Lamet also left his start early due to biceps tightness, and is also questionable for the first round—though the Padres seem more optimistic about Lamet’s injury than Clevinger’s.

It’s a testament to the Padres’ depth that losing both Lamet and Clevinger in such rapid succession is anything but a death sentence. San Diego still has Paddack and Davies, and plenty of options for a potential Game 3 starter if Lamet can’t go: Garrett Richards, who’s been pitching out of the bullpen, or youngsters Luis Patino and Adrián Morejón, who have alternated between relief work and an opener-adjacent starter’s role. Patino is the better-rated prospect, but Morejón is a 21-year-old left-hander from Cuba who throws a funky knuckleball-change hybrid, which makes him worth watching even if he’s not necessarily the best man for a Game 3 start.

Yes, the Padres have options, and their first-round opponent, the Cardinals, just lost Dakota Hudson and Carlos Martínez. But San Diego would much rather just roll its best pitchers out there for the team’s biggest games in a decade rather than have to continue to be creative.

2. Which versions of Javier Báez and Kris Bryant are going to show up?

The cornerstone of the Cubs is the left side of their infield: 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant and 2018 NL MVP runner-up Javy Báez, a pair of top-10 picks who turned into middle-of-the-order bats and two of the most visible faces on the team. So it’s kind of remarkable that the Cubs won the NL Central with ease, even though Báez is hitting .203/.238/.360 and Bryant is hitting .206/.293/.351 and missed half the season to an oblique injury.

Ordinarily, first-year manager David Ross would be facing a choice between playing his struggling stars and going with reserves who might give the club a better chance to win. But neither Nico Hoerner nor David Bote has exactly lit the world on fire, which takes the pressure off Ross and places it back on Báez and Bryant (which is where it should be). These players were integral to Chicago’s playoff successes from 2015 to 2017, and if they keep playing like the Monstars sucked out all their talent, the Cubs could get sent home early by the Marlins.

Bryant, at least, looks like he’s heating up at the right time. He returned to the lineup Saturday and when asked about the criticism he’d received online, told reporters: “I don’t give a shit.” He homered that night, and then again on Sunday. That’s cool as hell, no matter what he or the Cubs do in the playoffs.

3. How scary is an underdog with three good starters?

In the later rounds of the playoffs, a best-of-five or -seven series with no off days will represent an unprecedented test of teams’ pitching depth. But in the first round, some team is going to escape despite using only four or five pitchers total. Because of this, the two Ohio teams look like particularly scary early opponents. Imagine having to beat two of Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, and Zach Plesac in three games, or two of Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, and Sonny Gray. The same logic extends to the Marlins, with their Sixto Sánchez and Sandy Alcantara–fronted rotation.

But while a couple of good starting pitchers can have an outsize impact on a postseason, it bears mentioning that nobody ever makes this argument about Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, or Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. Is the difference between Cleveland’s offense and the Yankees’ offense greater than the difference between Bieber and his Game 1 opponent, Gerrit Cole? I’d say no.

So is it actually true that nobody wants to play Cleveland or Cincinnati in the first round, or do those teams just have bad offenses and we need to find something nice to say about them? We’ll soon find out.

4. How scary can a favorite be if it has only one good starter?

The Braves have a very deep bullpen, and probably the best offense in baseball. Ronald Acuña hit .250/.406/.581 this season and was merely Atlanta’s third-best hitter. The Braves also let Ender Inciarte pop out to shortstop three times a game and finished second in runs scored anyway.

But the rotation? Not so good. Mike Soroka is hurt. Cole Hamels is hurt. Mike Foltynewicz made one start and got put on waivers. Touki Toussaint and Sean Newcomb were so bad that the Braves traded for Tommy Milone rather than put them on the mound. Kyle Wright hasn’t been terrible in four September starts, which is a nice change of pace from his first 15 MLB appearances through three years.

The two bright spots in the rotation are rookie Ian Anderson, a 22-year-old who’s made six starts and posted a 1.95 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings, and Max Fried. Fried is going to get Cy Young votes this year after going undefeated in 11 starts with an ERA+ of 212. Manager Brian Snitker should feel good about throwing him out there against Bauer in Game 1.

But Fried is not Cole or Bieber; his K% is 44th out of the 80 pitchers with at least 50 innings this year, and his K-BB% is 52nd. He’s also not Madison Bumgarner; Fried has recorded an out in the seventh inning just six times in 50 MLB starts, he’s never pitched into the eighth inning, and he’s never thrown more than 103 pitches in a start. That puts even more pressure on a bullpen that’s probably going to have to carry most of the load in games 2 and 3 anyway. The offense and relievers are good enough that Atlanta should be one of the favorites for the NL pennant, but if a good rotation is enough to make an otherwise bad team look scary, then a bad rotation ought to be enough to sink an otherwise good team.

5. Is Tampa Bay ready to play like a favorite?

I’ve been high on the Rays all year, not only because they’ve got a ton of talent, but because their roster flexibility and pitching depth make them an ideal candidate to thrive in a compressed postseason. The Rays have had great success building a sort of anti-Yankees roster, positioning themselves as a small-time operation built on pitching and ingenuity rather than offense and financial power. Last year, that led to Tampa Bay giving the 107-win Astros and their unbeatable rotation absolutely everything they could handle in a five-game ALDS.

But these inveterate underdogs can no longer operate like the heroes in a Disney sports movie—they’re the no. 1 seed in the AL. Not only are they the favorite in a playoff series for the first time since … the 2010 ALDS against the Rangers, I guess? … but they’ll be the prohibitive favorite in any AL playoff series. Now, it’s not just a matter of hoping Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell can keep up with Cole and Justin Verlander in a series nobody expected them to win. This time around, Glasnow, Snell, and the rest of the Rays have to absolutely put Toronto to the torch, or else it’ll be time to start wondering why this club hasn’t won a playoff series since 2008.

Playing with house money is one thing. Playing like the house is another.

6. Is anyone wide enough to stop the Blue Jays?

The Rays shouldn’t underestimate Toronto, a team that for all its happy-to-be-there vibes came within a game of clinching the AL’s fifth seed. The elevator pitch for Toronto is its collection of hard-hitting youngsters, from the ebullient Bo Bichette to his voluptuous teammates Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Alejandro Kirk. Deadline addition Taijuan Walker is certainly taller than Guerrero and Kirk, but no less broad, and he’s brought a welcome stability to Toronto’s rotation during the second half of the season. Highly rated rookie fireballer Nate Pearson—another large man at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds—has also returned from injury just in time for the playoffs.

But the most important Large Man on the Toronto roster has gotten somewhat lost in the Blue Jays’ celebrated beeftankification: Hyun-Jin Ryu. The 2019 NL Cy Young runner-up was arguably the Jays’ best player this year, with a 164 ERA+. The differences between him and Glasnow or Snell are merely qualitative; Ryu can hold his own against any pitcher in baseball. If he steals Game 1, the Blue Jays might have too much momentum for anyone to stop them.

7. Will this Brewers-Dodgers series look like the last one?

The race for the last NL playoff spot shook out in such a way that three teams—the Phillies, Brewers, and Giants—were all alive on the season’s final day. Now, considering that these clubs combined to go 3-10 over the last four days of the season, “race” hardly seems like a fitting word. More like a dizzy bat contest in which all the participants have their knees tied together and have to run across a giant slip-and-slide.

But the Brewers are in, as the no. 8 seed, to set up a rematch of the 2018 NLCS against the Dodgers. That series was one of the wildest, Waxahatchie Swappingest tactical showdowns in baseball history, and it looks like we could be in for a repeat. Craig Counsell, the man who rejected decades of orthodoxy, once again commands a handful of electrifying relievers against a Dodgers team with few weaknesses to speak of. And with Corbin Burnes—perhaps his best pitcher—out for the playoffs, he’ll need them.

8. Is this the end of the Astros’ dynasty, or did that already happen?

As the Astros tripped and fell into the no. 6 seed with a 29-31 record, the team’s injury and pitching struggles have obscured the fact that this club is facing some serious decisions. That exceptional core that came up together and made the playoffs for the first time in 2015 has not stayed young forever. George Springer will be a free agent after this season, as will Brad Peacock, Michael Brantley, and Josh Reddick. After next season, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Roberto Osuna, and Zack Greinke will all hit the market. So will Justin Verlander—who, with his torn UCL, has probably already thrown his last pitch in an Astros uniform.

In short, this club can’t sleepwalk through this postseason and write off 2020 as a fluke; they don’t have enough time to do that.

9. Who’s going to be most unhappy that the AL bracket got shaken up?

While the AL playoff field has been set for some time, the seeding was up in the air until the final innings of the season. A last-minute jumble sent Oakland up to the no. 2 seed over Minnesota, who clinched the AL Central despite losing to the Reds, as the White Sox not only failed to win the division but dropped all the way to third in the Central and seventh in the AL playoff bracket.

That sets up a pair of fascinating stylistic contrasts: The first is between Cleveland, which is all pitching and no offense, and the Yankees, which is some pitching and lots of offense. Not only is there the aforementioned question of whether a handful of good pitchers can win a best-of-three series on their own, but also there’s a question of which Yankees team is going to show up: The one that lost six of its last eight games, the one that won the 10 games that came before, or the one that lost five in a row and seven of eight immediately before that winning streak?

By jumping to the no. 4 seed, Cleveland obviously gets to play the first round at home, but I’m not sure the Yankees are a more favorable matchup than Oakland, another club that comes into the playoffs on a bit of a skid.

The A’s, meanwhile, draw the White Sox, who dropped all the way to the no. 7 seed despite tying for the fourth-best record in the AL and fifth-best record in all of baseball. You could make the argument that the hard-hitting White Sox have the better lineup and rotation, fronted by Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, but the Athletics’ bullpen is one of the best in baseball and covers a multitude of other weaknesses (like the fact that Oakland will be without superstar third baseman Matt Chapman).

The only team that should definitely be happy about the way the bracket shook out is the Twins. By dropping behind the A’s in the standings, Minnesota avoids a first-round matchup with the White Sox, with whom they split the season series, and instead gets the worst Astros team since the days of Bo Porter. Most importantly, the Twins cannot face the Yankees until the ALCS. Thank God for tiebreakers.

10. How happy will the Marlins and Cardinals be to be there?

The Cardinals and Marlins had their schedules wrecked by positive COVID tests, and both teams rode a tsunami of seven-inning doubleheaders to surprise playoff bids. It’s a nice statement of resilience in both cases, but the teams enter their respective first-round series as severe underdogs.

The Cardinals had just three qualified hitters post an OPS+ of 100 or better this year: Paul Goldschmidt, Brad Miller, and Harrison Bader. Their collective wRC+, 93, was 19th best in baseball, just barely enough to make this the best offense in Missouri. According to Baseball Reference’s wins above average metric, the Cardinals had the 26th-best pitching staff in baseball; FanGraphs WAR puts the staff at no. 20, though after playing 19 (NINETEEN!) doubleheaders in 58 games, they also threw the fewest innings in the league. (The Cardinals’ ERA- was 10th best in baseball, suggesting that they outperformed their peripheral numbers.) You have to really look to find something the Cardinals do better than the Padres. Unless St. Louis levels up thanks to a Jeterian volume of playoff experience from Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, this team might end up playing exactly 60 games this year after all.

The Marlins, the one true shock in this 16-team playoff field, have famously never lost a postseason series in franchise history. But like the Cardinals, they enter their first-round matchup trailing their opponent (the Cubs) in just about every facet of the game. To make matters worse, the argument that Sánchez and Alcantara can win the series all on their own suffers from the fact that Sánchez has gotten roughed up in his past two starts. The Marlins also suffered injuries to two key players in the last game of the season: outfielder Starling Marté and pitcher José Ureña, who were hit by a pitch and a comebacker, respectively.

Just getting to the postseason must mean a lot for both of these teams, but if they want to progress beyond the first round, they’ll need to come up with something special.