Can any of the four wild-card teams in the baseball playoffs come out of the knockout games and make it all to the way to the World Series. Here’s a look at the chances for the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros and New York Yankees. Please note these are not predictions regarding the wild-card games themselves, but an assessment of any of these four teams emulating what the San Francisco Giants did last year and that’s win the World Series.
Is it possible that Wednesday night’s Cubs-Pirates game from PNC Park is the most anticipated single game in baseball history? Consider that for about six weeks we’ve realistically known that these two teams would be playing and the odds were that it would be in Pittsburgh. Hard for any one baseball game to live up to that kind of anticipation, but these are both teams with enough strengths to make them interesting if they get a chance in a real series.
Any hope for Chicago lies at the top of its starting rotation with Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Arrieta, who deserves the NL Cy Young Award, will pitch Wednesday, meaning Lester would take Games 1 & 5 of a Division Series with St. Louis. Lester’s 3.34 ERA isn’t spectacular, but his career norm has been to be pretty good in the postseason and then elevate to ace status in October. He beat the Cardinals twice in the 2013 World Series and could do the same here.
The Cubs also have a steady offense. They put runners on base consistently, they hit for nice power and they have game-changers in corner infielders Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Another player to keep an eye on if they advance is left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who both gets on base and drives the ball for power.
The problem Chicago has is pitching depth. Do you trust Jason Hammel or Dan Haren at this stage of his career. Or Kyle Hendricks? Lester and Arrieta could pitch the Cubs into the NLCS by themselves, but then the series go best-of-seven. And even allowing that, Lester and Arrieta will face the best other staffs have to offer. I like Lester’s October ability as much as anyone, but I’m not ready to say anytime he faces, for example, John Lackey in St. Louis that it’s an automatic win. There’s inordinate pressure on these two pitchers. Joe Maddon will also need the Cubbie bullpen to step up in a big way.
Las Vegas says it’s 12-1 that the North Side erupts in celebration for the first time in over a century. I think the front office, led by the incomparable Theo Epstein, probably needs another year to shore up the rotation and bullpen before that’s doable.
Pittsburgh has no such problems with the bullpen. Mark Melancon closed 51/53 save chances. Tony Watson, Joakim Soria, Jared Hughes and Antonio Bastardo give manager Clint Hurdle a lot of arms to trot out in relief and the Pirates can show a very quick hook with their starters.
The problem is they might need to. This rotation is even more top-heavy than Chicago’s. Gerrit Cole is a legit ace, being overlooked on Wednesday as he goes against Arrieta. But while Francisco Liriano’s 3.38 ERA is comparable to Lester’s, Liriano has none of Lester’s October mojo. Not that Liriano has been bad in the postseason, but he hasn’t magically become an ace. There’s significant reason for concern deeper in the rotation.
Pittsburgh is similar to Chicago offensively. They’re pretty well-balanced throughout, both getting runners on and hitting for power. They have the postseason’s signature player in Andrew McCutchen, the best everyday talent left with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper at home.
Las Vegas also says 12-1 here. Again, I’d agree that when it comes to winning the World Series—not just winning tonight or even upsetting St. Louis, but winning three straight postseason series after using Cole on Wednesday—that the Pirates are one of the longer shots in the field.
Moving over to the American League, where the Astros and Yankees play tonight, who would have ever thought the proud Pinstripes would be underdogs in a one-game shot against Houston in the Bronx. But that’s the case with the Astros sending Cy Young hopeful Dallas Kuechel to the mound.
Kuechel carried the Houston rotation during the season, but there are reasons to think there might be more depth for the playoffs. While he and Collin McHugh were the only ones to make 30-plus starts, the Astros could have surprises lurking in someone like a Mike Fiers or Lance McCullers, who each have ERAs 3.32 or lower. Scott Kazmir has been a disappointment since being acquired from Oakland, but he’s also capable of stealing this team a win.
Houston is very reliant on power, more so than I’d like to see for a playoff team. It’s not easy against good pitching staffs in often colder weather to just start driving the ball. But at least the power is well-balanced, with Carlos Correa, Colby Rasmus, George Springer and Evan Gattis being solid long-ball threats. Jose Altuve has to be on base consistently for the Astros to make a long October run.
The Astros, at 16-1, are the longest of longshots in October. I have to agree. The bullpen is a serious liability. Luke Gregorson blew five saves in the closer’s role and his 3.10 ERA is high by the standards of a playoff closer who often has to pitch more than one inning and enter into tie games more frequently than during the regular season. Pat Neshek’s 3.62 ERA is also higher than the setup men for other teams.
That’s a great formula to get your heart ripped out and why Houston, even though they’re on the right track, isn’t about to imitate what Kansas City did out of last year’s wild-card game. The Royals ensured games were over after six. With the Astros, games will just be getting started after six.
Finally we come to the Yankees. Even though I’m an avowed Yankee-hater, the first thing that has to be done is send thoughts and prayers to C.C. Sabathia. The Yankee lefty entered alcohol rehab yesterday. As one who’s walked this path, I wish C.C. all the best and hope for his recovery.
Moving to the cold world of baseball analysis, the Yankee bullpen is their strength and weakness. If they get a lead after seven, the game’s over. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are the best 1-2 punch in the game for the last six outs. Getting there will be more interesting. Justin Wilson and Adam Warren have both promise and pitfalls. And the lack of depth in the Yankee rotation means they won’t get an automatic boost from dumping their fifth starter into the pen for the playoffs (and #4 starter for the Division Series).
The rotation is similarly thin. Ian Nova and Michael Pineda have been extremely inconsistent. The Yanks have a terrific young arm in Luis Severino who meets October pressure for the first time. I think he’ll probably be fine, but he and Masahiro Tanaka, who goes tonight, is thin for a playoff rotation.
Offensively, New York probably benefits from late-season injuries. Mark Teixeira is out, but for as good a season as he had, Teixeira has never been a clutch October player and replacement Greg Bird has hit 11 home runs in 157 at-bats. Robert Refsnyder is a similar upgrade at second base or Stephen Drew.
The Yankees have as potent a top four in their lineup as there will be in the postseason—Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner setting the table, Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez coming in behind. But that presumes A-Rod plays to his season-long numbers, rather than his more recent slump or his general poor playoff history.
New York is 14-1 to win the World Series. I suppose you can design a scenario where they could do it, but that’s true of every team in the field. I never write this team off, but that’s only because I always keep my guard up against villainous intruders. It would take a lot to break right for them to go all the way.
What does Las Vegas say about these next two nights? With Kuechel on the mound, the Astros are a (-110) favorite to win the AL wild-card game (Tuesday, 8 PM ET, ESPN). There’s a strong consensus moving behind the Cubs and Arrieta in tomorrow’s NL showdown (Wednesday, 8 PM ET, TBS), with Chicago posted as a (-135) favorite.