AL Division Series Preview: Can Toronto & KC Hold Off Their Lone Star Challenges?
The Kansas City Royals are the defending American League champs and hold the top seed in this year’s AL playoffs. The Toronto Blue Jays are scorching hot and the betting favorite to win the World Series entering the postseason. Both favorites take the field today against the underdogs from the Lone Star State, as the Royals meet the Houston Astros and the Blue Jays host the Texas Rangers. Here’s a look at how those series match up.
When I say Las Vegas loves the Jays, they really love them some Blue Jays. Toronto is a big (-250) favorite to win this best-of-five series. When you compare the lineups, that number looks excessive.
Toronto’s offense is all it’s cracked up to be. Josh Donaldson, the likely AL MVP, a healthy Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarcion are all complete offensive players who can get on base consistently and hit the ball for power. Russell Martin is a steady offensive threat and keep an eye on Ben Revere. The leftfielder finished the season with a .354 on-base percentage and that’s the kind of hitter that can sneak in key base hits here and there amidst a power lineup.
The Blue Jays don’t lack for pitching, with David Price set to go for Game 1 and presumably for a Game 5. I love manager John Gibbons’ decision to give young Marcus Stroman the ball for Game 2. Stroman went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four starts and has a live arm. It would be tempting to play the “experience” card and go with R.A. Dickey or Mark Buehrle in this spot. But given the choice, playing the “talent” card is better.
Toronto’s bullpen doesn’t have big names, but it goes very deep. So what then, is the problem with making them a big favorite?
The problem has nothing to do with the Jays. It’s the fact that Texas actually has some major league talent on its roster too. They don’t have the raw star power of the Blue Jay lineup, but I’m looking at seven players who have been solid offensive threats—Chris Giminez, Mitch Moreland, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, Delino DeShields, Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder.
Napoli found a career revival after being traded back here (he was on the 2011 team that nearly won the World Series) and had a .396 on-base percentage and .513 slugging percentage since coming to the Rangers. Choo has merely been one of the most quietly productive offensive players in baseball down the stretch.
We also haven’t included Elvis Andrus who can be capable of much more than his .309 on-base percentage and Rougned Odor, who still slugged .465, even as he struggled to get on base consistently. The bottom line is that there is no obvious liability anywhere in the Texas lineup.
What about the pitching? Texas was hurt by the fact they had to go to the last day of the season to clinch the AL West, thereby needing Cole Hamels to pitch on Sunday. The ace will be pushed back to Game 2. Yovani Gallardo, who won 13 games with a 3.42 ERA pitches this afternoon against Price.
The Ranger bullpen merits a very slight edge over the Jays’. Both are steady and long, but the way Shawn Tolleson has come on in the closer’s role, closing 35 saves in 37 chances with a 2.99 ERA give me slightly more confidence in him than counterpart Roberto Osuna, who was 20/23 with 2.58 ERA. That’s a very slight difference, solely because Tolleson’s been in the role a bit longer.
Where this series will ultimately be decided is in the middle of the pitching rotations. Colby Lewis, Martin Perez and Derek Holland are the options for Ranger manager Jeff Bannister for Games 3 & 4. All have ERAs in the mid-4s or higher. Lewis though, was a clutch performer in the postseason runs this franchise had in 2010-11 and he still managed to win 17 games this year. Whether he, or Perez or Holland can find a way to get it done is what determines who will advance.
Given that, I’ll place a slight edge of confidence in Toronto. But never would I bet (-250) on it. This series is much closer.
I was surprised to see Kansas City was only a (-140) favorite in this series. I was ready to shout from the rooftops that it was time to bet the Royals. Then I dug in a little deeper and I’m not so sure.
We do have to begin with the most obvious disadvantage Houston faces and it’s that Dallas Keuchel had to pitch the wild-card game and won’t be available until Game 3. This is the same hurdle that San Francisco had to overcome last year in this round—they didn’t have Madison Bumgarner until the third game of their series with the Nationals. Frisco had veterans like Jake Peavy that got it done for them. Does Houston have the same?
They don’t have vets, but there’s a lot to like about this pitching staff. Collin McHugh, the Game 1 starter, won 19 games with a 3.89 ERA. The Astros have good options further down the rotation with arms like Mike Fiers and Lance McCullers, each of whom ended the year with ERAs under 3.40.
The rotation key for Houston is Game 2 starter Scott Kazmir. He was acquired from Oakland at the trade deadline and hasn’t been as good as he was with the A’s, going 2-6 with a 4.17 ERA since becoming an Astro.
But this rotation still looks better on paper than Kansas City’s. The big question for the Royals is what Johnny Cueto will show up. Is it the one who was an elite pitcher in Cincinnati, who was robbed of Cy Young Awards in 2012 and 2014 and was acquired by the Royals to be their ace down the stretch? Or is it the one who’s gone 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA since being in Kansas City these last couple months.
Manager Ned Yost told us a lot when he pushed Cueto back to Game 2 and opted for Yordano Ventura, whose ERA is up over 4 himself. KC has a decent Game 3 starter in Edinson Volquez, but he’s not anyone that a team countering with Kuechel would worry about. Even with the Houston ace only able to pitch once, the Astros will have an edge in starting pitching…unless Cueto can find his old form and right away.
Kansas City still has a potent lineup and a strong bullpen. The Royals have six offensive players that are complete packages—Eric Hosmer, Ben Zobrist, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Kendry Morales. They get some additional power from Salvador Perez at the catcher spot. The bullpen, even with closer Greg Holland out for the year, still has one of the game’s best all-around relievers in Wade Davis. They still have the power arm of Kelvin Herrera. They can still fill out with Chris Young, Franklin Morales and maybe drop starter Kris Medlen into the pen for some long relief.
The question is whether Houston can take advantage of the soft starting pitching and get an early lead, and whether the Astros can then hold those leads.
We saw the Houston offensive gameplan on display Tuesday night in New York. They don’t get runners on base consistently—only Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and maybe Carlos Gomez can really be counted on here. The power game is much better, where these same four players, along with Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis can go deep. But winning one game with the long ball is different than trying to win a best-of-five that way.
I’m also not confident in the Houston bullpen. It’s not bad—no team still playing baseball has a truly bad bullpen, but it’s not comparable to Kansas City’s.
I would point at Carlos Gomez as the key player in this series for Houston. He’s the one who can add power, steadiness at getting on base and defensive prowess if he’s healthy and has his head screwed on straight, both of which are touch and go at any given time.
Consequently, I give Houston a much better shot than was the case when I first glanced at that (-140) series price. But I still lean Kansas City.
So the favorites will prevail and set up a Toronto-Kansas City ALCS matchup. Both those feisty Lone Star underdogs—both of whom I’m rooting for—will make these next few days plenty interesting.