The MLB Playoff Team Set Up to Win It All Isn’t Who You’d Expect

MLB postseason
The Arizona Diamondbacks celebrate their 11-8 victory in the 2017 NL wild card game. | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Wild Card games have been decided, with the New York Yankees moving on to the ALDS and the Arizona Diamondbacks moving on to the NLDS. In Wednesday’s NL Wild Card game, offense took center-stage. Arizona jumped all over the Colorado Rockies in the first inning, thanks to a big-time three-run homer by Paul Goldschmidt. The D-backs would end up building a 6-0 lead and would never trail in their 11-8 victory, but at one point the Rockies would draw to within 8-7 and make things extremely interesting.

In the end, relief pitcher Archie Bradley – who pitched 1 1/3 innings and also hit a huge two-run triple – and the Diamondbacks were victorious despite ace pitcher Zack Greinke failing to finish the fourth inning and allowing four earned runs. We took a look at the Diamondbacks’ chances of moving on, as well as how every other team in the MLB postseason stacks up for the Division Series.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are primed to exceed expectations

Zack Greinke throws a pitch
Starting pitcher Zack Greinke of the Arizona Diamondbacks needs to get back on track in 2017. | Darin Wallentine/Getty Images

Despite not getting a great game from Greinke against the Rockies, the Diamondbacks were able to move on. That’s huge for them. Arizona did have to use left-hander Robbie Ray in relief, which was not ideal, but he should still be available to pitch in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The D-backs paired a high-scoring offense with an excellent rotation, featuring Greinke and Ray along with youngsters Taijuan Walker and Zack Godley.

Although their bullpen isn’t perfect — closer Fernando Rodney had a 4.23 ERA  in 55 1/3 innings — they do have Bradley, who posted a 1.73 ERA in 73 innings and established himself as one of the best setup men in the game. Offensively, Goldschmidt is the star with 36 home runs and a .966 OPS, but third baseman Jake Lamb was excellent this season as well. Lamb broke out with 30 homers, 105 RBI, and a .844 OPS for the D-backs. Arizona acquired outfielder J.D. Martinez from the Detroit Tigers, and he hit an eye-popping 29 home runs in 62 games.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the odds-on NL favorites with the most to lose

Alex Wood throws a pitch
Alex Wood has been a big surprise for the Dodgers. | Denis Poroy/Getty Images

The team that Arizona will face in the NLDS is the Dodgers, who run out to the best record in all of baseball and held on at the end despite a major run by the Cleveland Indians. Los Angeles finished the regular season with a 104-58 record, but were just 30-27 from August through the end of the year. Poor second half play notwithstanding, the Dodgers have the best pitcher in the game in Clayton Kershaw — who is set to start Game 1 in L.A.

Outside of Kershaw, the Dodgers also have outstanding left-handers Rich Hill and Alex Wood, the latter of whom has been a major surprise in 2017 with a 2.72 ERA in 152 1/3 innings. Los Angeles acquired Yu Darvish, a pending free agent, at the trade deadline, and may have the deepest rotation in the game. Kenley Jansen may also be the best closer in the game, and their bullpen generally has been a big strength.

For as great as the Dodgers are, they were in the middle of the pack in the National League in a lot of offensive categories. That definitely isn’t to say that they’re not dangerous, having six batters finish with 20 or more home runs in the regular season, including 39 from rookie Cody Bellinger.

Prediction: Dodgers win in 5

The Washington Nationals could very well be the most well-rounded team in the NL

Bryce Harper yells in celebration
Bryce Harper comes from the “no apologies” school of baseball. | Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Washington Nationals are a dangerous team because of their starting rotation. Few can boast a 1–3 in the rotation like the Nats can, with two-time (soon to be three-time) Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, pitching prodigy Stephen Strasburg, and left-hander Gio Gonzalez. The bullpen, once their biggest weakness, has become a strength with the additions of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler. If Washington can post a lead in the seventh inning, they’ll be hard to beat.

Posting that lead relies heavily on their offense, which is probably the deepest in the National League. The Nats were third in the league in runs scored, first in slugging percentage, and second in OPS. They key for their advancement in the playoffs will be health, with star outfielder Bryce Harper returning from a knee injury, and Scherzer being relegated to Game 3 of the NLDS because of a hamstring problem.

The Chicago Cubs may be the returning champs, but they also have the tallest mountain to climb

Kyle Henricks pitching at Wrigley Field on June 4, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.
Kyle Hendricks takes the ball in Game 1 of the NLDS for the Cubs. | Getty Images

Facing the Nationals in the NLDS will be the Chicago Cubs, who finished with the worst record among the six division winners. But you can’t overlook Joe Maddon’s group, who have won 90+ games in three straight years and are the reigning World Series champions. Chicago’s rotation is anchored by the masterful Kyle Hendricks, who will take on Strasburg in Game 1. Jon Lester, the owner of three championship rings and a 2.63 ERA in postseason games, will take Game 2, with Jose Quintana in Game 3, and former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta in Game 4.

That’s a scary rotation in its own right, but the biggest strength of the Cubs is their positional depth. They started at least 11 players on a regular basis in the second half of the season, optimizing their lineup on a given day based on the best fits against the opposing team’s starting pitcher. The Cubs’ bullpen probably isn’t as good at the back-end as Washington’s, but closer Wade Davis did convert 32 of 33 saves in 2017. This is going to be a fantastic series.

Prediction: Cubs win in 5

The Houston Astros have been 2017’s biggest breakout team by a long-shot

George Springer swings at a pitch
George Springer is the truth in center field. | Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Houston Astros were the darling of the 2017 season – at least through the first few months. On June 5, the Astros were 42-16 and held a 14-game lead in the AL West. That’s a pace that would’ve seen them win 117 games over the course of a full season. As it was, Houston finished at 101-61, and improved their roster by acquiring starter Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers down the stretch. Verlander posted a 1.06 ERA over 34 innings in five starts for the Astros, and will pitch Game 1 of the ALDS.

Along with Verlander, it’s hard to overlook 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. In 23 starts this year, Keuchel had a 2.90 ERA over 145 2/3 innings. The back-end of the bullpen is solid with Chris Devenski and Ken Giles, but overall it’s somewhat of a concern. In the second half, Houston posted a 4.49 ERA out of the ‘pen.

That isn’t even getting to the lineup, which scored the most runs in the American League this season. Carlos Correa, George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, and several others had great years, and second baseman Jose Altuve has a strong case for the MVP with a .346/.410/.547 line. The Astros will host the Boston Red Sox in the best-of-five ALDS.

The Boston Red Sox will lean heavily on their powerful pitching staff

Chris Sale throws a pitch
The Red Sox scored big with the Chris Sale trade. | Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Boston Red Sox went 93-69 for the second consecutive season, winning their second consecutive AL East division crown. But they’re hoping that another thing won’t happen for a second consecutive year – being swept in the ALDS. The Red Sox followed a highly-offensive 2016 season with relatively mediocre year, with big drop-offs in production from Hanley Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr., and others. The good news? This team is experienced and has a great starting rotation.

Left-hander Chris Sale, acquired last offseason from the Chicago White Sox, is a Cy Young candidate after posting a 2.90 ERA in 214 1/3 innings with 308 strikeouts this year. Drew Pomeranz, another left-hander, had an excellent season in 2017 as well. David Price will be in the bullpen, where he has thrown spectacularly well in September – 8 2/3 innings, zero runs allowed, and 13 strikeouts.

Price’s presence makes a bullpen with Craig Kimbrel waiting at the end even more dangerous, but it’s probably not enough to keep Boston from losing in the ALDS for a second straight year.

Prediction: Astros win in 4

The New York Yankees will have to see if their young core of sluggers is enough

Aaron Judge rounds the bases
Aaron Judge is a machine. | Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The New York Yankees finished second to the Red Sox in the AL East, going 91-71. They beat the Minnesota Twins in the thrilling American League Wild Card game, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the game 8-4. Aaron Judge, the clear Rookie of the Year in the American League, is an MVP candidate after having slugged 52 home runs. Gary Sanchez, Starlin Castro, and Didi Gregorius all had solid years for the suddenly grown-up Yankees young core.

Things are a bit more difficult on the pitching side for New York. Luis Severino – a 2.98 ERA in 193 1/3 innings this season – lasted just 1/3 of an inning in his playoff debut against Minnesota. Sonny Gray, acquired from the Oakland A’s, is a solid arm and Masahiro Tanaka has the capability to give you a good game, but he’s a bit more of an unknown in 2017. If a starter appears to not have it early, we know that Joe Girardi won’t be afraid to go to his very deep and very good bullpen.

The Cleveland Indians are out for revenge, after a heart-breaking end to their last playoff run

Corey Kluber fires a pitch
Corey Kluber dominated in the postseason for the Indians. | Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The World Series runner-up from a year ago had an outstanding season, and an even better second half. The Cleveland Indians finished with the best record in the American League at 102-60, and they may also have the league’s best pitcher in Corey Kluber. Their ace posted a 2.25 ERA in 203 2/3 innings this season, striking out 265 and making a strong case for his second career Cy Young award. As for the rest of the rotation, Carlos Carrasco is sneakily one of the best in the game as well.

The offensive explosion by Cleveland’s lineup helped push them from their mediocre start to the year to the best record in the AL, scoring 818 runs and finishing second in the league in OPS as a unit. The Indians set a major league record with their 22-game winning streak, and they finished an absurd 33-4 over their last 37 games. To put that in perspective, Cleveland hasn’t lost two straight games since August 22 and 23.

The surprise offensive star for the Indians is 24-year-old second baseman Jose Ramirez, who finished the year with a career-best 29 home runs and a .957 OPS. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of several others, including shortstop Francisco Lindor, and designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion. They’ll face the wild card Yankees in the ALDS.

Prediction: Indians win in 4

All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.