MLB Playoffs 2018 Wild Card and Division Series Preview and Predictions

As a longtime fan of baseball, I am always giddy and filled with anticipation when the postseason rolls around. Every year, 30 teams (maybe 29… looking at you Miami) enter spring training with the hopes of winning the World Series; by October it whittles down to only 10. The regular season this year was very exciting, as it had a little of everything. We saw extremely dominant teams (Red Sox and Astros), down-to-the-wire playoff races in the National League, and players and teams that didn’t live up to the hype. The playoffs are shaping up to be more of the same with the added drama of the postseason to boot.

American League Wild Card Game

Oakland Athletics (97-64) at New York Yankees (100-61) Wednesday, October 3rd on TBS

Head to Head this season: Split season series at 3

The Wild Card game is always one of the more unpredictable games in the playoffs, simply due to its one-game elimination format.  This game is one of the most evenly matched in the postseason, with both teams splitting the season series and finishing the season with similar records.

The Oakland A’s are one of the league’s surprises this year, emerging as a legit contender in the American League after a rough start to the season. The A’s had an outstanding season, falling just short of their first 100-win since 2002. Some of their standout offensive players this year have been Khris Davis, who finished the season with the most home runs in the MLB and 3rd baseman Matt Chapman, who improved upon his rookie year to have a breakout season for the A’s in which he is 3rd in the league in WAR. They also have an elite bullpen that has the 3rd best ERA in the league as well, in part due to the outstanding seasons from Blake Treinen who boasts a sub-1.00 ERA and Lou Trevino. It will be majorly important for Oakland to silence what will undoubtedly be a white-hot New York crowd early on.

The Yankees expectations were the exact opposite of the A’s entering this season. Following an unexpected playoff run last year, where they were one game short of reaching the World Series, the Bronx Bombers had high expectations this season and although they did not win the AL East, they still managed to have a great season picking up 100 wins along the way. The Yankees have been riddled with injuries in the 2nd half of the season to Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Didi Gregorius, 3 of the players that were key in their playoff success last season. The Yankees are led on the mound by mid season acquisition JA Happ who since coming over from Toronto has been a steady presence in the Yankee rotation, with a 2.69 ERA since arriving in the Big Apple and Luis Severino who has struggled mightily in the second half of the season (5.57 ERA post all-star break, 2.31 prior) after having an amazing first half. The Yankees also have one of the best bullpens in the league led by Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, and Dellin Betances, who has helped New York grab the 2nd most bullpen strikeouts in baseball. The Bombers recently got Judge and Gregorius back in the lineup and they will be instrumental if they hope to advance beyond the Wild Card Game.

Neither team has said who will be starting in the one game playoff. If I had to wager a guess, I would say Luis Severino for the Yankees and possibly a bullpen opener such as Lou Trivino for Oakland.

Prediction: Yankees hang on and win a close one. 

National League Wild Card Game

Colorado Rockies (91-72) at Chicago Cubs (95-68) Tuesday, October 2nd on ESPN

Head to Head this season: Split season series 3-3

This is not where both of these teams were hoping to be come Monday evening. Both the Cubs and Rockies lost their division tiebreak games on Monday and fell into the wild card game. The Cubs lost at home to the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1 and the Rockies fell on the road to the Dodgers 5-2.

The Cubs will be sending veteran Jon Lester (18-6, 3.38) to the mound while the Rockies will counter with 25-year-old Kyle Freeland (17-7, 2.85). The fact that this game is being played at Wrigley Field is a huge boost for the Cubs as they have the best home record in the National League this year, and while it may not have helped in the division tiebreaker, they will be bolstered having Jon Lester and his big game resume on the mound for them.

The Rockies return the NL Wild Card Game for the 2nd straight yearThe main strength for the Rockies in this game is their offense led by the league’s premier 3rd baseman Nolan Arenado who had another fantastic season this year notching his fourth consecutive 30 home run 100 RBI season. D.J LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon also chipped in solid seasons The key for Colorado in this game will be to get to Lester early, if he is able to settle in and establish a groove, it could be a long night at the dish for the Rockies. In the postseason though pitching is paramount, which means that Freehand will need to weather the early storm and keep the Cubs off the board, road playoff games are difficult to win in general, but having to play catchup only makes it worse; as they found out in their loss against the Dodgers Monday.

It has been two years since the Cubs broke the Curse of the Billy Goat and they are hoping to capture their second title in three years. Led by their core of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber the Cubs reached the playoffs for the 4th straight year, marking the first time in franchise history they have done so. The remarkable story for the Cubs this year has to be shortstop Javier Baez’s development. Baez has turned in an MVP-caliber season finishing the season with a .290/.326/.554 slash line while also hitting 34 home runs and driving in more than 100 runs. The Cubs success hinges on the bats of Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez as this team is at their best when they are the driving forces.

Prediction: Chicago beats Colorado behind another strong Lester outing.

UPDATE: The Rockies beat the Cubs 2-1, to advance to the NL Divisional Series.

 

American League Division Series

Cleveland Indians (90-71) vs Houston Astros (103-58)

Head to Head this season: Houston leads 4-3

The defending World Series Champion Astros begin their title defense against perennial contender Cleveland in the Division Series. The two teams have once again won their division titles and have their eyes set on the Fall Classic.

One thing that needs to be said right away is that the strength of both of these teams lies in their starting rotations. Both squads boast legit Cy Young Award contenders and have 3 or 4 starters that can be trusted in a big game. For Cleveland, their best starters have been two-time Cy Young Award Corey Kluber and breakout starter Trevor Bauer. Overall, the Indians have the 3rd best starting pitcher earned run average in baseball behind only two teams, one of which happens to be Houston. The Astros  recorded a stellar a 3.07 starting pitcher ERA, leading the MLB in that category. Houston’s rotation is guided by Justin Verlander, who has been nothing short of fantastic in his first full season with Houston.

When it comes to offense, Cleveland and Houston have the 3rd and 5th best offenses in baseball respectively. Cleveland’s potent offense has been anchored by an amazing season from Jose Ramirez, who has 39 home runs and over 100 runs batted in. They have also received solid contributions from Francisco Lindor and Michael Brantley. The Astros have a solid core of young players leading the charge for them, led by third baseman Alex Bregman. Bregman smashed  31 home runs and over 100 runs batted in and has become their offensive X-Factor for the upcoming the playoff run.

In terms of picking this series, both teams have amazing rotations and great lineups. But when it comes down to it, Cleveland has struggled on the road and against teams above .500 this season, whereas Houston hasn’t. Combined with the fact that Houston has home-field advantage, and my decision becomes easier.

Prediction: Houston takes down Cleveland in 4 games

 

New York Yankees (100-62) vs Boston Red Sox (108-54)

Head to Head this season: Boston leads 10-9

This matchup could end up being the Oakland A’s, but for the sake of my earlier predictions, I am going to make this a Red Sox-Yankees matchup.  With a history that dates back to Babe Ruth, the storied rivals have had countless playoff matchups before, and may very well meet again in 2018.

Boston may be the most well-rounded offensive team in baseball this season, displaying a potent combination of power and speed that few teams possess. Mookie Betts led the league in hitting, while also tallying 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases. J.D Martinez hit 40 home runs and drove in 130 runs in his first season with the BoSox, while Andrew Benintendi continued his development as one of the league’s elite outfielders contributing 16 home runs and 21 steals of his own.

Boston has concerns about their pitching staff, with David Price struggling against the Yankees and has struggled heavily in the postseason, posting an eye-watering career postseason ERA of 5.03. Chris Sale has had a rough September, as his velocity dipped to a career low of 90.2 MPH in his last start of the season.  The Boston rotation consists of 3 left-handers which plays right into New York’s wheelhouse.  The Bronx Bombers have hit left-handed pitching extremely well, boasting the best record versus left-handed starters in the league. However, the offensive firepower of Boston (with home-field advantage) may be too much to overcome in the short series.

Prediction: Boston outlasts its fierce rival in 5 games

 

National League Division Series

Atlanta Braves (90-72) vs Los Angeles Dodgers (92-71)

Head to Head this season: Dodgers lead 5-2

After surviving the National League West tiebreaker on Monday, the Dodgers earned themselves a spot in the NLDS against the NL East-winning Atlanta Braves. Last year, the Dodgers were touted as world beaters, winning over 100 games and came up short in game 7 of the World Series.  The Braves and Dodgers, much like the Yankees-A’s matchup, is noteworthy because it is a clash between a surprising team and a team whose success isn’t all that shocking. The Dodgers, despite a rough start (16-26 in mid-May) rebounded and won their division for the 6th straight year. The Braves were extremely consistent this season, buoyed by their youngsters who helped them to win the NL East by 8 games.

I have talked in great depth about this Braves team before, as I believe that they are one of the up-and-coming teams that will be at the top of baseball for years to come. Their combination of youth and veterans has driven this team to where nobody expected them to be. Ronald Acuna Jr and Ozzie Albies have led the charge for the Braves, with Acuna hitting nearly .300 with 26 home runs and Albies using his combo of speed and power and to collect 24 homers and 14 stolen bases .  The team’s leader on the field may very well be first baseman Freddie Freeman, who hit over .300 and drove in 98 runs while leading all MLB first basemen in WAR. The Braves pitching has also been very strong this year too, led by ace Mike Foltynewicz. Foltynewicz finished the season with a 2.85 ERA in 31 starts.

The Braves chances of winning this series will depend on if they can steal one of the first two games in LA. If they can return to Atlanta with the series tied at one, they will have a real shot to knock off the Dodgers.

The Dodgers are going to be playing in this postseason with a huge chip on their shoulder. Nothing can motivate a team better than past failures, and after the disappointment of losing Game 7 of the World Series at home last year, you can bet they will not let the same thing to happen this year. In a recent interview after the Dodgers clinched the NL West title, outfielder Yasiel Puig declared that they will win the World Series this season. Boasting one of the deepest lineups in the game, LA may just do so. Midseason acquisition Manny Machado has been good since coming over from Baltimore and Matt Kemp has a resurgent season in his return to the Dodgers. The Dodgers can mix and match at a lot of different positions due to their deep bench that consists of Brian Dozier, Chase Utley, Kike Hernandez, and Logan Forsythe. The real strength of the Dodgers comes on the mound, where they finished with the second-best ERA in baseball this year. That, of course, is due to 3 time-Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, who despite missing some time with an injury, had another great season for the Dodgers.

This was a tough pick that ultimately came down to which team has more momentum heading into the series. Coming off the back of their huge tiebreaker win, in addition to the fact that they have won 20 out of their last 30 games, the Dodgers seem like the pick here.

Prediction: Dodgers win in 5

 

Chicago Cubs (95-68) at Milwaukee Brewers (96-67)

Head to Head this season: Cubs lead 11-9

This matchup could turn out to be wrong as the Rockies have a chance to be in this series instead of the Cubs, but for the sake of my earlier pick, I’m going with the Cubs. The two rivals have spent the majority of the year battling it out atop the NL Central. Both of these teams are extremely talented, which is why it is a hard choice when deciding this series.

The Brewers made the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and secured the division over the Cubs in a one-game tiebreak on Monday. Now, bolstered by their win, Milwaukee hosts the Cubs in the division series and will have home field advantage throughout the National League playoffs. The success of the Brew Crew is due in large part to Christian Yelich. Yelich, who just missed out on winning the Triple Crown this season has had a monster second half of the season hitting .367 with 25 home runs and 67 runs batted in since the All-Star break. He has been one of the driving forces behind the Brewers recent success which has seen them surge up the standings winning 22 of their last 30 games played.

In the playoffs, it is not so much about the teams playing, but the momentum that one team has over the other. While the Cubs do hold the edge in the head to head matchup this year, the Brewers are riding high and feeling good. The Cubs may be more experienced, but as they say in the basketball, sometimes you have to ride the hot hand.

Prediction: Brewers in 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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