Frequently the MLB playoff races are a mad dash to the finish line, and usually a postseason spot is on the line during the final weekend of the year. This season, most of the division winners were officially decided weeks — effectively months — ago, and the Wild Card races weren’t as exciting as they had been shaping up to be. Though Wild Card teams can win the World Series, their route (which requires winning a 50/50 game just to get into the bracket) is too difficult to justify wagering on them when we look at the current World Series and pennant futures.
The Tribe came oh-so-close to winning it all last season, and like the champion Cubs, took their time putting everything together this year. They were 48-45 just over two months ago. Then they came for the record books. Not only did Cleveland win an AL record 22 straight games at one point, the team also posted five, six, and nine-game win streaks. Their run differential (+241) is 50 more than any other team. They lead the majors in team ERA, and are top-five in runs scored. Corey Kluber is a top Cy Young Award candidate, and the bullpen — led by do-everything lefty Andrew Miller — is the best in baseball. Cleveland is the favorite for good reason, but there is solid competition.
Sitting 2.5 games back, the Astros are the only team that can mathematically catch Cleveland for the top seed in the American League, a perch they held for the majority of the season. They got out of the gate strong, starting 29-12 and reaching 42-16 in early July, then coasted home. Houston’s success lies primarily at the plate where they lead baseball in runs scored (837; the Yankees are the only other team over 800), and are neck-and-neck with the 2009 Yankees for the best slugging percentage of the past decade. The Astros can score in myriad ways; they can create runs by playing small-ball or crush you with power. But their success in the playoffs may come down to how much Justin Verlander has left. The deadline acquisition has been exactly what Houston needed — a true ace — since coming over from Detroit.
Though the Red Sox have not had the same level of regular-season success as Cleveland and Houston, they have 90-plus wins and a five-game lead over the Yankees at the top of the AL East. The Cy Young battle is a two-horse race between Kluber and Boston’s Chris Sale, who has a historic 300-strikeouts (and counting) this season. David Price is now off the DL and playing an Andrew Miller-type utility role in the Boston bullpen. It’s a job he excelled in during his rookie campaign with the Rays. The Sox hit for a decent average and are in the upper-half for runs scored, but they lack pop at the plate, sitting 27th in the majors in home runs (161). The main concern is the back end of the rotation; they will need guys like Rick Porcello (0-1, 5.66 ERA in nine playoff appearances) and Drew Pomeranz (0-0, 4.91 ERA in two appearances) to make regular starts, and they have had little success in the playoffs.
The Indians will face the Wild Card winner. If that’s the Yankees, which is the most likely scenario, the Tribe will be in for a battle. While Cleveland took five of seven from New York in the regular season, the Yankees have a lineup of mashers and a cosmically deep bullpen, which will make them a difficult out for anyone. The Yanks are actually second in the AL in run differential at +179, well ahead of the Astros (+57) and Red Sox (+130).
Should Minnesota emerge from the Wild Card, however, Cleveland should have a relative cakewalk to the ALCS. And, again, the one-game Wild Card is incredibly unpredictable.
The best-of-five between the Astros and Red Sox looks like a toss-up at this point. Houston doesn’t know what it will get from its starting rotation, particularly once you get past Verlander. (Even Dallas Keuchel has had his struggles of late.) You can say the same for Boston after Sale. Whoever emerges will likely face Cleveland, a team with better and deeper starting pitching and a better and deeper bullpen.
Even though you have to eat a low price, the Indians are pretty clearly the most likely team to emerge from the American League. If you can get anywhere near 2/1, you should seriously consider a wager. At 17/10, the Tribe must have a better than 37-percent chance to reach the World Series to make it a good wager. I’m taking that bet.
Featured photo: By Arturo Pardavila III from Hoboken, NJ, USA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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