American League Playoff Preview

By JUSTIN FITZGERALD

Just like in the National League, five American League teams now are just 11 wins away from a World Series title. This is an interesting group of teams, with one looking for revenge, one looking for their record 28th World Series title and three- Blue Jays, Astros and Rangers-that many didn’t think would be here, The format is the same as my column about the National League, as I will break down why teams can win the World Series and what will prevent them from bringing home a title.

Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. Courtesy of North Platte Post.
Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. Courtesy of North Platte Post.
  1. Kansas City Royals (95-67, AL Central Champion)

Why They Will Win the World Series:

Last year was a surprise. This year was expected. The Royals still have one goal: to win the organization’s first World Series since 1985. The only difference is now the Royals are in the crosshairs of the rest of the league.

The Royals offense is one of the most consistent in baseball, tying for second in the MLB with a .269 batting average and seventh with 724 runs scored. They’ve also struck out only 973 teams, by far the least in the league. Eric Hosmer leads a familiar lineup from the 2014 World Series team, including Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez. But the group got a boost from free agent acquisition Kendrys Morales, who ranks third on the team in batting average (.290), tied for first in home runs (22) and leads the team in runs batted in with 106. He has been a significant improvement over former fan favorite Billy Butler, and gives the team another power option they lacked last postseason.

Just like last October, the Royals have a lockdown bullpen, with Wade Davis leading the way with a 0.94 ERA and 17 saves since taking over for Greg Holland. The bullpen held opponents to a .214 average and a 2.72 ERA, both top-three in the league.

Why They Won’t Win the World Series:

Just like last season, the Royals have had inconsistent starting pitching. They traded for Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline thinking they had an ace, but he has struggled posting a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts. Edinson Volquez (13-9, 3.55) has been their only consistent starter, the back end of the rotation is a huge question mark.

The Royals have done a great job stringing together big innings this season, but take the least amount of pitches per plate appearance in all of baseball. There is a long history of free swinging clubs streaking their way out of the postseason. If the Royals can’t get on base with their free-swinging approach, they could see an early exit.

Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson. Courtesy of USA Tpday.
Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson. Courtesy of USA Today.
  1. Toronto Blue Jays (93-69, AL East Champion)

Why They Will Win the World Series:

After executing a barrage of trades in the past few years and not seeing results, general manager Alex Anthopoulos decided to go all in at the trade deadline. Since acquiring shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, outfielder Ben Revere, and left handed pitcher David Price, the Blue Jays have gone 40-18.

The Blue Jays have the most feared offense in baseball, led by MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, who was acquired in a trade with Oakland during the offseason. Donaldson joined fellow power hitters Edwin Encarnacion  and Jose Bautista to spearhead an offense that hit a league leading 232 home runs and scored a whopping 891 runs. All three of the hitters drove in more than 110 runs.

David Price has provided some stability for the Blue Jays rotation, going 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA. With young pitcher Marcus Stroman being dominant late in the season and Marco Estrada (13-9, 3.13 ERA), the Blue Jays have a rotation that is set up for October success.

Why They Won’t Win the World Series:

As the weather gets colder, it is much harder for teams to hit home runs. It is rare for teams to mash their way through the playoffs, just look at how the 2014 Orioles failed to produce in the ALCS after leading the MLB in home runs. World Series’ are still won with “small-ball,” not slugging. Sacrifice bunts aren’t in the Blue Jays vocabulary. This team lives and dies by the home run, and that could kill them in the postseason.

Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder. Courtesy of the Dallas Morning News.
Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder. Courtesy of the Dallas Morning News.
  1. Texas Rangers (88-74, AL West Champion)

Why They Will Win the World Series:

Who could’ve seen the Rangers coming? When they acquired Cole Hamels, they were 50-52 and seven games out in the AL West. After that they went 38-22 and captured their first title in three seasons.

The main reason this team improved 21 games over last season, was better offensive production. The Rangers scored the third most runs in the majors with 751. The Rangers scored just 637 last season. They have benefited from a career year from first baseman Mitch Moreland (.278, 23, 85), as well as bounce back seasons from outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and designated hitter Prince Fielder. The team is also loaded with players who have postseason experience, with many holdovers from their back to back World Series appearances in 2010-2011.

This team pulled off the rare feat of playing better on the road (45-36) than at home (43-38), so they won’t be intimidated by playing in a hostile environment.

Why They Won’t Win the World Series:

The Rangers went 2-4 against their ALDS opponents, the Toronto Blue Jays, during the regular season, and were outscored 34-21 in those six games. The Rangers pitchers have struggled this year, with a 4.24 ERA that ranks just 23rd in the major leagues. Their starting rotation was in shambles last season, and this year only has two consistent starters in Hamels (7-1, 3.66) and Yovani Gallardo (13-11, 3.42). The Rangers starters have just a 4.32 ERA, good for 21st in the MLB. The team will also be haunted by their past World Series performances, including the inability to put away game 6 in 2011.

  1. New York Yankees (87-75, AL Wildcard)

Why They Will Win the World Series:

Yankees reliever Dellin Betances. Courtesy of New York Daily News.
Yankees reliever Dellin Betances. Courtesy of New York Daily News.

Joe Girardi has done an excellent job with a team that grew up during the 80s, something many of the Royals don’t have any knowledge of. This Yankees squad, with only one player in the starting lineup younger than 30, is in the postseason again.

The main reason, as usual, is the solid production from the Yankees offense, which the second most runs in baseball. They got surprisingly productive seasons from the aging trio of Brian McCann, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, who carried the offense for the first half of the season. Although Teixeira is out for the season, Girardi has gotten production from top prospect Greg Bird who has hit .261 and driven in 31 runs in just 46 games.

The Yankees bullpen has the best 1-2 punch in the game with Andrew Miller (2.04 ERA, 14.6 strikeouts per 9 innings and Dellin Betances (1.50, 14 K/9). If the Yankees have the lead after the 6th inning, the game can be put away.

Why They Won’t Win the World Series:

Although the offense has scored the second most runs in baseball, it cooled off dramatically in the second half of the season. Rodriguez stopped producing at a high level, and Teixeira was slumping before he suffered a season ending wrist injury. This team also faces questions in the starting rotation, especially after CC Sabathia announced he will skip the postseason to check into alcohol rehab. Masahiro Tanaka (12-7, 3.51 ERA in 24 starts) has been their best pitcher, but he gave up 4 runs in 5 innings on Sept.30 on 12 days rest. The Yankees rested Tanaka in an effort to keep him fresh for the Wild Card playoff, but this strategy may have back fired. Luis Severino (2.89 ERA in 11 starts) has been excellent in his short stint in the starting rotation, but other starters Michael Pineda (4.37), Nathan Eovaldi (4.20) and Ivan Nova (5.07) lack the consistency to succeed in the playoffs.

The Yankees have the most World Series titles with 27, but none of them have come from the Wildcard spot.

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (left) and second baseman Jose Altuve. Courtesy of The Houston Chronicle
Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (left) and second baseman Jose Altuve. Courtesy of The Houston Chronicle
  1. Houston Astros (86-76, NL West)

Why They Will Win the World Series:

Manager A.J. Hinch got the Astros to the postseason years before they were expected to contend, and they led the division for much of the season before dropping a key series to the Rangers down the stretch.

The Astros have an offense with enormous power. Their 230 home runs were second in baseball during the regular season. They got a career year from Evan Gattis (.246, 27, 88) and also got 25 home runs from Colby Rasmus and 24 from Chris Carter. Carlos Correa (.279, 22, 68 in 99 games) and Jose Altuve (.313, 15, 66) make up one of the most productive infields in baseball, both offensively and defensively. Their starting rotation is much improved over last year, led by Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA).

Why They Won’t Win the World Series:

PArdon the pun, but there are too many wildcards on this team. Since getting off to a 34-20 record, the Astros have played sub .500 baseball. They also have the second most strikeouts (1392) in the majors. Teams that wear out pitchers succeed in October, and the Astros don’t have that philosophy.

Although they will be starting Dallas Keuchel in the Bronx for the Wild Card playoff, the Astros had a 33-48 road record during the regular season. Keuchel dominated at home, going 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA, but was just 5-8 with a 3.77 ERA on the road. Midseason addition Scott Kazmir is only 2-6 with a 4.17 ERA. This does not bode well for a team that will always play the first two games on the road.

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