American League playoff preview: Red Sox the team to beat
Boston Red Sox – The prohibitive favorites in the AL to advance to the World Series, the Sox are peaking at the right time, having won 11 games in a row en route to a division crown before losing a meaningless series to the Yankees. Led by MVP candidate Mookie Betts, resurgent veteran Dustin Pedroia, and the ageless wonder David Ortiz, the Sox boast one of the best offenses MLB has seen in years, a well-balanced group that should keep dominating no matter what postseason aces or pressures they encounter. Questions remain in the starting rotation behind Cy Young contender Rick Porcello (worth his $20 million a year after all!) and David Price, but this team has the experience and talent to claim Boston’s fourth World Series of the 21st century.
Texas Rangers – With a run differential of a mere +13 (compare to the Red Sox +186) and an unbelievable record of 31-11 in one run games, there is a lot to suggest that the Rangers haven’t been entirely deserving of their American League-best record. Nevertheless, Texas finds itself playing for the pennant with home field advantage due to a fair amount of good luck and a phenomenal bullpen. The unheralded crew of Sam Dyson, Jeremy Jeffress, Matt Bush, Tony Barnette and Jake Diekman has shouldered a huge load for the Rangers’ injury-wracked rotation and been absolutely dominant in the process. If Texas finds itself with a lead from the sixth inning on, it will be in as good a position as any team in the league. Also key to their success will be the play of Carlos Gomez, the tempestuous talent who has played like a superstar again since being acquired off waivers back in August.
Baltimore Orioles – Throwing out a rotation held together by fairy dust and scotch tape and relying on an offense entirely dependent on home runs, most pundits predicted a collapse for the Orioles that would take them out of the playoffs after leading the American League East for the majority of the season. The Red Sox ended up taking the division but with one game left in the regular season at publication, the Orioles have clinched a wild card spot. How did they do it? For starters, it’s an unfair characterization to paint the O’s as just another power-hitting team. Led by AL home run champ Mark Trumbo, Baltimore challenged the all-time record for home runs in a season, ultimately falling just 14 short with 250. And as with the Rangers, the bullpen has been a revelation, with closer Zach Britton in particular setting the world on fire. Britton has enjoyed perhaps the best season a relief pitcher has ever had, registering a microscopic 0.55 ERA to go along with 71 Ks in just over 65 innings and an AL-leading 47 saves. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to do much good if the team can’t get him the ball, and with a bare bones rotation behind mediocre staff ace Chris Tillman, the O’s don’t stand much of a chance to advance to the World Series.
Cleveland Indians – Just a few weeks ago, the Indians were poised to enter the postseason as favorites to win the pennant, but a rash of injuries to their superb trio of starting pitchers — Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — has left them scrambling just to stay afloat. A balanced lineup, one of the best defenses in baseball led by SS Francisco Lindor, and an excellent bullpen (noticing a theme with these elite teams?) highlighted by trade deadline acquisition Andrew Miller should keep the Tribe in the mix, but unless they can find some magic in the replacements to the rotation, Cleveland won’t be getting a second championship in 2016.
Toronto Blue Jays – Playing in any other division besides the ultra-competitive AL East, the Blue Jays would have probably already clinched a playoff spot rather than be fighting for their lives on the last day of the season. As it is, they’ll hope that their crew of veteran mashers and strong rotation can lead them deeper into October. Though their offense has struggled occasionally compared to 2015’s juggernaut, the Jays were able to weather the offseason loss of David Price to field perhaps the best top to bottom starting rotation in the American League. Rogers Stadium is a veritable 10th man on the diamond as well; fans without a rooting interest should consider cheering on Toronto just to experience what baseball is like played in front of a college football crowd.