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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Each MLB playoff contender’s biggest weakness

Dave Roberts

We’re into the home stretch of baseball season, and the month of September will settle the playoff races. There are plenty of teams still in it, even if the American League picture looks mostly settled, but the races promise to be exciting.

There are, however, no flawless teams. Every contender has a weakness that can be exploited, albeit some more obvious than others. Looking at teams who are presently within three games of a playoff spot — sorry, Philadelphia — here’s the Achilles’ heel that could trip up each team down the stretch or in the postseason.

Arizona Diamondbacks — Run-scoring

In a pivotal weekend series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Diamondbacks scored just nine runs across four games, three of which they lost by one run. That sums up where Arizona’s challenge lies. Only six National League teams have scored fewer runs than Arizona has this season. It’s odd to see a lineup with Paul Goldschmidt in it struggling this much, but he, David Peralta, and A.J. Pollock are the only three Diamondbacks hitting above .250.

Atlanta Braves — Bullpen

A shaky June and July turned out to be the biggest problems for an Atlanta bullpen that hasn’t had Arodys Vizcaino since July. A.J. Minter has more or less inherited the closer’s role, and everyone else has stepped up since then, but the Atlanta bullpen lacks a shutdown reliever who can come in and get five or six outs in a big game. It’s unclear if Vizcaino would be the same pitcher or if the Braves would want to risk him that much after missing the latter half of the season with shoulder inflammation.

Boston Red Sox — Bullpen depth

Craig Kimbrel remains an excellent closer. The Red Sox are simply going to have to figure out how to get the ball to him if the starters can’t do it themselves. In July and August, the Boston bullpen ERA was just below four. The group that includes Heath Hembree, Matt Barnes, and Joe Kelly can be very prone to walks. A Dave Dombrowski team famously lost an ALCS to the Boston Red Sox in 2013 because the Detroit Tigers didn’t have the arms in the bullpen to pick up from their outstanding starting rotation. These Red Sox have a better closer in Kimbrel, but the supporting cast is distressingly similar.

Chicago Cubs — Starting pitching

The acquisition of Cole Hamels certainly helped to minimize the Cubs’ starting rotation issue at least a little bit. Chicago scores a lot and has a whole lot of good arms in the back of the bullpen, but Hamels aside, the best ERA in the Chicago rotation is Jon Lester’s 3.53. That’s good, but not elite, and Kyle Hendricks is the only other arm with a sub-4 ERA. Jose Quintana and especially Tyler Chatwood have not lived up to expectations. In a short series, one of the guys closer to the back end of the rotation will likely need to find a way to win a game or two.

Cleveland Indians — Bullpen

The Indians still manage to be in better shape here than they were earlier in the season, but not nearly as comfortable as they’d like to be. The only healthy relievers who have been up for most of the season with ERAs below 4.50 in the Cleveland bullpen are lefty specialist Oliver Perez and trade acquisition Brad Hand. Cody Allen, the closer, does not. Andrew Miller does, but he seems incapable of staying healthy this season, and he hasn’t been his usual dominant self even when he is. To make matters worse, Trevor Bauer’s race against time means one fewer starter to eat up innings — and possibly one fewer quality starter to move to the bullpen in the playoffs and handle some of those innings.

Colorado Rockies — Starters other than Kyle Freeland

Kyle Freeland has a 2.96 ERA and has been great for Colorado. No one else is on his level, nor are they particularly close. German Marquez has the next best Colorado starter ERA at 4.11. Overall, the Rockies’ 4.56 team ERA is 13th in the National League, and only three teams in the NL have allowed more runs than they have. They’re going to have a hard time in the playoffs if that pace keeps up, even if they have the offense to compensate to some extent.

Houston Astros — Power

The Astros are so strong all around, and quite frankly you have to look pretty closely to find something to nitpick here. The rotation is strong, the bullpen looks better than it did last year, and they boast a star-studded offense. That offense, however, doesn’t pack as big a punch as you might thing. The Astros are sixth in the AL in home runs and fifth in slugging, so they’re not exactly bashing the ball at the rate of some of their peers. Alex Bregman, George Springer, and Evan Gattis are their only 20-homer guys, and none have 30. Part of that, however, is due to injuries to Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. The fact is, they still focus more on manufacturing runs than anything else. Whether that helps or hurts them in October is anyone’s guess.

Los Angeles Dodgers — Bullpen

For much of the season, the Dodgers knew they could at least rely on closer Kenley Jansen to get big outs when they needed him. Now, since a heart issue flared up, even that is a bit more in doubt. Jansen has stabilized in his last few outings, but the Dodgers just haven’t been able to close out games in August and September. The Dodgers haven’t had a lot of blowouts — their offense can be frustratingly inconsistent — and it places a big burden on the likes of Pedro Baez and Scott Alexander. These are players who have been solid much of the season and just haven’t been lately. They must turn it around.

Milwaukee Brewers — Pitching

Milwaukee’s entire pitching staff is facing some question marks. The lack of a reliable staff ace led them to go get Gio Gonzalez at the waiver deadline in the hopes that he’d find the form that made him a Cy Young contender as recently as last season. Xavier Cedeno and Joakim Soria have been added to the bullpen, though Soria hasn’t been quite as sharp as they’d have liked. They have two really good options in Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress, but the struggles of Corey Knebel have been a big disappointment. The Brewers are banking on their trade acquisitions being at their best. They’ll need them to be.

New York Yankees — Starting rotation

Instead of going for the big splash, the Yankees opted for smaller names to boost their rotation at the deadline. To their credit, it has mostly worked, and J.A. Happ has been effective. The worry is that even their quality pitchers have been inconsistent. Luis Severino went through a rough stretch in July and hasn’t gotten an out in the seventh inning or later since August 8 — the only time he’s done it since the All-Star break. CC Sabathia hasn’t done it since June 29 and is coming off a worryingly mediocre start against the Oakland Athletics. Sonny Gray isn’t even in the rotation anymore. The strategy for the Yankees seems to be to get as much out of their starters as possible and then let their talented bullpen lead the way. That strategy is risky, both because Aroldis Chapman’s status is still unclear and even three or four runs in five or six innings might be too much against an ace opponent.

Oakland Athletics — Rotation health

Oakland plays great defense, has a great bullpen, and hits just enough to cause lots of problems for any opponent. An injury to ace pitcher Sean Manaea, however, has thrown things for a bit of a loop. He probably won’t be back before the end of the season, and that puts Oakland at risk. How long can Trevor Cahill and especially Edwin Jackson keep up the pace they’ve been on? When will Brett Anderson be back? These are the burning questions, and things are to the point where the A’s have experimented with an “opener” as their rotation depth is severely tested.

St. Louis Cardinals — Back of the bullpen

It’s another iffy playoff bullpen. Bud Norris has been the Cardinals’ closer for the bulk of the season, but he’s given up five runs in two September outings, raising some urgent questions. The Cardinals also don’t have an obvious replacement if Norris continues faltering. Jordan Hicks, a hard-throwing rookie, has been a standout, but would St. Louis want to put that much responsibility on a 21-year-old who walks a batter every other inning on average? The other names are lesser-known and not as reliable or trustworthy. If the Cardinals get to October, they’re going to have to find late-inning outs somewhere. It’s just not entirely clear where the most reliable option is right now.



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