Why you should care
Place your bets.
Postseason baseball starts today, and there’s drama everywhere you look.
Yes, the Cleveland Indians have controlled the American League for months, but recent injuries to pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco put their quest for glory in jeopardy. The Chicago Cubs too had a historic year, leading the MLB in wins all season. Can they finally end 108 years of disappointment? Then there are the late-season surges by the Red Sox and the New York Mets.
With playoffs afoot, OZY caught up with Turner Sports’ best and brightest sports analysts — Ron Darling, Cal Ripken Jr. and Gary Sheffield — to learn who’s best poised to capture the World Series, and to get a leg up on the clubs that will be great in 2017. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So, what’s going to happen with the Indians?
Ron Darling: The Indians have had tons of talent since [manager] Tito [Terry Francona] took over in 2013. Their defense was very shaky when Tito got there — now they’ve shored that up. Their young pitchers have evolved, but now that they’ve lost those young arms, it’s going to be tricky. Tito is perfect for this situation because he won’t panic. Cleveland’s bullpen is as good as it gets, but Tito is going to have to mix and match his starting pitchers based on the off days. He might have to piggyback his starters in some games to make it to the bullpen.
Gary Sheffield: I would have picked Cleveland to come out of the American League, but now, with those pitching injuries, the team I’m leaning toward most is the Texas Rangers. Pitching can take a team far in the playoffs, and the Rangers’ staff looks good in the AL.
Darling: Before Salazar and Carrasco went down, I was going to pick Cleveland as my dark horse — not because of analytics or science, but because I’m a big believer in karma. Everyone talks about the Cubs with no World Series since 1908, but no one mentions that the Indians haven’t won since 1948. So I really liked Cleveland coming in. If this is not their year, that year is coming very soon. They have some of the top young talent in the game — Francisco Lindor is one of the five best young players in the game.
Cal Ripken Jr.: Injuries might be tough for the Indians. The Red Sox have some veteran leadership and right now seem to be healthy and on a roll in the American League.
But does Boston have enough pitching to make a World Series run?
Sheffield: The only reason I’m not picking Boston is because they have pretty good pitching, but they don’t have that true “stopper” who can shut a team down. Even Porcello is still Porcello. He’s been great this year, but I look at career track record.
Darling: I didn’t realize how strong Rick Porcello was, mentally, until this year. He’s taken a lot of lumps over the course of his career. He was the young guy on the Tigers staff. In the shadow of veteran pitchers like Justin Verlander — he seemed like the fall guy in Detroit, always getting blamed for their failures. I’m just really happy for him.
Will this finally be the year for the Cubs?
Ripken: Another year of experience has been key for the Cubs. I am such a Joe Maddon fan. He seems to instill confidence and a relaxed, calm attitude in his team. As for what could trip them up, anything can happen in the postseason. It’s a whole new season come October.
Sheffield: I really think that the Cubs are in line to walk through the playoffs. The one thing that has anchored this organization is Joe Maddon, the manager. He knows what buttons to push, and it seems to be working. If they can stay injury-free, they have the best shot. They were “knocking at the door” last year, but they just ran into a hot pitching staff in the Mets — that’s what derailed them.
Would you rather be in a position like the Cubs, or the Nationals and Rangers?
Darling: I think the Cubs are in a really tough position. They clearly had the best year of any club in baseball. But to me, it feels like if the Cubs don’t win, “Why? What’s the point?” I would not want to be in that spot.
Then in Texas, the Rangers have been good for a long time, but they always seem to be under the radar, to some extent. They have all of the pieces of a championship club. They have playoff experience — there’s not much difference between this team and the 2011 team that was one strike away from winning the World Series. I think that would be a great story. I would choose to be in the Rangers position.
Which NL clubs pose the biggest threat to Chicago?
Sheffield: It’s just a matter of which teams are going to get through that wild-card game to the NLDS. If the Giants get there, they can beat any team, hands down. The same goes for the Dodgers. Opponents don’t want teams with power pitchers like [the Giants’] Madison Bumgarner or [the Dodgers’] Clayton Kershaw to get in. Those two guys can pitch three games in a single series and totally change the outcome.
And I’ve always found that East Coast teams have trouble traveling west. For some reason, the West Coast teams seem fresher dealing with the playoff travel. So you never know.
What of the Mets’ chances this postseason?
Darling: You have to like the Mets’ chances to make the postseason because they’re leading the NL wild-card race. If they get through that wild-card game, they’ll depend on the young stars. But this is another team with so many injuries. Last year they made a deep playoff run with Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom, but those guys are out now. Experience has a distinct advantage in the postseason. I think the Mets have a much more difficult road ahead.
Which wild-card contenders have the best chance for a postseason run?
Darling: Both Toronto and Baltimore — if it is, in fact, those teams — will be prime to upset their opponent in the ALDS. Toronto was close to reaching the World Series last year; Baltimore has terrific hitters and some good young pitchers who seem to be improving at the right time. I would definitely fear those teams in the AL.
Which teams are in the best position for success in the years to come?
Ripken: The Cubs, because of the leadership of [president of baseball operations] Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon. The Red Sox always seem to be there, even in the toughest of divisions. And the Orioles, due to manager Buck Showalter’s leadership.