Playoff preview: Who has the best chance to win, and why


The St. Louis Cardinals won 100 games this year, more than any other team, more than any team since 2011. 

But they won’t win the 11 more they need to be World Series champions.

It says so here, it says so in the history books, and it says so in the trainer’s room, where the Cardinals have lost Carlos Martinez for the season, Adam Wainwright from their rotation, and Matt Holliday and Matt Adams from their lineup for long stretches; more recently, rookies Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty and catcher Yadier Molina have spent more time there than in the batter’s box.

The team with the most wins has won the World Series just once this decade (Red Sox over Cardinals in 2013  when each won 97); the playoff team with the fewest has won it twice (Cards in 2011, Giants last year). If you expand the playoffs enough, you also deflate the regular season  accordingly.

Since the 2009 Yankees won 103 games and went 11-4 in the  postseason, the team with the best record hasn’t often played like it in October. The 2010 Phillies (97 wins) lost in the NLCS; the 2011 Philies (102) lost in the NLDS; the 2012 Nationals (98) lost in the NLDS and the 2014 Angels (98) were swept out of the ALDS by a team which won nine less games.

Excluding 2013, from 2010-14 the teams with the best record in each league have lost seven of the nine series they’ve played, and 28 of the 45 postseason games. Two of them — the 2012 Yankees (95) and 2014 Angels — have been swept; three more have lost deciding fifth games (the 2012 Yankees won one against Baltimore before losing).

Last year’s playoffs matched wild-card teams  which won 88 and 89 games in the Series and eliminated all  six division champions on the way there.

No one should know this history better than the Cardinals, who twice have eliminated the team with the most wins (2011-12).

With that kind of precedent, there’s hope even for the 86-win Astros. Sort of.

A look at all 10 playoff teams, in order of best chance to win:

Toronto

Why they’ll win: Because they have the best offense in baseball by about the distance of a Juan Bautista home run. The Blue Jays led the majors with 888 runs scored, 128 more than the second-place Yankees; that’s 241 more, or nearly 1.5 per ganme, than the Cardinals. They led the majors in run differential at +221, 99 better than the runner-up Cardinals. And unlike the Mets with Matt Harvey, the Blue Jays don’t have to feign concern for impending free agent David Price’s pitch counts. He’s unlikely to be pitching for the Blue Jays next year.

Why they won’t: Because their eighth-inning reliever is Aaron Sanchez, who’s 23, and their ninth-inning closer is Roberto Osuna, who’s 20. They pitched like it at season’s end — Sanchez allowed 11 hits, five walks and five runs in eight September innings and Osuna allowed six runs in his last 6.2 innings.

Overview: The Blue Jays were 41-14 from the acquisition of Price until they clinched the division, about a 122-win pace. They played to home crowds of 40,000 or more in their last 23 home games, and who can blame Toronto fans. It beats waiting for the Maple Leafs’ next Stanley Cup.

St. Louis

Why they’ll win: Because they have the best pitching staff in MLB, leading in ERA (2.92) by about a third of a run. And they have John Lackey, who has won clinching Series games a decade apart (2002 Angels and 2013 Red Sox). In 117 postseason innings, Lackey has allowed just four home runs, including none in his last 66.2. How long would he extend that streak against the Jays? And, lastly,  because the Cardinals won’t have to worry about facing the 67-win Braves, who shut them out three straight games to finish the season.

Why they won’t: Because the 2015 Cardinals are a lot like the 2011 Phillies they vanquished: first in ERA but mediocre on offense. The Cardinals were 23rd in runs scored this year, tied with the Padres. The 2011 Phillies lost because they scored just six runs in the last 34 innings of the series. The 2015 Cardinals are capable of being just as dysfunctional. And catcher Yadier Molina missed the last two weeks of the season with a thumb injury. It’ll be worth a caught stealing for their NLDS opponent to see early on how healed that appendage is.

Overview: The Cardinals are the only team to have made the last five postseaons, but it’s the first time since 2005 they’ve won 100 games. The 2005 team didn’t reach the World Series, and the 2004 Cards, who won 105, were swept by Boston. But no World Series champion has won fewer games in a full regular sreason than the 2006 Cardinals, who won just 83 (the 1987 Twins at 85-77 are next).

Kansas City

Why they’ll win: Because they won their division by 12 games, the biggest margin in MLB. Because they’ve added power to the speed, defense and bullpen that helped them get to the seventh game of the World Series last year. The Royals were 30th in home runs in 2014 with 95; this year they hit 44 more which improved their standing to 24th. But seven Royals — Kendry Morales and Mike Moustakas with 22; Salvador Perez, 21; Eric Hosmer, 18; Lorenzo Cain, 16; Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist, 13 — hit double figures in home runs this year.

Why they won’t: If you ask Royals fans, because of Ned Yost. The Royals don’t lose, they get Yost-ed. More likely, because of their starting rotation, which was 22nd in MLB with a 4.34 ERA. Johnny Cueto, who was supposed to help, didn’t. He was 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA and 101 hits allowed in 81.1 innings as Royal. Showing the veterans you’re going for it isn’t always all it’s hyped up to be. Cueto is an impending free agent and has several million reasons for incentive this postseason, all of them dollars someone other than the Royals will be paying him.

Overview: The Royals were lovable last year, the little wild card that could. They lost some of that perkiness this year as they brawled their way through the season. The 95 wins are the most for the Royals since 1980. Those Royals lost the World Series, and George Brett left one of the Series games because of hemorrhoids. He never did say which was worse.

N.Y. Mets

Why they’ll win: Because it’s 1969 all over again. The Mets have great young pitching, Yoenis Cespedes doing what Donn Clendenon  (three homers in four Series games) did as a midseason power addition and Max Scherzer no-hit them in September just as Bob Moose did. How hard will it be for Ruben Tejada to  fill the role of Al Weis?

Why they won’t: Because Matt Harvey can’t pitch more than once a week without  a note from his surgeon or a grievance from his agent. And because rookie Steven Matz is 24 and woke up with a bad back after sleeping on a sofa. If he can’t start, presumably Bartolo Colon will, which is a dropoff as big as Colon is. And because even the most diehard of Mets fans won’t confuse manager Terry Collins with Gil Hodges.

Overview:  The Mets have won at least one series the last three times they’ve made the playoffs, including a sweep of the Dodgers in the 2006 NLDS. Only David Wright from 2006 is still a Met (he batted .160 in that NLCS). Two ex-Mets fom 2006 are also in the postseason: Oliver Perez, who started and won Game 4 of the NLCS and pitched well in Game 7, is a lefty reliever with the Astros; and Carlos Beltran, who took a called third strike for the final out of Game 7, is the Yankees’ right fielder.

Chicago Cubs

Why they’ll win: Because after 107 years, they’re due. And because they’re third in MLB in ERA (3.36; the NL Central was 1-2-3 in team ERAs and wins), and they have Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Only the Dodgers can match that among starters, and Lester’s postseason ERA (2.57) is two and a half runs lower than the Dodgers’ best lefthander. And because from July 1 on, the Cubs have been 57-30, the best record in baseball (the Cardinals were just 49-36 over the same span, the Jays 52-31).

Why they won’t: Because they’re really going to close games in the postseason with Travis Wood? Or set up with Fernando Rodne?. The Cubs’ bullpen ranks eighth (3.38 ERA), but seems more treacherous. And because someone started a Go Fund Me page to send Steve Bartman to Wednesday’s wild-card game in Pittsburgh, aiming to raise $5,000. Bartman won’t even come out of hiding for that.

Overview: Everyone loves Joe Maddon, and well they should. But his postseason record isn’t much better than Oakland GM Billy Beane’s. After winning his first two series with the Rays, Maddon’s team lost the 2008 World Series and the last three full series they played (the Rays did beat Cleveland in the 2011 wild-card game). That’s not Maddon’s fault, but if the Cubs do lose, he won’t get the Ned Yost treatmen. From the Cubs’ last playoff team in 2008, there’s only one player who will be in the playoffs: once-and-current Pirate third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

Pittsburgh

Why they’ll win: Because they’re a lot like the Cardinals — second in pitching (3.21) and fourth in run differential (+101) — without the expectations and with a better bullpen. The Pirates’ 2.67 bullpen ERA led MLB and their .640 OPS was third. And as the Giants and Royals proved in 2014, bullpens win in October, if used correctly.

Why they won’t: Because the Cubs’ Chris Coghlan’s takeout slide took out a big part of the Pirates’ offense when he knocked out  Jung Ho Kang for the season. Kang had a .287 average, 15 homers and .816 OPS; he’s essentially been replaced by Jordy Mercer, who has a .244 average, 3 homers and .613 OPS.

Overview: Only two teams have made all of the last three postseasons — the Cardinals and Pirates. You could have gotten pretty good odds on that in 2013. Getting there, after not doing so for 20 years, is no longer the catch. Winning in October is. The Pirates won 98 games this season — tied for the third-best total this decade, and good for second place and a one-game playoff against the possible NL Cy Young winner. That’s not much of a reward. If the Pirates beat Arrieta, their chances increase immeasurably, and not just for the obvious reason. The Pirates’ biggest obstacles are the Cubs and Cardinals, and they’d get them first. 

L.A.Dodgers

Why they’ll win: Because they have Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, two of the top three pitchers in MLB in ERA and OPS.

Why they won’t: Because Alex Wood and Brett Anderson are their next two probable starters, and because going from Dodgers starters to closer Kenley Jansen is a little like driving on a Southern California freeway: there’s lots of traffic, turns and detours. And because Kershaw turns into Paul Maholm when he faces the Cardinals in the postseason: in five postseason starts vs. St. Louis, Kershaw has a 6.14 ERA. His 5.12 postseason ERA is a little above his 2.43 regular season one.

Overview: The Dodgers are a little like the tenant who keeps redecorating his apartment because he doesn’t like the way it looks. At some point, it’s not the design that’s the problem but the apartment. No one tinkers with their roster like the Dodgers, who made a 13-player, three-team trade at the deadline. Are they better? Maybe marginally. The Dodgers won at a .563 percentage before the deal and .576 after it. But they released Mat Latos a week before the season because Latos — who had a 4.95 ERA overall and 6.66 for the Dodgers — didn’t like his turn being skipped. On a staff with Kershaw and Greinke. Latos might not lead the league in ERA, but he does in lack of self-awareness. The Dodgers must hope Latos enjoys the playoffs from the Angels bullpen, where he ended the season pitching mopup.

N.Y. Yankees

Why they’ll win: Because they hit home runs (212, fourth-most in MLB) and score lots of runs (764, second in MLB). And because Dellin Betances (.510 OPS against) and Andrew Miller (.475) are the best eighth-ninth inning combination in MLB. The two combined to pitch 145.2 innings this year and allowed just 78 hits, 60 walks, fanned 231 and had a 1.74 ERA.

Why they won’t: Because Yankees pitchers aren’t as good in the first seven innings. Their starters’ 4.25 ERA was tied for 18th — only two playoff teams (Texas and Kansas City) had worse — and they had just 72 quality starts. And because Betances, like Tom Gordon a decade ago, struggled in the last month. He was still better than Andrew Bailey, but he walked 12 and allowed three home runs in his last 16.2 innings. And he’s thrown 174 innings the last two seasons. That’s not unlike Gordon’s 177.2 innings in 2004-5 with 2.21 and 2.57 ERAs; in the playoffs Gordon was Flash-ed out and had a 5.93 ERA. Imagine how much different the 2004 ALCS might have been had Gordon not allowed 10 hits, two walks and two homers to Boston in 6.2 innings.

Overview: The Yankees have won 27 World Series, but celebrated their wild-card clinching with champagne. Since when did the Yankees aspire to participation? Did everyone get orange slices? Somewhere Babe Ruth was aghast, and it wasn’t just for the waste of alcohol.

Texas

Why they’ll win: Because good things happen when you try to win. Tankers take note. The Rangers were three games below .500 when they traded for Cole Hamels, under the premise they were building for next year. They went 39-22 in the last eight weeks to overtake the Astros.

Why they won’t: Because the Blue Jays, who have the best offense in baseball, are even better against lefties, and the Rangers will probably throw three of them (Cole Hamels, Derek Holland and Martin Perez) in five games. The Jays’ team OPS is .798; against lefties it’s 20 points better. Their team slugging percentage is .457; against lefties it’s six points higher. Texas football coach Charlie Strong, who held TCU to 50 on Saturday, had a game plan that was more likely to work.

Overview: The Rangers won 91 games and missed the playoffs in 2013; they win 88 and made it this year. Such is baseball. The Rangers only constant from their 2012 playoff team is their infield, where Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Mitch Moreland were all starters. Josh Hamilton is still in the outfield, but a lot has happened to him in three years. Beltre’s career is a little like former Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans’ — only better — in that the second half has surpassed the first. Four of Beltre’s five .300 seasons and 171 of his 413 home runs have come after he turned to 30. If you don’t think of Beltre as a Hall of Famer, start.

Houston
Why they’ll win: They won’t, but the 2014 Royals provide inspiration. And AL Rookie of the Year to be Carlos Correa, who may be Alex Rodriguez without the PEDs and insecurities, is a good start. If the Astros have a chance, it’s because they hit home runs (230, second to the Jays) and steal bases (121, third in MLB, first among playoff teams) but they need to do a lot of both.

Why they won’t: Where to begin? Because Jed Lowrie, who batted .222 with a .712 OPS, batted cleanup far too long this year. Because their bullpen, sixth in MLB for the season with a 3.26 ERA, wasn’t that good in September. Relievers lost 10 games for the Astros after Sept. 1, and no one struggled more than Pat Neshek, who allowed 15 hits, four walks, two homers and eight runs in 7.1 innings. Neshek lost two games and manager A.J. Hinch’s confidence, and saw his ERA rise from 3.04 to 3.62.

Overview: The Astros’ last playoff appearance was being swept by the White Sox in the 2005 World Series. Here’s how long a decade is in baseball: Brad Ausmus, the catcher  in 2005, is the Tigers’ manager, if not for long; Craig Biggio, the second baseman, is a Hall of Famer; Roger Clemens and Jeff Bagwell could be, but aren’t; Jason Lane, an outfielder who hit 26 home runs, is a AAA pitcher with the Padres (10-10 with a 5.71 ERA); Andy Pettitte, who won 17 games for those Astros, had his number retired by the Yankees; Wandy Rodriguez, who won 10 as a rookie, won 87 more, the last six of them this year for the Rangers, who released him in August. And, oh yes, the Astros were a National League Central team, instead of an AL West team. The Astros may not be around long this October, but not that much will change before they return.
 Correction: An earlier version said the Cubs hadn’t won the World Series for 109 years. It only seems that long. And that the Yankees had won 28 World Series. That was premature. It’s 27, and won’t be 28 for a while now.

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