Creator: Ron Vesely, Credit: Getty Images, Copyright: 2021 Ron Vesely
Blue Jays: Bullpen
The Blue Jays have the widest range of possibilities out of any contending team in MLB. They could snag the second wild card spot and absolutely mash there way through any team, or they could play mediocre baseball like they have for much of the season thanks to lackluster pitching depth.
Thanks to the emergence of legitimate Cy Young contender Robbie Ray (!!!) the rotation isn’t as big of an issue as it once was. It would help if Hyun-Jin Ryu could get out of his funk but a foursome of Ray, Berrios, Ryu, and Manoah wouldn’t be the worst rotation in the playoffs. The real source of concern here is the bullpen which ranks second to last in the American League in fWAR.
Jordan Romano has been good in 53 innings, but he has accounted for 0.7 out of the 1.3 fWAR for the entire bullpen! The rest of the bullpen does not inspire a lot of confidence with Adam Cimber and Tim Mayza the most likely to see the bulk of innings out of the pen in the playoffs. While the rotation shouldn’t be bad in a playoff series, this doesn’t exactly bode well for the style of play the playoffs are conducive to. One of the most interesting names in all of baseball to watch over the stretch run is Nate Pearson. The fireballer is tailor made for Pitching Ninja fame and could completely transform the Jays bullpen if he can prove to reliably give them a multi-inning savant to bridge the gap from the starters to Romano & co.
Red Sox: Bullpen and Depth
The Sox recent COVID outbreak could not have come at a worse time. The Blue Jays are surging, the A’s are known for going on insane hot streaks, and those pesky Mariners are showing no signs of laying down. This has exposed their weaknesses in a very cruel way, causing the Sox to run out the likes of Brad Peacock, Jonathan Arauz, and Danny Santana in a series against the division leader Rays late in the season.
The breakdown/injury of Matt Barnes has been equally detrimental to the Red Sox as it has left the team using Adam Ottavino in save situations which is not bad in itself, but that has forced them to utilize Garret Whitlock in a setup role as opposed to the multi-inning role they desperately need him in. Even Garret Richards picked up a save last week. If the Sox cannot get healthy and Barnes back to full strength before the playoffs they will likely be in store for an early exit in the postseason.
Yankees: Pitchers Not Named Gerrit Cole
There has been no bigger bullet dodged in 2021 than when the Yankees announced that Cole left Tuesday’s start with hamstring tightness and that he will likely be okay. However, the injury rightfully made the entirety of Yankees fandoms’ hearts skip a beat.
The bleak reality is the rotation outside of Cole is full of inconsistency and injury concerns. Jordan Montgomery has been excellent this year, but if Cole were theoretically out, would you really feel comfortable throwing him out there in the Wild Card game? The same applies to Nestor Cortes and Jameson Taillon, albeit to a lesser extent on the “excellent” label. Corey Kluber and Luis Severino are the big question marks here. Kluber has struggled to stay on the field the past couple of years and has been decidedly “meh” when on it, but he has displayed his prowess in the playoffs in years past, does he have that kind of stuff left? Probably not. Yankees fans on Twitter seem to think that coming back from Tommy John surgery is something that pitchers can just shrug off without any rust because it seems like they are all counting on Severino to come back and be just as dominant as he once was. That would be the best case scenario for the team, but it is also not likely and they would be wise to not count on Sevy to be at his peak form. That leaves them with a playoff rotation of: Cole, Montgomery, Taillon, and a gigantic question mark.
The bullpen is not the fully operational Death Star it once was, with Aroldis Chapman fluctuating wildly all season between fire-breathing dragon and doing his best impression of Willians Astudillo pitching to Yermin Mercedes (simpler times). Johnathan Loaisiga has been one of the best relievers in baseball this year, but also just went down to the IL with rotator cuff discomfort which is the last thing any pitcher wants to hear. Chad Green, Clay Holmes, and Lucas Luetge have all been good however so this is not nearly as big of an issue as the rotation is, but there will definitely be some Jordan Peele moments in high leverage spots for Yankees fans this postseason.
Are you breathing right now? Are you capable of throwing a baseball hard or with nasty movement? If you answered yes to one or both of these questions then chances are you have either gotten a save or pitched high-leverage innings for the Rays this season. For any other organization in baseball this would be a cause for concern in the playoffs, but this is standard practice for Tampa. The real concern is how they can cover enough innings to ensure the bullpen does not get over-exposed in the postseason.
Shane McClanahan is a lock for the playoffs and has been everything the Rays could ask for and more this season, count him in for 4-6 solid innings. Drew Rasmussen recently joined the rotation after being in the bullpen for his entire career but has been really good as of late, count him in for 3-5 solid innings. The ever streaky Michael Wacha has been hot lately but shouldn’t be counted on for more than 4 innings. Yarborough, Patino, and Chris Archer are more of the same. What do all these pitchers have in common? The absolute best-case scenario is 5 innings before handing it over. “But this is what the Rays do???” I hear you voice in my head, but I have to write this article and I’m nitpicking, but this is not the same behemoth of a bullpen we are used to from the Rays and I am worried that a team could get too many looks at Andrew Kittredge & co. in a 5-7 game series and figure them out.
White Sox: Tony La Russa
If the White Sox were in a real divisional race (they’re not), the answer here would be health as Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito, and Lance Lynn are all on the IL right now. However, all are expected back soon and should have plenty of time to get back in a rhythm before the end of the season in games that aren’t high-stakes.
The impact that managers actually have on a team are often overblown and circumstantial. Make no mistake about it, TLR has done a fine job assuring this team hasn’t underperformed their sky-high expectations coming into this season, but there has been some hiccups. It’s not hard to envision the scenario when he has one of his excellent starters on the bump rolling through hitters like a hot knife through butter through 6 and 90+ pitches with the heart of the order coming up for a 3rd time and leaving them in one too many hitters too long before going to his otherworldly weapons in the pen. This exact thing happened to Giolito earlier this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this gaffe ends up costing the White Sox a series.
Astros: Center Field
People seem to have forgotten that the Astros were amazing before the cheating scandal, but 2021 should prove that this organization is one of the most well-run in baseball (as far as on-field performance is concerned). The rotation and bullpen are full of capable arms top-to-bottom which is something 95% of teams do not have right now and the lineup has been one of the best in baseball, with a 117 wRC+ (!) and leading MLB position players with 28.8 team fWAR (good for 4 more fWAR than the second place Rays).
It speaks to the insanity of how good the Astros are that I’m saying a team with the 4th most fWAR in the league at the position is a weakness, but that’s the level of digging I have to do to find something resembling a hole. Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers are not bad players, in fact they probably will bring a welcome dash of speed and defense that the Astros need in the postseason. The only problem is that you have to get on base to use your speed, and neither Chas nor Meyers are known for their lineup presence. Combine this position with Martin Maldonado (who more than makes up for his bat with his glove) and you have two spots in the lineup to attack if you’re an opposing pitcher. I’m sure pitchers will appreciate the break.
Remember when the A’s started the season 0-6 just to wind up finishing the month of April five games over .500 (16-11)? Baseball is a marathon with teams constantly fluctuating but this stretch has been indicative of the type of team the A’s are: get scorching hot, go cold, get hot again, go cold, repeat. Right now, the A’s are in a cold cycle, cratering out of the first Wild Card slot they had a firm grasp on for much of the season to now being 4 games out of the playoffs altogether. Injuries to Chris Bassitt and the suspension of Ramon Laureano are the main causes of the downward spiral, but the A’s have enough pieces to contend with the big boys. Matt Chapman has been much better since the All-Star break, but it may be a little to late for a team that sure could use 3rd place runner-up MVP Marcus Semien right now.
Even without the controversial trade of Kendall Graveman to the rival Astros the bullpen has been great. The lineup has been average but has enjoyed the recent firepower of the aforementioned Graveman trade return in the form of nerd-darling Abraham Toro (look up his minor league numbers). Add in timely contributions from role players and the lineup shouldn’t be a major concern should the M’s sneak in the playoffs. The biggest question for this team would be who takes the ball for more than a couple innings.
Likely Wild Card game bound if they even make it, the best bet would be all-star Yusei Kikuchi to start on the bump, but the problem is that from top to bottom this rotation is full on inconsistency that you can’t afford in the playoffs. Kikuchi himself has seen peaks and valleys, Tyler Anderson, Chris Flexen, and Marco Gonzales are pitch-to-contact guys who would likely be pitching to the team who has hit the 5th most home runs in MLB this season (Tampa Bay). Logan Gilbert is another option, but as is expected for a rookie, he has taken his lumps but he definitely possesses the most upside of any of the aforementioned pitchers outside of Kikuchi, debatably. This would arguably be the worst rotation in the playoffs should they find a way to sneak in.