It wasn’t that long ago that the Braves looked cooked. A series of injuries and underperformance came to a head when Ronald Acuna Jr. went down with a torn ACL in early July. The front office had other ideas for the NL East:
Completely overhauling the outfield with Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, and Jorge Soler proved to be the some of the best moves by a front office this season (the Willy Adames trade might be #1), as each one of them came over to the team and immediately turned up the heat while taking over replacement level production from the likes of Ehire Adrianza, Orlando Arcia, Christian Pache, and Guillermo Heredia. The Braves also did a good job bringing in Eddie Rosario as depth for the outfield and a potential late-inning pitch hitting option in the playoffs. The problem here is that the Braves are one injury in the infield away from having to run out Adrianza, Arcia, Heredia, or Maikel Franco in the playoffs. For a lineup that has already shown that they can be streaky, this is less than ideal.
To some extent, the Phillies have had some pleasant surprises this season. Bryce Harper is back to playing at MVP levels, JT Realmuto is showing no signs of slowing down, and Zach Wheeler has turned into a legitimate ace and Cy Young contender. On the flip side, they have had some unpleasant surprises. Rhys Hoskins had to undergo season ending surgery in the middle of a playoff race, Aaron Nola has gone from ace to very good #2 starter status, and Alec Bohm has had one of the more disappointing seasons in all of baseball. The one thing everyone saw coming though? A horrendous bullpen.
After last year’s comically bad 7.06 ERA, this unit has improved to a 4.56 ERA! The problem? Bad timing, bad defense, and inconsistency. The pen still ranks just 26th in MLB in fWAR and has a whopping -2.35 win probability added over the totality of the season. Trade deadline acquisition Ian Kennedy has struggled mightily as of late and it would behoove the Phitin Phils to move him out of the closers role momentarily in favor of the surging Jose Alvarado. Hector Neris would also be a good option but I’m sure Phillies fans have had enough of his stress induced heart attacks for their liking. One can’t help but sit and wonder how good this team would be if they didn’t blow three leads a week.
There’s no denying it, the Milwaukee Brewers have the worst offense of any teams in the playoffs and especially among teams that have a legitimate shot to win the World Series. The Brewers are set up for success in the playoffs with a monster rotation and an absolute death sentence at the back of the bullpen with Hader/Williams/Boxberger. However, who in this lineup are opposing pitchers scared of?
The clear answer used to be former MVP Christian Yelich, however he has hit just .260/.374/.390 in 2021, good for a 109 wRC+ and a measly 1.5 fWAR. The average and OBP don’t look bad on the surface, but Yelich’s power has all but disappeared, hitting only 8 HR’s in nearly 100 games. Most people, including myself, were ready to write off his 2020 season as a wash due to the weirdness of the season, but this continued struggle has all but reverted him back to nothing more than a solid everyday outfielder with no pop. Luis Urias has had a nice season, but he also has just a 109 wRC+. Trade deadline pickup Eduardo Escobar has been good since coming over, but the real key here is the continued success of Willy Adames. Arguably the best trade acquisition all season, Adames has been one of the very best players in baseball since moving north, sporting a 141 wRC+ and 3.7 fWAR, and has transformed this lineup from terrible to respectable. If he can keep this up, the Brewers should be able to score two or three runs per game which is enough to win considering the
strength of their defense and otherworldly pitching.
In the original version of this article, this Cardinals section didn't even exist. That should speak to the streakiness of this team. A month ago this team was a struggling .500-ish club with many holes on the roster and an afterthought in the playoff race. Fast-forward and as of today (09/22) they look like heavy favorites for the honor of losing in the Wild Card game to the Dodgers or Giants.
Offseason acquisition Nolan Arenado will get a lot of the public attention for this squad, but I believe that is unfair to the rest of this roster. Paul Goldschmidt has rebounded nicely from his 'meh' first half to perform like a star in the second half (156 wRC+), Edmundo Sosa is hitting almost .300 in the second half while playing a plus SS, and Tyler O'Neil is putting up one of the most fun 4+ WAR seasons in MLB.
The problem with this team has been how streaky they've been. As mentioned earlier, they were decidedly out of the playoff picture about a month ago for a reason... because they were not very good. Injuries of course had something to do with that, but if you haven't noticed in 2021, injuries are a problem for every single team in baseball. Regardless, if this team can just get the lineup to score more than 3 runs a game every single time, they will win a bunch of ballgames thanks to their tremendous defense.
Remember the Phillies bullpen section? Pretty much copy and paste that section here and I’ll move on.
29th in MLB in fWAR. Walking nearly 5 batters per nine innings. 5.18 ERA. 1.53 HR/9 which is good for highest in the majors. All of these for a team that possesses some of the best raw stuff in the league. Watch a Reds game and you will see this pen has nasty stuff and can strike out hitters with the best of ‘em (as evidenced by their 10.37 K/9), but when you’re walking nearly five guys a game and allowing two homers in relief, leads are never really safe. In fairness, the team has experienced a daunting set of injuries and underperformance that even the best of teams couldn’t withstand, but one has to imagine they could have done a better job shoring this unit up at the trade deadline. One has to wonder why the Reds have yet to make the move to call up Hunter Greene who would immediately step in to be the best reliever in this bullpen if not one of the best in the entire league.
Giants: Rotation Depth?
Ever wonder how the Rays are so good? It’s because they have quality big league players literally everywhere. No matter what player is in the box or on the bump, there’s a good chance that they excel within their roles. No team has exemplified the Rays model in MLB this year quite like the Giants. Every player on this squad can contribute. I say this as a cop out because honestly, the Giants have no weaknesses, but I have an article to write, so here are the things that give me slight concern going into the postseason:
As it stands on 09/10, the Giants have a three man rotation of Kevin Gausman, Logan Webb, and Anthony Desclafani. While those guys are good and deserve to be pitching in the postseason, one would have to hope that they have at least one more option before rolling into a potential five game set with the Dodgers (or whomever). Their bullpen has been fantastic this season, but I’m hesitant to overexpose those arms over the course of five consecutive games due to the volatility of bullpen performance in general. Johnny Cueto went down with a strained elbow (yikes) on 8/31, and Alex Wood is currently on the COVID IL, so who knows when either one will be back or how much either one will be able to contribute.
Let’s face it: the Los Angeles Dodgers are the best team in baseball from top to bottom. You know it, I know it, the Dodgers know it, it’s just a matter of whether or not they lose to themselves. This organization has shown in years past that it is no stranger to losing in miraculous fashion, so I’m not saying there are just going to roll their way to another World Series this year, but there is a reason that the Giants season is so surprising, and there is a reason that the Dodgers were the heavy favorites to win the NL West going into 2021. The only thing standing in the way of a repeat is themselves.
Health has a lot to do with that, and as currently constructed the Dodgers wouldn’t have anyone trustworthy to take the ball for them in a potential game four in the NLDS with Clayton Kershaw and Dustin May on the IL, and Trevor Bauer on administrative leave. It looks likely that Kershaw will be able to return before the end of the season, but reportedly he will only be back in time to make one or two big league starts before the postseason, and we all know about his previous demons in the playoffs (although those were hopefully slayed in 2020). It wouldn’t take much to envision a scenario where Kershaw doesn’t come back to form and the Dodgers yet again have to play bullpen shenanigans in the playoffs and give fans a heart attack that truly only a struggling Kenley Jansen can muster (not to mention Dave Roberts).
This answer even a week ago would have been the rotation, but the sudden resurgence of ace Blake Snell on top of better performances from Joe Musgrove and Chris Paddack have made me re-evaluate. Those three plus Darvish should make for a fine playoff rotation that should (barring crap-the-bed performances) keep the Padres in the game.
The much more pressing problem here is the lack of depth in the bullpen. It seems right now the only reliever in this pen that I would trust to hold a lead of any size would be Mark Melancon. After that, this pen has seen a catastrophic number of injuries and underperformance that has all but forced them to use Dinelson Lamet out of the pen for the rest of the season and will likely thrust three of the above starting pitchers into relief duty in the Wild Card game, should they get there. This team has enough talent to overcome sub-par relief work, but not many teams are going to be able to overcome bad relief in the playoffs when other teams will counter with their best arms.