With the Wild Card games decided, the bracket is set for the 2017 MLB playoffs. The regular season was dominated by a trio of historically good teams: the LA Dodgers (104 wins), Cleveland Indians (102 wins), and Houston Astros (101 wins). Each one looked unbeatable at times, but if there’s one thing the 2001 Mariners and their 116 wins proved, it’s that even historically good teams are susceptible to the whims of October’s winds. That record-breaking Seattle team bowed out to the Yankees in the AL Championship Series (4-1), done in by their bats going quiet at the wrong time.
Historical evidence suggests that only one team can win the World Series in any given year and that no team — regardless of regular-season record — can be viewed as a lock. Just as every chain has its weak link, every playoff team has its vulnerabilities. Some are readily apparent; some lie deep beneath the surface. Let’s look at the most dangerous pitfalls facing each of the eight teams heading into the 2017 divisional series.
Cleveland Indians: Back-End Starters
Let’s get the hard part out of the way first. Cleveland is the most complete team in the MLB, evidenced by their league-leading +254 run-differential. They have three starting pitchers sporting an ERA under 3.30, but one of them is Mike Clevinger (3.11), a 26-year-old who posted an ERA over five in his rookie season last year, and the team is trotting out Trevor Bauer (4.19 ERA; 1.37 WHIP) for Game 1 versus the Yankees (because ace Corey Kluber wants to pitch a potential Game 5 on regular four days’ rest).
In a short best-of-five series, Game 1 is crucial. The team that wins Game 1 goes onto win the series 71-percent of the time, according to CBS Sports. The Indians obviously have the bullpen to help Bauer out of any early jams, but the Yankees are the one team in the league that can match Cleveland in a game that becomes a lengthy bullpen battle. The Yankees will get to face Bauer or Josh Tomlin’s 4.98 ERA in Game 4, as well. In effect, this means that Cleveland won’t have the decisive edge in pitching you might think just looking at runs-allowed and team ERA.
ODDS TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES: 4/1
Houston Astros: Catching
It’s a good thing that Brian McCann and Evan Gattis can hit the hide off a ball, because both catchers are otherwise useless behind the plate. The less-than-dynamic duo combined to throw out just 12.1-percent of baserunners and surrendered 102 stolen bases in 2017. Their ineptitude wasn’t a big issue during the regular season because the Astros scored so many runs, but it could be a major problem now that October has arrived and the games become tighter.
Unfortunately for Houston, Boston is one of the last teams you want to face if your catchers have noodles for arms. The Red Sox were third in the American League in steals this season and were thrown out only 31 times. Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Xander Bogaerts are especially dangerous on the base paths and will have a green light all series long.
ODDS TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES: 11/2
Boston Red Sox: Lack of Power
The Red Sox have a lineup littered with guys who can hit the baseball, evidenced by their 1,461 hits (eighth in the Majors) and 785 runs (tenth in Majors). But Boston has had to work a little harder for those runs than most other teams who rank in the top ten, only hitting 168 home runs (27th in the Majors). Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez, Mitch Moreland, and Andrew Benintendi each hit at least 20 dingers during the regular season, but none of them hit more than 24.
With teams cutting down to three or four-man rotations in the postseason, and specialized relievers always available, stringing together three or four hits will be awfully tough. Not being able to put runs on the board with one swing is likely what will hold the Red Sox back from the World Series.
ODDS TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES: 8/1
New York Yankees: No Ace
Luis Severino was believed to be the Yankees’ ace heading into the playoffs, sporting a 2.98 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. But then came the AL Wild Card Game, where the 23-year-old surrendered three runs in the first inning, and only managed to record one out before being pulled from the game. For the ALDS against Cleveland, New York will roll out Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia, and Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka is the only one who has the proven ability to completely dominate, but he’s far too inconsistent to be comfortably relied upon.
When the Yankees are in a do-or-die game in the postseason, they won’t have a starter like Corey Kluber (Cleveland), Chris Sale (Boston), or Justin Verlander (Houston) to turn to.
ODDS TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES: 19/1
Los Angeles Dodgers: Momentum
This has been a tale of two seasons for the Dodgers. L.A. was the biggest story in baseball during the first four months of the year as the team blitzed through the National League and set the record for the best 50-game stretch in over a century. They weren’t just good, they were legendary. Sports Illustrated hailed them as the best team ever and they were well on their way to eclipsing the 2001 Seattle Mariners as recently as August 24th.
That’s when everything fell apart. The Dodgers went into an inexplicable tailspin and lost 11 straight games and 16 of 17. Injuries were partially to blame, but they weren’t the only culprit. Hitters couldn’t drive the ball, pitchers couldn’t paint the corners, and fielders couldn’t make clean plays. It was a complete and utter collapse and it came at the absolute worst time as teams are supposed to be peaking. If the Dodgers don’t get off to a quick start in the ALDS, doubt is going to seep in. Are we really the best team? Were we ever actually good or was that just a dream I had? Can we see if Kirk Gibson is around?
ODDS TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES: 11/2
Washington Nationals: Starting Pitching Health
The Nats have arguably the best starting pitching trio in baseball between Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez. Here’s the problem: Scherzer isn’t healthy, Strasburg has the durability of a china doll, and Gonzalez has been at best compost and at worst steaming garbage down the stretch. Gio only made it past the fifth inning once in his last five starts and saw his ERA rise by nearly half a run in the final month of the season. It’s still under 3.00 (2.96) because he was phenomenal in the first half, but there are serious questions about how much gas is left in the tank after 32 regular season starts and 201 innings.
If Scherzer’s hamstring problem either keeps him out of the NLDS or renders him less than the Cy Young favorite he’s been this year, Washington is in trouble. Strasburg isn’t the Madison Bumgarner-type you can turn to on short rest, and the Nats don’t have the bullpen to make up for playoff lulls from Scherzer and Gonzalez. The Nats need their big three to dominate if they’re going to overcome their historical playoff woes.
ODDS TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES: 6/1
Chicago Cubs: Outfield Defense
Defensively speaking, Jason Heyward is one of the best outfielders in the league, possessing a 1.84 DWAR. But his right-field corner is the only one the Cubs have locked down. The Cubs have an average defender in CF when they choose to play Ian Happ there, but they sacrifice some offense when they do, with Happ batting just .253.
The Cubs are likely to roll out a lineup that features Jon Jay in CF and Kyle Schwarber in LF, which is a real liability with the other team at the plate. Jay possesses a DWAR of -0.4 and Schwarber is even worse at -0.9. If the two continue to be issues in the field, the Nationals’ potent offense will take advantage in the NLDS. But without Jay’s 112 hits in the lineup, the Cubs could have a difficult time getting on base against Washington’s elite rotation.
ODDS TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES: 8/1
Arizona Diamondbacks: Infield Defense
Only four teams in the Majors committed more errors than the Arizona Diamondbacks in the regular season, and their .982 fielding-percentage had them tied for 23rd. Excluding Paul Goldschmidt, no player in Arizona’s infield possesses a fielding-percentage better than .966. The Diamondbacks pitching has been a major strength this season, but it will be for nothing if they can’t field the baseball.
ODDS TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES: 11/1