Who has edge? Astros-Tribe position by position
Houston took four of seven games in season series
The winner of the American League Division Series between the Astros and Indians that starts Friday afternoon in Houston won't directly go to the World Series, of course.
But the nagging feeling here is that whoever escapes this day-game-laden struggle between two legitimately well-built ballclubs will, indeed, go on to become the AL pennant winner.
:: ALDS schedule and results ::
This opinion is not meant as a knock on the 108-win Red Sox or the Yankees they'll face in the ALDS. It's meant more as affirmation of the idea that being built for the regular season and being built for the postseason are two very different things. And with clearly the two best rotations in the Majors, two bullpens loaded with impact arms and the two lineups with the lowest strikeout percentages in the sport (contact is king come October), the AL's last two World Series representatives both have what it takes to get back to the Fall Classic in 2018.
So who will prevail in this best-of-five? Let's dig in, position by position, and try to find out.
Yan Gomes cut and bruised his thumb on the final weekend of the season on a freak play but is expected to be good to go. Gomes was a first-time All-Star this season, and his .762 OPS was the fifth highest in the Majors among catchers with at least 400 plate appearances. He's an adept defender with a 36 caught-stealing percentage over the last three seasons. You have to give him the edge over the Astros' in-season trade acquisition, Martin Maldonado (.655 OPS).
That said, Maldonado's cannon could have a role in this series, given that the Indians rate as one of the better baserunning teams in the game.
After beginning the season suspended and hurt (left hand surgery), Yuli Gurriel saw overall offensive regression from his 2017 output, with an OPS+ that dropped from 21 percent above league average to 8 percent. But he had a .356/.379/.567 slash in the final month of the season.
Yonder Alonso has logged 23 homers and 19 doubles. But his OPS and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) marks are both below the league average, and his 21.4-percent strikeout rate is well north of Gurriel's 11.0 mark.
What they lack in physical stature (combined listed height: 135 inches), Jose Ramirez and Jose Altuve more than make up for in plate presence. Ramirez just wrapped a remarkable season in which he had 39 homers, 38 doubles and 34 steals. His overall impact was, well, 2017 Altuve-like (the total WAR marks are almost identical), and Altuve won the MVP Award last year.
Alas, Altuve nursed a right knee injury this year and didn't come through with his usual 200-hit campaign. Ramirez is the winner here this year, though the difference right now might be negligible. Ramirez went into a massive slump the last month-plus of the season and is still adjusting to second base after making the move to accommodate the Indians' acquisition of Josh Donaldson.
As former first-round Draft picks with Puerto Rico roots, similar big league callup dates and a 1-2 finish in the 2015 Rookie of the Year Award voting, the stories of Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor have been naturally intertwined for years.
But in this particular season, there is a clear line of demarcation between the two. Lindor's name will appear on MVP Award ballots after he became just the fourth player in history with at least 25 steals, 35 homers, 40 doubles and 125 runs in a season, and his defense was back up to an elite level. Correa, on the other hand, has played through back and oblique issues and simply hasn't been his All-Star self.
Donaldson is going to be a fascinating figure here. Calf and shoulder issues limited him to 36 games with the Blue Jays. In 16 September games with the Tribe, he showed flashes of the explosiveness and athleticism that make him one of the best total packages in the Majors.
But Alex Bregman made The Leap this season. His .926 OPS, 31 homers and Major League-leading 51 doubles were affirmation of his ability to be every bit the star Altuve and Correa have been for this loaded Astros squad. He was also one of the Majors' most clutch players, with a Major League-best 5.65 Win Probability Added mark.
Tony Kemp could get some opportunities here for the Astros, but Marwin Gonzalez sees the most time in left. He was such an essential element to the Astros' success in 2017, but this year the offensive numbers regressed back to his career norm (.733 OPS, 103 OPS+).
The edge goes to Michael Brantley. The Indians took a calculated gamble when they picked up his 2018 option after he played just 101 games from 2016-17, but he has had his healthiest and most productive season in three years (.832 OPS, 123 OPS+), with a Major League-best contact percentage (90.9).
The Indians are taking a defensive gamble with Jason Kipnis in center as part of the Donaldson shakeup, and his bat, which produced just a .704 OPS overall but a .905 mark with runners in scoring position, has to hold up its end of the deal.
The Astros are more settled with reigning World Series MVP Award winner George Springer manning center. But Springer has had a trying season of his own, recently dealing with a nagging thumb injury. Springer did have a .315/.386/.454 slash over the last two months.
Hard to believe Melky Cabrera, who couldn't find a job this offseason and was actually designated for assignment by the Indians in June before latching back on with the club in July, is not only the projected starter in right field for a postseason series but may actually be the most reliable right fielder on either team.
While Cabrera slashed .302/.363/.458 since his July 21 return to the Tribe, Josh Reddick has had an inconsistent campaign that stands in stark contrast to the production he provided a year ago (130 OPS+ then, 99 now).
Slight edge: Indians
Tyler White had a .347 average and 1.151 OPS from July 14 to Aug. 31, but his batted-ball profile caught up to him in September (19-for-84). We'll see how Astros manager AJ Hinch doles out the duties between White and Evan Gattis (25 homers but a 101 OPS+).
Edwin Encarnacion is the more known quantity, coming off his seventh straight 30-homer campaign, with a respectable, albeit not rousing, 115 OPS+.
Slight edge: Indians
This is an impossible choice. The Indians' starting staff had the 18th-highest FanGraphs-calculated Wins Above Replacement mark (22.9) in history, but the Astros' mark (22.5) ranks 22nd. Seven of the top 10 adjusted ERA+ marks for qualified AL pitchers in 2018 are represented in these two rotations. Craziness.
It's Justin Verlander (second in the AL in innings, third in ERA) vs. Corey Kluber (first in innings, fifth in ERA) in Game 1. It's Gerrit Cole (fifth in innings, fourth in ERA) vs. Carlos Carrasco (ninth in innings, eighth in ERA) in Game 2. It's Dallas Keuchel (third in innings, 15th in ERA) vs. Mike Clevinger (sixth in innings, sixth in ERA) in Game 3.
Again, impossible choice. But right now, we don't know if the Indians will use Trevor Bauer (a Cy Young Award candidate before a comebacker fractured his right leg in August) or rookie Shane Bieber opposite Charlie Morton in Game 4. Bauer could pitch out of the bullpen in Games 1-3. So for now, the teensiest, tiniest of edges to the Astros.
Teensiest, tiniest edge: Astros
The rubber-armed Bauer is this series' biggest X-factor, and there's a very good chance you see him in relief sometime in the first three games of this series. Andrew Miller finally looks healthy, Brad Hand is on board and Cody Allen may have turned a corner in working through mechanical issues. The Indians feel they have a better handle on what has been a moving target in the bullpen.
But the Astros' relief corps has fewer unanswered questions right now. The addition of Roberto Osuna at the tail end of his domestic violence suspension was roundly and rightly criticized, but the end result of adding him and Thomas Pressly is a deep and versatile bullpen in which rookie Josh James could potentially bring an added dose of gas, if rostered. In August and September, the Astros had the Majors' best bullpen ERA by more than half a run.
Who will win? This has all the makings of a closely contested series. That doesn't mean it will go five games, but it does mean small edges could have a huge impact.
The Indians' roster earned the edge in six of our 11 presented categories and has become utterly intriguing in the late stages of the season with the Donaldson acquisition and Miller and Bauer returns. That said, it's really hard to know how all those parts come together in games that count, especially on a club that played so few meaningful games because of its weak division.
The Astros open at home and have the more reliable bullpen right now, and it says here that will be enough for them to win a series that arguably features the AL's two most dangerous teams.