The eight teams that have advanced to the Division Series have fought their way to this point: through a 60-game season that was anything but normal and a harrowing best-of-three Wild Card Series in which just about anything could have happened.
So these teams are all resilient, and they are all talented. But they aren’t perfect.
Even the best have an Achilles’ heel, although some are more apparent than others. Before these best-of-five series begin, let’s take a look at each remaining club’s biggest weaknesses.
Astros: The missing
Even as Houston pulled a Wild Card Series upset at Minnesota, it’s hard to look at the roster and not see who isn’t there. Gerrit Cole left in the offseason. Justin Verlander just had Tommy John surgery. Roberto Osuna has been out since early August. Yordan Alvarez played all of two games. That’s the team’s two best starters, closer and top power bat from last year gone. Then there are those who are still around, but haven’t been the same. José Altuve’s OPS (.629) dropped by 274 points from 2019, Carlos Correa’s (.709) by 217 points, and Alex Bregman’s (.801) by 214 points. All of those make for quite a contrast with last year’s team that made it to Game 7 of the World Series.
Athletics: Offensive firepower
Oakland was essentially an average offense in 2020, and that’s with star third baseman Matt Chapman -- now out for the season -- playing 37 games. It also hurts that slugging first baseman Matt Olson hasn’t been the same sort of threat, hitting .195/.310/.414 (albeit with 14 homers), then going 0-for-9 with six K’s in the Wild Card Series against the White Sox. It’s been supporting players such as Robbie Grossman, Mark Canha and emerging young catcher Sean Murphy who have carried the weight in Oakland. But unless the likes of Olson, Marcus Semien and Khris Davis can rediscover their past productivity, it might be hard for the A’s to find enough thump moving forward.
Rays: Swings and misses
Tampa Bay had a solid offense in 2020, finishing ninth in the Majors in park-adjusted wRC+ (109) and 12th in runs scored. The Rays have quality hitters up and down the lineup, with a blend of patience and power. With that said, Tampa Bay is susceptible to the swing and miss. Rays batters whiffed on 30.1 percent of their swings in 2020, lower than only the Brewers. Their 26.9 percent strikeout rate was lower than only the Tigers. Contrast that to the Yankees, Padres, Dodgers and Astros, who are all below 22 percent. A lineup can strike out a lot and still do plenty of damage, but all the whiffs could be something that holds Tampa Bay back at some point.
Yankees: Pitching depth
The Yankees committed $324 million to Gerrit Cole last offseason, and they were awfully glad they did when he pitched brilliantly in September and in his first start this postseason. But what about who’s behind Cole? The Yankees do not have quite the same kind of pitching depth as ALDS opponents Tampa Bay, especially with James Paxton, Luis Severino and Tommy Kahnle injured and Adam Ottavino scuffling. In Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against Cleveland, five Yankees pitchers allowed a total of 19 baserunners and nine earned runs. With no off-days during the Division Series, manager Aaron Boone faces the possibility of having to manage his staff through five games in as many days. (Followed by seven games in seven days in the AL Championship Series, should New York get that far). That could get dicey.
It seems ridiculous to question the pitching of a team that just threw back-to-back shutouts in the Wild Card Series against the Reds, with starters Max Fried and rookie Ian Anderson combining for 13 scoreless innings. But even if that duo continues to shine, what do the Braves do about the other games? With no Mike Soroka or Cole Hamels, the options are limited. Kyle Wright, another rookie who had a 5.21 ERA season but threw well in his final two outings, figures to get a start. Beyond that, it’s unclear. Atlanta could try to bullpen its way through at least one game, and/or use Fried on short rest. None of the solutions is ideal for LDS and LCS featuring no off-days.
Dodgers: The end game
There’s truly nothing to do to this roster other than nitpick, but here we go: Just how reliable is Jansen in a tight game in the ninth inning? The Dodgers’ longtime closer has been more “very good” than “overwhelmingly dominant” for the past few years, with his velocity continuing to decline. While Jansen got the save in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against the Brewers, his average velo on his cutter (88.1 mph) was a career low, with a couple pitches dipping below 87 mph. After initially expressing some concern, manager Dave Roberts said Jansen looked “much better than I expected and than I thought,” upon reviewing the video. Roberts is sticking with Jansen at closer, even though flamethrowing Brusdar Graterol finished off a 3-0 over Milwaukee in Game 2. It remains to be seen if that faith will be rewarded and how quick Roberts will be to change course if necessary.
Miami relievers had the fifth-highest ERA (5.50), second-highest FIP (5.65), lowest strikeout rate (18.1 percent), lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.58) and fourth-highest homers-per-nine rate (1.64) of any MLB team this season. It’s worth noting, of course, that the Marlins also used 27 relievers (not counting position player Logan Forsythe), the vast majority of who will not factor into their postseason run. Meanwhile, the core group of closer Brandon Kintzler, Brad Boxberger, Yimi García, Richard Bleier and James Hoyt was effective, and combined for 6 1/3 scoreless innings in the Wild Card Series. Still, García and Hoyt are the only Miami relievers with above-average K rates, and that dearth of bat-missing options could hurt the group against an opponent (such as the Braves) with a high-powered offense.
Padres: Rotation health
The Padres narrowly escaped a matchup with the Cardinals in the Wild Card Series despite getting a total of six innings from starters Chris Paddack, Zach Davies and Craig Stammen -- a reliever who started Game 3’s bullpen parade. Much will now hinge on whether the club’s two best starters, Dinelson Lamet (right biceps tightness) and Mike Clevinger (right elbow impingement), can return. But even if they do, will they be at or close to 100 percent? If not, or if a recurrence of physical issues forces an abbreviated outing, it could cause a lot of problems in a series -- with no off-days -- against the hard-hitting Dodgers.