An American League Championship Series featuring Cleveland and Toronto is a fascinating matchup for so many reasons, and not just because Blue Jays executives Mark Shapiro (president/CEO) and Ross Atkins (general manager) worked for the Indians for nearly 40 combined seasons before joining the Blue Jays last year.
Neither team has represented the AL in the World Series since the 1990s, so that's at least one drought that will come to an end when the series begins tonight (8 p.m. ET on TBS in the U.S.; Sportsnet and RDS in Canada), and it doesn't take a ton of imagination to envision a scenario where Andrew Miller is in to face José Bautista with the game on the line -- even if "on the line" ends up being in the sixth inning.
What we do know is that as we go through strengths and weaknesses, we'll note which players just had a big AL Division Series, but we won't let that overshadow the advantages. After all, a player who performed for months or the entire season has a much better track record than one who did so only for three games in a short series. Let's go position by position for strengths and weaknesses between Cleveland and Toronto.
Let's prove that right away, because while it is true that Roberto Pérez came up with some big moments in the ALDS against Boston, it's also true that he hit .183/.285/.294 (58 Weighted Runs Created Plus, where 100 is league average) this season, and the semi-healthy Yan Gomes didn't bat against the Red Sox at all. While Russell Martin had just one hit against Texas, it was a big Game 3 home run, and Martin's very good second half (122 wRC+) and long track record help overcome his poor first half (77 wRC+).
Big advantage: Toronto
Both sides have big sluggers here, but Edwin Encarnacion (.263/.357/.529, 134 wRC+, 42 homers) outhit Mike Napoli (.239/.335/.465, 113 wRC+, 34 homers) during the regular season, and he has more home runs (three) in the postseason than Napoli has hits (two). That this is a big advantage for Toronto is not a knock on Napoli at all, since he's experienced and very good. It's just recognition for Encarnacion, long one of baseball's most underappreciated sluggers.
Devon Travis had a productive season (.300/.332/.454, 109 wRC+), but he also sat out the final two games of the ALDS with a sore knee, forcing the Blue Jays to go with the plus glove and limited hitting skills of Darwin Barney (career .249/.297/.343, 73 wRC+). Even if Travis were healthy, he can't compete with the excellent Jason Kipnis (.275/.343/.469, 117 wRC+), who just put up his fourth elite season in the past five and set a career high with 23 home runs.
Big advantage: Cleveland
If we did care only about postseason numbers -- and we don't -- this would be a tie, because Troy Tulowitzki and Francisco Lindor both had a homer, another extra-base hit and refused to walk. But while Tulowitzki (.254/.318/.443, 102 wRC+) is still capable of big moments, he's pretty much a league-average hitter these days, while Lindor (.301/.358/.435, 112 wRC+) slugged as well as Tulowitzki did -- just with better on-base skills, better baserunning and better defense. He's one of baseball's elite young stars.
Are we still worried about Josh Donaldson's health? A poor September amid reports of a sore hip fueled worry that the 2015 AL MVP Award winner wasn't operating at full strength, and he may not be, but five doubles among nine hits -- and a series-winning dash from third to home you may have heard about -- after a very good .284/.404/.549 (155 wRC+) season should help put some of those concerns to rest. We shouldn't overlook Jose Ramirez (.312/.363/.462, 122 wRC+), but he's not Donaldson.
Though Ezequiel Carrera and Coco Crisp were the main starters in left, we also saw Michael Saunders, Melvin Upton Jr. and Brandon Guyer at various points over the past few days. That gives both managers the flexibility to pick and choose strengths and weaknesses, like how Guyer crushes lefties (career .288/.390/.469, 144 wRC+). The Tribe will have to replace Crisp's weak throwing arm, measured by Statcast™ at just 78.6 mph on "competitive" throws, in the late innings. Given the wide variety of skills here, neither side has a strong advantage.
Tyler Naquin (.296/.372/.514, 135 wRC+) had himself a smashing rookie season, but he also managed just four plate appearances in the ALDS, because he's a lefty who never faces lefty pitchers. With southpaws J.A. Happ, Brett Cecil and (maybe) Francisco Liriano available, we'll see a fair bit of Rajai Davis here, as he's got a good career line against lefties (.288/.343/.437, 112 wRC+), and he also stole 43 bases this year. Meanwhile, Kevin Pillar's strength is his outstanding defense (second only to Kevin Kiermaier among center fielders in DRS), but he didn't hit well this year (.267/.303/.375, 80 wRC+) and had just three hits in 17 ALDS plate appearances.
Small advantage: Cleveland
There's been some fair talk that at 35 and after having dealt with injuries this year, Bautista (.234/.366/.452, 122 wRC+) isn't quite the superstar he once was, and perhaps that's fair. But he's still a considerably above-average hitter, with more on-base skills and pop in his bat than Lonnie Chisenhall (.286/.328/.439, 103 wRC+). Carrera is available here as a defensive replacement, too.
Advantage: Blue Jays
This can be a bit of a rotating spot for the Blue Jays, though Saunders started three of the four postseason games so far. Though he had an All-Star first half, his second half (.178/.282/.357, 69 wRC+) left a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, Carlos Santana (.259/.366/.498, 132 wRC+, 34 homers) put up the best year of what's becoming a very impressive career, giving the Indians the clear edge.
Depending on the lineups, Cleveland could have Guyer and Davis available, which is useful, though Michael Martinez doesn't add much and it's unknown what Gomes will be able to contribute. It's almost the exact same story on the Toronto side, since there's good outfield depth, an injury concern in Travis and not much bat from Barney or Ryan Goins.
We all knew that the injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar presented a huge issue for the Indians headed into the ALDS, but it was also uncertain what Corey Kluber would be able to give after suffering a quad injury in his final start of the season. He looked fantastic in his lone start (seven shutout innings in Game 2) and should once again be viewed as an ace. He's the best starter in this series and will be on full rest for Game 1. That said, Toronto's depth -- with Happ, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez -- outweighs what the Tribe can offer with Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, and uncertainty after that. Cleveland's rotation deserves a ton of credit for holding down a great Boston offense, but this edge still goes to the Blue Jays.
Small advantage: Blue Jays
Roberto Osuna had a poor finish to the season, and then had to leave the AL Wild Card Game with shoulder soreness, so to then see what he did in the ALDS -- 3 2/3 scoreless with one hit allowed -- was stunning. It's easy to forget that he's still just 21, yet over two years in the bigs, he's got a 157/30 K/BB in 143 2/3 innings, making him an elite closer. Cody Allen, meanwhile, has become a very underrated closer himself, especially now that Miller is around to take the spotlight. These are two extremely good pitchers, without a clear edge on either side.
Small advantage: Push
Let's give a ton of credit to the much-maligned Blue Jays bullpen, which came into the postseason looking like it was in disarray, and then managed to allow just two earned runs in 14 innings. Toronto relievers didn't weigh down the roster; in fact, they helped set up those big extra-innings wins. Still, this is the Indians' bread and butter, especially with Miller available to enter at any time for multiple innings, along with the underrated Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero. This unit helped Cleveland beat Boston, and they'll need to do the same against Toronto.
Big advantage: Cleveland