Even No. 1 seeds hope to avoid these clubs

September 25th, 2020

If the Yankees are a road club in the upcoming Wild Card Series, you won’t see us calling them “underdogs” -- not with a heathier lineup and a revitalized Gerrit Cole. Same with a Cleveland club rolling out Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac and Carlos Carrasco in a best-of-three set after vying for the American League Central title.

Really, seeding doesn’t matter much in a series so short. And home-field advantage in the first round (before the postseason moves to neutral sites) might not matter much in a building without fans.

Anything goes.

But here is a ranking of eight teams likely to be playing every game away from home and considered the dark horses of this postseason, should they reach it (a certainty for all but one AL team on this list and a non-guarantee for the NL clubs). They are ranked in order of the danger they would present to the higher seeds. And the fun part is that not all of these teams will make the playoffs, which is what I’m sure some clubs at the top of the bracket are hoping for. (Stats entering Thursday's action.)

1. Reds

It’s worth wondering what this club would have looked like over a full 162, because it has only recently begun to play to its potential. Perhaps a run that included wins in nine of 11 games, entering Thursday, will be enough to get Cincinnati over the October threshold. If that’s the case, this is a treacherous team that would be running out Luis Castillo (ninth in the NL in ERA), Sonny Gray and NL Cy Young hopeful Trevor Bauer in a best-of-three and, possibly, beyond.

While the Reds’ offense has averaged just four runs per game (ranking 28th in MLB), its league-best walk rate (one per 8.8 plate appearances) and its high home run rate (one per 20 at-bats) means it can turn a game around in a hurry. Eugenio Suárez heating up in September (.967 OPS) changes the complexion of the lineup after his sluggish start. And the bullpen, which was once a weakness, has been markedly better since the Trade Deadline (3.86) than it was prior (4.98).

If Cincy goes on a run, you Red it here first.

2. Blue Jays

First off, have you seen newly promoted catcher Alejandro Kirk? Doesn’t that look like the kind of dude -- in both body (5-foot-8, 265 pounds) and in ability to control the strike zone -- who we could all collectively fall in love with in October? The answer is yes … and of course the Blue Jays have plenty of other intriguing talent in the lineup, not to mention a bona-fide ace in Hyun Jin Ryu and an underrated bullpen.

The issue facing the young Blue Jays is, well, the elite pitching they’ll face. For instance, their .277 slugging percentage off pitches 95 mph or higher is second worst in MLB. They’re a Jekyll and Hyde offense -- 17 games scoring two runs or fewer, 16 scoring seven or more. They have the youngest position-player group in baseball, and one can never be sure whether their inexperience will be a blessing or a curse in this environment.

3. Marlins

Because they will have played 28 games in the final 24 days of the regular season, it would surprise no one if the Fish look gassed in the playoffs, should they advance. But with this club already having legitimately surprised both in the context of what was expected of them prior to the season and after COVID-19 ripped through their clubhouse, they have the luxury of playing loose and pressure-free.

Miami’s top three starters -- Sixto Sánchez, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo López -- are all 25 or younger and totally unproven in this environment. But they have the stuff to give opposing lineups fits. And an aggressive mentality on the basepaths (the Marlins rank second in the Majors in steals and 10th in baserunning value, per FanGraphs) could drive opponents to mistakes.

4. Giants

Were these the Bruce Bochy days, we’d just assume the Giants get in via the No. 8 seed and then somehow run the table. No offense to Gabe Kapler, but it’s harder to make that assumption now (even though it is an even year). The Giants are a rebuilding contender or a contending rebuilder, depending on how you like to word it. Kapler’s had to get creative with his pitching plan and lineups to get to this point. They’ve had 13 comeback wins … but also 12 blown leads. A rotation fronted by Johnny Cueto and Kevin Gausman has had its moments but, on measure, doesn’t overwhelm. It might be difficult to make it all mesh in a series against a division winner.

But the Giants do have one of MLB’s highest contact rates (sixth at 76.8%, per FanGraphs) as part of an unexpectedly deep lineup (5.07 runs per game) in which Alex Dickerson has been running red hot (1.478 OPS in September). That’s not to be taken lightly.

5. Astros

With the obvious caveat that October doesn’t give a darn about our gut guesses, who among us could feel enormously confident in the Astros right now? Their entire 2020, even pre-pandemic, has been a mess. And though they have proven too talented to fritter away a playoff opportunity in this expanded format, a pitching staff ravaged by injury (and free agency), walk-prone ‘pen (12.6% of batters faced, highest in MLB) and dramatic decline in production (from 5.7 runs per game in ’19 to 4.7 this year) have taken the shine off this squad.

Experience might matter, and the Astros have loads of that in their lineup and in their dugout with Dusty Baker. But it would take a big lift from Zack Greinke and somebody else in the group of Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Lance McCullers Jr. and Jose Urquidy for the ‘Stros to stick around.

6. Cardinals

The Cards might have to play a doubleheader in Detroit on Monday to complete their 60-game season and earn an October spot. Should it come to that, it would be a distinct competitive disadvantage, given the added impact on the pitching staff. And remember what we said about the Blue Jays having the second-worst slugging percentage in MLB against high-velocity pitches? Well, the Cards are the one team below them. That’s part of an overall offensive weakness, as St. Louis entered Thursday ranking in the bottom seven in MLB in runs per game (4.2) and OPS (.699).

With Adam Wainwright successfully fending off Father Time and Kwang Hyun Kim having made a terrific transition to the States, the Cardinals have a solid pitching staff overall, and Jack Flaherty, who would be essential to a deep run, may have righted himself last Sunday after a rough start to the season. But with so much asked of that staff in the Cards’ COVID-affected calendar, we’re tempering expectations here.

7. Brewers

Devin Williams and Josh Hader. Those two guys would be the prime reason to fear the Brew Crew in a best-of-three series. It would have been three guys, but Corbin Burnes, who entered his Thursday start with one of the lowest opponent OPS marks (.478) in history, left it with lower back discomfort and was placed on the IL Friday.

Williams is striking out better than 55% of batters faced thanks to a high-spin changeup unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. And though his ERA is inflated by the four runs he gave up to the Cubs on Sept. 12, Hader is still Hader, striking out nearly 40% of opponents and showing more zip on his fastball of late. The impact of the relievers would be itself impacted by the lack of off-days in the NLDS and NLCS rounds, but, in the Wild Card Series in particular, those three guys can neutralize a superior club. The bullpen, in general, is why the Brewers have managed to go 11-5 in one-run games.

Of course, aside from 19- and 18-run outbursts against the Tigers and Cardinals, respectively, this month, the Brewers lineup has largely been underwhelming this year, with the NL’s highest strikeout rate (26.7). That -- and the schedule -- will make it hard for Milwaukee to go on a deep run, a la ’18.

8. Phillies

To be fair, many of us fretted about the Nationals’ MLB-worst 5.66 relief ERA prior to October last year. It was a problem until it wasn’t.

But that was a completely different format (with more off-days allowing the Nats to use starters as relievers). And anyway, what the Phillies have unleashed upon the world this year is a blundering bullpen far worse than even that of the ’19 Nats. The 7.17 relief ERA is the highest since the 1930 Phillies (coincidentally enough), and the 1.83 relief WHIP is the highest since the 1950 St. Louis Browns (1.96). This inspires more heartburn than hope.