Who are the players that are poised to make or break their team’s postseason chances? Can this year’s Cinderella teams do some damage? Is there such a thing as “clutch?” The MLB playoffs bring the promise of excitement but also a lot of questions. And that’s natural. For all its value as a distraction and a months-long emotional roller coaster, a full season of baseball can make it seem like everything and nothing is evident when seeking out answers to those (and other) baseball questions.
As baseball fans, we’re all compelled to weigh in with shoddy guesswork, but MLB Tonight analysts Al Leiter, Harold Reynolds, Bill Ripken, and John Smoltz offer unique insight. Call it a fringe benefit of having spent a combined 64 years as Major League ballplayers resulting in three World Series rings (two for Leiter and one for Smoltz), and one Hall Of Fame plaque (Smoltz). In search of their expertise, Uproxx Sports ventured to MLB Network headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey ahead of the Wild Card round to speak with the guys and get their thoughts on playoff baseball (but not their predictions).
That the Cubs, Indians, Nationals, Dodgers, Astros, and Red Sox are in the playoffs should not come as a surprise. Granted, there were mid to low level struggles that each had to overcome. The Nationals and Red Sox wrestled with lengthy injuries to key players, the Cubs and Indians were hovering around .500 in the early days of summer, and the Dodgers dealt with an epic swoon in August and September that knocked them off of a record-setting pace for wins in a season. But all were in or near the playoffs in 2016 and represented trendy picks to win their divisions and/or make the playoffs in 2017.
The Yankees were on the cusp of that same status with a rebuild that seemed as though it might quickly yield results. Still, a 91-win season and a near-division title on the strength of Aaron Judge’s 52 home runs (four fewer than he hit in his three-year minor league career) might have seemed optimistic in April. But maybe not as optimistic or far-fetched as playoff berths for a Twins team that lost 103 games in 2016, a Diamondbacks team that lost 93, and a Rockies team that lost 87.
While those robust turnarounds were hard to see coming, they all add a little “Cinderella Story” magic to the 2017 playoffs and the possibility that those teams may play the role of spoiler against the postseason’s anointed favorites.
“The Yankees and the D-backs, they probably could match up with a lot of teams that they run up against in the postseason,” Bill Ripken told Uproxx. “Granted, they gotta get through the way it sets now — a one-game scenario — but if they do that, I think both of those teams are dangerous.”
Ripken saw the AL East as a crapshoot coming into the season with “four possible teams that could win it and four possible teams that could’ve finished probably third, fourth, or fifth.” He cites the Yankees’ decision to roll with Judge as their starting right fielder on Opening Day (despite a thin and uninspiring big league track record) and catcher Gary Sanchez’ emergence as reasons for their success. But he also acknowledges the wisdom of that age-old adage about pitching winning championships. (So much so that he believes the Nationals’ intimidating three-headed monster of a rotation — Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Gio Gonzalez — makes them the favorite in the National League.)
“Do [the Yankees] have enough on the starting side, would be, I guess, their big question? Because once it gets to the bullpen, I think they certainly have enough to get it done.”
Al Leiter agrees with his MLB Tonight colleague when it comes to the Yankees bullpen which was solidified by a July trade with the White Sox for former Yankees closer David Robertson and reliever Tommy Kahnle (as well as Todd Frazier). “[Luis] Severino’s been a terrific story. Yes, Aaron Judge is great and Gary Sanchez is great, but it’s about their bullpen.”
Leiter cites Robbie Ray’s emergence and the one-two punch he provides with Zach Greinke in the Diamondbacks’ rotation as a reason why they’re “scary” going into the postseason. Leiter respects the importance of a bullpen in the playoffs (the Indians and Cubs pretty much made that a requirement after last year’s World Series), but believes that momentum is only as strong as your two best starting pitchers.
Harold Reynolds also sees the Diamondbacks as a formidable team, comparing Ray to Royals starter Danny Duffy and acknowledging the impact of adding outfielder JD Martinez (who hit 29 home runs in 62 games following his trade from the Tigers) to the lineup alongside perennial NL MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt.
“You expected them to be somewhat good. You knew Greinke could pitch, but the addition of JD Martinez has been beyond what you thought. Man, they’ve had a lot of players come on. Their pitching has been great.”