Path to American League Pennant still goes through Houston

BY J.A.SCHWARTZ

Despite a delayed start to the season (remember the lockout?), the 2022 Major League Baseball Playoffs will start on Friday. The Dodgers won a league best 111 games, setting a franchise record in the process, and would seem to be the prohibitive favorites to claim this year’s championship. The collective bargaining agreement that resulted from the lockout added an additional playoff team-a third wild card-in each league, meaning that a total of twelve squads remain standing now that the regular season has ended. The new postseason format affords the two division winners with the best records in each league a first round bye, allowing the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers and Braves to rest up and set their pitching rotations while the rest of the playoff teams play a best of three series to see who will advance. The higher seeded team in the Wild Card Round will host all the games of the best-of-three series, conferring a significant advantage to the third best division winner and the Wild Card team with the best record in each league.

American League

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José Ramírez big bat helped lead the Guardians to a highly unexpected AL Central crown. His 29 home runs and 126 RBI’s are sure to earn him elite status in the American League’s MVP voting.

The Cleveland Guardians and the Minnesota Twins were tied for the American League Central lead on September 4th. Less than a month later, the Guardians had obliterated the Twins (and the White Sox, who were only two games back at the time), and would end up winning the division by a staggering 11 games over Chicago. Cleveland was a scorching 24-6 from that point until the end of the season en route to the division title, going 10-1 in their head-to-head matchups against the Twins and White Sox. Fueled by a stingy pitching staff that posted a 3.47 team ERA, fourth best in the league, manager Terry Francona’s squad earned a playoff berth despite a payroll of just $82 million (the third lowest in MLB), the least of any team to qualify for the postseason. The offense was led by MVP candidate Jose Ramirez, whose 29 homers and 126 RBI supported the talented pitching staff. Rookie Steven Kwan supplied offense from the leadoff spot, and his .373 OB% was instrumental in starting rallies for Cleveland. Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie both had ERA’s under 3.00 in more than 180 innings each, and kept Cleveland in games until their talented bullpen could take over. Francona’s pen was anchored by Emmanuel Clase, whose 42 saves led the Majors in 2022. Armed with a 100-MPH cut fastball, Clase had a 1.36 ERA in 72.2 IP, allowing just three HR’s all season.

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Tampa Bay thought so highly of Wander Franco that they signed him to a 12-year $178 million contract after playing in just 70 Major League games. His ability to bounce back after missing close to half the season with injuries will be pivotal to the Rays chances in the postseason.

The Guardians will match up against the Tampa Bay Rays for three games in Cleveland this weekend, with the winner going on to face the New York Yankees. The Rays qualified for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, though the franchise has yet to win a championship. The 2022 version of the Rays is similar in composition to previous squads: A low payroll and a deep, versatile pitching staff. Tampa spent $100 million on their roster this season, 25th most in the majors. Manager Kevin Cash has the luxury of a starting rotation that features three hurlers with ERA’s south of 2.85: Jeffrey Springs (2.46), Drew Rasmussen (2.84) and Cy Young Award candidate Shane McClanahan (2.54). Tampa’s starting staff may well include Tyler Glasnow, who returned late in the season after missing most of this season following Tommy John surgery. If he’s back to his early 2021 form that saw him go 5-2 with a 2.66 ERA, Cash may have another outstanding starter to deploy. Those aces will be supported a cadre of relievers, 11 of whom saved at least one game for the team in 2022, though Pete Fairbanks, who missed most of the year with an injury, came on late to secure eight saves with a 1.13 ERA and a 38/3 strikeout to walk ratio over his 24 innings, and could well have the ball in his hands should the Rays have a ninth inning lead to protect. The Tampa offense was 11th in the AL in runs in 2022, and had only two players with at least 20 HR’s: Randy Arozarena and Isaac Paredes. This figures to be a low scoring series, and home field may well prove pivotal in deciding which of these two teams advance to face New York.

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Aaron’s Judge’s historic season featured an American League record 62 home runs with 131 RBI’s and a near Triple Crown. The Yankees will need their imposing slugger to continue his power show if they hope to capture the AL Pennant.

The New York Yankees 2022 season was dominated by Aaron Judge, whose 62 home runs set a new American League record, breaking the mark of 61 established by fellow Yankee right fielder Roger Maris, in 1961. Judge narrowly missed winning the Triple Crown in the AL, easily pacing the circuit with his 62 HR’s and 131 RBI’s, though his .311 batting average finished a close second behind Minnesota’s Luis Arraez’ .316 for the batting title. Judge had the highest on base percentage (.425) and slugging percentage (.686) in the league, and his gargantuan year helped the team lead the league in runs, home runs and walks. Judge had help in the power department, as teammates Gleyber Torres, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo all popped at least 24 long balls for the Bronx Bombers.

Gerrit Cole led the league in strikeouts, but the best Yankee starter in 2022 was Nestor Cortes, whose 2.44 ERA was a full run lower than any of his rotation mates. Cortes allowed only 6.13 hits/9 IP, the best such mark in the American League. The Yanks pen may be an area of concern for manager Aaron Boone, whose team qualified for the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. If the franchise is going to advance to the World Series for the first time since 2009 (their last championship season), Boone will need to find someone to get outs in the eighth and ninth innings consistently, something that might prove challenging. The Yankees lost two of their best relievers, Chad Green and Michael King to season ending injuries, and their saves leader, Clay Holmes, missed significant time in the second half to back and shoulder afflictions. Holmes received a cortisone injection in his right shoulder in late September, and may not be healthy when the ALDS begins. Since July 9th, Holmes has posted a 5.92 ERA, hardly the type of performance that will instill confidence in the hearts of the rabid Yankee faithful. While neither Tampa nor Cleveland can match the Yankee power and offensive talent (or their wallets, as the Yankees $265 million payroll was higher than the payrolls of the Guardians and Rays combined), both of those teams should have an edge in the bullpen, and that advantage may well prove decisive in the crucible of October baseball.

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Already an elite starting pitcher in just his second season, Alek Manoah recorded a 2.24 ERA for the Blue Jays while posting a 16-7 record and averaged over six innings pitched per game while only missing a single start.

The Toronto Blue Jays qualified for the playoffs for only the second time in the past six seasons, and did so after firing manager Charlie Montoyo in July. His replacement, John Schneider, went 46-28 in the second half to guide the Jays into the postseason as the AL’s top Wild Card. That means they’ll host Seattle in a best-of-three series, with each game played in Canada. Until October 1st, unvaccinated players were not eligible to play in Canada, but the government has relaxed that mandate, meaning everyone on Seattle’s roster can compete in Toronto. The Jays finished second in the AL in runs scored, behind only New York, and feature a lineup without a weak link. Every likely starting member of the Toronto batting order is at least league average offensively, with five mashers who were at least 25% better than that mark: (Alejandro Kirk, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, George Springer and Teoscar Hernandez). That balance actually pushed Toronto to the best slugging percentage in the league, better than even the Judge-led Yankees.

The Jays pitching staff is fronted by Cy Young candidate 24-year-old Alek Manoah, whose 16-7 record and 2.24 ERA suggest he’ll have the ball in Game 1. He should be followed by Kevin Gausman, whose strikeout/walk ratio of 7.32/1 was the best in the AL in 2022, and Dodger castoff Ross Stripling, who quietly broke out with a 10-4 record and a 3.01 ERA this year. Those starters will be expected to hold the opponents in check until the pen gets involved. Closer Jordan Romano had 36 saves and a 2.11 ERA, and he’ll have the ball when the last few outs need to be secured. If Schneider is going to bring a World Series championship to Toronto for the first time since 1993, he’ll have to hope his frontline starters and powerful right-handed hitters can lead them there.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Julio Rodriguez breakout season help Seattle end their 21 year long postseason drought, the longest in North American team sports. The presumptive AL Rookie of the Year overcame a slow early season start to bat .284 and slam 28 home runs to go along with 25 stolen bases as he helped the Mariners to record 90 wins.

When Cal Raleigh golfed a solo home run into the right field stands on September 30th, he helped push the Seattle Mariners into the playoffs for the first time in 21 seasons, ending the longest such drought in North American professional sports. In the riotous celebration that followed, Manager Scott Servais would say, “Every day, when the game starts, I look up at those banners. We need to add another one.” Raleigh was not immune to the excitement he wrought with his pinch-hit bomb. “It was the craziest thing ever. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget that moment.” Now, the hard work of advancing past the Jays will become the primary focus of a Mariners team that is led by Julio Rodriguez, the likely AL Rookie of the Year. Rodriguez, 21, who hit .284/.345/.509 with 28 home runs and 25 steals while playing center field, is the charismatic face of the Seattle franchise. The team recognized his generational talent by locking him up to an eight-year, $120 million contract that could end up maxing out at 18 years and $470 million based on performance incentives and options. In any case, Rodriguez will be a Mariner for a long time, and that is good news for the fans in the Pacific Northwest. Supporting Rodriguez in the lineup are Ty France, Eugenio Suarez and Raleigh, each of whom hit at least 20 HR’s with offensive productivity 20% better than league average. The Mariners were just 10th in the AL in runs scored, ahead of only the Rays among AL playoff teams, so their big bats will need to produce if they expect to vanquish a formidable Toronto club.

The Mariners can trot out a starting rotation to rival the Jays, led by deadline acquisition Luis Castillo, who has gone 4-2, 3.17 for the club since coming over from the Reds, and who was inked to a five-year, $108 million extension last month. He’ll be followed by 2021 Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray, and young right-handers Logan Gilbert (25) and George Kirby (24). Gilbert and Kirby are Seattle draftees who combined to go 21-11 with a 3.30 ERA in 2022. The Seattle pen is anchored by Paul Sewald, whose 20 saves and 2.67 ERA is augmented by three other righties: Andres Munoz, Penn Murfee and Erik Swanson, each of whom features ERA’s below 3 while averaging more than a strikeout per inning pitched. If the Mariners want to play postseason baseball in front of their home fans, they’ll have to find a way to win two of three in Toronto first. Their young collection of homegrown talent will be geared up to make a statement in the franchise’s first trip to the postseason in a generation.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
A near lock for his fourth Cy Young Award, Justin Verlander further cemented his eventual induction into the Hall of Fame by going 18-4 for the Astros with a career low 1.75 ERA after only pitching a total of six innings the past two seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He won four postseason games for Houston during their 2017 run to a World Series title.

The Houston Astros await the survivor of the Toronto-Seattle series, having clinched the best record in the American League at 106-56. Led by Manager Dusty Baker, the Astros cruised to another AL West title, their fifth in the past six seasons. The franchise has advanced at least as far as the past five American League Championship Series, winning the AL Pennant in 2017, 2019 and 2021 and winning the World Series in 2017 (though that title is tainted by their sign-stealing scheme). If they hope to extend their run as the dominant club in the junior circuit, they’ll be leaning on some familiar names to do so. The offense is still triggered by long-tenured stalwarts Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, but will also be buoyed by young, talented system products Kyle Tucker (30 HR’s, 25 SB’s and a team leading 107 RBI’s) and Jeremy Pena. Pena took over as the starting shortstop and proceeded to hit 22 HR’s and play solid defense to help fill the void left when free agent Carlos Correa signed with the Twins. The biggest bat in the Astros lineup belongs to lefty slugger Yordan Alvarez, 25, whose .306/.406/.613 productivity line would merit strong MVP consideration in a league where Judge and Shohei Ohtani were not also excelling. Alvarez’ 37 HR’s led the club, and he helped the team finish behind only New York and Toronto in runs scored this season.

Houston has leaned on their deep pitching staff to dominate opponents in 2022, led by ageless Cy Young Award favorite, 39-year-old Justin Verlander. After pitching only six innings since the end of the 2019 season and requiring Tommy John surgery, Verlander came back with a vengeance, going 18-4 with a league best 1.75 ERA, quickly erasing any doubts as to his fitness to continue a Hall of Fame career after such a devastating injury. He’s joined in the rotation by southpaw groundball specialist Framber Valdez, who went 17-6 with a 2.82 ERA and established a record by posting 25 consecutive quality starts in 2022. The Astros can also turn to veteran Lance McCullers Jr., who returned after missing most of the season to go 4-2, 2.27 over the final six weeks of the season, and who will likely get a starting assignment in the ALDS. The pen is led by veteran closer Ryan Pressly, who managed 32 saves and a 3.04 ERA this year. He’s set up by righties Ryne Stanek, Rafael Montero and Bryan Abreu who combined for 181 innings of 1.90 ERA pitching in 2022, helping lead Houston to a league best 2.90 team ERA. If form holds, the Astros will be hosting the American League Championship series, because over the past five seasons, the road to the World Series has gone through Houston.

Predictions:

AL Wild Card Series: Toronto over Seattle, Cleveland over Tampa Bay

AL Division Series: Toronto over Houston, Cleveland over New York

AL Championship Series: Toronto over Cleveland

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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