The American League playoff field has been decided, but each of the five teams enters the postseason fray with at least one burning question. The teams are listed in order of their playoff seeding.
Can the Royals repeat their 2014 postseason magic?
Last year the Royals had the best postseason run in history ever to end without a World Series championship. Popular opinion was that their success was due to their being very close to the ideal postseason team: one that won with defense, contact hitting, speed and a dominant bullpen. This year, the Royals are returning to the playoffs with a nearly identical team. Comeback Player of the Year candidate Ryan Madson has replaced injured closer Greg Holland in the team’s bullpen, and the lineup is better thanks in part to new additions Kendrys Morales and Ben Zobrist, but the biggest turnover has occurred in the starting rotation. Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen are expected to pitch Games 2, 3 and, if necessary, 4 in the division series, replacing the departed James Shields, the injured Jason Vargas and the demoted Jeremy Guthrie.
On the whole, those changes seem like upgrades as well, but the Royals’ staff struggled in September, allowing 5.4 runs per game on their way to an 11–17 (.393) record on the month. They’ve pitched better over the last week and, as we saw last October, with the off-days built in to the postseason schedule, manager Ned Yost can work with a quick hook and rely heavily on the best arms in his bullpen. The chronically banged-up Lorenzo Cain will have four days to rest his sore right knee before the American League Division Series starts on Thursday, and the team is otherwise healthy (second baseman Omar Infante, displaced by Zobrist and out with an oblique strain, won’t be missed). Given what we saw from them last year, there’s little reason not to expect a deep run from the Royals yet again.
Have the Blue Jays overextended rookie closer Roberto Osuna?
For all the controversy over Matt Harvey’s innings limit this season, his first since October 2013 Tommy John surgery, I’ve seen little concern about the workload of the 20-year-old Roberto Osuna. Osuna, who underwent Tommy John surgery in July 2013, is six years younger than Harvey and has now thrown 60% more innings than his previous career high of 43 2/3 set at the age of 17 in 2012. Osuna did pitch a bit late last year, but not enough to suggest he was ready to throw more than 70 innings this season (he finished the regular season with 69 2/3 innings pitched). Despite adding depth to their bullpen at the non-waiver trading deadline, the Blue Jays and manager John Gibbons made no attempt to reduce Osuna’s workload in September, using him 13 times in the season’s final 31 games and eight times in their last 15.
Over those last 13 appearances, Osuna blew his first two saves as Toronto’s closer, took the loss in a third game and posted a 6.00 ERA, walking four and allowing four home runs in 12 innings pitched and inflating his season ERA by 81 points. Osuna has also been relying more heavily on his slider over the past month, but the pitch has been missing fewer bats than it was earlier in the season. He hasn’t suffered a complete collapse, but in a scenario in which a single blown save can alter a series, one wonders if the Blue Jays will be able to trust their 20-year-old closer as much in October as they did during the regular season. Those concerns are doubled now that Toronto has drawn the hot-hitting Rangers in the ALDS.
Can the Rangers’ rotation keep the best offense in baseball in check?
The Blue Jays-Rangers AL Division Series matchup promises to be a slugfest. The Rangers have scored 5.5 runs per game since Sept. 1; the Jays scored that often on the season as a whole, leading the majors in runs by 127 over the second-place Yankees. Just as significantly, the Blue Jays are powered by righthanded sluggers, with Nos. 2 through 4 hitters Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion having combined for 120 home runs from the right side during the regular season, and Russell Martin and first baseman Chris Colabello providing additional righthanded pop in the bottom half of the lineup.
The Rangers, meanwhile, will have at least two lefties in their postseason rotation, with Cole Hamels likely to start Game 2, when he’ll be on full rest, and Martin Perez likely pitching Game 3. Given the matchup with Toronto, Texas’s third lefty starter, Derek Holland, who allowed six home runs and posted a 7.62 ERA over his last five starts, seems likely to lose the Game 4 start to righty Colby Lewis. However, Lewis doesn’t inspire much optimism given his own 5.96 ERA over his last eight starts, and likely Game 1 starter Yovani Gallardo has gone seven starts without completing the sixth inning, posting a 4.11 ERA over that stretch with a below-average 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings. As great as Hamels was in Game 162, he did get touched up by the righties in the heart of the Angels’ order (Mike Trout doubled ahead of an Albert Pujols homer in the first) and has now given up five home runs in his last five starts and seven home runs in his seven home starts as a Ranger. No team in the AL playoff picture has a particularly dominant rotation, but the Rangers seem particularly ill-equipped to handle the Blue Jays’ devastating attack.
Is there any life left in the Yankees’ offense?
The Yankees finished the regular season with the second most runs scored in baseball, but in their last dozen games, they averaged just three runs per game and went 4–8, requiring help from the Diamondbacks to avoid blowing home field advantage in Tuesday’s American League Wild Card Game. Rookie Greg Bird has done a respectable job replacing the injured Mark Teixeira, but Alex Rodriguez has hit just .205/.333/.318 with one home run over his last 14 games since being forced to the bench by the lack of the DH when the Yankees traveled to Citi Field in mid-September. Brian McCann has hit .138/.261/.190 with just one-extra base hit in 69 plate appearances since starting both games of a doubleheader (one at of them at designated hitter) on Sept. 12. Brett Gardner has hit .167/.250/.167 with no extra-base hits in 77 PA over the same span.
The only man in the lineup who is hitting at a respectable rate right now is, ironically, derided deadline acquisition Dustin Ackley, who has indeed slotted into second base in the wake of Stephen Drew’s season-ending concussion and hit .306/.352/.694 since being activated from the disabled list on Sept. 9. However, Ackley’s a lefty, and the Yankees will be facing one of the best lefties in the league in the wild-card game in Houston ace Dallas Keuchel. The Yankees’ starter in that game, Masahiro Tanaka, has shown some ability to rise to the occasion in big situations, posting a 1.23 ERA in three starts against the Blue Jays in August and September as New York and Toronto battled for the AL East title. But with the Yankees' offense in its current doldrums, even a big game from Tanaka may not be enough to deliver them to the division series.
How will Dallas Keuchel respond to making the biggest start of his life on three days’ rest?
An off-day last Thursday forced the Astros to start Keuchel on Friday if they wanted him to make one more start as they attempted to reclaim the AL West title and fend off the charging Angels. As a result of that start and the Astros’ failure to reclaim the division, however, they are faced with the choice of starting Keuchel on three days’ rest in the wild-card game or selecting someone other than the likely AL Cy Young award winner to start a single-elimination game.
They are making the obvious choice to start Keuchel on short rest, but how he’ll respond remains to be seen. Keuchel hasn’t started three days after a previous start in the majors. His only start on less than full rest came following an 11-pitch relief appearance in May 2013, when he was still bouncing between relief and the rotation and before he emerged as one of the league’s better pitchers (though he did turn in a quality start in that game on just two days’ rest). A workhorse (he led the majors with 232 innings this season) and a sinkerballer, he’s the type of pitcher who could prove unaffected by short rest, but it’s still a risk. Then again, given the state of the Yankees' offense, it’s also a no-brainer.