Six months ago, we embarked on a long journey, one filled with brilliant bat flips, goofy GIFs and gobs of analysis. Today, we fete the 10 teams that survived the long slog to earn their way into the playoffs and look at one key player to watch for each.
One more for the road. It’s Week 26 of The 30.
Best Example of Someone Who Absolutely Loves His Job: Adrian Beltre
Five years after his playing career ends—whenever that might be—Adrian Beltre will punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame. When he steps to the podium in Cooperstown, we will salute an extraordinary player, a five-tool third baseman who’ll go down as one of the five best ever to play his position (with a real shot at reaching the top three). Considering that he’ll get some down-ballot MVP votes in this, his 19th season, we might have to wait a while to tally it all up.
But as much as his stellar play, Beltre’s legacy will also be his unmistakable love of the game and his ability to play it like nobody else has in our lifetime. He blasted homers while down on one knee. He showed off some shenanigans on the base paths. He developed a killer series of comedy routines with Elvis Andrus. And of course, he became known throughout the land as the man whose head you love to touch (but you mustn’t touch).
As the Rangers storm into the playoffs with the best record in the American League and Beltre keeps walloping and nabbing baseballs, we’ve got a new entry into his GIF Hall of Fame: the Second Base Rope-A-Dope.
10. New York Mets (87–75, plus-54, LW: 10)
Keep an eye on: Asdrubal Cabrera
The 10-year veteran shortstop typified the Mets’ all-hands-on-deck approach to an injury-riddled season, batting an incredible .405/.435/.786 in August and .317/.389/.584 in September to prop up a Swiss cheese lineup. Over the long haul, the smart money would go against the Mets continuing to win with unlikely heroes such as Cabrera and rookie starters Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo carrying the load. But these are the playoffs, where all sample sizes are small and anything can happen.
9. San Francisco Giants (87–75, plus-84, LW: 14)
Keep an eye on: Matt Moore
Just a couple months into his stint as a Giant, the lefty pitched his new club into the playoffs with an eight-inning, one-run, three-hit gem against the Dodgers. That was the sixth time in his past eight starts that he’s allowed two runs or fewer—exactly the kind of lift general manager Bobby Evans was seeking when he flipped popular young third baseman Matt Duffy to the Rays for Moore. The bad news is that those other two starts saw Moore last a total of 3 2/3 innings and get torched for 12 runs in the process.
San Francisco will need to get past Noah Syndergaard and the Mets just to earn the right to face the best-in-baseball Cubs. But if Moore gives the Giants a reliable third starter to complement Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the #EvenYear drum beat could grow even louder.
8. Baltimore Orioles (89–73, plus-29, LW: 8)
Keep an eye on: Ubaldo Jimenez
On Aug. 19, O’s manager Buck Showalter summoned Jimenez for mop-up relief work after starter Wade Miley got crushed for six runs in 1 2/3 innings. Jimenez pitched poorly, giving up three runs on three hits in three innings and handing out four free passes. That debacle hiked Jimenez’s ERA to 6.94 for the season, continuing an awful year in which he was the worst starter in all of baseball. But for some impossible-to-understand reason, Showalter responded by slotting Jimenez back into the rotation.
Jimenez, in turn, has responded by turning into the second coming of Jim Palmer. In his seven starts since rejoining the rotation, he’s fired 47 2/3 innings, posted a 2.45 ERA and held opponents to a microscopic line of .170/.235/.285. Credit a spike in Jimenez’s splitter usage, with opponents batting just .135 against that pitch in September. Entering the wild-card game Tuesday night in Toronto, the buzz has Showalter potentially bypassing staff ace Chris Tillman and instead tapping Jimenez to take the mound with Baltimore’s season on the line.
7. Toronto Blue Jays (89–73, plus-93, LW: 7)
Keep an eye on: Joe Biagini
In example No. 9,337 of how jumping into brawls is a terrible idea, I present Joaquin Benoit. The Jays’ setup man had been unhittable since arriving in a July 26 deal with Seattle, allowing just one run in 23 2/3 innings. But exactly two months after coming to Toronto, Benoit ran in from the bullpen during a brawl with the Yankees, tore a muscle in his calf and now might miss the entire postseason. Benoit’s absence puts a ton of pressure on closer Roberto Osuna and top setup man Jason Grilli to anchor the bullpen; Jays manager John Gibbons took the unusual step of riding Osuna for two innings during Saturday’s pivotal win over the Red Sox.
Rookie righthander Joe Biagini could thus get the nod as Benoit’s de facto replacement and bridge to the final two innings. Though he’s been someone erratic in his debut campaign, Biagini’s overall numbers are strong, paced by a worm-burning repertoire that’s produced a 52.2% ground-ball rate and just three homers allowed all season. If Biagini can give the Jays a third reliable bullpen option in Benoit’s absence, Gibbons could lead a bunch more toasts this October.
6. Cleveland Indians (94–67, plus-101, LW: 6)
Keep an eye on: The entire bullpen
Carlos Carrasco is out until next spring, and Danny Salazar hasn’t pitched since Sept. 9 due to a forearm injury. That leaves the Indians’ rotation as Corey Kluber and pray for an Uber (to pick up a bunch of new pitchers). Manager Terry Francona has already been impressively aggressive and creative in using lights-out lefty Andrew Miller as a true high-leverage reliever rather than wasting him on relatively easy save chances. But relying on ice-cold righty Trevor Bauer and home-run machine Josh Tomlin against playoff-caliber competition could be a disaster. Don’t be surprised if Francona either tries a full-on bullpen game at some point in the playoffs or at least wields a supernaturally quick trigger on his non-Kluber starters.
5. Texas Rangers (95–67, plus-8, LW: 5)
Keep an eye on: Elvis Andrus
Few hitters in baseball have been hotter lately than Andrus, who owns a .363/.433/.650 line over the past 30 days. His breakout in his eighth season has been one of the biggest drivers of the Rangers’ success, with career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging average, home runs and his walk, hard-hit and line-drive rates. Rolling out Andrus as Texas’ No. 9 hitter gives the Rangers a bottom-of-the-order threat that no other team can match. With leadoff man Carlos Gomez hitting better than he ever has since Texas plucked him off the scrap heap, the Rangers deploy two table-setters for the team’s big bats who could pave the way for a bunch of crooked numbers in the next few weeks.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (91–71, plus-87, LW: 4)
Keep an eye on: Corey Seager
There’s nothing particularly subtle about Seager’s contributions this season. With Yasiel Puig spending a chunk of the season in the minors and the offense needing a lift to make up for Clayton Kershaw’s extended absence, Seager emerged as arguably the second-best all-around player in the National League for 2016. In his first full big league season, the 22-year-old shortstop batted .308/.365/.512, played plus defense at a premium position and came through with multiple game-changing moments. Really, I just wanted an excuse to jump up and down and yell about how a rookie playing in the second-biggest market in the country and crushing everything in his path doesn’t yet have his face plastered on every billboard and cereal box. Then again, if Seager joins the recently returned Puig and Kershaw and leads the Dodgers to the World Series, we could finally get the new spokesman for bland sandwiches we’ve all been waiting for.
3. Washington Nationals (95–67, plus-151, LW: 3)
Keep an eye on: Trea Turner
The Gary Sanchez of the NL, Turner might finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Seager despite playing less than half the season in the majors. Turner batted .342, which would’ve placed him third in the race for the batting title if he’d been called up earlier in the season and accrued enough at-bats to qualify (as opposed to DJ LeMahieu, who came by his at-bat shortage the old-fashioned way: by playing prevent defense). He swiped 33 bases, finishing fifth in that category despite playing in just 73 games. And he finished ahead of Seager and right next to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in catch-all, park-adjusted offense. No team has done a better job of addressing a big weakness than the Nationals have by installing Turner as their leadoff man and starting centerfielder. Even sans key players like Stephen Strasburg and Wilson Ramos, Turner could hold the key to a deep playoff run in D.C.
2. Boston Red Sox (93–69, plus-184, LW: 2)
Keep an eye on: Koji Uehara
Before Uehara hit the disabled list in July with a pectoral injury, he’d put up a 4.50 ERA with eight homers allowed in 36 innings. Since returning from the DL in early September, he’s tossed 12 scoreless innings, striking out 12 and allowing just eight base runners. Like his rejuvenated division rival Ubaldo Jimenez, Uehara has excelled by throwing more splitters and fewer fastballs over the past few weeks, thereby making both pitches more successful. Led by Uehara, Boston’s bullpen, arguably the team’s biggest weakness for most of the season, produced the second-lowest ERA in the majors over the past month. If the Sox have solved their bullpen problem for good, it’s tough to argue against this team being the favorite to win the AL pennant.
1. Chicago Cubs (103–58, plus-252, LW: 1)
Keep an eye on: Javier Baez
If only because he’s so spectacularly fun to watch. As great as the Cubs’ pitchers have been this season, they owe a huge chunk of the credit to a historically great defense. Veterans like Jason Heyward may have come into this season with more hype surrounding their glove work, but Baez has often stolen the show, making jaw-dropping plays at multiple positions. The 23-year-old finished the year with 25-plus games at second base, third and shortstop, earning high marks by advanced metrics at all three spots. His defensive skill at so many different positions could enable skipper Joe Maddon to gain an upper hand in late-game matchups, knowing he has a Swiss army knife at his disposal. With so many little variables potentially deciding season-deciding games, that’s a great advantage to wield.