We're down to the MLB playoffs' final four teams. Most of the national attention will focus on the colossal showdown in the American League between the 107-win Houston Astros and 103-win New York Yankees, a rematch of the 2017 American League Championship Series that went seven games, with the home team winning every game. Don't overlook the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals, however, two fun teams with rising stars in slugger Juan Soto and pitching ace Jack Flaherty.
With the National League Championship Series kicking off Friday in St. Louis and the ALCS starting Saturday in Houston, let's rank the top four teams as they stand right now:
No. 1: Houston Astros
What worked in the American League Division Series: Mostly, Gerrit Cole, who allowed one run in 15⅔ innings over two starts, striking out 25 batters and allowing just six hits. Justin Verlander dominated in his first start (although he wasn't as good working on short rest in Game 4). Jose Altuve, who basically played last year's ALCS on one leg, is healthy and mashing. He hit .350 in the series with three home runs, and now has 11 career home runs in the postseason, most ever by a second baseman. Career in the postseason: .278/.339/.536, 11 home runs, 28 runs and 25 RBIs in 37 games.
State of the rotation: Cole hasn't lost since May 22, when he was 4-5 with a 4.11 ERA. Since then he's gone 18-0 in 24 starts, with a 1.66 ERA and staggering 251 strikeouts in 162⅓ innings. He's allowed more than two runs just once in his past 15 outings. Then you have Zack Greinke, who struggled in his Game 3 start against the Rays, giving up a couple of home runs on changeups up in the zone. He'll be in line to start Game 1, and it seems like everyone is overreacting to one poor outing that came on 11 days of rest. This is still the guy who had a 2.93 ERA between the Diamondbacks and Astros and walked 30 batters in 33 starts. Verlander will be ready in Game 2, but we're unlikely to see him on short rest again this season. The only concern is the No. 4 starter. Wade Miley fell apart in September, so that one probably lines up as a bullpen game with Jose Urquidy, Miley and Josh James in some order in the early innings.
Let's talk about the bullpen: Everyone overlooks the Houston bullpen, but it actually had a lower ERA than the Yankees' pen, and the top three were dominant:
Roberto Osuna: 2.63 ERA, .190 average, .555 OPS allowed
Will Harris: 1.50 ERA, .196 average, .540 OPS allowed
Ryan Pressly: 2.32 ERA, .188 average, .543 OPS allowed
Among relievers with at least 50 innings, this trio ranked fifth, seventh and 11th, respectively, in lowest OPS allowed. The Astros probably won't need much more than those three, but sidearmer Joe Smith is tough on righties and James can light it up at 100 mph (he fanned 100 in 61⅓ innings). The only blip is that Osuna did struggle in Game 2, a 3-1 Houston victory, and had to be pulled for the final out after allowing two hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning. Harris had to come in and get the final two outs.
Player to watch: It's pretty hard to ignore Cole the way he's pitching. If this series is as close as most everyone expects, we'll get Cole taking the mound in Game 7 at Minute Maid Field, perhaps riding a 19-game winning streak and looking to pitch the Astros into the World Series. Yeah, I'll sign up for that one.
Man on the spot: Greinke is the obvious choice, with the added pressure of trying to get the series off to get a good start. His career postseason ERA is 4.58 in 12 starts -- hey, that's worse than Clayton Kershaw. Here's another guy: Josh Reddick is an awful hitter in the postseason, with a career line of .212/.274/.285 and three home runs in 165 at-bats. With the Astros the past three Octobers, he's at .188/.248/.238. He struggles against velocity and you wonder if manager AJ Hinch will keep running him out there, play rookie Kyle Tucker or just play Jake Marisnick every day in center and George Springer in right, eliminating the Marisnick/Reddick platoon.
The final word: "We were tested and responded well," Cole said after the hard-fought victory over the Rays. "Had to get hit in the face twice. I like the way we answered the bell. Looking forward to the next series." The Yankees will be a tougher test than the Rays were, with a much better offense. The Astros are looking for a second title in three years, with three consecutive 100-win seasons. If they win the World Series, they'll go down as one of the great teams of all time.
Why they're No. 1: Do you want to bet against Cole and Verlander right now? Not to mention Greinke, the back of the bullpen, the offense, the defense, Altuve, Springer ... heck, we haven't even mentioned Alex Bregman, who might be the AL MVP. Astros in a sweep isn't a crazy notion.
No. 2: Washington Nationals
What worked in the National League Division Series: Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer allowed five runs in 20 innings and struck out 27 batters. Anthony Rendon hit .412 with four extra-base hits. Juan Soto had a 1.020 OPS and two home runs, including the clutch blast off Clayton Kershaw that landed in the Hollywood Hills. In other words, the stars stepped up. Given that the Nationals are a team built around those stars, that's a very good thing.
State of the rotation: The big three of Strasburg, Scherzer and Patrick Corbin went 43-20 with a 3.18 ERA in the regular season, but the starter for Game 1 will be ... Anibal Sanchez. That's because Scherzer and Strasburg started Games 4 and 5 in the NLDS, and Corbin threw 57 pitches in relief in Games 3 and 5. Sanchez is better than your average fourth starter, however, going 11-8 in the regular season with a 3.85 ERA. He allowed one run in five innings against the Dodgers with nine strikeouts. Still, this is a minor break for the Cardinals, as it sets up Sanchez for two starts in the series instead of Corbin.
Manager Dave Martinez was not ready to name the rest of his rotation, but presumably it would be something like this:
Game 1: Sanchez (four days' rest)
Game 2: Scherzer (four days' rest)
Game 3: Strasburg (four days' rest)
Game 4: Corbin
And then back to Sanchez-Scherzer-Strasburg. Corbin could theoretically be available in relief for Game 1 and start Game 4 on three days' rest. Or, given that after his Game 4 start, Scherzer said, "My arm is hanging right now," maybe Corbin goes in Game 2 and Scherzer gets pushed back to Game 3. That would set up Strasburg for just one start, however.
Let's talk about the bullpen: Yes, we have to. Obviously, Martinez used his starters in relief in both the wild-card game and NLDS. Corbin had one bad outing in Game 3, but Scherzer had a scoreless inning with three K's in Game 2 and Corbin bounced back to go 1⅓ innings in Game 5 with three strikeouts. Again, the short nature of the division series makes it more imperative to win now, worry about tomorrow when it arrives. Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle showed they could be OK at the ends of games and Tanner Rainey and his 100 mph heater have probably leapfrogged Fernando Rodney and Hunter Strickland to become the No. 3 guy. (Strickland has now allowed nine home runs in 13 career postseason innings, so I think you're more likely to see the Abraham Lincoln statue pitch in a key moment than Strickland.) As for Rainey, he throws hard but doesn't always throw strikes.
The bottom line: As good as the starting rotation is, you're going to need more than two relievers to get through a potential seven-game series. Hudson had two six-out saves in September, so that is a possibility, and Doolittle has looked much better since his stint on the injured list for a sore knee in August. Martinez could try and push his starters an extra out or three, but managers are very reluctant these days to do that in October -- nobody wants to lose a game with a tiring starter in the seventh or eighth inning.
Player to watch: Juan Soto. Sticking to the young-studs theme, Soto introduced himself to that world with his home run off Kershaw. He hit .282/.401/.548 as a 20-year-old, only the sixth 20-year-old since 1900 to post a .400 OBP and the first since Alex Rodriguez in 1996. The other four: Al Kaline, Ted Williams, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx. I suspect we're going to see a lot of Andrew Miller-vs.-Soto matchups late in games.
Man on the spot: The obvious answer is Hudson and Doolittle, anchoring the bullpen that had the worst ERA ever for a playoff team. But here's another pair: Trea Turner and Adam Eaton. If the table-setters get on base, then you can't pitch around Rendon and Soto so easily or you force the Cardinals into a lot of one-batter matchups and burning through several relievers just to get past the two big boys. The Nationals' lineup thins out a bit after the top five (assuming Howie Kendrick plays every day), so Turner and Eaton have to make this more than a two-man murderer's row.
Final word: On Thursday, Ryan Zimmerman -- Mr. National -- had an interesting comment about Martinez: "I have had a lot of managers, obviously, and they all come into spring training and say they're going to stay this way no matter what, we're going to be here for you, it's going to be us, we don't care what anyone says. And then as soon as stuff goes bad, every manager has pretty much kind of thrown that out the window and sort of gone into self-preservation mode, where Davey, honestly, has stayed the same way. He's positive every day, his energy, he always trusts his players and has his players' backs. And I don't think it's been any different this year, even when we started as poorly as we did, he stayed the same."
Zimmerman was alluding to the Nationals' 19-31 record on May 23. Since then, they've matched the Astros and Dodgers for the best record in baseball. And they just beat the Dodgers. For four-plus months, they've been as good as any team, bullpen warts and all. They're going to be tough to beat.
Why they're No. 2: Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sanchez. Call me old school: I still like a starting rotation that can go deep into games and dominate. Soto is a star and I think Hudson and Doolittle are good enough to close out the leads.
No. 3: New York Yankees
What worked in the ALDS: Pretty much everything as the Yankees outscored the Twins 23-7, holding the powerful Minnesota lineup that averaged 5.8 runs per game and set the single-season home run record to just four homers and a .218 batting average. The Twins failed to put up a crooked number in any inning in the three games. The bullpen allowed three runs in 13⅓ innings and enters the ALCS well rested.
The defense also played exceptionally. Aaron Judge showed why he's a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder in a league that doesn't include Mookie Betts (Judge was credited with 19 defensive runs saved in the regular season), Gleyber Torres made a couple of outstanding plays at second base and DJ LeMahieu provides second-base range at first base. The defensive metrics rated the Yankees as a slightly below average team during the regular season, but the eye test suggests the Yankees' defense is another positive element.
State of the rotation: Aaron Boone, learning from last year's ALDS when he left a couple of struggling starters in for a batter or two too long, had quick hooks this year:
-- James Paxton was pulled after 4⅔ innings with a 3-3 tie and 86 pitches;
-- Masahiro Tanaka left after five innings and 83 pitches even though the Yankees were up 1-0;
-- Luis Severino threw four shutout innings and left with a 2-0 lead.
Boone gave a blueprint on how he'll handle his starters in the ALCS. He will not let games get away early like he did against the Red Sox in 2018. Because of the sweep of the Twins, however, the Yankees weren't tested with their fourth starter. One potential option there is using Chad Green as the opener -- something he did 15 times in the regular season -- with J.A. Happ as the bulk guy. Paxton looked a little better than his three runs suggested, striking out eight. Severino waffled a bit with his command and efficiency (he threw 83 pitches in his four innings), but he's showing the big-time stuff he had in 2018.
Let's talk about the bullpen: The Yankees' top five relievers are all guys Boone won't hesitate to go to in a big moment: Green, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman. It thins out after those five, and the big question is whether Boone can continue getting four or five innings of stellar work from that group every game without running into some fatigue issues or the familiarity of opposing hitters seeing them so often. It's easier to go all-out with the bullpen when you're playing a potential five games in seven days as opposed to seven games in nine days. What happens if a starter gets knocked out in the third inning? What about extra innings? What about Games 3, 4 and 5, considering the Yankees didn't use any of their relievers on three consecutive days all season?
A couple of interesting usage notes: Boone used Ottavino as a "righty-only guy" -- in his three appearances against the Twins, he got just three outs. He did have a notable platoon split during the season: .558 OPS versus righties and .753 versus lefties. Kahnle has a little better split and is more likely to face lefties in the middle innings. Chapman, meanwhile, didn't throw more than one inning all regular season, but Boone used him for five outs in Game 3. Chapman isn't the 102 mph flamethrower of a few years ago, and in 15 appearances with no days of rest in 2019 was a more hittable .255/.339/.345, compared to a .160 average allowed with one or more days of rest. The more he throws, the more vulnerable he becomes.
Player to watch: Gleyber Torres. We talked about all the young stars of the postseason as the playoffs began, and the 22-year-old sophomore had three doubles and a home run plus two steals against the Twins. "He's the next great Yankee," Judge said after the series win. The consensus is that he won't let the moment get too big. Indeed, in the regular season Torres hit much better with runners on base than with the bases empty.
Man on the spot: Giancarlo Stanton had limited time at the end of the season as he came back from his injuries, playing just nine games. He went 1-for-6 against the Twins, drawing four walks, so not much of a read there, although a good sign that he was flailing out of the strike zone. It also appeared the knee was still bothering him a bit, and Boone used Cameron Maybin as a defensive replacement.
Final word: I think the biggest issue here will be how far Boone can push the bullpen -- and Chapman, in particular. At some point, the Yankees will probably need one of the starters to give them six innings, or one of the secondary relievers to get a few big outs.
Why they're No. 3: This isn't an insult. This is the best Yankees team since the 2009 World Series champs. The Yankees bash home runs and they have a great bullpen. Just call me old school: I still like my starting pitchers to go more than four innings.
No. 4: St. Louis Cardinals
What worked in NLDS: The first inning of Game 5. The late rally and win in extra innings in Game 4. The four-run rally in the ninth of Game 1. Even with that 10-run inning, the Cardinals hit just .251 with four home runs in the series. But they found a way. That kind of sums up the Cardinals' season. Really, several of their stars have had much better seasons -- Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna -- so it was the depth that stepped up, guys such as Tommy Edman and Kolten Wong and Giovanny Gallegos.
State of the rotation: Sophomore ace Jack Flaherty, he of the 0.91 second-half ERA, won't be ready to start until Game 3, as manager Mike Shildt goes with a rotation of Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, Flaherty and Dakota Hudson. As in the NLDS, the Cardinals would love to get to the winner-take-all game with Flaherty ready to go. I mean, they'd love to wrap it up in four or five games, but Flaherty has been a beast. Shildt also mentioned Thursday that St. Louis wanted to set up Wainwright for two starts at home in Games 2 and 6, as he has a 2.56 ERA at home compared to 6.22 on the road (beware the real value of one-year home/road splits).
Shildt stuck with Wainwright a little long in his NLDS start (120 pitches) and almost paid for it, and he'll have a quick hook with Hudson. Game 1 is always key, but looms even bigger for the Cardinals with Mikolas facing Sanchez rather than Scherzer or Strasburg. For what it's worth, the Nationals have hit Mikolas hard the three times he's faced them the past two seasons (once last year, twice this year), with 27 hits in 18⅔ innings. "He's really been the better version of himself in the last several starts," Shildt said Thursday. "He's a guy that you know is going to go in and throw strikes and control counts and he's also used to pitching in bigger environments and enjoys it. So yeah, Miles potentially could be a little unsung, but he's not underappreciated for us. He's a big reason why we are here."
Let's talk about the bullpen: All eyes are on closer Carlos Martinez, who allowed two home runs in the regular season and then two in Game 1 and blew the save in Game 3 -- six runs in the two outings. He did bounce back with a scoreless inning in a tie game in Game 4. Shildt didn't address the closer situation Thursday, but the fact that he went to Martinez in a tie game after the two poor efforts suggests he's not about to run away from him -- at least not just yet.
The rest of the pen is solid, certainly deeper than Washington's. Gallegos, acquired last year from the Yankees in the Luke Voit trade, had a huge season with a 2.31 ERA, .170 average allowed and 93 K's in 74 innings. He did allow nine home runs, so he can be vulnerable to the long ball. Miller isn't the dominant multi-inning presence he was in the postseason for Cleveland back in 2016, and I suspect he'll be used primarily against Soto, or maybe the Eaton-Rendon-Soto threesome. John Brebbia is your classic fastball/slider guy, much better against righties than lefties.
Player to watch: I would say Flaherty, but we might see him only once in this series. How about a shout-out to one of my new favorites, rookie third baseman/right fielder Tommy Edman. He can run, hits triples, plays good defense, will swipe a bag, brings energy and struck out just once against the Braves. Given his slight build, let's put him in one of those elastic-waistband Cardinals uniforms from the 1980s, as he'd fit right in alongside Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee.
Man on the spot: Martinez. If the Cardinals do get some late leads, will he be able to hold them? And if he blows the first opportunity, how do the Cardinals move forward from there?
Final word: I mentioned this in another piece, but this could be one of those Cardinals voodoo magic seasons. They won World Series in 1982, 2006 and 2011 with good but not great teams. They won 100 games in 1985, 2004 and 2015 with great teams and didn't win. At 91-71, they have the worst record of the four remaining teams, but like that 90-72 team of 2011, it's only the wins in October that matter now.
Why they're No. 4: They're the clear No. 4 team here, mostly because the offense lags behind the other three teams. But Goldschmidt hit well in September and against the Braves and Ozuna had a big NLDS as well. If those two continue to hit, and Flaherty continues to deal, the Cardinals can pull off the upset.