At Home Pilgrim used to post an annual Open Salon baseball playoff preview, so in his lamentable absence, I have volunteered to fill his shoes. (And yes, that is like replacing a pair of Bruno Maglis with flip-flops.)
There is one big difference this year: to make a wild card finish less advantageous, Major League Baseball has added a second wild card in each league, forcing the also-rans to compete in one-game playoffs for the right to play on. Thus by the time you read this, two of the teams below may have been already eliminated. As Yogi Berra used to say, c’est la vie.
NEW YORK YANKEES (AL East champ)
Vital Stats: 27 world championships (last: 2009); opening day payroll: $197,962,289 (#1 in baseball)
Story: Fans either love them or hate them (I’m in the latter group). For Yankee lovers like this [definitely NSFW] couple, anything less than a ticker-tape parade down lower Manhattan is considered failure. The Yanks bludgeon opponents with home runs (a team-record 245), but in the playoffs, when runs become scarcer, pitching depth usually wins. (Un)fortunately, their pitching is pretty good, too, especially their bullpen (even without the injured Mariano Rivera).
You Should Know: Non-fans know Derek Jeter (even I admire him) and Alex Rodriguez (no comment), but the Yankees’ best player is second baseman Robinson Cano, a left-handed hitting machine. He is also that rarity – a Yankee who may be underappreciated.
Fun fact: Hate the Yankees for their bloated payroll if you like (I do), but note that the teams with the second through fourth largest payrolls will be watching the playoffs from their couches.
Famous fans: Do you mean the lifelong real ones or the front-running poseurs? There is also actress Joanna Garcia (Reba), wife of Yankee RF Nick Swisher:
“Yeah, I married a macho guy named Swisher. Got a problem with that?”
You Should Root For Them Because: You are part of the 1%.
OAKLAND A’S (AL West champ)
Vital Stats: 4 world championships (last: 1989), plus 5 more when the franchise was in Philadelphia; opening day payroll: $55,372,500 (#29)
Story: Billy Beane’s latest Moneyball Miracle. Under .500 in June, 13 games out of first place in August, 5 behind with 9 days to go, 2 down with 3 to go. The headline in Wednesday’s Deadspin said it all: “Holy Shit, the Athletics Just Won the AL West.”Despite the second lowest payroll in baseball, this collection of no-names and young players (like Yoenis Céspedes, who Baseball Prospectus calls “arguably the best all-around player to come out of Cuba in a generation) overcame a Texas team that had appeared in the last two World Series and seemed headed toward a third. Brad Pitt, get ready for Moneyball 2.
“Can you work David Justice into the sequel?”
You Should Know: One of their best pitchers, Brandon McCarthy will miss the playoffs because of a skull fracture (watch the cringe-worthy event here).Tant pis, as the French say, because he and his wife Amanda are, to quote ESPN, “the Nichols and May of the pro-athlete Twitter set.” My favorite: on Brandon’s most recent birthday, Amanda tweeted, “Congrats … your balls are a little saggier today.”
Fun fact: The combined 2012 salaries of two Yankees, Alex Rodriguez and C.C. Sabathia ($53,000,000), almost equal the entire Oakland payroll.
Famous fan: MC Hammer
You Should Root For Them Because: This is a pretty good, if tragic, reason.
DETROIT TIGERS (AL Central champ)
Vital Stats: 4 world championships (last: 1984); opening day payroll: $132,300,000 (#5)
Story: The Tigers’ roster is top-heavy. They have the best pitcher in baseball (Justin Verlander), the best hitter (Miguel Cabrera) and one of the best power hitters (1B Prince Fielder), but some question marks elsewhere. If the twisted ankle suffered by #2 starter Max Scherzer during the pennant-clinching celebration is serious, Detroit’s October schedule may be very brief.
You Should Know: Third baseman Miguel Cabrera became the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown (leading the league in HR, RBI and average). This is quite a contrast to the end of the 2009 season, when Cabrera, the night before a key game, ended up in jail following an incident in which he registered a blood-alcohol level of .26 (not the only such incident of his career). His ability to stay on the straight-and-narrow has allowed him to take his game to a higher level.
Fun fact: Relief pitcher Octavio Dotel is playing for his 13th major league team, a record.
You Should Root For Them Because: Ask Eminem:
TEXAS RANGERS (AL wild card)
Vital Stats: Zero world championships; opening day payroll: $120,510,974 (#6)
Story: The Rangers have lost the last two World Series. The 2011 loss to St. Louis was particularly painful as they were twice within one out of a champagne bath. Is the third time the charm? Doubtful, based on their horrible play down the stretch when they blew a big division lead to Oakland.
You Should Know: Josh Hamilton’s story is right out of the movies (in fact, Casey Affleck has one in the works). The first pick in the 1999 draft by Tampa, Hamilton was considered a lock for stardom but he ended up out of baseball for four years because of a hellish substance abuse problem (alcohol, cocaine, crack). His sudden return to baseball, and his triumphant ascension to superstar status, has become an inspirational story (with the requisite religious angle). However, he’s had two documented offseason relapses, and slumped badly this year when he reportedly tried to quit chewing tobacco, so his pending free agency is an especially high-risk, high-reward proposition.
Fun fact: George W. Bush, who served as the team’s managing general partner before becoming Texas Governor, bought shares in the team in 1988 for $600,000. Ten years later, he sold his shares for $15,000,000, a 2,400% profit.
Famous fan: Owen Wilson
You Should Root For Them Because: You don’t want to argue with fans who are packing heat.
BALTIMORE ORIOLES (AL wild card)
Vital Stats: 3 world championships (last: 1983); opening day payroll: $81,428,999 (#19)
Story: After a 1997 playoff appearance, the Birds compiled losing records for 14 consecutive seasons. Their unexpected ascension this year, coupled with the unexpected National League dominance by the Washington Nationals, made the Beltway a most unlikely center of the baseball universe.
You Should Know: Manager Buck Showalter was fired by the Yankees after the 1995 season; they won the World Series the next year. He was fired by the Arizona Diamondbacks after the 2000 season; they won the World Series the next year. He was fired by the Texas Rangers after the 2006 season; they’ve appeared in the World Series twice since. Detecting a pattern here?
Fun fact: The Orioles have won 16 consecutive extra-inning games, the longest streak in 63 years. Statisticians would argue that this indicates a lot of luck; I’d argue that it also indicates an excellent bullpen.
You Should Root For Them Because: Sweet payback for Jeffrey Maier is overdue.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS (NL East champ)
Vital Stats: Zero world championships; opening day payroll: $81,336,143 (#20)
Story: The old saying “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League” explains why two previous D.C. franchises eventually decamped to Minnesota and Texas. This third incarnation, formerly the Montreal Expos, seemed headed for the same ignominy. However, they now feature the game’s best pitching prospect, Steven Strasburg, and its best hitting prospect, 19-year-old outfielder Bryce (“That’s a clown question, bro”) Harper. Add in other young players, solid veterans like 3B Ryan Zimmerman, and hard-nosed manager Davey Johnson, and the nation’s capital may have its first dynasty since FDR served four terms.
You Should Know: The Nats are sitting their most dynamic player, Steven Strasburg, during the playoffs. Why? Because he is recovering from Tommy John surgery. During spring training, when a World Series run seemed like a pipe dream, the team announced that Strasburg would be limited to 160 innings, and they’ve stuck to that decision even though it makes a Series victory a longer shot. (Depending on my mood, I consider that either admirable long-term thinking or sheer folly.) Still, they have enough pitching depth – 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, a deep bullpen – to win even without Strasburg.
Fun fact: Speaking of FDR, no Washington team has appeared in the playoffs since his first year in office (1933), unless you count Damn Yankees.
Bonus fun fact: On the final day of the season, after 6 ½ years of failure, Teddy Roosevelt finally won the Nats’ between-innings Presidents’ Race, a quest that inspired a Ken Burns tongue-in-cheek documentary for ESPN.
Famous fans: Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell (hey, they agree on something!)
You Should Root For Them Because: Successful teamwork in D.C. might catch on. Ha! Sometimes I crack myself up.
CINCINNATI REDS (NL Central champ)
Vital Stats: 5 world championships (last: 1990); opening day payroll: $82,203,616 (#17)
Story: It’s been a long time since the Big Red Machine powerhouse of the 1970s, but one of baseball’s oldest franchises (they’ve been in Cincinnati since 1882) has finally assembled another young and balanced team, with power (Joey Votto and Jay Bruce), speed (Drew Stubbs), defense (Brandon Phillips) and pitching (Johnny Cueto).
You Should Know: Unhittable closer Aroldis Chapman is the hardest thrower in baseball, with many of his pitches being clocked at a mind-boggling 103 mph; how he lost five games while striking out 15.3 batters per nine innings with an ERA of 1.51 is beyond me. Unfortunately, he also likes speed off the field; earlier this year, he was arrested for driving 93 mph with a suspended license.
Fun fact: During the 1950s, in the height of the Cold War, the team’s name was briefly changed to “Redlegs” to avoid any inference of Communism.
Famous fan: Charlie “Duh, winning” Sheen
You Should Root For Them Because: You’re pandering to an important swing state.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS (NL West champ)
Vital Stats: 1 world championship (2010), plus five more when the franchise was in New York; opening day payroll: $117,620,683 (#8)
Story: Their best pitcher, Tim Lincecum, had a dreadful year. Their best outfielder, Melky Cabrera, was outed as a drug fraud. Their archrival (the Dodgers) made a blockbuster trade with the Red Sox in August that was supposed to win L.A. the division. Yet somehow the Giants pulled away and won the N.L. West handily. Even with a slumping Lincecum, the Giants may have the best starting pitching in the playoffs with 16-game winners Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. N.L. batting champion and possible MVP Buster Posey leads the offense.
You Should Know: Two-time Cy Young Award winner, and occasional toker, Tim Lincecum’s decline this season was a mystery. He finished 10-15 with a startling 5.18 ERA after finishing three of the previous four seasons under 3.00. However, he and Pablo Sandovar did inspire a pretty good song:
Fun fact: When Cabrera learned he’d failed a steroid test, he concocted this hilariously bad idea, involving a fake website and a nonexistent drug, to cover his tracks. Bonus fun fact: the National League will have home field advantage due to winning the All-Star Game – whose MVP was the not-yet-suspended Melky Cabrera.
Famous fan: Zooey Deschanel
You Should Root For Them Because: Any excuse for a San Francisco parade is a good one:
ATLANTA BRAVES (NL wild card)
Vital Stats: 1 world championship (1995), plus two more when the franchise was in Boston and Milwaukee; opening day payroll: $83,309,942 (#16)
Story: The glory days of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz-Bobby Cox, when the Braves made the playoffs as often as Lindsay Lohan appears on TMZ, are long gone. However, the team has a new influx of young pitchers and hitters that make them look like a perennial contender for the next several years.
You Should Know: The one holdover from the glory years, third baseman and certain Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones, is retiring after this season. Since he tortured my beloved Mets so thoroughly that he named his son Shea after their stadium, I should hate the guy, but I don’t. Despite a couple of off-the-field missteps, Jones has a reputation as a stand-up guy and is one of the few stars of the steroids era whom everyone believes to be clean.
Fun fact: The Braves have won 23 consecutive games started by unheralded pitcher Kris Medlen, a major league record.
You Should Root For Them Because: Even this diehard Mets fan would be pleased to see Chipper go out with a ring.
ST LOUIS CARDINALS (NL wild card)
Vital Stats: 11 world championships (last: 2011); opening day payroll: $110,300,862 (#9)
Story: After an improbable run to a 2011 world championship, the Cardinals lost their manager and pitching coach (Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan) to retirement, their best player (Albert Pujols) to free agency and their best pitcher (Chris Carpenter) to injury. Yet here they are again.
You Should Know: Catcher Yadier Molina has an impressive list of achievements – four consecutive Gold Gloves as the league’s best fielder, four consecutive All-Star Game appearances and, with his brothers Bengie and Jose (also catchers), forms the only trio of brothers to all have World Series rings.
Fun fact: The Cardinals are second to only the Yankees in World Series victories.
Famous fan: Jon Hamm
“How do you think Christina Hendricks would look in this shirt?”
You Should Root For Them Because: If Missourians are happy, maybe they won’t elect Todd Akin.
Cranky Prediction: “Holy Shit, the Athletics Just Won the World Series”