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Welcome to the 2013 playoffs

Sep 30, 2013, 8:40 AM EDT

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We still have one game left that, technically and statistically speaking, belongs to the regular season. But practically speaking — and in our hearts — we are into the playoffs now. Game 163 between the Rays and Rangers is do-or-die and very, very few regular season games can say that. So: toss your technical orthodoxy. It’s playoffs time.

And what an intriguing time it proves to be. In some ways for who is on the outside as opposed to the inside. The Yankees will be home watching the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and for only the second time since 1994. The teams which made big offseason splashes — the Angels and Blue Jays — lost all hope long before the weather turned cool. Everyone’s favorite in the National League — the Washington Nationals — finished strong but it was too little, too late. The 2013 season looked at all of the experts’ predictions and said “ha!”

Expectations notwithstanding, at the 2013 playoff party are 11 teams with pretty compelling stories.  Some of those stories are mere dramatic narrative which will be beat into the ground by playoff game broadcasters over and over again. Or, at least until the results on the field render those narratives nonsensical. Some of the stories, however, truly do tell the tale of 2013 and the lasting power of those stories will determine how long their authors continue to play.

Here’s an overview of the party-goers

American League

  • Red Sox: This club may have the biggest disparity between the storylines we’ll hear and actual baseball relevance. What we’ll hear? Beards! Chemistry! Redemption after the collapse of 2011 and the horror of Bobby Valentine’s reign in 2012! Bad seeds like Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford gone! John Farrell restoring order! The part about Farrell is definitely true. And there are certainly better feelings surrounding this team. But they also happen to have the best offense by far in the AL, a healthier, outstanding pitching staff and good team defense, and those things are way more important than any facial hair bonding.
  • Tigers: There are big stars here. The likely Cy Young Award winner in Max Scherzer and the likely two-time MVP in Miguel Cabrera chief among them. Cabrera was very ordinary and very hurt in September, however, and the Tigers as a whole stumbled to a 13-13 record in the month’s final season. That said, momentum is your next day’s starting pitcher, and the Tigers have had very good, very consistent starting pitching in 2013, with only five guys accounting for 156 of the team’s 162 starts. When they’re on, there are few teams better than Detroit. Jim Leyland just has to find a way to flip that switch after a quite ignominious end to the regular season.
  • Athletics: For the second year no one picked the A’s to win the AL West. For the second straight year they won it. Still, people will sleep a bit on the largely unknown-to-the-nation A’s (maybe unknown to Oakland too).  But after you get past decade-old “Moneyball” jokes about how this team is defying gravity and economics, know that they have the third best offense in the AL (after Boston and Detroit) and were third in home runs and walks. Know also that they allowed fewer runs than all but two teams in the AL (Kansas City and Detroit). It’s a very balanced team which, unlike Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles, actually won its division last year too. Still: they’re likely to be treated as newbie over achievers because people love those kinds of cliches.
  • Indians: A new manager in Terry Francona and a new motivational leader in Nick Swisher will get the credit for their presence in the playoffs. A very solid outfield defense has helped the pitching staff rebound this year, and the biggest rebound came from starter Ubaldo Jimenez. The Tribe went 21-6 in September, though a lot of that came against poor competition. Expect them to get a lot of “they have the momentum!” talk. At least until they play the wild card game on Wednesday.
  • Rays/Rangers: One of them will make it in after tonight. If it’s the Rangers, it could very well be because of the return of Nelson Cruz, who will be activated following is PED suspension (and whose suspension coincided with the Rangers playing poorly in the final month and a half of the season). The Rays have good overall starting pitching which, unfortunately for them, has feasted on poor teams but not always come up so big against the contenders. Neither of these clubs seem like good bets for long playoff runs. But note the above stuff about the value of predictions.

National League:

  • Braves: A new look after the trade for Justin Upton last winter and the continuing dominance of closer Craig Kimbrel get the headlines. But the second banana in the Upton trade — Chris Johnson — hit .321 on the year and the offense was buoyed by Freddie Freeman and his .319/.396/.501 line. The real secret weapon on this team, however, is shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who may have just posted the best defensive season by a shortstop in baseball history. The Braves were noted for their ball-bashing ability early in the year, but they ended up allowing fewer runs than any team in the NL this season, and Simmons’ sparkling defense had a lot to do with that.
  • Cardinals: The best team in the National League just keeps rolling along, producing talented player after talented player from its exceedingly fertile farm system. Adam Wainwright is still the ace, Matt Holliday led the team in OPS+ and Yadier Molina will get a ton of MVP votes, but it’s not a team that is overly-reliant on their big-name players. Matt Carpenter, Shelby Miller and, if he makes the post-season rotation, Michael Wacha are some of the younger and, to some, unknown weapons at manager Mike Matheny’s disposal. Carlos Beltran has continued his wonderful play years after many considered him a top-flight star (note: he’s still pretty awesome). There are questions in the bullpen, but the Cardinals have been able to handle just about everything thrown at them for the past few seasons. Expect it to continue.
  • Dodgers: Derided in the spring as a chemistry-free team of high-priced parts assembled by owners with too much money to burn, the Dodgers’ amazing midseason turnaround has helped put lie to the notion that you can’t assemble a winner with high-priced free agents and trades for embattled (and highly-paid) veterans. Adrain Gonzalez and Carl Crawford were deemed part of the problem in Boston yet now find themselves on a winner. Flashy and, at times, controversial rookie Yasiel Puig is showing that young ballplayers can — shockingly — enjoy themselves on the field and still be productive. The real strength here, though, is the rotation. Clayton Kershaw should win the NL Cy Young. Zack Greinke posted a 1.85 ERA in the second half. If you’re playing the odds, you’re looking at the competition facing an 0-2 hole in a short series. A key concern, though, is the health of Hanley Ramirez and the absence of Matt Kemp, who will miss the playoffs. The Dodgers may have also played their best baseball in July and August (they were a mere 12-15 in September) and will be yet another test as to whether momentum matters.
  • Pirates: The Cinderella story of 2013. The Pirates sloughed off over 20 years of losing records and broke through this year, led by MVP favorite Andrew McCutchen, NL home run co-leader Pedro Alvarez and a stingy bullpen. If they win the Wild Card game against Cincinnati on Tuesday expect the bandwagon to overflow.
  • Reds: An up-and-down team this year which at times looks far better than the second wild card team that they are and other times looks a bit lost. The Reds were third in the NL in runs per game this year, but are pretty reliant on Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo. If they’re cold on Tuesday or beyond, runs may be hard to come by.

Those are the partiers. Now the party begins.

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