Baseball, Columnists, Sports

Fair or Foul: The greatest strength and weakness of each AL playoff contender

Last week, I outlined the biggest strength that each NL playoff team would bring to October, along with their greatest fault that might derail the campaign. Now, it’s time to do the same for the AL. Given the very tight and competitive Wild Card race, each team in that race will be included.

Boston Red Sox

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

Strength: Lineup

Weakness: Bullpen

The Red Sox lineup features mashers like Kyle Schwarber, J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts. Add Bobby Dalbec, Hunter Renfroe and Kiké Hernández to that core, and this is clearly a team of sluggers. However, with an already shaky rotation, and a bullpen where every arm is either hurt or spiraling downward, Boston’s offense may not be strong enough to overcome the pitching woes. If they make the Wild Card, every game will be an uphill climb.

Tampa Bay Rays

Strength: Homegrown talent

Weakness: Pitching

Tampa Bay cruised to a division title in 2021, much like last season. Also like last season, their homegrown talent is driving the bus. Joey Wendle, Austin Meadows, Kevin Kiermaier and rookie sensation Wander Franco lead the charge in the lineup. Luis Patiño, Shane McClanahan and Drew Rasmussen lead the pitching staff. However, the one Achilles’ heel of this team is the rest of its pitching. Shaky starters and a bullpen with a few hiccups on the record could be just enough to spell doom for the Rays in October.

Chicago White Sox

Strength: Lineup

Weakness: Bullpen

Chicago flew under the radar this season in a division with no other winning teams. Nevertheless, this team can put up runs. Between Tim Anderson, José Abreu, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal and others, there is plenty of pop in this hitting core. The biggest concern for the South Siders is the bullpen. Liam Hendriks continues to pitch like a top-five closer, but no one else is standing out behind him. A deep bullpen is crucial to a World Series run in modern baseball, and the White Sox do not have one.

New York Yankees

Strength: Pitching

Weakness: Every hitter but Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton

Despite the streaky nature of the Yankees season, the pitching staff has held up on the whole. A deep bullpen led by a surging Aroldis Chapman and a rotation led by Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery and Nestor Cortes defines the team’s late-season rebound. However, aside from the white-hot duo of Stanton and Judge, the rest of the lineup is full of question marks. Joey Gallo strikes out too much, and Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela are all underperforming this season. The Yankees are hot, and that’s important, but only time will tell if that hot streak lasts deep into October.

Seattle Mariners

Strength: Bullpen

Weakness: Every hitter but Ty France and Mitch Haniger

The Mariners’ awful run differential of -48 continues to fuel doubts about how good this team is. Still, they possess an 89-70 record entering Thursday and have kept winning. A lot of that winning comes from a bullpen full of unexpected breakout seasons from the likes of Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider and Casey Sadler. This unit remains the Mariners’ deepest and greatest strength. However, as a lineup, they struggle to avoid striking out and have very few skilled hitters. France’s breakout campaign continues, and Haniger has over 30 home runs and over 90 RBIs. This team has slim chances at a deep playoff run, but slim always beats none.

Toronto Blue Jays

Strength: Lineup

Weakness: Starting rotation

This team has the biggest potential to be “boom or bust” in the 2021 playoffs. If they make it to the Wild Card Game, the lineup led by Vladimir Guererro Jr., Marcus Semien, Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernández will be very difficult to stop. Along with this, a bullpen led by Trevor Richards, Jordan Romano and a resurgent Adam Cimber add another strength. However, the biggest weakness still lies in the starting pitching. Even though Robbie Ray looks like an ace this season and Alek Manoah is having a sensational rookie season, Hyun Jin Ryu and José Berríos are beatable, and October baseball is an entirely different beast.

Houston Astros

Strength: Lineup

Weakness: A young starting rotation

The Astros are in a similar position to the White Sox: They have played great baseball but received far less attention due to remaining in first place in the AL West for so long. This lineup, led by Carlos Correa, Michael Brantley, José Altuve and others, can still score runs as well as any team (except probably Toronto). Plus, their pitching staff as a whole is having a strong campaign in its own right, but the biggest concern is that this rotation is much younger and more inexperienced than the offense. With veteran leader Zack Greinke injured, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy (all 27 or younger) will have to carry the load this October. They have the talent to do so, but not the playoff experience to make that a guarantee. 

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