MLB playoff roundtable: Who will emerge as October’s breakout star?

Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt hits against the Colorado Rockies. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

It all begins a few hours from now, and within a month the current field of 10 MLB playoff teams will be narrowed to one winner. Along the way more than a few pressing questions will be answered.

Among them: Who’s facing the most pressure? Who could emerge as October’s next playoff star? And who will be celebrating when it all ends? We turned to our baseball writers for a look ahead at the playoffs…

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The Jeff Blair Show
The Jeff Blair Show - October 2 - 9am
Originally aired October 02 2017

Which player is under the most pressure this October?

Jeff Blair
Clayton Kershaw will be this guy until he wins a World Series but how about Justin Verlander? He doesn’t have any rings, either, and he’s being counted upon to write a significant chapter in the feel-good story of the year in flood-ravaged Houston with a team that has been in first place since April 12 and has lost the only series it’s reached in what is so far a three-year window of opportunity.

Shi Davidi
Clayton Kershaw and David Price both come to mind, but I’m going to go with Chris Sale, because if he’s not dominant, the Red Sox are in deep doody. Factor in Price being in the bullpen, and he’s shouldering the load, especially given what it cost the Red Sox to get him.

Arden Zwelling
Pick any of the four wild-card game starters — particularly Luis Severino, who’s coming off a breakout campaign but has logged far more innings this year than in seasons past and will face a Minnesota team with nothing to lose.

Bryce Harper has to be in the conversation as well. He had only 20 late-September plate appearances to find his feet after sitting out six weeks with a knee injury. He went 3-for-18, all singles, and struck out seven times. Washington’s offence suffered greatly without Harper in the lineup — they’ll need him performing at close to his full potential, which will be a big ask considering his long layoff.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
Fair or not, it has to be Clayton Kershaw. His resume has everything except a World Series title, and the Dodgers’ season will be considered a failure unless they win the NL pennant and maybe the World Series, too.

Which series will be the most fun to watch?

Arden Zwelling
The Boston Red Sox versus Houston Astros ALDS has the potential to be a lot of fun and very high scoring considering the thump in those two lineups and the ballparks in which the series will be played. And not to get ahead of ourselves, but a potential ALCS between Boston and the New York Yankees would be a pretty good way to reignite that rivalry.

Jeff Blair
Any series with Francisco Lindor in it is automatically the most fun series to watch. Or any series John Farrell and the Boston Red Sox lose.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
Until the Nationals win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history they’ll be an especially entertaining team to watch. I’d be happy to watch Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper face the defending champions even if they played at the O.co Coliseum. Wrigley with an NLCS berth at stake? Can’t wait.

Shi Davidi
I’m really looking forward to Cubs-Nats in the first round.

Are Clayton Kershaw’s playoff struggles real, or will he dominate this October?

Arden Zwelling
He’ll probably fall somewhere in between those two extremes. He’s had tough post-season outings, sure. But people conveniently forget the seven-inning shutout against the Cubs in last year’s NLCS, or Game 4 of the ’15 NLDS when Kershaw kept the Dodgers alive with a terrific performance. Really, if you’re worried by the prospect of your team putting the best pitcher of the last decade on the mound, you’re overthinking it.

Jeff Blair
They’re real … if he’s facing the St. Louis Cardinals, which he won’t this post-season. Kershaw’s post-season ERA is 4.55 and his batting average allowed is 25 points higher than in the regular season, but his post-season WHIP is only marginally worse. Subtract his numbers in five playoff games against the Cardinals (against whom he has a 6.14 ERA) and he’s decent. Kershaw will shred teams this autumn.

Shi Davidi
He’s not facing the Cardinals so he should be fine.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
They’re real in the sense that they’ve happened, but I’m willing to bet opposing managers would prefer to face just about anyone else.


HOW DID WE DO? MLB PRE-SEASON ROUNDTABLE


Which player could emerge as a breakout star this October?

Ben Nicholson-Smith
Trea Turner has the speed to win over October audiences from atop the Nationals’ batting order. The 24-year-old shortstop came back from a fractured wrist to finish strong with 46 stolen bases and a .789 OPS. Don’t be surprised if his speed impacts key moments for the Nationals in the weeks ahead.

Shi Davidi
After Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt may be the most under-appreciated player in baseball. Is there a less talked about .980 OPS in baseball? If Arizona wins the wild-card game, he’ll get the chance to change that.

Arden Zwelling
Houston’s Alex Bregman. The 23-year-old started his year slow but picked things up in a big way, putting up a .903 OPS and 2.5 fWAR over the second half of the season. For some context: Bregman’s 141 wRC+ over 2017’s back half was only a hair lower than Francisco Lindor’s 142 and Aaron Judge’s 144. He gets overlooked amidst Houston’s deep roster, but don’t be surprised if Bregman comes up with some very big hits this October.

Jeff Blair
Let’s go off the board and Fear the Beard: Diamondbacks reliever Archie Bradley hasn’t allowed a run in 24 of his last 27 games and at one point went 46 consecutive outings without a home run allowed. Given the manner in which teams have started to tag-team late innings – think Andrew Miller – and given the fact Diamondbacks closer Fernando Rodney hasn’t recorded a post-season save or had very good post-season numbers, Bradley could be spending a great deal of time in high-leverage situations.

What’s one way MLB could make the playoffs better?

Arden Zwelling
Shorten the regular season to 154 games (or perhaps even fewer) and allow six teams to make the post-season in each league. The two division champions with the most wins get byes into the divisional round, while the division champion with the fewest wins gets to choose which of the three wild-card teams they would like to play in the wild-card round. Series in the wild-card round are best-of-three, while the divisional series are expanded to best-of-seven. Start the entire post-season process a few weeks earlier in order to avoid baseball played on Halloween.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
The combination of 8 p.m. start times, post-season pageantry and pace of play that’s somewhere between deliberate and downright slow means many games don’t end until nearly midnight ET. With that in mind, I have a couple of suggestions.

To allow more kids to watch the World Series, MLB could start games an hour earlier and consider mixing in the occasional matinee. A World Series day game at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park would connect with younger fans and have a classic feel. It’s not happening any time soon, since MLB values those prime time TV hours, but the playoffs would be better with some earlier start times mixed in.

And while mid-inning pitching changes and mound visits are necessary from a strategic standpoint, they slow the momentum of the game. I’d like to see pitching coaches mic’d up so we can hear what they say. We’re not talking about a live broadcast of the conversation of course, but as long as no one says anything strategically significant it could be fun to watch that conversation a minute or two after it happens.

Jeff Blair
I like this proposal from Joel Sherman of the New York Post and Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs, based on how the South Korean league does things: The wild-card team with the best record hosts two games and needs just one win to advance, the team with the lesser record needs two. That plus let the all-star game decide home-field advantage for the World Series.

Shi Davidi
If there was a way to turn the wild-card into a best of three, maybe doubleheaders the Tuesday after a season with Game 3s Wednesday before the LDS opens Thursday, I’d be a big fan. I understand the logistics are impossible between possible tiebreakers and weather delays, but a one-game post-season seems too unjust after 162 to me.

Which team will win the World Series?

Shi Davidi
I like Cleveland to pull a KC and follow up a Game 7 World Series loss with the title. It’s the most balanced team in this thing, and it’s coming in hot.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
I said Dodgers over Astros before the season, so I’ll stick with that prediction here.

Arden Zwelling
The Los Angeles Dodgers.

Jeff Blair
Houston Astros: best story in baseball needs a happy ending.