Six World Series players to watch: Brantley a dark-horse candidate for MVP

Houston Astros left fielder Michael Brantley (23) celebrate at the plate with Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, right, after Altuve's hit off the top of the left field wall and was ruled a home run after review during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Houston. (Michael Wyke/AP)

I am an inherently modest person, if I do say so myself. And I do. But considering how often I’ve pooched pre-season picks, I’m going to re-visit the pre-season picks I made for Sportsnet.ca:

AL: Yankees, Cleveland, Astros, Rays*, Red Sox*
NL: Nationals, Brewers, Dodgers, Phillies*, Cubs*
World Series: Astros over Nationals

Those little asterisks denote my wild-card picks. Yeah, it’s a mixed bag of hits and some big misses but I’ll hang my hat on my original pick for the World Series — and admit that I’d written off the Washington Nationals in May — despite the fact I have a feeling that the rested Nationals rotation might give them an early edge.

There has been much talk about where these rotations stack up historically: Our friends at Fangraphs have ranked this as the third-most impressive World Series matchup in terms of WAR average, behind the 1966 series between the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers and the 2003 series between the New York Yankees and Florida Marlins. The numbers are impressive: six of the game’s lowest ERAs, two rotations that have posted a combined opponents average of .183.

But there’s an offensive wrinkle to this, too: Despite the fact the Houston Astros haven’t been the offensive machine they were during the regular season, like the Nationals they’ve been tough outs. This is going to be a matchup between two teams full of pitchers with nasty, two-strike stuff and hitters who usually thrive in those situations.

Michael Brantley (Left fielder, Astros)

He’s my dark-horse candidate for World Series most valuable player — a contact hitting machine on a club that has had a difficult post-season offensively, with a .645 team OPS and just 3.7 runs scored per game. They were 4-for-27 with runners in scoring position in the American League Championship Series, surviving largely by the home run. Brantley’s left-handed bat will be especially important in games in Nationals Park, where the lack of designated hitter could cost lefty-hitting Yordan Alvarez a spot in the lineup, and he handled Max Scherzer very well when the two were combatants in the AL Central.

His defence is a calling card in a World Series between teams loaded with athletic defenders, and his OPS against righty pitching will make a him a handful for a team that will have few left-handed pitchers of consequence other than Corbin and closer Sean Doolittle.

Gerrit Cole (Starting pitcher, Astros)

It’s his post-season. Period. And his free-agent decision will be the biggest of the off-season. Cole gets the start in Game 1 against Scherzer, and in a post-season in which we’ve seen wobbles from just about every one of these celebrated aces — a few batters here, couple of innings there and even Cole walked five in seven innings against the New York Yankees — all eyes will be on him to see whether those walks were any kind of harbinger.

Scherzer and the rest of the Nationals are well-rested after dusting off the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, and while this showdown between rotations has predictably resulted in a somewhat exaggerated re-think of the role bullpens have played this season, you have to wonder whether managers A.J. Hinch and Dave Martinez won’t tap into their starters eventually.

Patrick Corbin (Starting pitcher, Nationals)

Oh lucky, lucky man. Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have received much of the plaudits this post-season but Corbin is the luckiest of the lot in this series, facing a possible two matchups against the uninspiring Zack Greinke — possibly a seventh game as well — who always seems capable of channeling his inner Clayton Kershaw when it’s October.

Corbin will be the best lefty pitcher on the Nationals roster and it’s not hard to see him being called on for a key relief spot against, say, Brantley. Corbin’s slider is his calling card.

Will Harris (Relief pitcher, Astros)

Boring. Not Joe Smith boring, but in a series with this much star power and generational pitching, how on earth could a middling reliever end up playing a role? Much depends on whether his manager, Hinch, decides to play this series straight up and avoid getting into too much starters-out-of-the-bullpen hocus pocus, but with Ryan Pressly’s status a concern the guess here is Harris gets some high-leverage calls in a series that sure seems tailor-made to go the distance.

His reverse splits and post-season control (seven strikeouts, no walks) mean that a guy who was actually left off the Astros’ ALCS roster last season could end up playing a role.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Anthony Rendon (Third base, Nationals)

There is something silly about all these post-season breakdowns that go position by position, as if a third baseman ever really faces his opposite number in a key, singular situation. But in the case of Rendon vs. the Astros’ Alex Bregman, it seems fitting and it’s awfully tempting to say that the day (and title) will belong to which of these two has the best series. I know this: The only potential free agent to have a better post-season than Rendon is Cole and that’s saying something.

While Bregman has suffered from the same slumber that has afflicted the rest of the Astros — cautionary note: When a hitter of his calibre is still drawing walks (10 in 10 games) and seeing the ball well, it’s probably not a bad thing to pay attention when he says, ‘Relax, all is good’ — Rendon has been a machine, slashing .375/.465/.594 with seven runs batted in and five extra-base hits in 10 games.

Kurt Suzuki/Yan Gomes (Catchers, Nationals)

Going off the board, here. It’s not like this post-season has turned into a track meet. In fact, there have been five stolen bases in the entirety of the 2019 playoffs. No player has more than one and the only player in the World Series with a stolen base is George Springer. In the old days we’d look for an edge in the running game by focusing on the arm strength of the catchers, but in this series much of the emphasis will be on how the Nationals catchers deal with allegations of pitch/sign stealing by the Astros, because you know it’s only a matter of time before somebody accuses them of something untoward. Still, as we saw from Gary Sanchez in the ALCS, sloppy catching can be a killer.

My sense is it’s essential that the Nationals guys turn in clean games, and Gomes’ bat — he’s homered twice off Joe Smith and once off Roberto Osuna and has a knack of good playoff plate appearances — needs to be respected.

Why cheer for the Nationals: The whole Expos thing, if it matters. Plus some really fun players (I’ll let you decide the whole ‘Shark Tank’ thing).

Why cheer for the Astros: Because then we can talk about them being a dynasty, and that’s good for the game.

Jeff Blair’s Pick: Astros in six.

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