6 players to watch in 2021 World Series: No DH could limit Astros' Alvarez

Sportsnet’s Hazel Mae sets the stage for the World Series where the underdog Atlanta Braves will try to topple the Houston Astros.

It’s the ‘Six Degrees of Cito Gaston World Series.’ As the former Toronto Blue Jays manager told Blair & Barker on Monday, not only is he proud of being shouted out as a mentor by Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, but he and Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker were roommates when they were coaches in that organization’s minor league system.

And while Baker remembers to this day how the then-23-year-old Gaston took charge of him when he was an 18-year-old from Riverside, Calif., learning what it was like to be an African-American athlete in the U.S. South in the late '60s, Gaston also played a significant role in Snitker’s life, introducing Snitker to his wife Veronica.

This World Series will be what you want it to be. It’s not a TV executive’s dream the way, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox might have been and it’s complicated further by the fact that the Astros still bear some of the stains from a cheating scandal, which will take away from the fact that free agency is going to likely tear apart a remarkable ‘Core 4’ of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel, one of the most successful infields of all time. That’s going to score lower than it should on the wistful scale. But these are two largely home-grown groups, shrewdly constructed through the draft and international signings. In many ways, Blue Jays fans, this is how your team needs to be built.

But there’s also a kind of timeless quality to this series, too. We’re told it’s a young person’s game, with transcendent young stars -- getting more money into the hands of players sooner in their careers is going to be one of the tough nuts to crack in collective bargaining talks -- and Ivy League front offices. Heck, only yesterday the St. Louis Cardinals named Oliver Marmol as their new manager, making him, at 35, the youngest skipper in the game.

Yet the last managers standing this post-season are the 72-year-old Baker and the 66-year-old Snitker -- mere pups, of course, when considered against 77-year-old Tony La Russa.

Gaston can see why it’s worked out for them. Baker is one of the game’s beloved souls, who could join Gaston (back to back in 1992-93) and the Dodgers' Dave Roberts as African-Americans to manage World Series winners. “He’s a communicator,” Gaston said, referring to a skill that needn’t necessarily age. Snitker, meanwhile, is a Braves lifer who managed throughout the minor league system and was form-fitted to lead a team with a homegrown core. Who better to watch over the kids?

It’s fitting that Atlanta will be one of the focal points for this series, since Baker broke in as a Braves minor leaguer and memories of another mentor, Henry Aaron, will be ever-present. Aaron passed away in January, and as Gaston noted in addition to helping shepherd Baker along the way it was Aaron who convinced both himself and Snitker to get into coaching. Any chance to remember Aaron is a chance to be cherished.

And so against that backdrop, here are six players who are primed to play pivotal roles in the World Series. Oh, and the next time somebody tells you baseball needs a salary cap or a re-jigged playoff structure for competitive balance, you might want to remind them that baseball hasn’t had a repeat champion for 21 years, which is the most among all four major North American sports. In fact, this is the first time the two teams that lost the league championship series the year before have met in the World Series a year later.

WORLD SERIES SIX TO WATCH

Yordan Alvarez, Astros, DH/OF

In what will no doubt shock you, the two players who were named Most Valuable Players in their league championship series are both on this list, because ALCS MVP Alvarez and NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario are not only scalding hot, but the lack of a universal designated hitter has created some impediments/options to their use.

Alvarez won the MVP award after slashing .522/.538/.870 with 20 total bases. He is on a roll, riding a six-game hitting streak, and if you’re wondering how Alvarez and his two surgically-repaired knees will be utilized when the scene shifts to Atlanta’s Truist Park for Games 3, 4 and 5 and the designated hitter is shelved? Take a number. True, Alvarez did make 39 starts in left after June 2 but his defence was below average -- and Truist Park’s outfield is sneaky big, with the fifth-most ground to cover in the Majors. I’m not sure there’s much to be gleaned from the Astros road interleague games, either: they faced seven right-handed starters and one lefty with the DH not in use and Alvarez started in left field in half the games, with Michael Brantley shifting to right and Kyle Tucker moving to centre. In games where Alvarez didn’t start, the defensively-superior Chas McCormick or Jake Meyers drew in to play centre, with Brantley and Tucker on the corners.

Where it might get interesting for Baker is if a defensive replacement is needed late in a close game. Just another reason to hate having the pitchers hit; another reason to hope that abomination ends up on the cutting room floor during this round of collective bargaining.

Luis Garcia, Astros SP

After his Boston Red Sox were eliminated by the Astros, Red Sox manager Alex Cora sent serious kudos to Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and catcher Martin Maldonado for “completely changing their strategy against us halfway through Game 4.” The decision was taken then to attack the Red Sox with fastballs instead of messing around with breaking balls. “Those are two of the smartest people in baseball,” Cora told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci.

Already without Lance McCullers, Jr., the Astros wouldn’t be here were if not for starts from Framber Valdez and Garcia, who seems slated to get the ball in Game 2. Garcia gave the Astros a scare in Game 2 of the NLCS when he reported knee discomfort and was gone in the second inning -- long enough to be charged with five earned runs. Coupled with a messy 2 2/3 inning outing in Game 3 of the AL Division Series against the Chicago White Sox and a slip in command down the stretch, there were real concerns the rookie was running out of gas.

Then he showed up for the decisive Game 6 of the ALCS and was dominating, sucking the life out of the Red Sox for 5 2/3 innings, allowing only a triple to Kike Hernandez -- the last batter he would face. It took just 76 pitches to get there, during which he hit 97 miles per hour twice in the first inning (something he did only once during the regular season) and eight times overall.

There was nothing magical about the improvement -- or, for that matter, anything medical. Simply put, Strom suggested Garcia position his foot differently, alleviating the strain on the knee. Smart. Strom said it was “something we probably could have done earlier in the year, but you hate messing with somebody who is having a good year.” Garcia can put the Astros minds at rest a little if he can follow up his Game 6 performance.

Cristian Javier, Astros, RP

Valdez gets the ball for the Astros in Game 1; Garcia in Game 2 and then… and then… eh, let’s wait and see.

One thing is certain: When Baker needs multiple innings in relief of a starter -- and he probably will, since 57 per cent of his team's innings this post-season have been covered by relievers, more than the average 54 per cent -- it will be Javier who gets the call. So far this post-season, Javier has struck out 13 batters over 7 2/3 innings, with outings of three innings, two innings and 2 2/3. Javier started the season in the rotation but moved into bullpen in May and while he’s prone to the fly ball (his ground ball rate was second-lowest in the Majors) he has a 1.59 ERA and 1.000 WHIP in eight career post-season outings over the past two seasons, striking out 26, walking nine and giving up a homer in 17 innings.

It’s been quite a year for Javier: optioned to Triple-A to make room for Jake Odorizzi despite finishing third in rookie of the year voting last season, a May move into the bullpen after nine starts, control battles in the summer that the organization thinks had something to do with rhythm and tempo issues as a reliever… and then all those multi-inning appearances, which will be crucial in this series to get to the slider happy four leverage pitchers in Baker’s bullpen.

Tyler Matzek/A.J. Minter/Will Smith, Braves, RPs

OK, this is a fence-sitting cheapie, I’ll admit, but given the balance in the Astros lineup with left-handed regulars Alvarez, Brantley and Tucker, you have to think Snitker’s trio of lefties will play an even mightier role. Indeed, this might be a really decisive edge for the Braves, especially if they can get length out of their starting pitchers.

It’s certainly something the Red Sox didn’t have. Or, we could flip the whole thing on its head and look at it this way: the Astros' balance, plus the three-batter minimum rule, means the Braves lefties will be tasked with navigating around Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and -- hiding down there in the seventh spot -- AL batting champion Yuli Gurriel. The three southpaws have allowed just nine hits -- none of them homers -- in 24 2/3 innings this post-season and while they’ve handled righty hitters, well, these Astros hitters are contact machines.

Minter is something of a sublime presence, with a FIP that was Top 20 among relievers and was better than any reliever in this series not named Ryan Pressly.

Charlie Morton, Braves, SP

You really do get the sense that even with Valdez’s ALCS and Garcia’s Game 6 turnaround it is the Braves who are more comfortable with their rotation going into the World Series. It will be up to time-tested veteran Morton to put the Braves' best foot forward in Game 1, where we might get an early indication as to whether Atlanta will try to cool off the Astros and their uber-contact approach with a little creativity, including the odd first-pitch curve.

If we accept Snitker’s suggestion that Max Fried’s issues in his last start were simply a matter of location as opposed to anything else -- Braves analyst Tom Glavine told Kevin Barker and me that Fried’s front side sometimes gets violent, which sometimes causes him to pull his fastball across home plate -- then there is no need to look at Game 1 as having any more added pressure for Morton. And with AL rules in effect, Snitker won’t have to worry about anything other than how Morton is pitching, not when his turn to bat comes up. That should maximize the importance of Morton’s experience.

Eddie Rosario, Braves, OF

Talk about an incredible LCS: 14-for-25 with five extra-base hits, nine RBIs and a 1.647 OPS. Nobody has had as many hits in a series of six games or less; Will Clark’s 13-hit performance in a five-game series win over the Chicago Cubs in the 1989 NLCS stood as the standard. Rosario has reached base in 16 of his last 24 plate appearances and isn’t it funny how often mid-season acquisitions have won that award in either LCS: seven others have done so since Rickey Henderson in 1989, with the Astros' Justin Verlander (2017) the most recent.

Rosario’s hits came off four curves, three fastballs and change-ups, two cutters and a sinker and slider. Woof. But keep an eye on how he handles sliders from the likes of Phil Maton, Ryne Stanek, Kendall Graveman and Pressly: as outrageous as he was in the ALCS, he whiffed on 56 per cent of the sliders he saw and while he handled lefty pitching, well, that .651 regular-season OPS against lefties would suggest he’s less likely than, say, Alvarez to continue his roll.

Having the DH in effect for the first two games at Minute Maid Park and Games 6 and 7, if necessary, will help the Braves lengthen their lineup by making it easier to re-incorporate Jorge Soler, who was placed on the COVID-19 list prior to Game 4 of the NL Division Series and rejoined the team before Game 5 of the NLCS. Soler was a force out of the lead-off spot after joining the Braves at the trade deadline, but Rosario led off in five of the six games. Snitker says he’s still leaning that way, and why not?

JEFF BLAIR’S PICK: Astros in 6

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