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Five Great Storylines In The Major League Baseball Playoffs

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"Five Great Storylines In The Major League Baseball Playoffs"

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Playoff baseball returns to Pittsburgh tonight for the first time since 1992.

Playoff baseball returns to Pittsburgh tonight for the first time since 1992.

CREDIT: US Presswire

Major League Baseball’s postseason begins tonight when the Cincinnati Reds travel to Pittsburgh, where a raucous crowd that hasn’t seen playoff baseball in more than two decades will be waiting for a one-game playoff. The second one-game playoff happens Wednesday, when Cleveland, a team that hasn’t seen the postseason since 2007, hosts Tampa Bay, which won a tiebreaker Monday night to get in.

Once the one-gamers end, the playoff series begin Thursday, and there are no shortage of storylines to watch — from Pittsburgh’s surge into the playoffs to looming battles between some of baseball’s biggest spenders and some of its lightest wallets. Here are five interesting questions that only playoff baseball can answer:

Can the Pirates and Indians make noise? The Pittsburgh Pirates won the National League East in 1990. Then they won it by 14 games in 1991. They won it again in 1992, this time by nine games. They then spent the next 21 years losing. But the Pirates are back, bolstered by young talent like Starling Marte, Gerritt Cole, and MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and getting help from castaways like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, who takes the mound tonight in the one-game playoff against Cincinnati. There’s no better story in baseball than the Bucs, and there’s no place that deserves playoff baseball more than the beautiful PNC Park.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians are carrying the hope of an entire city that, judging by their attendance, had largely forgotten about the team during four straight losing seasons. The Indians aren’t the Pirates — they’ve played in two World Series since Pittsburgh was last in the playoffs — but they haven’t been very good lately either. Most fans, in Cleveland or elsewhere, probably couldn’t pick their best players out of a lineup, but the Tribe battled their way into hosting the American League’s one-game playoff anyway.

The real question is whether either team can or will go anywhere. The Pirates defied the odds all year, playing above their Pythagorean prediction. So did Cleveland. Now they’ll both have the chance to make deep runs into the playoffs, and the Pirates may even get a chance to erase the ugly memories of their last playoff loss should they meet the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS.

Which young stars will have an impact? Baseball’s biggest names and its biggest young stars — Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Stephen Strasburg, to name a few — missed the playoffs. But there’s no shortage of young talent in this postseason, and any of the emerging young players could change a team’s fortune. Marte, Cole, and McCutchen are trying to carry the Pirates deep into the playoffs. Cuban rookie Yasiel Puig is still a major piece of the Dodgers’ title hopes. Matt Carpenter finished with 199 hits in the regular season and will try to help St. Louis win its third World Series since 2006. Freddie Freeman anchors the Braves lineup, while young arms Julio Teheran and Mike Minor will have to carry Atlanta’s pitching staff against a dominant Los Angeles staff that features Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the first round.

In the American League, the stars are more established: there’s Boston, with Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and David Ortiz; Detroit, with Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera; and Tampa, with Evan Longoria. But there’s also Yoenis Cespedes providing star power on another Moneyballing Oakland team, Matt Moore and David Price dealing on the mound for Tampa Bay, and rookie Wil Myers giving Tampa’s lineup a boost. Tigers’ shortstop Jose Iglesias is also among the leading candidates for the AL’s Rookie of the Year award.

The biggest names in baseball may not be here, but there are plenty of young players who could vault themselves into the limelight with a big, timely performance over the next few weeks.

Moneyball or Spend-It-All? Three of the five biggest opening day payrolls in baseball — Los Angeles (2nd), Boston (3rd), and Detroit (5th) — made the playoffs. So, too, did Pittsburgh (26th), Oakland (27th), and Tampa Bay (28th), three of the five smallest opening day payrolls in the game. Atlanta (19th) and Cleveland (21st) both rank in the league’s bottom half, while St. Louis (11th) and Cincinnati (13th) are closer to the middle.

We’ll get to see Oakland general manager Billy Beane’s Moneyball strategy on display again, as the light-spending Athletics take on Detroit’s deep pockets and star-studded lineup in the first round. Boston will have a huge financial advantage in the opening series no matter who wins the one-gamer between Tampa and Cleveland, and Los Angeles will bring an expensive lineup to town to face an Atlanta team dominated by young, cheap talent (the Braves’ most expensive players, incidentally, are its biggest under-performers). Only St. Louis and Cincinnati would be an even financial match-up, though that won’t happen if the Reds lose in Pittsburgh tonight.

Not all of the light-wallets are Moneyball teams but they’ve all been savvy in building rosters that can compete with the biggest spenders in the game. Now we get to find out if any of them can translate that into success in the World Series, where no team ranked lower than 13th on baseball’s opening day payroll list has won it all since the Florida Marlins in 2003.

Will the trade partners meet? Boston and Los Angeles pulled off the trade of the 2012 season last July. It turned out to be the trade of the 2013 season too. Boston dealt Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett — a total of $262.5 million in payroll obligations — to Los Angeles for James Loney and four prospects, and while the trio didn’t help LA in 2012 (or in the beginning of 2013), it did help power the Dodgers’ run to the playoffs this year. Meanwhile, the trade helped Boston free up cash to spend liberally on free agent signings in the offseason, and the Sox went from worst in the AL East in 2012 to first in 2013. Somehow the Rays got involved too: the Red Sox dropped Loney at the end of last season, but he’s been a key part of Tampa’s run to the playoffs this year. The Rays could meet Boston in the first round, while the Sox and Dodgers, trade partners a year ago, are considered favorites in their respective leagues and could meet in the World Series.

But Boston might not have to wait that long to meet a trade partner in the playoffs. When Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta was suspended in July for performance enhancing drug use and with the Red Sox looking for a starting pitcher, Boston, Detroit, and the White Sox pulled off a three-team trade that sent shortstop Jose Iglesias from Boston to Detroit and former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy from Chicago to Boston. Peavy bolstered the Sox rotation in August while Iglesias turned into a star. Now they could meet in the ALCS.

Will anyone in the National League hit? Fans who love pitching battles may love this postseason, especially on the National League side. The five National League playoff teams are the five best pitching teams in baseball based on staff earned run average. The top two — Atlanta and Los Angeles — meet in the first round, while numbers three (Pittsburgh) and four (Cincinnati) meet tonight for the right to play number five (St. Louis). Judging by WAR, those five slip a little, but they vault right back to the top when it comes to FIP and xFIP, which measure pitching independent of fielding and defense. Their staffs boast some of the best arms in the game — guys like Kershaw, Greinke, Teheran, Minor, Shelby Miller and Mat Latos. It doesn’t get any easier as the games get late, either. Reds closer Aroldis Chapman regularly fires up fastballs in the 100 mile-per-hour range. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is striking out more than 13 hitters per nine innings. And Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel is the game’s most dominant finisher.

You want to watch low-scoring slugfests between great young pitchers? The Braves and Dodgers will have that right out of the gate, when Kershaw, the Cy Young favorite, is expected to battle Kris Medlen, the hottest starting pitcher in baseball. The rest of the NL playoffs won’t disappoint either. The question will be which lineup, none of which are shabby themselves, can break through — or at least outlast the flurry of good pitchers they’ll have to beat to get to the World Series.

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