By Corey Eiferman
*All stats are as of September 23rd
With the Major League Baseball postseason just a few days away, discussions are being held on which players should be on postseason rosters. Several times per postseason, you’ll hear a player say how it “takes 25 guys” to win one round, and hopefully, subsequent rounds of postseason. I aimed to try to use both recent history of the rosters of pennant winning teams, and the performance of the players of each team this year, to try to generate a hybrid of both a prediction and a suggestion of the rosters should look like.
While teams will shuffle guys on and off their rosters between rounds, 50% of the last ten pennant winners carried 12 pitchers and 13 position players in the LCS and World Series. However, three of the last five World Series winners, the 2018 Red Sox, the 2016 Cubs, and 2015 Royals, carried 11 pitchers and 14 position players, showing that there is never an exact template, and there’s no right answer.
The Red Sox didn’t shuffle their roster between rounds in 2018. The Cubs and Royals switched out one position player for another before the World Series. Both were notable cases- in 2016 Kyle Schwarber famously battled back from ACL surgery in April to hit .412 for the Cubs in the World Series. The Royals added Adalberto Mondesi in 2015. He became the first player to play in the modern-day World Series before his regular-season debut.
I also looked at trends within the rosters of recent pennant winners. None of the last six pennant winners carried traditional Pinch Runners and Pinch Hitters, opting instead for players like Marwin Gonzalez, who embodied the evolution of the classic utility infielders into super-utility players.
I looked at the teams that have clinched a spot as of Thursday. As an aside, all rosters are composed with the caveat that the team has hypothetically won their Division or their League’s Wild Card Game, and these are for the Divisional and Championship Series.:
*denotes potential platoon
New York Yankees
Starting Pitchers, including “Piggyback” Tandems: James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino + J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia + Jonathan Loaisiga
Bullpen: Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton, Chad Green, Luis Cessa,
Lineup: C-Gary Sanchez, 1B-Edwin Encarnacion, 2B-D.J. LeMahieu, SS-Gleyber Torres, 3B- Gio Urshela, LF- Giancarlo Stanton, CF- Brett Gardner, RF- Aaron Judge, DH- Luke Voit
Bench: Austin Romine, Didi Gregorius, Tyler Wade, Cameron Maybin
Key decisions: Tandem starters; What to do with Didi Gregorius
On September 17, a story by Tom Verducci for Sports Illustrated quoted Yankees’ manager Aaron Boone as saying he might use tandem starters or “piggyback” strategy in the playoffs, similar to how the 2017 Astros piggybacked Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr in Games 7 of both the 2017 ALCS and World Series.
After Boone named offseason acquisition James Paxton as the only one who would make a traditional start in the playoffs, Masahiro Tanaka bounced back with his best start since August 27, in the Yankees’ AL East clinching game, possibly causing Boone to alter his plans again. Look for none of the quartet of Luis Severino, who is battling back from both a rotator cuff injury and a lat strain, Jonathan Loaisiga, recovering from a shoulder strain, and veterans CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ, to face more than 18 batters by design, as Boone navigates through the playoffs.
Boone said he would carry six “key” relievers on top of his starters and piggybackers. The Yankees still possess a bullpen that could arguably be more intimidating than the mid-2010s Royals. The trio of closer Aroldis Chapman, Set-up Man Zack Britton, and 7th-inning man Tommy Kahnle all have accumulated more than 1.2 Win Probability Added.
The Yankees are the only team to have nine players with an OPS+ of 110 this season (minimum 200 plate appearances). Their best offensive lineup would be one without Didi Gregorius starting. Gio Urshela has has been a revelation. Gregorius could come in for defense late in games, and the Yankees could shift LeMahieu over to first, and Torres over to second, while also subbing in the veteran Cameron Maybin for Giancarlo Stanton.
Starting Pitchers: José Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Martin Perez, Kyle Gibson
Bullpen: Randy Dobnak, Tyler Duffey, Brusdar Graterol, Ryne Harper, Trevor May, Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo, Devin Smeltzer
Lineup: C- Mitch Garver, 1B- C.J. Cron, 2B- Jonathan Schoop, SS- Jorge Polanco, 3B- Miguel Sano, LF- Eddie Rosario, CF- Max Kepler, RF- Marwin Gonzalez, DH- Nelson Cruz
Bench: Jason Castro, Willians Astudillo, Luis Arraez, Ehire Adrianza
Key decision: Bullpen composition
Much has been written about the Twins’ offense, the team that might have most benefited from the possibly, allegedly, juiced balls. They are the first team with five players with 30 home runs, with Nelson Cruz, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Miguel Sano and Mitch Garver.
In Garver’s surprising breakout, the Twins catcher’s barrel percentage went up 10 percentage points, his average exit velocity is up 2 MPH runs, and he snatched the starting job away from Jason Castro.
Speaking of catchers (sort of) Willians Astudillo has played at least games at every position except pitcher, shortstop, and center field, and with injuries to Ehire Adrianza and Max Kepler, should bring that unique versatility to the roster.
Going into the postseason, if you find a hot hand, you ride that hot hand. The Twins should make sure their postseason roster has a spot for Brusdar Graterol, who, as laid out by Baseball Prospectus’ Aaron Gleeman, only needed to throw one pitch to become the hardest throwing pitcher in Twins history. Graterol has hit 100 MPH in seven of his eight appearances since being called up in September.
After struggling in his first-full season as a starter in 2016, Tyler Duffey’s been able to transition to being a reliever, with a curveball that could register anywhere between 70 and 88 mph. Left-handed Swingman Devin Smeltzer has reverse splits, limiting righties to a .721 OPS, with lefties at .869, so the Twins could carry two non-lefty specialists alongside closer Taylor Rogers. The inverse of Smeltzer, Randy Dobnak is a right-hander with reverse splits, and has pitched well whether he’s been an opener, long man, or a starter in just 22 1/3 innings.
Starting Pitchers: Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke
Bullpen: Chris Devenski, Will Harris, Josh James, Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock, Ryan Pressly, Joe Smith, Framber Valdez
Lineup: C- Robinson Chirinos, 1B- Yuli Gurriel, 2B- Jose Altuve, SS- Carlos Correa, 3B- Alex Bregman, LF- Michael Brantley, CF- George Springer, RF- Josh Reddick, DH- Yordan Alvarez
Bench: Martin Maldonado, Aledmys Diaz, Jake Marisnick, Kyle Tucker, Myles Straw
Key decisions: 3 starters or 4? Myles Straw’s role
The 2009 Yankees were the only team in the modern-divisional era to win a World Series with just three Starting Pitchers. Following a September in which Wade Miley lasted, zero, one-third, and one inning in starts, the Astros might try to replicate that with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke. If that trio, containing two Cy Young winners and a pitcher drafted No. 1 overall, all pitch to their talent level, the Astros are very likely to hoist their second World Series trophy in three years, with more ease than those 2009 Yankees.
If the Astros do go with three starters, they will still need some key outs from their bullpen. The 35-year-old sidearmer Joe Smith is in his 13th Major League Season. He has never had an ERA over 4.00, and has a 1.16 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP in 23 1/3 innings pitched this year, while battling back from Achilles surgery. Smith’s 54% ground ball rate (albeit in a small sample) is his highest since 2014, when he was with the Angels the year they snuck past the Athletics to win the AL West.
Myles Straw could emerge as the next Kiké Hernandez or Chris Taylor, having saved one run at shortstop, center field, and left field this year. Kyle Tucker’s hot September may be forgotten amidst the otherworldly rookie season of Yordan Alvarez, but the outfielder has hit over .300 and slugged over .500 since his first start in right field in September.
Starting Pitchers: Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Dallas Keuchel, Julio Teheran
Bullpen: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Anthony Swarzak, Jerry Blevins, Josh Tomlin, Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz
Lineup: C*- Brian McCann/Tyler Flowers, 1B- Freddie Freeman, 2B- Ozzie Albies, SS- Dansby Swanson, 3B- Josh Donaldson, LF- Austin Riley, CF- Ronald Acuña, RF- Nick Markakis
Bench: Johan Camargo, Ender Inciarte, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton
Key decisions: Using Billy Hamilton; putting starters in the bullpen
The Braves are easily the team with the best chance of preventing the Dodgers from making their third straight trip to the World Series. Their starting lineup is remarkably deep, with a mix of young stars players still in their primes, and veterans. Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Austin Riley are the first trio of players younger than 23 to each hit 15 home runs in a season.
While a pennant winner hasn’t carried a player to strictly pinch run since the Royals in 2015, look for a player who began the year in Kansas City to do that for the Braves this year, Billy Hamilton. Even though his average sprint speed has dipped, he still ranks among the fastest 3% of players in that stat in baseball.
The Braves will be armed with a better bullpen, at least on paper, than the Dodgers, after acquiring Chris Martin, Shane Greene, and Mark Melancon at the deadline. The trio got off to a rough start, as through August 14 their combined ERA with the Braves was 11.15, but they’ve collectively righted the ship, with a combined 1.85 ERA since.
The front-end of the Braves’ bullpen could feature two of the Braves postseason starters from last season. Both righty Mike Foltynewicz and lefty Sean Newcomb struggled in the beginning of 2019, but Foltynewicz has a 2.35 ERA in 8 starts since returning from Gwinnett, and Sean Newcomb has a 2.80 ERA since being moved to the bullpen in May, Newcomb’s Runs Above Average on his curveball has improved from -0.6 to 2.6 this year.
St. Louis Cardinals
Starting Pitchers: Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright
Bullpen: John Brebbia, Giovanny Gallegos, John Gant, Ryan Helsley, Carlos Martinez, Andrew Miller, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Tyler Webb
Lineup: C-Yadier Molina, 1B- Paul Goldschmidt, 2B- Kolten Wong, SS- Paul DeJong, 3B- Matt Carpenter, LF- Marcell Ozuna, CF- Harrison Bader, RF- Dexter Fowler
Bench: Matt Wieters, Tommy Edman, Yairo Muñoz, Tyler O’Neill, Jose Martinez
Key decisions: Roles for Ryan Helsley and Tommy Edman
The Cardinals’ quietly ascended from being five games back as late as June 12, to holding sole possession of first place in the NL Central from August 23rd on. The Cardinals playoff teams usually feature a midseason bullpen addition. But not in 2019.
The quartet of Carlos Martinez, John Brebbia, John Gant, and Giovanny Gallegos is the only set of four relievers with ERAs under 3.50 in the NL, who spent all of 2019 with that same team. The trade that sent Luke Voit to the Yankees will not be looked at as catastrophic for the Cardinals, as Gallegos is second in the MLB in WHIP with 0.80, and his slider is second in Runs Above Average to the Reds’ Robert Stephenson.
One hot hand for the Cardinals down the stretch has been reliever Ryan Helsley. The fifth-round pick from Northeastern State is this year’s Cardinal to come out of nowhere and help the big club. The 24-year-old has a 2.41 ERA in 21 appearances, and has hit 100 MPH on the radar gun in 14 of them. The versatile Tommy Edman has hit .317 since August 1 while seeing playing time at every position except first, shortstop, and catcher. He’s at second base now while Kolten Wong recovers from a hamstring injury. The Cardinals will need to figure out where Helsley and Edman fit best come October.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Starting Pitchers: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Rich Hill
Bullpen: Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia, Kenley Jansen, Joe Kelly, Adam Kolarek, Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling, Julio Urias
Starting Lineup: C-Will Smith, 1B- Max Muncy, 2B- Gavin Lux, SS- Corey Seager, 3B- Justin Turner, LF- A.J. Pollock, CF- Cody Bellinger, RF- Joc Pederson
Bench: Russell Martin, David Freese, Chris Taylor, Enrique Hernandez, Matt Beaty
Key decision: Gavin Lux’s usage
Right now, probably only Dave Roberts knows exactly how he’ll employ and move his players around, as in one game this year, he changed seven players positions before the top of the 10th, but top prospect Gavin Lux might have hit well enough to be inserted into the lineup at second base every game, à la Corey Seager in 2015. While Kiké Hernandez and Chris Taylor might be the two best super-utility men of the last few years, they will likely see fewer starts in years past, if Lux is entrenched as their second baseman, and with either Cody Bellinger or A.J. Pollock in center field.
After hitting on numerous first round picks in recent years in Walker Buehler, Corey Seager, and Clayton Kershaw, a 12th-round pick has been another important rookie for the Dodgers’ offense. Matt Beaty, who has seen time at first, third, left, and right field, has slugged .479 in 253 plate appearances.
In the end, the question will be whether the bridge to Kenley Jansen is sturdy enough to put the Dodgers over the top. Over the years, it seems like the Dodgers always have plenty of relievers who are well-above average in the regular season, but just can’t get it done in the most important moments in the postseason. This year, two frequently-used relievers, Pedro Baez and Yimi Garcia, still have worrisome peripherals. Baez’ opponents’ swing percentage is at a career low 51%, and Garcia has a drastic separation between his ERA, which is sub 3.50, and his FIP, which is above 5.00, the only reliever with that distinguishable a separation.
Starting Pitchers: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez
Bullpen: Sean Doolittle, Erick Fedde, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland, Wander Suero
Lineup: C- Yan Gomes, 1B- Howie Kendrick/Matt Adams/Ryan Zimmerman 2B*- Asdrubal Cabrera/Brian Dozier, SS- Trea Turner, 3B- Anthony Rendon, LF- Juan Soto, CF- Victor Robles, RF- Adam Eaton
Bench: Kurt Suzuki, Michael A. Taylor, Gerardo Parra
Key decisions: Bullpen composition and usage
The last two times the Nationals were in the playoffs, in 2016, and 2017, they carried only 11 pitchers, which is something they can do again in 2019, simply because they don’t have 12 pitchers Davey Martinez should trust to get big outs in October. The Nationals are going to need their big three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin to all go deep into games.
The Nationals, like the Braves, made three relief acquisitions, and they haven’t worked out quite as well. Daniel Hudson has been dependable, but Roenis Elias is out with a hamstring strain, while old foe Hunter Strickland has an 8.59 ERA in September, far from the perfect form he displayed when he was called up in September of 2014 by the Giants on their way to a World Series. Elsewhere in the bullpen, walks have been a problem for Tanner Rainey, but his fastball does rank in the top five in the Majors among relievers with a 97.9 average velocity.
You may think veteran Howie Kendrick may lack the power you’d want from a prototypical first baseman, but he still possesses some sneaky power with a .237 ISO (Slugging Percentage – Batting Average), which ranks 13th among 38 players with 300 Plate Appearances and 40% of games played at first base. Kendrick is hitting .341 this season, and .421 since his return from injury on August 12th, which should get him most, if not all the starts at first over sluggers Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman. While Victor Robles’ defensive breakout has been everything the Nationals fans’ have wanted lest no one forget that Michael A. Taylor is coming off two seasons where he collectively saved 18 runs, and is a perfect fourth outfielder for the playoffs.
Pitching Staff: Matt Albers, Chase Anderson, Ray Black, Alex Claudio, Kyle Davies, Gio Gonzalez, Junior Guerra, Josh Hader, Adrian Houser, Jordan Lyles, Drew Pomeranz, Brandon Woodruff
Lineup: C- Yasmani Grandal, 1B- Eric Thames, 2B- Keston Huira, SS- Orlando Arcia, 3B- Mike Moustakas, LF- Ryan Braun, CF- Lorenzo Cain, RF- Trent Grisham
Bench: Manny Piña, Travis Shaw, Hernan Perez, Ben Gamel, Tyler Austin
Key decisions: Use an opener?
Everyone counted out the Milwaukee Brewers when they lost reigning NL MVP, Christian Yelich. Somehow, the Brewers went on a huge run in September. The run has drawn comparison to their late-September run to the NL Wild Card in 2008, led by the aforementioned, and soon-to-be-retiring CC Sabathia.
First round pick Trent Grisham has filled in nicely for Yelich, hitting .265/.409/.529 since the rightfielder was injured. Tyler Austin, who was in the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup in 2018, is with his fourth team since, and has two big go-ahead RBIs this month.
The Brewers might get as creative as they did last year, when they took on a postseason version of the Rays’ Opener strategy, including duping the entire baseball world when they used started Wade Miley as an opener. Jordan Lyles has become for the Brewers’ what Kelly Johnson was for the Mets, being acquired mid-season for the second straight year. The swingman has only started for the Brewers this year, after only relieving for them last year. Over the past two seasons, Lyles has a combined 4.86 ERA with the two teams he was acquired from, and a 2.62 ERA with the Brewers.
Junior Guerra has transitioned into the bullpen nicely and could be key in getting the ball to Josh Hader at game’s end. He’s mixing his pitches as much as he did when he was a starter, he throws his fastball 60% of the time, with the distribution of two-seam and four-seam being almost almost even at 29% and 31%, his splitter at 22%, and his curveball at 19%.
Whatever formula the general managers of each team do go with, the construction of rosters, whether for the regular season, the Wild Card Game, or for a postseason series, always fascinates me.
While I might not be able to tell you who this year’s Steve Pearce will be, I can say that some of the decisions made will likely have significant ramifications on who wins the World Series.