-- Oh, what might have been. Just a month ago, this had the makings of a strength-on-strength matchup featuring the best offense in baseball versus the best 1-2-3 rotation in the American League. However, late season injuries to Cleveland starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar have the Indians scrambling for a strategy to neutralize the Red Sox's potent lineup.
It's refreshing to see new blood in the playoffs. The Indians make their first appearance in the Division Series in nine years, and they'll welcome perennial American League East cellar dwellers, the Boston Red Sox, to town. We kid, we kid! But the Red Sox did finish in last place in their division in three of the past four years. Of course, the exception was 2013, when they captured their third title of the David Ortiz era. This has truly been a boom or bust franchise for five seasons.
The Red Sox send 2016 Cy Young Candidate and 22-game winner Rick Porcello to the mound, and Cleveland counters with Trevor Bauer. While this will be Bauer's first taste of October baseball, Porcello has made eight appearances, including two starts during his six seasons with the Tigers. His 4.41 ERA in 16 postseason innings was reflective of his regular-season results and his skill set -- at least until this year, when he emerged as the unlikely ace and stopper of the Red Sox rotation.
Our rotation of baseball handicappers hope their regular-season work carries over to the postseason as well. For the nightcap of Thursday's two ALDS previews, we're rolling out our own version of a 1-2-3 rotation with Joe Peta, Andrew Lange and Dave Tuley, and those three will supply a pick for the series and Game 1.
Joe Peta: The Red Sox did a lot of things well this year after finishing last in the AL East last season. Their defense was better than it has been in the five years I've been calculating adjusted defensive efficiency, which measure a team's effectiveness at turning batted balls into outs and erasing existing baserunners. Their hitters had the third-lowest strikeout rate in the majors, which is amazing, considering they were first in on-base percentage and slugging as well. That's removing the most damaging outcome of the three-true-outcomes offense, and it makes for a lethal attack.
However, I'm not sure I trust the bullpen, and I know I don't trust the rotation. The Red Sox are built to win any sort of extended, multi-chance-type battles. But offensive variance being what it is, I can't help but shake the feeling that the Red Sox kryptonite is a five-game series, specifically against the Indians. Cleveland -- not the home run-mashing Orioles, not the slugging Toronto Blue Jays?and not?the Rangers playing half their games in a souped-up stadium -- were second to the Red Sox in American League scoring this year. They have a better defense than the Red Sox, and it's equipped to neutralize batted balls.
They've got a bullpen full of high-strikeout arms, if Terry Francona (hopefully) chooses to play the series as a collection of one-inning contests when Corey Kluber isn't on the mound.
Most of all, for our purposes, they've got significant underdog odds, all while holding home-field advantage. Even though I suspect they will be outscored in the series, Cleveland in 5.
ESPN Chalk pick: Cleveland, 145
Andrew Lange: Injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar really hinder Cleveland's chances in this series. And with Corey Kluber nursing a quad injury and pushed back to Game 2, there's a chance Boston will see one of the game's premium right-handers just once. I like Game 1's starter, Trevor Bauer, but he's probably Cleveland's fourth-best arm.
Boston isn't without its issues. I have questions whether the starting staff will hold up for a much-discussed World Series run. Rick Porcello has been phenomenal this season, but the Red Sox really don't have a shutdown ace to rely on in a must-win/elimination situation. David Price looked like a middle-of-the-rotation arm for much of the season, and Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez are far from trustworthy.
Offense is where the Red Sox can get you, and regardless of who starts, they'll be favored in every game Kluber doesn't pitch. Cleveland quietly posted the American League's second-best run differential ( 101), behind Boston ( 184). But that included a combined 283? IP and mid-3.00 ERA from Carrasco and Salazar. Boston should advance to the ALCS, but -165 is a little rich for my blood.
ESPN Chalk pick: Pass
Dave Tuley: The Red Sox appear to have gotten the luck of the draw in the American League as the No. 3 seed behind the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians, getting a seemingly easier matchup against a Cleveland team whose pitching staff is a shadow of what it was earlier in the year. The oddsmakers recognized this and made the Red Sox between -150 and -160 favorites to win the series, and bettors have pushed it up as high as -170.
Boston won the season series 4-2, and most of those games were earlier in the year, when the Indians were at full strength. Boston is my pick to win the series, but I'm not going to lay juice in the -165/-170 range. If you feel the same way -- and if you do, you probably know that the Red Sox need to win one of the first two games in Cleveland -- the best bet might be on the Red Sox to win Game 1 at the lower price of -140. With Cleveland not using Corey Kluber until Game 2, the Red Sox have a big pitching edge with Rick Porcello (22-4, 3.15 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) over Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26 ERA, 1.31 WHIP). Porcello has also had success against the Indians (10-4, 3.35 ERA), whereas Bauer has been roughed up by Red Sox (0-2, 12.91 ERA) in his career.
ESPN Chalk pick: Red Sox, -140 in Game 1