Where the competition begins

Every likely playoff team’s one big lineup question

September 20, 2017 / General
Every likely playoff team’s one big lineup question

Let’s look at the 10 teams currently holding down a playoff position and what lineup questions they might still need to resolve as we inch closer to the postseason.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Who starts in the outfield? Depth is fun, until everyone stops hitting and the manager doesn’t know who to play. I think we can determine this: Chris Taylor will start in center field (and hit leadoff) and Yasiel Puig will start in right field. Taylor has struggled in September (.212, 19 strikeouts, three walks), but he has been the regular starter in center field ever since Joc Pederson was demoted in mid-August, making some starts at shortstop only because Corey Seager has rested a sore elbow at times.

So that leaves left field. Curtis Granderson is still the likely starter against right-handed pitchers, even though he has hit .126 in 101 plate appearances since coming over from the Mets. That’s a scary number, and I’m sure manager Dave Roberts would love to see Granderson have a couple of big games before fully committing to him. That leaves two other options in a platoon with Kike Hernandez, Cody Bellinger (with Adrian Gonzalez playing first base) or Andre Ethier. I have trouble seeing those as realistic options. Ethier has barely played the past two seasons; you don’t know how he can move out there and you’re basically expecting him to fall out of bed after two years of injuries and expect him to hit. Gonzalez doesn’t look healthy and has barely played in September; he probably doesn’t even make the postseason roster.

As an aside: Please, Dodgers fans, quit complaining that Granderson ruined the team chemistry. It’s a ridiculous and embarrassing excuse for a team-wide slump.

Washington Nationals: Who starts in the outfield? The good news is that Bryce Harper took batting practice on the field Sunday for the first time since injuring his knee in August; he did some running and said he’s aiming to be ready for Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Obviously the Nationals would love to get him some game action before then, but for now it appears he’s on target to play.

With Michael Taylor in center field, that leaves manager Dusty Baker multiple options in left field. The Nationals have started five different left fielders in September, plus three more players who started in right field. That’s eight options! The sentimental favorite would be veteran Jayson Werth, but he has hit just .133 in 13 games since returning from the disabled list in late August. Werth really hasn’t hit right-handers since 2014, so I would consider him a viable option only against lefties.

That leaves Howie Kendrick and Adam Lind as the best options. Kendrick has hit well since coming over from the Phillies, while Lind has had a terrific season as a bench bat, hitting .306/.361/.508. He hadn’t played the outfield consistently since 2010 but has started 23 games in left; his ability to hit righties means he could draw some starts out there, even as a defensive liability.

An intriguing bench option might be 20-year-old rookie Victor Robles, who could beat out Andrew Stevenson, Rafael Bautista or Alejandro De Aza for a final spot. He has only nine major league at-bats after hitting .300 in the minors with 27 steals, but his speed makes him a pinch running option. Baker hasn’t ruled out the idea of Robles making the roster. “If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t play him at all,” Baker told MLB.com the other day.

As an aside: If Harper makes it back, Baker would be wise to hit Harper or Anthony Rendon second instead of a lesser hitter. Rendon has occupied the sixth spot for most of the season before Harper was injured.

Chicago Cubs: Where does Ian Happ play? Joe Maddon’s head might explode with all of his options. Happ has hit his way into a regular role — somewhere — with 22 home runs and a .507 slugging mark. Addison Russell just returned from his foot injury and was making Gold Glove-caliber plays at shortstop, so the Cubs’ best defensive lineup would be Russell at short and Javier Baez at second.

That could mean the switch-hitting Happ ends up in the outfield. Since returning from the minors, Kyle Schwarber has hit .253/.338/.567, and you know Maddon will want that bat in the lineup against right-handers. The power that Happ and Schwarber offer would help offset the lower OBPs Russell and Baez bring to the table. There’s also Maddon favorite Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. (.910 OPS against left-handed pitchers) to consider. Most likely scenario: Schwarber and Almora platoon in the outfield, with Happ switching back-and-forth between center and left. That leaves Zobrist, Jon Jay and Tommy La Stella coming off the bench. It’s a deep roster with lots of flexibility and pinch-hitting options.

An aside: For most of August, Maddon hit Kris Bryant third and Anthony Rizzo fourth. The past few games he has gone back to Bryant second and Rizzo third. Willson Contreras has been hot in the second half (.320/.412/.670), so Maddon might stick with him in the cleanup spot.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Is Chris Iannetta the unlikeliest No. 2 hitter for a playoff team? Yes. Iannetta hit .188 with the Angels in 2015. He hit .210 with the Mariners in 2016. Now he’s a 34-year-old catcher suddenly hitting second for the first time in his career (he has started 21 games in that spot in his career, 18 of them coming this season). Of the past 14 games he has started, 13 have seen him hitting in the 2-hole (he hit cleanup in the other game). Obviously getting away from that marine layer in Seattle and Anaheim has helped rejuvenate the bat, and he has crushed lefties in particular with a .902 OPS.

One thing to note: The odd thing about manager Torey Lovullo’s lineups is that he has Paul Goldschmidt and J.D. Martinez in the fourth and fifth spots, no matter the pitcher. Jake Lamb and A.J. Pollock rotate hitting third. Lamb, however, has collapsed in the second half (.195/.315/.369), so it would make sense to move him down and get Goldschmidt/Martinez up earlier.

Colorado Rockies: Where does Ian Desmond play? He doesn’t. The first year of a five-year, $70 million contract has been a disaster as Desmond has hit .275/.322/.368, with the hand fracture he suffered in spring training perhaps limiting his ability to drive the ball. Mark Reynolds will play first, Gerardo Parra will play left and Carlos Gonzalez, finally heating up, will play right, especially with righty Zack Greinke the likely wild-card game starter for Arizona.

As an aside, I’d bat DJ LeMahieu leadoff and Charlie Blackmon second to give Blackmon a few more runners on base, but there’s also nothing wrong with starting the game with a 1-0 lead.

Cleveland Indians: Who plays in the outfield? With Bradley Zimmer likely out for the playoffs with a broken bone in his left hand, and Michael Brantley slow to heal from his ankle injury (he hasn’t played since Aug. 8), manager Terry Francona’s options in the outfield are suddenly limited. Almost by default, it seems we’ll get Jay Bruce in right, Austin Jackson in center and Lonnie Chisenhall in left.

Jackson has primarily been used as a platoon starter this season (almost half his plate appearances have come against lefties), but without Zimmer, he’s Cleveland’s best option for center field. Chisenhall doesn’t play much against lefties — although he has hit them well in limited time this year — so the Indians will likely carry Brandon Guyer as a platoon partner, or perhaps September call-up Greg Allen, a switch-hitter who hit .356 from the right side in Double-A. Allen doesn’t have any power, but has speed and defensive ability.

All that seemed reasonably straightforward … and then Jason Kipnis returned from the DL and started in center field on Sunday. That was his first game there in the majors, but he was a center fielder in college at Arizona State. He has had a bad season, battling a strained rotator cuff coming out of spring training and then landing on the DL twice with hamstring injuries, so he might be a utility guy in the playoffs with Jose Ramirez remaining at second and Yandy Diaz at third. If he can play center, that gives Francona options such as pinch hitting for Jackson or even starting Kipnis against a right-hander. Still, the defensive problems in center that hurt the Indians last October — including the Game 7 loss to the Cubs — could mean Francona plays it safe out there.

Houston Astros: Who bats second? With Carlos Correa back, manager A.J. Hinch looks like he’s back to his preferred order of Jose Altuve hitting third and Correa cleanup. It looks like the second spot will be shared by Josh Reddick (versus right-handers) and Alex Bregman (versus lefties). Reddick has quietly had a superb season at the plate, hitting .317/.365/.483, while Bregman has had a big second half (.308/.360/.515). Hinch lost some versatility when defensive whiz Jake Marisnick fractured his thumb, so that leaves George Springer in center on a regular basis with Marwin Gonzalez and Cameron Maybin in left.

The weak spot in the lineup is actually designated hitter Carlos Beltran. If the Astros keep a third catcher, that means Evan Gattis could get some starts there.

Boston Red Sox: Who hits leadoff? This is also known as the “Where does Eduardo Nunez play?” question. Since coming over from the Giants, Nunez has hit .319/.351/.534 in 51 games, although he’s currently sidelined with a right knee sprain. He had taken over the leadoff spot, but in his absence manager John Farrell has turned to Xander Bogaerts in the past week. Nunez was also able to play regularly because Dustin Pedroia was on the DL, but now Pedroia is back. Maybe Nunez ends up at third base, as Rafael Devers has gone 28 games and over 100 at-bats without a home run. Or maybe Nunez is the DH, as Hanley Ramirez is battling a biceps injury and had just one at-bat the past week.

One thing: Bogaerts hit .315 in April and .351 in May, but just .216 in the second half. The hand injury he suffered in July no doubt affected his production. See how he finishes, especially whether he’s driving the ball at all.

New York Yankees: Who plays first base? Manager Joe Girardi keeps giving Greg Bird playing time to see if he can get going, but he’s still hitting .144/.255/.297, including .125 in September. Even though the Yankees would likely face a right-hander in the wild-card game if they play the Twins — Ervin Santana, probably — Chase Headley seems like the guy here unless Bird suddenly heats up in the final two weeks.

As an aside, Aaron Hicks’ oblique strain limits Girardi’s options, as he would have been a nice option in the outfield. That leaves Jacoby Ellsbury in center field — he has been productive in the second half with a .376 OBP — and Matt Holliday at DH.

Minnesota Twins: Will Miguel Sano return? The impressive thing about the Twins’ offensive surge the past eight weeks is they’ve done it in part without Sano, who has been out since Aug. 20 with a stress reaction in his left shin. He took swings off a tee over the weekend, but there remains no timetable for his return. Eduardo Escobar has been playing third base in Sano’s absence and has been hitting like … well, like Sano, with seven home runs in September. That’s more than he hit all of last season in 352 at-bats.

In the least likely cleanup arrangement you could have predicted, Escobar and Eddie Rosario are now sharing the duties. And Jorge Polanco has been hitting third. You can’t predict baseball!

Source: ESPN