The two teams are meeting for the first time since the 2005 World Series. Who will prevail?
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The White Sox have drawn the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series and it isn't gonna be easy. Houston has the best lineup in baseball and decent starting pitching. The bullpen is solid, but not impregnable. The Sox have the most experienced manager possible, but Houston's skipper is old and crafty, too. The Astros are out to prove they can win a World Series again. The Sox are out to prove The Rebuild was really worth it.
So who's going to come out on top?
Let's take a look at how they break down.
Astros: Houston's offense gets the attention but their starters dominated the Sox for the most part in the season series, which Houston won 5-2 (including the first five). Expect to see groundball and walk machine Lance McCullers in Game 1, followed by lefthander Framber Valdez, rookie Luis Garcia and junk-balling ass pain José Urquidy, in some order. The key against McCullers will be to wait him out. The Sox draw walks better than most teams. That's his weakness. When swinging, go for singles to the opposite field.
Sox: Assuming the Sox's bats don't go cold in the postseason (which seems to happen throughout team history!) how much they get from Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodón will be the key to how far they go this time. Lynn probably will be closer to optimum, but Rodón's shoulder is the big question mark. How hard can he throw, and for how long? Of all the injuries the Sox sustained this season, they played through them all and won 93 games. But in the postseason and in particular, a short series, not having Rodón at 100 percent has a high likelihood of screwing them. Lucas Giolito has to be on point, or else they could get swept, not to be Johnny Doom. Dylan Cease was finely tuned in his final two starts, but he struggles with command like McCullers often does. You never know what you're going to get with his box-of-chocolate repertoire. If Cease wins his start, the Sox win the series.
Astros guys: The Astros had a middle-of-the-pack bullpen in ERA and fWAR. Ryan Pressly, Ryne Stanek and Kendall Graveman are pretty strong at the end, but it's not like, "Oh oh, here comes the high-leverage guys for the Astros." They can be got. Middle guys like Yimi García, Phil Maton and Brooks Raley have been disappointments, too. The key for the 'Stros might be how Zack Greinke (yes, that Zack Greinke) and Odorizzi do as converted relievers. Greinke could be a secret weapon, but overall the pen is a weak spot the Sox should exploit.
Sox: Liam Hendriks had some hiccups but he was nearly flawless the past month. Do they trust Craig Kimbrel or don't they? If the Sox are in a position to use Kimbrel more than once in this series and he performs, they're going to win. Michael Kopech wasn't nearly as good in the second half as he was in the first, but he also had a lot of bad luck. How is Ryan Tepera's finger? He pitched well, except one or two times, before he cut himself. Bummer was lights-out in the last month, and will be important against Kyle Tucker and Yordan Álvarez in the late innings. Human coat hanger Garrett Crochet has gotten more reliable as the season has gone on. If you see the Sox put in José Ruíz, it's probably bad. He's not bad — he's not great, either — but it's almost always a bad situation.
Astros: Let's not beat around the bush: Houston led the league in runs scored. They are deadly predators who will kill. Sox pitchers won't face a greater challenge in the next rounds, if they make it, Lord willing.
Finally bearing fruit, Kyle Tucker is the most anonymous great hitter in MLB and coming off AL's player of the month award in September. Their version of Luís Robert, but with better control of the strike zone. The Sox absolutely have to stop him from going off. Yordan Álvarez is more vulnerable to the strikeout, but he has big pop, kind of like Big Pápi. Carlos Correa and Luís Gurriel are just tough outs. Of course, there's also José Altúve, no matter if he's wearing a wire anymore or not. Michael Brantley has been producing at diminished capacity, but he has a Harold Baines quality, so you can't assume an easy out. Even their most ordinary everyday hitters, kids Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers, are effective for where they hit in the lineup. If they start Jason Castro at catcher, he could take somebody deep. But here's the thing: Alex Bregman has been banged up all season and has produced below capabilities. If he, too, suddenly starts hitting, the Sox are done.
Sox: The Sox finished seventh in runs scored, though it would have been better if they hadn't been so saddled with injuries. The three most important hitters in the lineup are Yasmani Grandal, Tim Anderson and Luís Robert. If they are getting on base and hitting home runs, the Sox win games. Better news: Yoán Moncáda finished strong in the final month and if the Sox have four hitters clicking, they'll win a lot of series in the postseason. José Abreu and Eloy Jiménez have not finished strong, but we've seen what Abreu can do in the postseason once he gets over this sickness. And maybe Eloy will get hot too. Leury García, Gavin Sheets and Adam Engel are capable hitters. The Astros have an edge in lineups, but the Sox's lineup isn't a weakness. It's kind of like the starting pitching comparison but conversed.
Astros: McCormick or Meyers would be the best player here, depending on who starts. The Astros would have an edge off the bench, but they recently lost rookie slugger José Síri to a fractured pinkie, so he's questionable for the series and might be left off the roster. A free swinger with big power, he could have been plugged in for extra offense. Marwin González is just the kind of guy who kills the White Sox, and he might be hanging around for a pinch-hitting moment.
Sox: Andrew Vaughn might even start at DH instead of Sheets, even though his swing and process were messed up in the final six weeks, which forced him to the injured list to think about it. Not sure what we're going to get from Andrew, though he's going to get opportunities sometime. Billy Hamilton is standing by for defense. The Sox bench was a strength all season as they plunged guys in to make up for injuries, but unless TLR plans to use Jake Burger on the roster, the bench is kind of weak. Which is OK — it's not the National League — as long as nobody gets hurt or nosedives too much, too soon.
EDGE: Even (but slight edge Astros, if Síri can contribute)
X-factors, managers, what have you
Astros: They're going about their business like a team that wants to prove something — something about trash cans and high-tech surveillance equipment. Dusty Baker has never managed a World Series winner, and while Cubs fans could write a dissertation on why that is, it's been a long time since Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and the Foul Ball Guy. Baker has learned some lessons, and he's still as much of a players' manager as ever, Dude.
Sox: They didn't have much competition in the AL Central, which made the second half simply a waiting game. That kind of mentality worked against them the last time TLR and the Sox made it to the playoffs together 38 years ago. This team should be focused for this particular challenge, and when the Sox focus, they win. La Russa made some mistakes in his first year (again) as manager, he had some dinosaur moments, but he didn't ruin everything like many Sox fans and experts thought. While there's still time for that, perhaps there's something that he learned as Cardinals manager, about playoff baseball, that will push the Sox over the edge. And not of a cliff. But maybe that too.
D.B.'s ALDS Prediction: Astros in five games. This series should go the distance, but the Sox also could fall in four.