ALDS Preview: Indians vs. Astros

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The Houston Astros (103-59) and Cleveland Indians (91-71) will square off in the American League Division Series. The Astros won the season series with the Indians, 4-3. This ALDS matchup marks the first time that these two ballclubs will compete against each other in a playoff series. On one hand, the Astros had the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners on their tail for the division lead throughout the majority of the regular season. Meanwhile, the Indians finished the regular season with the biggest divisional lead in Major League Baseball (13 games). Regardless of records and who had the easier path to this point, this ALDS matchup projects to be an intriguing series. Here are the deciding factors to the series and which team will ultimately advance to the American League Championship Series.

Deciding Factors:

How will the Astros starting rotation fare outside of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole?

The premier aspect of the Astros is their starting rotation. With Verlander, Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, and Lance McCullers on standby, manager AJ Hinch has a number of potent arms to turn to. And this season Verlander and Cole established themselves as one of the best one-two pitching punches in the sport. Based on their strikeout prowess, it’s fair to speculate that they will continue to thrive in the coming weeks. But how will the rest of this rotation fare?

Keuchel has always been prone to putting runners on base. The lefty also surrendered a career-high 211 hits this season and was inconsistent in general. Yes, Morton put together a spectacular season and had some success in the postseason last year. But he doesn’t pitch deep into games. Can he be efficient in five-to-six innings of work, or will he labor and have to be pulled early? The Astros need Keuchel and Morton to be aggressive, pitch deep into their outings, and deliver. If they can’t do that, then the Indians offense could make them pay the price. With Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, and the recently-acquired Josh Donaldson in place, the Indians pose a threat to any pitching staff they encounter.

Will the Astros get consistent production from people not named Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman?

The Astros have one of the most talented lineups in the game. But, as a whole, their offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders. In fact, outside of Altuve, Bregman, and Yuli Gurriel, the Astros offense was underwhelming this season. Altuve’s double-play mate, Carlos Correa, hit a paltry .239. While the shortstop did miss time due to injury, the Astros need Correa to be a more productive force at the plate. George Springer hit .265, outfielders Marwin Gonzalez and Josh Reddick were inconsistent, and while he’s a power bat, Evan Gattis still hit just .226.

Altuve and Bregman have been carrying the Astros offense. And while their production is encouraging for the Astros, they need others to step up to win this series. Going up against a rotation that features Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Trevor Bauer (who all recorded 200-plus strikeouts this season), a two-man show isn’t going to get the job done for the Astros.

Will Corey Kluber bounce back from a disastrous 2017 postseason?

Kluber is one of the best starting pitchers in the game. He can command the strike zone, is a strikeout machine, keeps runners off base, and can pitch deep into games. With that said, the righty struggled immensely in the 2017 postseason. Surrendering nine runs in 6.1 innings in the Indians’ ALDS matchup with the New York Yankees, he came up small when it mattered most. Going up against an Astros lineup that, while not as relentless as it was last season, is more than capable of running up the scoreboard, Kluber must pitch like the ace the Indians are accustomed to.

In a best of five series, Kluber is slated to make at least two starts if the Indians can win a game or two; that is supposed to be a good thing for the Indians. Alongside Kluber, the Indians have Carrasco and Clevinger slated to pitch Games 2 and 3 and perhaps Bauer for Game 4 — depending on whether manager Terry Francona feels Bauer is healthy enough to start. Kluber will be going up against Verlander in Game 1. If the Indians want to have a chance at winning the ALDS, they need their ace to dominate.

Will the Indians bullpen hold its own or hold back their ballclub?

One year ago, the Indians had arguably the best bullpen in the sport. Today, their pen is amongst the league’s worst. They finished the year 25th in ERA (4.60), 29th in strikeouts (478), and 19th in opponent batting average (.253). Cody Allen was shaky in the ninth inning, Andrew Miller endured multiple stints on the disabled list and struggled in the appearances he did make, and Dan Otero and Tyler Olson recorded ERA’s near five; it was an utter disaster for the Indians pen this season.

Meanwhile, the Astros bullpen finished first in ERA (3.03) and opponent batting average (.214). They pick up where their starting pitchers leaves things and don’t skip a beat. Whether it be Tony Sipp, Collin McHugh, Hector Rondon, or Roberto Osuna, the Astros have several reliable arms who they can turn to in their pen. The Indians can match up with the Astros starting rotation, but if they get hit hard early, or Francona has to turn to his pen in a close game, it’s difficult to get a gauge on whether the Indians pen is capable of getting the job done. Big names haven’t translated to big production for this pen. With that said, if they can get it together and pitch to their capabilities, the Indians could very well knock off the defending champions.

Prediction: Astros in five

The Astros and Indians can go toe-to-toe with each other’s lineup and starting pitching. At the end of the day, this series is going to come down to which team’s pitching staff blinks first. Working under that guideline, the Astros will win this series, though it won’t be a walk in the park.

The Astros have a stellar starting rotation, a lineup full of proven commodities, and a lockdown bullpen. Plus, even though their bullpen had its flaws, they were still able to take care of business when they had to in the late innings last postseason. The Astros have a healthier rotation and more postseason success under their belt than the Indians in recent memory; they’ve been able to get the big out when they have to. The Indians have been unable to do the same. But their starting lineup and the four-headed monster that is their starting rotation cannot be discredited.

This series will go the distance. When it’s all said and done, the Astros will win this ALDS matchup in five games.

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