MLB: AL Wild Card Playoffs Preview, Predictions & Picks

Maeda: AL Wild Card Playoffs SeriesAs fast the 2020 MLB season came, it’s already in the books. Well, the regular season is at least. After a 60-game season that had all kinds of starts and stops along the way, it’s time to crown a new World Series winner.

There will be a new winner as the defending champion Washington Nationals did not reach the postseason. While Washington faltered this year, 16 of MLB’s 30 teams did not. In MLB’s largest playoff field that includes teams who dominated from day one like the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers, teams who missed players and games due to COVID-19 like the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, and teams like the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros, who despite playing to sub-.500 records, are still alive into October.

There is a lot to unpack as far as the 2020 MLB playoffs go and USAbetting is here to help, providing a rundown of the 16 team field and what to expect. The postseason kicks off today (Tuesday, September 29) with the best-of-three American League’s Wild Card Series. Specifically, the #6 Houston Astros and #3 Minnesota Twins will get the first pitch going on the 2020 postseason.

#3 Minnesota Twins vs #6 Houston Astros (2:08 PM ET, Sept. 29)

Starting strong from day one, the Twins rode a successful season en route to their second consecutive AL Central title and a 36-24 record. The Astros finished the year just 29-31, but in a weak AL West, that was good enough to claim the division’s second automatic bid. It was the first time since 2014 that the Astros, who made the World Series last year and won the year before that, finished with a sub-.500 record.

Still baseball’s biggest common enemy, the Astros struggled offensively this year, something people will no doubt point to as a lack of the sign stealing scheme Houston was involved in. Team-wide, numbers were down and that is going to match this short series tough as Minnesota’s pitching presents a less than favorable matchup.

Kenta Maeda will take the mound in game one against Zack Greinke, who like Houston’s offense, largely limped to the finish line. Maeda on the other hand, is enjoying his best career year and faces an Astros lineup that has performed poorly against righties this year.

Byron Buxton finished strong for Minnesota as did the 40-year-old Nelson Cruz who led the Twins in several offensive categories. Offensively, the Twins, who were last year’s home run leaders, picked up where they left off.

  • This is going to be a tough series for the Astros, especially given the best of three format. Look for the Twins to advance with a 2-0 series win.

#7 Chicago White Sox vs #2 Oakland Athletics (3:08 PM ET, Sept. 29)

As far as improbable postseason journeys go, the Chicago White Sox fit that bill. Finishing as the third best team in the AL Central, the White Sox backed a 35-25 record to earn their first trip to the playoffs since 2008. Showing just how tightly contested this season was in the AL, the Oakland Athletics, with just a one-game better record than the White Sox, will host this first round playoff series.

Seeding doesn’t tell the full story here as the White Sox and Athletics are much closer than you’d expect in a #2 vs #7 matchup. The White Sox actually led all of baseball in position player WAR as guys like Yasmani Grandal, Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu and more, all contributed big time to the team’s offensive production. For the Athletics, their shining star comes in the form of their bullpen, the best in baseball. The Athletics have all the talent in the world and have been one of baseball’s best regular season teams of late. In their most recent five playoff appearances, Oakland has yet to win a single series.

The mental game will certainly play here but the Athletics will also have to deal with a tough matchup against a surging team. Chicago was no fluke this year and this will be a tough series, possibly the most highly contested of all the first-round matchups.

  • Our pick is to back the underdog, taking the White Sox to win game one and ultimately the series with a 2-1 final.

#1 Tampa Bay Rays vs #8 Toronto Blue Jays (5:07 PM ET, Sept. 29)

Perhaps the most intriguing series on the AL side is the only one that represents a meeting we’ve already seen, and seen a lot, this season. Due to the COVID schedule changes, the AL East only played their division and the NL East, meaning the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the biggest surprises of the year, and the Tampa Bay Rays, know their postseason opponents inside and out.

In a season that began with the New York Yankees as the AL favorites, it was the Rays who roared into first place in the East and the AL in general, with a dominant 40-20 record. It was a record that was accrued while playing against four of nine teams that ended up making the playoffs. The Blue Jays too had to face a schedule of playoff opponents and managed to play strong to a 32-28 record, their best in some time. Toronto was just one game shy of overtaking the Yankees for the second spot in the AL East.

The Ray’s achieved their AL-best record thanks to excelling in all areas of the game. A strong starting staff was backed by a capable bullpen and an offense which looked as good as it has been in years. This kind of success should help Tampa earn its first playoff series win in some time. Make no mistake, the Blue Jay’s are no slouch. Looking to send Hyun Jin Ryu and his 2.69 ERA to the mound in game one, Toronto may have a slight advantage over what the Rays will counter with Blake Snell.

  • If the Jays, led by their second generation stars of Cavan Biggio, Vlad Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette, can back Ryu’s efforts, Toronto could take the early lead here. The rest of the pitching matchups heavily favor the Rays so while we like Toronto to steal one in game one, our pick is to take Tampa Bay 2-1 overall in the series.

#5 New York Yankees vs #4 Cleveland Indians (7:08 PM ET, Sept. 29)

Don’t let the seeds fool you. The Yankees were huge favorites to win the AL East but due to a rash of injuries and inconsistent play that led to a horrid late season stretch, New York almost missed the playoffs entirely. The team pulled it together in the season’s final two weeks to secure a wildcard spot and a 33-27 record. The Cleveland Indians fought a hard battle in the AL Central, ultimately claiming the division’s second automatic bid, with a 35-25 record. It was just one game below the Twins for the highly contested AL Central crown.

So back to those seeds. The Yankees, despite being the fifth seed, are as dangerous as ever. The team is led by baseball’s home run king in 2020, Luke Voit, and top hitter, DJ LeMahieu. Notice neither of those names are Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton. That’s how deep the Yankees bench goes offensively. While injuries still loom large, the Yankees ended the year as one of baseball’s hotter teams and the Indians shouldn’t take that for granted, even if their pitching has been as good as it has.

Cleveland has allowed a league-best ERA, surrendering just 3.48 runs to opponents this year. Leading the way will be game one starter and likely AL Cy Young winner, Shane Bieber, who pitched to an 8-1 record and insane 1.63 ERA. Even an offense as potent as New York’s is going to struggle against Bieber’s shutdown stuff. The Indians aren’t the only ones with a stud on the mound. In fact, this game should provide the top pitching matchup not just of this series but perhaps of the whole playoffs as Gerrit Cole and his 2.84 ERA will be on the mound for New York.

  • As you would expect from a #4/#5 series, this one is hard to call. It’s really split down the middle especially with game one’s tantalizing pitching matchup. We like the Indians here, to win game one and to take the series 2-1 but expect close games and down-to-wire moments each night.