Just as suddenly as Chicago’s rally came together, however, it came to an end. An Andrew Chafin fastball on a 2-2 count finished close enough to Mazara’s knees for the home plate umpire to rule it strike three, putting an end to the hopes of a division title and early home field advantage for the White Sox. Don’t feel too badly for them, though — they still have postseason berth, their first since 2008 and just their second since winning the World Series in 2005. They’ll enter the postseason as the No. 7 seed, meaning they will travel to Oakland and take on the No. 2-seed Athletics in a best-of-three Wild Card series beginning on Tuesday.
But there is a benefit to drearily meandering from one losing season to the next, at least according to those in charge of said losing teams, and that is the accumulation of talent gained from high draft picks and trading away established major-league players for bushels of cheap minor league talent. The fruits of those draft picks and trades — along with offseason additions like Yasmani Grandal — have been evident on this year’s White Sox team, which boasts the highest position player WAR total in baseball:
Jimenez and Moncada both came to the White Sox in high-profile trades while they were world-renowned prospects, while Robert, Anderson and Madrigal are all homegrown talents, either through the domestic draft or international signings. Meanwhile, Abreu — a possible MVP of not only his own team, but also the American League — is a player the White Sox signed out of Cuba as a 27-year-old established pro all the way back in 2014, before the full rebuild had commenced and hope of a quick turnaround still lingered. Getting most or all of these players, from rookies to vets, to perform well in 2020 was always a crucial part of Chicago’s rebuilding plan, and it has helped bring the team back to the postseason just two years after a 100-loss season.
The first postseason test for the White Sox in 12 years is the Oakland A’s, who entered this season looking to exorcise a demon of their own. It wasn’t a postseason drought — Oakland has made the playoffs five times in the years since Chicago’s last bit of October baseball. The problem is that in those five postseason appearances, the A’s have won zero playoff series. Indeed, going back to a sweep at the hands of Detroit in the 2006 ALCS, Oakland has lost six straight. The A’s fell to the Tigers in back-to-back ALDS appearances in 2012-13, followed by three Wild Card game losses in a six-year span, including last season’s 5-1 defeat at home against Tampa Bay.
After repeated heartbreaks in do-or-die Wild Card games, a best-of-three series is a welcome chance to breathe for the A’s, who have been consistently excellent for three straight years now. In both 2018 and ’19, Oakland finished with a .599 win percentage. This year, the club’s winning percentage was .600, finally good enough to take the AL West championship for the first time since 2013. And just like the past two seasons, the team enters the postseason riding a dominant relief staff; no team in baseball this year had a lower bullpen ERA than Oakland:
I’m rarely compelled to even consider mentioning pitcher wins and losses, but this seems impressive — in 60 games, A’s relievers only lost five games. If you’re tied with or trailing Oakland in the last few innings of a game, there just aren’t many arms that A’s manager Bob Melvin could call upon that wouldn’t make you outwardly uncomfortable.
Oakland’s position players weren’t on Chicago’s level at the plate this season, but their overall value is boosted considerably by the team’s defense and baserunning. The A’s were second only to the Rockies in both UZR and BsR this season, which combined with a team wRC+ of 100, made them the 10th-most valuable position-player group in baseball. Mark Canha has been the best of the bunch, maintaining his 2019 breakout to post a .241/.382/.401 line with a 124 wRC+ and 1.7 WAR this season, while rookie catcher Sean Murphy (.230/.360/.451, 129 wRC+), sudden power threat Robbie Grossman (.241/.344/.482, 126 wRC+), and trade deadline pickup Tommy La Stella (.273/.364/.438, 125 wRC+) pose credible threats in the lineup as well.
Likewise, the White Sox can hold their own when matched up with Oakland’s bullpen. Alex Colome (0.81 ERA, 2.96 FIP in 22.1 IP) has been a lights-out closer, while Evan Marshall (2.38 ERA, 2.04 FIP in 22.2 IP), Codi Heuer (1.54 ERA, 2.85 FIP in 23.1 IP) and Matt Foster (2.78 ERA, 2.92 FIP in 22.2 IP) have formed a somewhat unlikely trio of unstoppable arms in front of him.
With the two teams’ strengths pretty well balanced, that will make the starting pitcher match-ups all the more important. The White Sox have already announced their first two starters for the Wild Card series, but we’ll need to do a bit more guesswork on the part of the A’s, as they have yet to make any of their plans public:
|Dylan Cease||White Sox||58.1||6.79||5.25||1.85||4.01||6.36||5.87||-0.4|
|Dane Dunning||White Sox||34.0||9.26||3.44||1.06||3.97||3.98||4.15||0.7|
|Reynaldo Lopez||White Sox||26.1||8.20||5.13||3.08||6.49||7.63||6.19||-0.2|
Right away, the White Sox seem to have a distinct advantage here. Giolito — another major addition brought on by the team shedding a veteran player — was one of the best pitchers not named Shane Bieber in the AL this year, throwing a no-hitter and establishing himself as a legitimate frontman for a playoff contender. Meanwhile, Keuchel, the team’s other big offseason addition this past winter, had a terrific year of his own in his first season with the White Sox, and carries an impressive postseason resume of 59.2 career playoff innings and a 3.47 ERA in 12 starts. Bassitt has quietly had an excellent season, however, and the rookie Luzardo certainly has the potential to dominate a game any time he takes the mound. If the series reaches a third game, the situation on both sides gets dicier — Montas and Manaea can be frustratingly inconsistent, while Chicago’s best option may well be a rookie who’s made just seven big league starts. And because there is no off day, the opportunity for a Game 1 starter to come back for a heroic relief appearance later in the series is simply out of the question.
If the White Sox indeed have the edge when it comes to starting pitching, that won’t be the end of Oakland’s disadvantages in this series. Chicago managed to finish the season in great shape health-wise, with utility man Leury Garcia the only real contributor who isn’t expected to be available. The A’s aren’t in the worst spot compared with other playoff teams, but they will be missing Matt Chapman, the star third baseman who underwent hip surgery earlier this month. La Stella and Jake Lamb have filled in at the hot corner in his absence and haven’t hurt the team in any way, but the quality of both Chapman’s glove and his bat make anyone asked to replace him a noticeable step down. Beyond Chapman, the A’s are also missing J.B. Wendelken and Burch Smith, cutting two arms out of that vaunted bullpen.
Don’t let the 2-vs-7 seed match-up fool you — these two teams are as about as closely matched as any other grouping in this round. Oakland won just one more game than Chicago this season, and had just a three-run edge by run differential. Even those small differences might be offset by the schedule each team faced to get here — the White Sox saw six playoff teams this season, while the A’s saw just three. Both of these teams proved themselves at least capable of winning their division were this a normal season, and either could handle themselves just fine against an ALDS opponent. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen either of these teams celebrate advancing in the postseason. One way or another, that’s about to change.
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