AL Wild Card Series Preview: Chicago White Sox vs. Oakland Athleticson September 28, 2020 at 2:00 pm

AL Wild Card Series Preview: Chicago White Sox vs. Oakland Athletics

The Chicago White Sox very nearly pulled off the shock of baseball’s dramatic final day of the regular season on Sunday. They entered the afternoon trailing the Minnesota Twins by a single game in the American League Central, but could still steal the division crown with a victory and a Twins loss. That bit of intrigue quickly felt moot when the Cubs stormed ahead 6-0 in the second inning and took a 10-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning, but with Minnesota in the midst of a tight battle with Cincinnati, the White Sox didn’t quit. They scored seven runs over the final two innings and brought the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth in the form of outfielder Nomar Mazara, who had already collected two hits.

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.

The last 11 years of playoff-less baseball on the south side of Chicago haven’t all been lost causes. The 2010 team won 88 games, but missed the postseason because the New York Yankees got the then-lone Wild Card spot with 95 wins. In 2012, the White Sox won 85 games, but again missed the playoffs because there were seven AL teams that won at least 88. The following year, the White Sox slipped to 63-99, and haven’t won more than 78 in any season since.

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:

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