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Baseball playoff preview

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Photo - Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche led the team in home runs (33) and RBIs (100). (AP photo)
Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche led the team in home runs (33) and RBIs (100). (AP photo)
Sports,MLB,Nationals,Orioles,Brian McNally

National League

Nationals

NL East champions

Record » 98-64

Strengths » There isn't a single regular with an OPS over .853, but Washington's seventh-best hitter, second baseman Danny Espinosa, still has a .717 OPS and 17 home runs. The top of the order, led by Jayson Werth and rookie Bryce Harper, mixes patience at the plate with good power. Harper has 22 home runs. Werth has a .387 on-base percentage.

Weaknesses » Their best hitter in 2012 (Adam LaRoche) ranks 28th in OPS among all batters, so there's not an elite bat to put fear in opposing pitchers. Also, the Nats voluntarily shut down ace starter Stephen Strasburg. Their pitchers, including relievers, are uniformly awful at holding runners on base. Multiple regulars (Werth, Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman) are playing through injuries.

Notable number » 3.40: ERA for the Nats' starting rotation, best in the NL.

Reds

NL Central champions

Record » 97-65

Strengths »

The Reds have the best bullpen (2.65 ERA) in baseball led by closer Aroldis Chapman (38 saves, 1.51 ERA). The lineup is top heavy, but few teams have a hitter like first baseman Joey Votto (1.041 OPS in 374 at-bats). Outfielder Jay Bruce had a breakout season (34 homers, 35 doubles). Their rotation is led by Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto (2.78 ERA).

Weaknesses » Chapman did see a drop in velocity in September likely because of shoulder fatigue. And though he didn't allow a run in his last four appearances after a 12-day rest, his control was still spotty. The bottom of Cincinnati's batting order is suspect, and there's not much team speed outside Drew Stubbs (30 steals) and Brandon Phillips (15 steals).

Notable number » 3.46: The respectable ERA of reliever Logan Ondrusek -- and the worst mark in the game's best bullpen.

Giants

NL West champions

Record » 94-68

Strengths » Few teams have a top of the rotation as good as Matt Cain (2.79 ERA) and Madison Bumgarner (3.37 ERA). Catcher Buster Posey has returned from last year's serious left leg injury and put himself in the NL MVP race with 24 homers and 103 RBIs. San Francisco also has plenty of World Series experience having won the title two years ago.

Weaknesses » The Giants could have added outfielder Melky Cabrera to the postseason roster after a 50-game suspension but chose not to. They will continue to miss his .906 OPS. The bullpen posted a relatively mediocre 3.56 ERA. And while he at times showed signs of life late in the season, starter Tim Lincecum (5.18 ERA) is not the same pitcher he was in 2010.

Notable number » 4.78: ERA in 15 starts since the All-Star break for starter Ryan Vogelsong, who had a 2.22 ERA as recently as Aug. 2.

Braves

NL wild card

Record » 94-68

Strengths » Atlanta might have the best defensive team in the majors with an outfield that covers a ton of turf. Only Cincinnati has a better bullpen. Atlanta's relievers have a collective 2.76 ERA. Starter Kris Medlen is 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 12 starts and has quickly become the staff ace. Tim Hudson (3.62 ERA) is a steady, experienced pro. Chipper Jones (.824 OPS) is still productive at 40.

Weaknesses »

Among playoff teams, only the Reds scored fewer runs than Atlanta (700). The Braves' team OPS is just .709, and they are vulnerable to left-handed pitching. They also lost ace Brandon Beachy to elbow surgery in May, so the rotation isn't as deep as it could be. Atlanta ranked only 20th in the majors in home runs (149). Jason Heyward led the team with 27.

Notable number » 3: Blown saves in 45 chances for closer Craig Kimbrel, who has a stunning 1.01 ERA.

Cardinals

NL wild card

Record » 88-74

Strengths »

St. Louis lost star first baseman Albert Pujols and somehow still put together a productive offense. Six members of the starting lineup have an OPS of .828 or better, and even outfielder Jon Jay has had a breakout year. Ace Kyle Lohse is on the fringe of the Cy Young debate with a 2.86 ERA. Six starters used in 2012 have an ERA below 4.00.

Weaknesses » The bullpen has a ton of power arms, but it hasn't been all that productive this season (3.90 ERA). The Cardinals outscored opponents by 117 runs, the fourth-best run differential in the majors, and yet just edged into the playoffs. St. Louis lost shortstop Rafael Furcal to a torn elbow ligament in late August, though Pete Kozma was solid at the plate in September as his replacement.

Notable number » 47.9: Percent of runners caught stealing for catcher Yadier Molina.

American League

Yankees

AL East champions

Record » 95-67

Strengths »

The Yankees have been the most consistent offense in baseball despite injuries to key players. New York led the sport with a .790 team OPS and scored 804 runs, second only to Texas. Ten different players hit at least 14 homers, and Curtis Granderson smashed 43. There's no easy way to wade through that lineup. Robinson Cano is the Yankees' best hitter (.929 OPS).

Weaknesses » The bullpen is only average with a 3.43 ERA. There was just no way to make up for the loss of closer Mariano Rivera (torn ACL). But the rotation might not be good enough, either. CC Sabathia pitched like an ace down the stretch. Ivan Nova fell apart. Can Andy Pettitte, 40, call upon his vast postseason experience? And how will Hiroki Kuroda handle the playoff spotlight?

Notable number » 74: Errors committed by the Yankees. Only two teams had fewer.

Athletics

AL West champions

Record » 94-68

Strengths »

Oakland won the AL West because a starting rotation filled with young pitchers shook off the loss of Bartolo Colon (suspension), Brandon McCarthy (fractured skull) and Brett Anderson (oblique strain). The rotation still ranked ninth, the bullpen was fourth best (2.94 ERA), and the A's take full advantage of their spacious home park with an ERA 0.9 lower at home than on the road.

Weaknesses » The A's aren't all that efficient at producing runs. The lineup ranks 28th in batting average (.238) and 24th in on-base percentage (.310). But even playing in a big ballpark they smacked 195 homers to make up for it. Only six teams hit more. Oakland isn't exactly a smooth defensive machine, either, with 111 errors. Only seven teams committed more.

Notable number » 32:

Home runs for team-leader Josh Reddick, one of eight A's players to reach double digits.

Tigers

AL Central champions

Record » 88-74

Strengths » Let's start with having a Triple Crown winner anchoring the lineup. Miguel Cabrera led the AL in homers (44), RBIs (139) and batting (.330) and may earn MVP honors. And the Tigers have Prince Fielder, who produced another 30 homers. Ace pitcher Justin Verlander (2.64 ERA) is again an AL Cy Young candidate and has plenty of postseason experience.

Weaknesses »

No team relies more on its stars. Outfielder Austin Jackson had a nice season, but the bottom half of the order isn't all that imposing. Doug Fister (3.45 ERA) provides a nice counterpunch to Verlander, but how will the rest of the rotation fare against deeper postseason lineups? The bullpen (3.79 ERA) ranks worst among all five AL playoff teams, though Jose Valverde had 35 saves.

Notable number » 45.4: Percent of Detroit's 163 home runs hit by either Cabrera (44) and Fielder (30).

Rangers

AL wild card

Record » 93-69

Strengths » The Rangers scored 808 runs. They get on base (.334). They hit for power (.446 slugging, 200 home runs). Only four clubs hit more homers. Texas is excellent defensively (85 errors), especially on the left side of its infield with Adrian Beltre at third base and Elvis Andrus at shortstop. The bullpen is solid with a combined 3.42 ERA.

Weaknesses »

The Rangers have never really recovered from the loss of starters C.J. Wilson (free agent) and Colby Lewis (torn elbow ligament). Matt Harrison (3.29 ERA) has given a nice boost, but Yu Darvish (3.90) has been up and down adjusting to the North American game. Neither Ryan Dempster nor Derek Holland has performed to expectations.

Notable number » 13: Game lead in the AL West for Texas over Oakland on June ?30 that disappeared and knocked the Rangers into the wild-card contest.

Orioles

AL wild card

Record » 93-69

Strengths » It's unlikely any offense is more reliant on the home run than Baltimore, which hit 214 homers. That was second only to the Yankees and helped make up for a .311 team on-base percentage. The bullpen posted a 3.00 ERA and is the main reason the club was so dominant in one-run games (29-9) and won 16 straight games that went extra innings.

Weaknesses » The Opening Day rotation was obliterated by poor performance and injuries. But they cobbled together a unit that at least can get games to that steady bullpen. Veteran lefty Joe Saunders, who wasn't even with the team until late August, will start the wild-card game vs. Texas. The Orioles still miss outfielder Nick Markakis (broken left thumb).

Notable number »

33: Wins to 18 losses after the Orioles promoted rookie Manny Machado on Aug. 9.

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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