Predicting them to meet in the World Series isn't much of a stretch, despite the apparent wide-open nature of this year's postseason.
In Atlanta, pitching reigns supreme. Their 3.18 ERA is the best in the majors, and the rotation has put together 102 quality starts in 162 games, going deep into games -- 989 innings pitched -- on their way to 96 wins. But as good as their starters were, the bullpen was even better. Opponents hit just .222 off them, and their 2.46 ERA is nearly half a run better than any other playoff team.
They're battle-tested and won't have an infield-fly ruling determine whether or not they advance this year. At the same time, however, they're one of the younger teams in the race and shouldn't tire out if the series drag on.
Though they strike out a lot -- 23 percent of the time -- they do hit a lot of home runs; 181 balls have sailed over the outfield fences, 40 more than any other playoff team. As a whole, they are very feast-or-famine, but they have the pitching to make up for the off-nights in a short series.
Why not the St. Louis Cardinals?
The Cardinals finished with one more win than the Braves and have the right to host the wild-card team -- a big advantage. But Allen Craig's injury is a game-changer. Craig hit .315/.373/.457 with nearly 100 RBIs this year. The Cardinals won't have his services for the NLDS, and perhaps longer.
Why not the Los Angeles Dodgers?
Outside of a midseason run that saw them go 42-8, the Dodgers have been pretty pedestrian. Down the stretch, the Dodgers limped to a 11-15 finish. More important, they've suffered some concerning injuries. Matt Kemp was lost for the season while Andre Ethier may be limited to a pinch-hit role. With Carl Crawford never a guarantee, Yasiel Puig might be the only viable outfield option.
Why not the Pittsburgh Pirates?
The Pirates might just be happy to be here for the first time since Tim Wakefield was a rookie. Whether or not that satisfaction carries over into complacency remains to be seen, but they have few players who have tackled a postseason series before. On top of that, the Pirates' offense is the worst of any playoff team, and bottom 10 in the league in nearly every statistical category. Given the NL's fantastic pitching, it will be an uphill battle all the way.
Why not the Cincinnati Reds?
Are the Reds really that scary? Like their wild-card counterpart, their offense leaves something to be desired. They can get on base, drawing the second-most walks in MLB, but their .249 average is just 18th in MLB. At some point, those walks are going to have to turn into hits.
If there's one team to be feared, it's the Red Sox. They can do it all -- pitch, hit and close. David Ortiz is a man on a mission, having his best season since 2007. But he's not doing it alone. Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino are having productive seasons at the top of the lineup, helping the team get off to a quick start. Ellsbury's speed on the bases are almost unmatched this year, and Boston's 86.6 stealing percentage is the best since 1920.
Versatility has been the Red Sox's calling card this season. Their prolific offense aside, they have a pitching staff to match up with almost anyone. Clay Buchholz was having a Cy Young-caliber season before suffering a midseason injury, but now he's good to go. Jake Peavy, John Lackey and even Jon Lester bring a wealth of playoff experience without being too old.
And then there's Koji Uehara, perhaps the AL's best-kept secret. At one point he had retired 37 straight batters while cementing himself in the role as Boston's closer. He finished with career bests in WHIP (0.565), ERA (1.09), innings (74.1) and strikeouts (101).
The only concern is a setup man for Uehara. No one from Craig Breslow to Junichi Tazawa has adequately stepped up. But if that's your biggest concern, you're doing all rright.
Why not the Oakland Athletics?
They've won two straight division titles and may be flying under the radar as much as anyone in the playoffs. Bartolo Colon has come out of nowhere to put together an impressive campaign. At the same time, Colon is 40 years old and has thrown 190 innings this year. How much does his arm have left? Without an effective Colon, their rotation takes a significant hit.
Why not the Detroit Tigers?
Like the Red Sox, the Tigers can hit and they can pitch. Lucky for the Red Sox, either Detroit or Oakland will be eliminated before a potential ALCS matchup. The health of Miguel Cabrera will determine how far the Tigers go. He's missed some games in September, and has not been his usual self. He hit just .278 with 1 home run and 7 RBIs in the final month. Without him, the Tigers are not nearly as tough.
Why not the Cleveland Indians?
Terry Francona is an excellent manager and has the Indians playing some good ball. But they needed a 10-game winning streak just to make the playoffs. Francona returning to Boston would be a great story, but getting past the ever-dangerous Rays will be the biggest hurdle. They excel at nothing and are average at everything. The magic is bound to run out soon.
Why not the Tampa Bay Rays?
Oddly enough, the Rays might be the biggest threat to the Red Sox's return to a pennant. Though Boston won the season series 12-7, the two teams are very close. The Rays have solid pitching with arms young enough to not get fatigued. And playing two extra games, that will come in handy. But with players like Evan Longoria, they have the talent to match the Red Sox run for run. It's hard to imagine a potential series between the two not going the distance.
Follow him on Twitter @ndrewL7.
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