The trendy thing to do before every series in the baseball postseason is take a look at both teams position-by-position and see how they stack up against each other. Out of the nine offensive slots, starting rotation, and bullpen you can get a pretty good idea of each team's strengths and weaknesses and what facets of the game will be key in deciding who advances. Since baseball is so predictable (especially in the playoffs), you can just add up who has the most checkmarks in their column and determine who's going to win the series. It's not all that difficult. So that's what we're going to do here for the Blue Jays and Cleveland.
Catcher - Roberto Perez vs. Russell Martin
Perez came to the forefront for Cleveland this season after Yan Gomes struggled with injuries all year, with Roberto not impressing all that much in the process. The career back-up and minor leaguer struggled mightily at the plate throughout the year, although he did have a big home run in Game 1 of the ALDS against Boston. His defence is where Perez really earns his paycheque, catching the eye of many fans this postseason with his blocking and pitch framing ability. Sound like anyone? Russell Martin has got the defence thing down pretty well also, in addition to having a rather significant advantage over Perez at the plate. Despite a rather unattractive slash line this season, Martin has been a league-average hitter in 2016 and even provided a homer in the crucial Game 3 against the Rangers a few days ago.
First Base - Mike Napoli vs. Edwin Encarnacion
It's a little unfair to have to be compared to Edwin Encarnacion, but that's the situation Mike Napoli finds himself in for the purposes of this made-up positional competition. The righty-hitter for Cleveland has done a solid job at first base this year smacking 34 home runs over the wall and playing mediocre defence, but it doesn't quite compare to Encarnacion's red-hot contract year. The Dominican has hit 42 home runs of his own and will be a big key to the Jays winning this series.
Second Base - Jason Kipnis vs. Devon Travis
The '4' spot is definitely one where the Indians have star presence with underrated Kipnis getting it done both at the plate and on the field. He's always been an above-average hitter with some pop for the position to go along with good defence. The AL Central team has Kip on a very team-friendly deal which should pay continue paying dividends for years to come. On the other side of the ledger is banged-up Devon Travis. The former Tigers prospect had a solid year for the Jays, even if it wasn't quite the level he reached in 2015. The main issue with him right now is obviously his injury and how he'll come back from that to try and start tomorrow. If he's unable to go then Darwin Barney can more than fill his shoes defensively, despite obviously not measuring up to Travis' level at the plate.
Shortstop - Francisco Lindor vs. Troy Tulowitzki
A true battle of old vs. young takes place at shortstop as young phenom Lindor is getting his first taste of the postseason in his second year in the league against battle-tested Tulowitzki. Lindor was as good as advertised defensively this season and had a wRC+ of 112 with 15 homers to boot. He's got some speed as well and will surely look to be one of many challenging Russell Martin's arm this series. On the flip side is someone who will not be caught challenging anyone's arm in the next two weeks. Tulo had an okay year in 2016, but was definitely not at the level of his Colorado days. For a 32-year-old, he's no slouch defensively, but I think we can agree that his time as an elite player is certainly coming to an end. Which is not ideal when the contract for him runs until eternity.
Third Base - Jose Ramirez vs. Josh Donaldson
Young Jose Ramirez had his coming-out party this year, bursting onto the scene at 24-years-old to become a staple in the middle of Cleveland's lineup. The Dominican isn't great defensively at the hot corner and may not end up there when it's all said and done (he played some outfield this season), but he's made it clear his bat will play at any position. For some reason I've always thought of Ramirez as a bigger guy, but the 5'9" 165 lbs. third baseman stole 22 bases this year and could be a speed threat if he gets on base consistently against the Jays. Obviously he's not in the same league as Josh Donaldson though, who equaled his MVP campaign from last season and advanced Toronto to the ALCS with his daring dash for home in Game 3 against the Rangers. Donaldson is elite, end of story.
Designated Hitter - Carlos Santana vs. Michael Saunders/Justin Smoak
At this point the Blue Jays don't have much of a presence at the DH position, so it's tough to really compare anyone to Carlos Santana for Cleveland. Michael Saunders saw the majority of DH at-bats in the ALDS, but has been on a months-long slump since the All-Star Break. If any of Saunders, Smoak, Upton, or Navarro get hot during the series, you can expect them to claim the DH spot for the rest of the games. Carlos Santana on the other hand has made a home at the 'position without a position' for Cleveland, putting up big numbers this year including 34 home runs. He leads off a lot of the time for Francona, getting on base at a solid clip despite lacking the prototypical leadoff speed.
Outfield - Lonnie Chisenhall, Coco Crisp, Brandon Guyer, Tyler Naquin and Rajai Davis vs. Ezequiel Carrera, Michael Saunders, Kevin Pillar, Melvin Upton Jr., and Jose Bautista
When you look at how Cleveland utilizes their outfield, it really only makes sense to compare the two units as a whole. While Naquin and Chisenhall normally man centre and right field respectively, Davis, Crisp, and Guyer all rotate around the positions depending on platoon matchups and game situation. Obviously all the guys bring different skill sets to the table, but we all are well aware what Rajai Davis brings. The man with 43 stolen bags this year has the potential to tear the Jays apart if he's able to get on base and create the havoc that he's known for with his wheels None of the five are liabilities offensively, but in the same vein none of them stand out as huge stars either. In fact, you can usually find the three outfield positions hitting 6-8 in the Cleveland lineup.
On the other side, Jose Bautista pretty clearly is the best player of the Jays bunch and is still a threat each at-bat despite having a bit of a down year. We all know what the Dominican slugger can do along with what Pillar brings to the table defensively in centre. The wild card these days is actually beginning to look like Ezequiel Carrera, who has had a torrid postseason. In the four playoff games, the utility outfielder is 6-16 with two walks and the home run in Game 2. He's essentially forced his way into the lineup at this point and it will be surprise if he doesn't start Game 1 in Cleveland. Obviously he could come crashing back to earth at any point, but it will be interesting to see if he can keep this hot streak going.
In terms of a comparison, both units bring different things to the table but I'd still have to give the edge to Toronto. With Bautista's offensive ability and Pillar's glove, the Blue Jays could do a lot worse in their outfield. Throw in some Zeke magic and you have yourself a nice little group out there.
Starting Pitching - Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, and (probably) Mike Clevinger vs. Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez
If this article was being written at the beginning of the season when Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were available for Cleveland, the outcome would have been very different. But with both starts injured, the reality is much different. In Carrasco and Salazar, Terry Francona's squad lost their second and third best pitchers, and will now have to make do with a patched together rotation that features a Game 4 starter who will be on a severe innings limit. Fitting considering he will be facing off against Aaron Sanchez. While Kluber is a legit ace and Bauer is a serviceable #2, even Josh Tomlin probably shouldn't be starting Game 3 of the ALCS. That's saying nothing of Mike Clevinger who put up horrid numbers in the rotation this year and should (please don't be a curse) be beat around by the Jays on Tuesday night.
On the flip side, the Jays rotation has stayed pretty strong throughout the year and hasn't had to deal with too many injuries at all. Estrada against Kluber presents a great matchup in Game 1, which may also be the only pitching battle all series where you'd have to favour Cleveland. When you look back to what we thought about this rotation in March, that's an amazing outcome. Obviously in a seven game series, all it takes is a few great pitching performances to swing the tide so it will be important for the Jays starters to pitch within themselves and just keep the offence in the game. We saw in Game 3 against Texas how Aaron Sanchez got a little out of control in the big moment, which could have come back to bite him if the rest of the team wasn't there to back him up and put a bunch of runs on the board.
It's not really going out on a limb to say that a playoff series will be decided by the pitching, but it seems especially so in this ALCS. If the Cleveland tertiary starters aren't up to the task, the Blue Jays offence could continue to roll like they did against the Rangers which would spell big trouble for Francona's squad.
The Cleveland bullpen was second only to the Orioles in the AL this year, which should provide some worry for Blue Jays fans. If Toronto is unable to break through against the subpar starting pitching, they have a long line of capable relievers ready to shut them down. Headed by Andrew Miller and supported by Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, and Cody Allen, Francona uses his bullpen extremely effectively and is willing to throw his key guys out in any spot. As we saw in the series against Boston, don't be surprised to see Andrew Miller coming in for high leverage situations in the seventh inning if that's what the game situation calls for.
While the Jays 'pen has gotten it done in the postseason thus far, the unit is just not on the same level as Cleveland. Guys like Joe Biagini, Brett Cecil, and Jason Grilli have backed up stud closer Roberto Osuna admirably, but they're much less of a sure thing then their ALCS counterparts. Here's hoping Francisco Liriano comes back and picks up where he left off out of the bullpen, as he will be a big key to shoring up the path from the starters to Osuna in the ninth inning. Without him, the road could get a little rocky.
There you have it... Toronto has the advantage at 5 of the 9 positional groups going into the ALCS against Cleveland. As we all know, this is a crystal clear indication that the Blue Jays will win the best-of-seven and advance to the World Series since all it takes is a subjective positional advantage to win baseball games. In the comments let us know how you see the two teams matching up over the course of the next few weeks and if you disagree with any of the verdicts above.