October 2, 2018 / 3:12 AM / 17 days ago

Take 5: Biggest weaknesses for NL playoff teams

It took two Game 163s, but the National League playoff picture is finally settled.

Sep 30, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (45) pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers claimed their division tiebreakers on Monday, winning the NL Central and West, respectively. The losers of those games — the Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies — will face off in the wild-card game Tuesday, with the winner of that contest bound for Milwaukee for Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, will host the NL East champion Atlanta Braves in the other Division Series.

Each NL postseason team finished with more than 90 wins, but that isn’t to say they are flawless. Here are potential issues for each club that could prove problematic this October.

5. Atlanta Braves — youth/inexperience

The Braves are in the postseason for the first time since 2013, which means many of their current players will be getting their first taste of playoff baseball. The only regulars in Atlanta’s lineup who have postseason experience are the elder statesmen — catcher Kurt Suzuki (34), first baseman Freddie Freeman (28) and right fielder Nick Markakis (34). Leadoff hitter Ronald Acuna Jr. is 20 years old, and the team’s top source of power, Ozzie Albies, is 21. Anibal Sanchez is the only member of Atlanta’s rotation with extensive postseason experience, though his last playoff start came in 2013. While the energy young players provide could be a strength for the Braves in a high-pressure environment, it could just as easily be their undoing against a loaded Dodgers team making its sixth straight postseason appearance.

4. Milwaukee Brewers — momentum

The Brewers have a shutdown bullpen, potent offense and quality starting pitching. They enter the playoffs having won eight straight and 20 of 27 since the start of September. But now, having won Monday’s tiebreaker against the Cubs, they’ll travel back to Milwaukee and won’t play again until Thursday. That kind of break can easily throw off a team’s rhythm. Just as quickly as the Brewers won eight straight in April, they lost their next four in a row. Matching the momentum of whichever team travels to Milwaukee off the high of a wild-card game win will be key to the Brewers avoiding an upset.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers — Kenley Jansen’s health

The Dodgers are another team with few weaknesses, though one potential problem they may face extends beyond the game of baseball. Closer Kenley Jansen is expected to undergo heart surgery this offseason after spending time on the disabled list as the result of an irregular heartbeat that first surfaced this season at Colorado in August. So what if Los Angeles has to play the Rockies in the NL Championship Series? Jansen told USA Today he’ll take the risk and make the trip, but him putting his life in danger in such a way has to be unsettling to those around him. Jansen has been the Dodgers’ greatest weapon the last two postseasons, pitching more than one inning on multiple occasions with mostly positive results. How comfortable manager Dave Roberts will feel doing the same this time around — especially if the team plays in Denver — remains to be seen.

2. Chicago Cubs — stale offense

Where has the excitement gone in Chicago? Just two years ago, the Cubs rode a young and exhilarating offense to their first World Series title since 1908, but the team has lacked that dynamic feel this season. As a club, the Cubs hit the fifth-fewest home runs (167) in the NL this year along with ranking third-from-last in stolen bases (66). Remove Javier Baez (34 homers, 21 steals) from the lineup, and no Cubs player topped eight in both categories. Manager Joe Maddon has a history of being creative with his clubs, but this Cubs team just seems to lack the offensive versatility that can give opponents fits in a playoff series. Headed to the wild-card game, Chicago is going to need a spark from someone to get another crack at Milwaukee.

1. Colorado Rockies — bullpen

Yes, pitching is once again a problem for the Rockies. The team dedicated north of $100 million this offseason toward fortifying its bullpen, and in return it got a 4.62 ERA from its relievers — third worst in the NL. New closer Wade Davis has a 4.13 ERA, and the two other pitchers signed over the winter who were supposed to be his setup men — Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee — have ERAs of 5.93 and 6.49, respectively. The Rockies are loaded on offense, and their starting pitching has shown improvement, but how they’ll hold leads or keep close in a tight game will be an area of concern.

—Kyle Brasseur, Field Level Media

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