Which MLB contender has the best postseason starting rotation?

Here’s a thing I made for you to argue about online:

Trying to predict the outcome of any short MLB postseason series is a fool’s errand. As noted frequently in this space around this time of year every year, it would take a best-of-269-game series to determine, with statistical significance, the better of two good baseball teams. Trying to guess what’s going to happen beforehand mostly amounts to pointless fun.

But when we attempt it, impossible though the task may be, we typically start by looking at the strength of postseason rotations. This list aims to rank the league’s 15 postseason hopefuls by how good their starting staffs will look come October. I factored in depth, but gave more weight to the strength of the front of teams’ rotations, since those guys wind up pitching significantly more in the postseason. I considered recent performance, performance throughout 2018, career norms, and, as best as I could, health outlooks.

What I did not do was include a couple of good AL clubs with long odds of reaching the playoffs. Both the Mariners and Rays would be right in the thick of the wild-card hunt in the National League, but neither has a better than 1% chance of reaching the postseason by the odds at Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs. Also: I just have no idea how to handle the Rays, and their success with a non-traditional pitching formula suggests exercises like this one are increasingly pointless. Many of the teams near the bottom of this list still have very good pitching staffs overall – clubs without top-tier starting pitching have shown, this season especially, that they can succeed by limiting starters’ workloads and relying on deep bullpens.

OK, here we go:

1. Houston Astros

So much has been made of the Astros’ rotation this season that I figured they’d be an obvious runaway for the top spot here, but when I looked closer, they appeared a bit nearer to the pack than I realized. Still, the Houston staff looks stacked from top to bottom with durable, battle-tested, generally excellent veteran starters.

Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole stand with the best of the 1-2 combinations in the running, and no team is likely to run out better third and fourth guys than Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton, in whichever order. Lance McCullers is working his way back from a forearm strain. If he can return to healthy by October, he’s either another option for the starting staff or the postseason’s best insurance policy.

2. Cleveland Indians

If Trevor Bauer were healthy and pitching like he did before the early-August comebacker that fractured his right leg, the Indians would be in the top spot on the list. Bauer’s set to throw a bullpen session on Wednesday, but even if he can’t rejoin the club, Cleveland’s got a formidable top trio of starters in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and emergent folk hero Mike Clevinger.

Without Bauer, though, there’d be a fairly steep drop-off whenever the Indians need a fourth starter, with rookie Shane Bieber looking likely to fill the role. The team’s bullpen woes in 2018 mean manager Terry Francona will need to lean on his starters in October, but he’s got luxuries in a bunch of guys who limit walks and work deep into games. Theirs is an interesting lot: The uber-weak AL Central will allow the Indians to coast into the playoffs, but the strength in their rotation makes them a favorite to advance once they get there.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

Hey, remember Clayton Kershaw? Disabled list stints in each of the past three seasons have cost him his undisputed claim to the title of world’s best pitcher, but he still has a pretty strong case. Kershaw’s not striking out hitters at the rate he did from 2014-2017, but he has a 2.13 ERA since the start of July and remains very much Clayton Kershaw.

The Los Angeles club endured a rash of injuries this season and tends to make fairly liberal use of the disabled list, but they’ve got all the major players in their rotation healthy now and a wide swath of options to follow Kershaw if they get to October. Rookie Walker Buehler has been especially dominant over the last couple of months, and Hyun-Jin Ryu has been great in five starts since returning from a groin injury in mid-August. Alex Wood and Rich Hill are solidly above-average. Ross Stripling went 8-2 with a 2.68 ERA and stellar rate stats across 16 starts in the Dodgers’ rotation from early May to early August, and just returned from his own DL stint. The Dodgers need to reach the postseason before they worry about lining up their October rotation, but there’s a ton of directions the could go with it and none of them are bad.

4. Boston Red Sox

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