After the marathon, now comes the four week sprint to the finish line. The baseball playoffs are the most compelling of sporting events – tension in every pitch, and really the exact opposite set of skills being tested. If the regular season is about run scoring and organizational depth, the postseason is about everyday lineup and the ability to prevent baserunners. So with that, the previews of each of the four Division Series matchups.
Yankees vs Twins
On paper, the Yankees are the best team in the American League. The lineup is unmatched and the bullpen is very strong. The defense is not as bad as it has been in year’s past with Brett Gardner representing a huge upgrade over what they were wheeling out in the past. That said, the rotation has sagged, with AJ Burnett turning from a coach back into a pumpkin, and Andy Pettitte’s effectiveness being not guaranteed. The Twins were right there for best record until the last weekend, but when we look at the sort of components you need to win short series baseball, there is not a ton there:
- Lineups: Puh-leeze. The Yankees smashed other pitchers into oblivion all season, despite Alex Rodriguez fading to merely very good, and Derek Jeter slipping to somewhat above average. Robinson Cano is a legitimate MVP candidate, and they get power out of so many positions. The Twins get on base, but without Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer is the only scary hitter they have – although Jim Thome has had a nice wayback machine season. (Edge: Yankees)
- Bullpen: Both have been good down the stretch, but the Yankees miss more bats. The less contact at this time of year, the better. (Edge: Yankees)
- Defense: Both solid here. Twins always make it a priority, though Yanks might be better in the edges. If we use Fangraphs runs saved, Twins are 3rd, the Yankees are 10th in the AL. For UZR, Twins are 2nd, Yanks are 5th. (Edge: Twins)
- Rotation: Yanks have more upside, though both teams only have one reliable starter. Sabbathia must be a horse for the Yankees to make their dreams come true. Liriano is an ace, though not sure he has the durability needed here. (Edge: Yankees)
- Manager: Both are obsessed with smallball, and Girardi managed the Yankees out of basically 3 of their 4 losses in the postseason last year. Gardenhire is less inclined to screw things up. (Edge: Twins)
The Twins last year were the worst team ever to make the postseason. This is a much better squad. But for short series baseball, they are not the Yankees equal, even with the Yankees being worse than a year ago. Yankees in 4
Rays vs Rangers
This is a fascinating matchup of youth and upside. Two great farm systems bearing all their fruit – really this is as wide open an AL playoff as there has been in quite some time. The Rays made the World Series in 2008, so we know their short series credentials are strong. The Rangers less so, though this is far more dangerous than the Gonzalez-Pudge-Rick Helling teams they ran out in the mid to late 90s.
- Lineup: The Rays lack star power. Longoria is their one true stud, as Zobrist has not been as good as in year’s previous. But they take excellent at-bats up and down the lineup. They are a good on base team. The Rangers are a better on base team, but in a better hitters park. But Josh Hamilton has been magnificent and Nelson Cruz has shown a lot of power. (Edge: Rangers, but not by much)
- Rotation: David Price and Cliff Lee are both Cy Young caliber guys. But behind them, stuff changes. CJ Wilson has the stuff of an excellent #2, but the dropoff is solid. The Rays with James Shields, Matt Garza, Wade Davis have more options, though Cliff Lee could pitch in short rest. (Edge: Rays)
- Bullpen: Rafael Soriano and Neftali Feliz are great closers. Both bullpens have lefty and righty options and good setup guys. The Rays are a little better here . (Edge: Rays, slightly)
- Defense: The Rays are a terrific run preventing defense. (5th in Runs Saved, 3rd in UZR) The Rangers are more middle of the pack (9th and 7th respectively) The Rays rode their defense to a pennant in 2008 – we know they can do this. (Edge: Rays)
- Managing: Maddon is solid, respects OBP, and has shown sound tactics all season. He hurt them in 2008, but seems smarter. Washington has been with the Rangers for years. He is certainly not bad. (Edge: Rays)
A Rangers win is not a surprise here. They are so talented and young in so many places. They could rule the West for years. But the Rays are the best team in baseball. Does that mean they escape the murderous AL? I don’t know – because there are tough opponents like this. Rays in 5
Braves vs Giants
The Braves have stumbled to the finish line under the weight of serious injury problems. They are a terrific on-base team though it has not translated to runs – though Jason Heyward is going to be a superstar. The pitching has been solid all year. Fortunately they are facing another offensively starved team led by a young uberstar (Buster Posey) in the Giants. Both of these teams should be cannon fodder for the team below, but this is the most fascinating of the first round series.
Offense: Both stink. The Braves have so many guys hurt, and the Giants have just been anemic all season. That said, the Giants play in such a pitcher’s park that will explain some of their horror show, and with revived Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff and Posey, they have a bit more to offer personnel wise than the Braves who are Heyward, Brian McCann and hope. (Edge: Giants, slightly)
Defense: Both good. 3rd and 4th in runs saved. That said, the Giants UZR is much better – indicating they get to more balls possibly. This is somewhat speculative but the Giants show a bit more. (Edge: Giants)
Rotation: Both strong. Lincecum and Cain are studs and Jonathan Sanchez and Baumgartner are all good for the Giants. The Braves had to fight to the last day and use Tim Hudson, their ace, to get in. This means that Derek Lowe needs to be able to give 2 starts to win this series. For that reaso alone the Giants have the edge.
Bullpen: Both excellent. Both managers have a lot of weapons at their disposal, the Braves being the bigger surprise with Billy Wagner having a wayback machine season. (Push)
Manager: Cox is one of the best ever. Bochy is not. But he’s not Dusty Baker either. (Edge: Braves)
Braves got a gift matchup, and they need it given how badly they limped to the finish line. The Giants have the sort of team that can win a short series with that nasty top 3 in the rotation and solid defense. The Braves on-base talent though could be enough to squeeze this series out. This is a serially weird series to call, but I have to pick something. Giants in 5
Phillies vs Reds
Here we are, your World Series favorite. The Phillies with Oswalt, have such a short series devastating rotation and a lineup comparable to a good AL team that it’s hard to not see them get to their 3rd world series in a row, and for once a rotation edge on any AL team. The Reds are young and gifted though, but this is the wrong year to get this matchup.
Lineup: The Phillies have fewer holes than the average NL lineup. When healthy Chase Utley is the best player in baseball, and Ryan Howard is a good hitting 1B albeit split heavy and overrated. Werth has had a terrific contract year. This is not as strong a lineup as they have had in the past but certainly good. The Reds are younger and Joey Votto is an MVP candidate. Jay Bruce is a serious upside guy also and Scott Rolen has had a nice wayback season. Both teams enjoy hitting parks. (Edge: Reds)
Rotation: The Reds have been better than one’d expect, with Cueto having a strong year. But the Phillies run out two potential #1 types in Halladay and Hamels with Oswalt being a tick below but damn good. Really this top 3 might make them the favorites to win it all, period this year. (Edge: Phillies big)
Bullpen: Neither team is especially good. The difference is the rotations and usage patterns of each manager, which shift the balance here. In a vacuum, it’s a push, but games are played in TV sets, not in vacuums. (Edge: Phillies)
Defense: The Reds have been strong, 4th in the NL is UZR and Runs Saved. The Phillies are middle of the pack in both. The outfield defense in particular with Ibanez and Victorino seems meh. The Reds can field the ball, if the pitchers can keep it in the park. (Edge: Reds)
Manager: Charlie Manuel is old school while Dusty Baker might have run his staff into the ground. Somehow, the Reds got in despite it. Manuel will trust his lineup and not overmanage. Dusty of course, well … we know. (Edge: Phillies)
The Phillies are the heavy favorite in the NL and could very well win the whole damn thing with that pitching. They have short series muscle to the teeth. The Reds are young and this series has some slugfest potential – some – but the Phils might end up doing most of the slugging with that Reds staff. Phillies in 3