2010 AL Playoff Preview
Yankees vs. Twins
New York Rotation: Sabathia, Pettitte, Hughes, Sabathia*, Pettitte*
Minnesota Rotation: Liriano, Pavano, Duensing, Blackburn*, Liriano*
The Yankees, not surprisingly, led the league in runs scored; what is surprising was who was responsible for the damage. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira had good-not-great seasons, but Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher carried the offense. Cano has been a good player for several years but took a step a forward in 2010 by increasing his walk rate and keeping the power he showed in 2009. As an adequate-at-worst second baseman, he provides great value and should have his name written plenty on the 10-man MVP ballots. Curtis Granderson did what he was brought in to do, namely, take advantage of the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium and lock down centerfield. 14 of Granderson’s 24 home runs occurred at Yankee Stadium, and none went to the left of second base. The only Yankee regular who was below average as a hitter this year was Cap’n Jetes, who will no doubt make up for it by doing lots of clutchy things in October. The rotation is full of question marks, making it all the more important for the Yankees to win CC Sabathia’s starts. The Yankees have all but ruled out using A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez, and depending on Andy Pettitte’s body and Phil Hughes’s right arm to allow them to pitch are risks. Pettitte has had injury issues all year, and Hughes is at 176 innings after throwing just 105 last season and 70 in 2008. The bullpen is better than Minnesota’s but not without flaws. The Yankees are going to need surprising performances from both starters and relievers to repeat as World Champions.
The Twins are on-base machines and were carried this year by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau (first-half)/Jim Thome (second-half). Delmon Young had easily his best season, despite drawing only 28 walks in over 600 plate appearances. With Morneau ruled out for the playoffs, the Twins lineup is still formidable. With Mauer and Thome surrounded by Michael Cuddyer, Young, and Jason Kubel, the Twins can score plenty of runs against anyone. Danny Valencia has had a terrific rookie season at third base, sporting a 0.311 average and 0.351 on-base percentage. The three regulars who were below-average hitters this season were Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, and Denard Span, and all three are good defenders. Facing Sabathia twice (if necessary) will be a challenge, but there’s no reason they can’t beat the Yankees. The biggest challenge they face is their roster balance. Having good-but-not-great players at every position is a great way to survive 162 games; it’s not a great strategy for a 5- or 7-game series in which 1 or 2 dominant players can take over. Mauer and Liriano are the difference makers for the Twins, and they’ll both have to have big series for the Twins to advance.
PICK: Yankees in 4.
Rangers vs. Rays
Texas Rotation: Lee, Wilson, Lewis, Hunter*, Lee*
Tampa Bay Rotation: Price, Shields, Garza, Davis*, Price*
The Rays scored the third-most runs in baseball and allowed the seventh-fewest; that’s a good way to win a lot of baseball games. Like the Twins, the Rays’ strength is their depth. The have a star in Evan Longoria, whose season has seemingly slipped below the radar, and Carl Crawford racked up 62 extra base hits while keeping his on-base percentage near 0.360 for the second straight season. These two guys do not have a weakness in their games, as Crawford is one of the best baserunners in baseball and both are tremendous defensively. Around them are B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena, and John Jaso, who took over the starting catcher position and the leadoff spot in his rookie season. The rotation is led by David Price, who had a terrific season; he throws a bunch of different pitches in all counts. I highly, highly, strongly recommend reading Mike Fast’s article at The Process Report about Price’s evolution (read it). Behind Price are James Shields and Matt Garza, who are maddeningly inconsistent but very talented. In the bullpen waiting for the 8th and 9th innings are Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano, and here’s what you need to know about them: 1.54 ERA in 123 innings, which is accompanied by a 2.62 FIP. They’re good. The Rays biggest issue this postseason will be scoring enough runs; their pitching staff is the best of the four AL teams and they are in great position to go to their second World series in three years.
Winning Game 1 is huge for all teams, but it might be most important to the Rangers by guaranteeing Cliff Lee two starts in the series (I don’t see Tommy Hunter pitching Game 4 unless Texas is up 2-1). The Rangers playoff hopes are pinned to Lee and Josh Hamilton, who despite missing 29 games and most of September, should be the American League MVP when it’s announced next month. Hamilton and Nelson Cruz carried the Ranger offense for most of the season (particularly July and August after Vladimir Guerrero started to fade). Ian Kinsler and Michael Young both had very good seasons, but beyond that, the lineup is not particularly strong. Guerrero has looked sluggish in the second half, Elvis Andrus had 18 extra base hits in 674 plate appearances, and I don’t think they have an answer at first base (Jorge Cantu it ain’t). In the rotation, I think I’ve written enough about Cliff Lee for you to know that I like him very much, and the Rangers are solid after Lee with Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson. I think they are clear underdogs against any of the other three remaining American League teams, but even that means they have something like a 40% chance of winning. They’ll need Hamilton back to his pre-injury form or other-worldly pitching to get past the Rays, but stranger things have happened.
PICK: Rays in 4.