Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Postseason Predictions

Yankees .vs. Tigers
ESPN.com polled all of its contributing columnists and analysts for their postseason predictions. Of those, 17 out of 17 picked the Yankees to beat the Tigers. No other series was a clean sweep (the Padres were 16/17 favorites to win the NLDS).
Why are the Yankees considered to be such dynamic favorites? Well, it starts with the lineup:
CF -- Johnny Damon (285/359/482)
SS -- Derek Jeter (343/417/483)
RF -- Bobby Abreu (287/424/462)
3B -- Alex Rodriguez (290/392/523)
DH -- Jason Giambi (253/413/558)
1B -- Gary Sheffield (298/355/450)
LF -- Hideki Matsui (303/393/494)
C -- Jorge Posada (278/375/494)
2B -- Robinson Cano (342/365/525)

I've heard some people claim that the Yankees have the greatest lineup in postseason history. I'm not inclined to such hyperbole, but they have an absolute dynamite batting order. They've got speed and walks at the top of the order, then a good combination of the two in Bobby Abreu. All of that sits in front of sluggers A-Rod and Giambi. Sheffield and Matsui are slugger material, but we're still not sure how they'll hold up after missing most of the season due to injury. In the 8th spot is one of baseball's best-hitting catchers, and the 9th hole goes to the player with the 3rd-best batting average in the league. The Yankee offense is a juggernaught.

On the other hand, we have the Tigers. Luckily for the Tigers, their strength is pitching and their ability to potentially stop a juggernaught. However, there are two problems. One is that the Tigers starters are mostly right-handed, whereas lefties tend to have much better success against the Yankees. The other problem is that Detroit's #1 Justin Verlander and #2 Jeremy Bonderman have both struggled down the stretch. Both pitchers are capable of handling even the Yankees at their best, but it's not clear that they will be playing at their best. Another issue is that the Tigers' lone lefty starter, Kenny Rogers, was used in relief on the last day of the season (a highly questionable decision by Jim Leyland) and so won't be able to make more than one start in the series.
In the bullpen, the Tigers dominate, perhaps moreso than any other team. Closer Todd Jones is a fossil who's just barely hanging on. The Yankees will eat him for breakfast. However, Leyland has used rookie setup man Joel Zumaya as his real secret weapon during the season; deploying him in high-leverage situations for multiple innings. Leyland's basically been using Zumaya the a team should use its closer. They let Jones come in for the 9th inning and get the saves, but Zumaya has been more valuable by far. Combine that with guys like Fernando Rodney and Jamie Walker, and the Tigers could have a secret weapon here in their bullpen.

But will the Tigers be able to match the Yankees' offensive output? Even if the Detroit pitchers manage to hold the Yanks to 2, 3 or 4 runs (a big accomplishment), will Detroit be able to capitalize?
Not likely. The Tigers don't have a very strong lineup, and unfortunately Leyland hasn't done a good job of effectively using what tools he does have. Exhibit A is the fact that Neifi Perez makes the postseason roster at all, when invaluable bench player Chris Shelton sits. In fact, Shelton should be playing first base in place of the abysmal Sean Casey, who's been an albatross since coming over from Pittsburgh in a trade. If Leyland insists on batting Casey third (because Casey, once upon a time, could hit .300 despite having little power or patience), that should be a sign of things to come.
The Tigers strength is in their power. They do not have a great deal of patience, but the Yankee pitching staff is such that they still stand a chance. Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, and Marcus Thames are three pretty reliable hitters who could sock a couple home runs and give Detroit the edge. But they're not bunched together in the lineup. Instead, Leyland has the punchless Placido Polanco (295/329/364) batting 2nd, behind the league strikeout king Curtis Granderson (260/335/438 with 174 Ks). As I said, Casey could end up batting third, and if Leyland goes completely nuts, he might actuallyput Neifi Perez (243/260/316) near the top of the lineup. Not only do the Tigers have a weaker lineup than the Yankees, but it's a lineup that's not built to face good control pitchers. It's also not been an effective use of the assets at hand.

What about that Yankee pitching? Well, the Yankee pitching is better than it's been in the past, but that ain't saying much. They do have Chien-Ming Wang (3.63 ERA, 76 K in 218 IP) slated to start Game 1. But studies at Baseballprospectus.com have shown a very high correlation between a team's strikeouts/9 innings and postseason success. So there's some reason to believe that Wang's magic may not play as well in the postseason. It will be especially fascinating if the Yanks get past a better club than Detroit.
Behind Wang is Mike Mussina, who is certainly old, but has been quite effective (3.51 ERA). There's a lot of doubt surrounding Game 3 starter Randy Johnson, who is having injury problems that could either sideline him or at least affect his performance. This is bad news, because Johnson during the regular season was no great shakes either (5.00 ERA), although as a power pitcher, he does match up well against the mistake-hitting Tigers, provided he can get his fastball up there with movement. Behind Johnson are possibilities like Jaret Wright and Cory Lidle. That's actually not as bad as it sounds, but it would certainly be better for the Yankees if the Big Unit pitched more like his old self.
The Yankee bullpen is not as strong as Detroit's. While Mariano Rivera is a far better closer than Todd Jones, Rivera has had injury problems of his own and has taken some extended rest before the Series. Joe Torre made the announcement today that Rivera will be a "one-inning pitcher" in the postseason. This is terrible news for Yankee fans, as Rivera is the only good thing they have going for them. In the past, Torre had shown the ability to alter his game plan and use Rivera in more of a "true closer" style, i.e. for multiple innings. It's one of the reasons Rivera's been so dominant in the postseason, as have the Yankees themselves. The Yanks' nominal setup man is Kyle Farnsworth, whose career has taken another zag, this time to a 4.36 ERA, albeit with 75 K in 66 IP. Scott Proctor has pitched well for the Yankees (3.52 ERA), but in true Torre fashion, the Yankee skipper has taken his most reliable middle reliever and rode him into the ground. Proctor's thrown an astonishing 102.1 IP this year, which does not bode well for his durability into October. There are some problems here, but still enough positive elements to handle Detroit.

Detroit isn't really as bad as they've looked the past few weeks, but they're certainly no kind of 100-win team. The best chance the Tigers have of getting past the Yankees is to get better work from Verlander and Bonderman than they've seen so far this fall. They can also hope that the Yankee rotation falls apart, either by Wang turning back into a pumpkin or Johnson pitching like his aunt Flossie. The Tigers do have the pitching potential to beat the Yankees, and the offense that can sock some home runs and win ballgames. But there are just too many things that HAVE to go right for Detroit to win the series to be able to predict their victory.
I'll be generous:
Yankees in Four

Twins .vs. A's
These two teams have a lot in common; fine starting pitching, an excellent bullpen, and just enough offense to get by. But there are some notable differences: the Twins have Johan Santana, who is a force to be reckoned with, and is fully capable of making any offense kneel before Zod.
Also, the Twins' offense is much better than it was last year, and also much better than Oakland's lackluster attack. The Twins have two legitimate studs in Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer to go with solid, middle-of-the-order guys like Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer. I don't think that the "piranhas" (Nick Punto, Jason Bartlett) are anywhere worth their reputation as being a part of the club's success, but they're actually giving the Twins better production than the A's are getting from the same positions.
That's essentially what it comes down to. These two teams are similar, except that the Twins are a little bit better in almost every regard. The A's have a good bullpen, but Joe Nathan is a star closer, whereas Huston Street is struggling. The A's have Frank Thomas, but the Twins have the fearsome foursome mentioned above, while Thomas just has Nick Swisher and a lackluster Eric Chavez and Milton Bradley to back him up.
Do the A's have any advantage over the Twins? Yes, they do, and it's a rather significant one: starting rotation depth. Now in the broad sense, rotation depth is of little importance in the playoffs; the 1-3 pitchers throw most of the innings, and your #5 starter isn't going to pitch unless it's an emergency. But the Twins' problem is that they only have one starter who is reliably above-average. The good news is that that one guy is the best pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana. The bad news is that Santana can only pitch twice in a 5-game series. And it's not unreasonable for the A's to get dominated by Santana and still win. The Yankees did it in 2003, losing Game 1 to Santana and then fighting through his start in Game 4 to win anyways. The A's have a strong front four of Danny Haren, Barry Zito, Rich Harden, and either Esteban Loaiza or Joe Blanton. The A's pitchers will give them a chance to win every game, whereas the Twins will be in a real pickle in Game 2 and Game 3 with guys like Boof Bonser and Brad Radke on the hill.
But all in all, the Twins just have too many advantage over the A's. As I said before, the A's could just minimize the Santana damage, hold down the Twinkie offense, and prevail. But that will be very tough, and for one other big reason: the Twins have home field advantage, meaning three of the games will be in the Twin-friendly TwinkieDome.
Sorry, Mr. Beane.
Twins in Four

Mets .vs. Dodgers
These two teams are actually more evenly matched than they appear. The Mets are not the dominant team they once looked like, and the Dodgers are looking better and better by the minute.
The big question for the Mets surrounds their starting pitching. Although their lineup doesn't have a lot of depth, they've got a dynamic top of the order that should score runs, even against L.A. But will it be enough, if their starting rotation is Orlando Hernandez/Tom Glavine/John Maine? Hernandez has been maddeningly inconsistent this year, and so it's hard to tell what he'll do (his ERA was a terrible 6.11 with Arizona, but a strong 4.09 in New York). Glavine is a strong guy, but no longer dominant, and the Dodger offense is a lot better than their ballpark makes it look. And after that, it gets really uneven.
What sort of hitters will the Dodgers be throwing out at the Mets? They'll start off with a red-hot, rejuvenated Rafael Furcal, then a solid #2 man with a great postseason pedigree in Kenny Lofton. The heart of the order is Nomar Garciaparra, J.D. Drew, Jeff Kent, Andre Ethier, and Russell Martin, all of whom are above-average hitters, with the potential to put up a crooked number at a moment's notice.
The Mets can match the Dodgers' star power with a lineup that includes wunderkind Jose Reyes, a better-than-usual Paul Lo Duca, MVP Carlos Beltran, and sluggers Carlos Delgado and David Wright. Unfortunately, the Met lineup is pretty bare at the bottom. Cliff Floyd is hitting more like Floyd the Barber this year (244/324/407). Jose Valentin is a quality place-filler at second base (271/330/490), but no star, although he's a power threat. And neither Shawn Green nor Lastings Milledge have added anything to the right field position.
It's a close call between the lineups; probably a wash. The Mets may have the better star power in the middle of the order, but the Dodgers have more depth and fewer automatic out-makers. This series will come down to the pitching.
We've already mentioned the Mets' pitching woes. So what about the Dodgers? Well, the Dodgers aren't going to be mistaken for the '54 Indians, but they're a stronger team than the Mets. The plan right now is for Hong-Chih Kuo to start Game 1. This is a great idea; not only has the young Kuo had a promising start to the season so far, he's a lefty, and the Mets are especially vulnerable to southpaws. Derek Lowe has had another surprisingly valuable year, and has the virtue of playing the series in two of the league's best pitchers' parks (bully for him). Brad Penny is questionable as the Dodgers' #3; he's had a fine season, but he's had some pretty serious injury trouble that could hamper him in the NLDS. But on the plus side, the Dodgers have a great depth of starters that the Mets so woefully lack. The Dodgers can send Greg Maddux out as a Game 4 starter. Maddux has taken well to Dodger Stadium, and at any rate, is a far sight better than any of the Mets' prospective #4 starters. That would leave guys like Chad Billingsley, Aaron Sele, and Mark Hendrickson in the bullpen. That gives L.A. the bullpen edge, sealing the deal with closer Takashi Saito (with all due respect to Billy Wagner).
Improbably as it may seem, the Dodgers can keep up with the Mets in the run-scoring department. And I think they have a pretty clear advantage in the pitching department. While this is a close series that could go either way, I'm putting my money on pitching: Dodger pitching.
Dodgers in Five

Padres .vs. Cardinals
My, oh my, how things change. Last year, the Cardinals were huge favorites going into their NLDS matchup against the Padres and swept them. This year, the tides have turned, with the Padres getting the nod in 16/17 ESPN expert predictions (Enrique Rojas voted for the Redbirds).
Why is this? Well, it's because the Padres have a better offense than the Cardinals and a much better pitching staff. That should be enough. In most of the above match-ups, even with the Tigers and Yankees, there was some give and take with each team holding some sort of hope or advantage over the other. But if the Cardinals have a clear advantage over San Diego, I don't see it.
What about the offense? The Cardinals have Albert Pujols and friends. Remember the Fat Albert TV show, where Fat Albert would hang out in the junk yard with all sorts of weird, kooky characters? That's the 2006 characters. There's Dizzy Jim Edmonds, still suffering from the effects of a concussion and a far cry from the man who contended for the 2004 MVP. There's Slow-Down Scott Rolen, who doesn't seem to age very well as the season progresses. There's "Nada-er" Molina, a ghost who might as well be swinging an invisible bat. There's Lazy Juan Encarnacion, one of the worst right fielders in baseball. They're a far more entertaining b bunch than Rudy and Mushmouth.
Do the Padres have the pitching to handle these misfits? Yes, absolutely. The Padres have Jake Peavy, who is still an ace, and don't let the numbers fool you (how often do I say that?). They've got "Tall n' Reliable" Chris Young (3.46 ERA, 164 K in 179.1 IP), "Believe It or Not" Clay Hensley (3.71 ERA, questionable peripherals) and Mickey Lolich, Jr., David Wells, who recently missed a start due to gout. (I'm sorry -- but wasn't gout something that drunk characters had in old silent movies so that they could be the butt of all sortsof slapstick gags? Because Wells might have a future there.) In all seriousness, if the Padres can just keep the bases clear when Albert comes up, they should be able to minimize the damage.
But maybe the Cardinal pitchers can keep the score low enough that they can still compete? I highly doubt it. Chris Carpenter is their ace, and he's a bonafide Cy Young candidate, but has struggled down the stretch and may be suffering from fatigue. That's bad news. While the Cards have gotten serviceable work from Jeff Suppan and Anthony Reyes, they're not the guys who can carry the burden if Carpenter falls short. But above all, the Cards should make sure that Jason Marquis does not appear in any of these games, except maybe as a pinch hitter. They've also got an injured closer (Isringhausen is out), and almost no one that LaRussa has confidence in anymore. Compare that to San Diego's killer combo of Cla Meredith/Alan Embree/Scott Linebrink/Trevor Hoffman, and the gap widens even more.
The Padre lineup isn't fantastic, but it can handle Cardinal pitching. The Padres are also a lefty-heavy team, but it's doubtful that the Cards will be able to exploit that. The Padres' good, patient hitters should feast on soft-tossing righties like Suppan, Marquis, and Jeff Weaver.
Maybe the mis-match isn't as much as it seems. It's possible that Carpenter could come back for two strong starts, and the Cardinals could get a game-saving homer or two from Pujols and pull of the win. But that's a lot of ifs.
Padres in Three

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