ALCS: Red Sox .vs. Rays
During the season, the Sox ranked 2nd in the AL with a .279 Equivalent Average (EqA). But the Rays were right behind them in 3rd place at .274.
Both teams have strong offensive attacks, but they'll also be working without some key producers. The Red Sox are dealing with a gimpy J.D. Drew and will be without Mike Lowell. Drew's replacement is either Coco Crisp or Mark Kotsay, which is a step down, but not too bad. The worst thing is that with Lowell gone, the Sox have been playing Kevin Youkilis at third and Kotsay at first. I know they don't have a wealth of options, but "Mark Kotsay, first baseman" doesn't give me a lot of confidence.
The Rays, too, will be running at less than 100%. Carl Crawford has just come back from injury, and although he appears to be in good shape, it's hard to tell so soon. The same could be said of B.J. Upton, although Upton acquitted himself pretty darn well in the division series.
Overall, I still have to give the edge to the Sox, since their best hitters (Youkilis, Pedroia, Bay, Ortiz) are better than the Rays' best (Pena, Longoria, Upton, Navarro). They also have greater depth and a better bench; few teams could handle a hobbled J.D. Drew and a hobbled Mike Lowell so well.
Here's how the pitching match-ups look for the series, in terms of VORP:
Game 1: BOS -- D. Matsuzaka (50.6) .vs. TB -- James Shields (43.7)
Game 2: BOS -- Josh Beckett (33.0) .vs. TB -- Scott Kazmir (37.1)
Game 3: BOS -- Jon Lester (58.2) .vs. TB -- Matt Garza (35.8)
Game 4: BOS -- Tim Wakefield (28.1) .vs. TB -- A. Sonnanstine (19.1)
Assuming that the match-ups stay the same if the series goes past four games, then the Sox have an edge in three of the four starts, although it's admittedly pretty random. And it must be said that with Josh Beckett injured, Game 3 is more of a mis-match, especially if his backup is Paul Byrd (19.5 VORP). And Kazmir's performance is better than VORP indicates; his total is low not due to poor quality but to less than 160 innings pitched.
Still, I have to give the Sox the edge here, especially with Lester and Matsuzaka able to go two games apiece; both are better than any pitcher the Rays have.
Both teams have an excellent defense. Hard to find fault here.
The Rays have the better bullpen, but they're struggling for a closer. J.P. Howell has been a revelation, and although his 2008 numbers may not be sustainable (2.22 ERA in nearly 90 innings) he has formed, along with Grant "F&%K YOU!" Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Chad Bradford, and Trever Miller, a very strong bullpen, a unit that made a historically major improvement over the off-season.
But they are in want of a closer. Troy Percival (4.53 ERA in 50 games) wasn't getting the job done, and injuries finally forced him from the role at season's end. We don't know for sure who the Rays will use in his place. Dan Wheeler stepped in and finished the season with 13 saves, but Dan Wheeler is no Jon Papelbon. Although if the Rays need an extra arm in the bullpen, top prospect David Price would fit the ticket very nicely.
For the Sox, they've gotten another fine season from Papelbon (2.34 ERA, 41 SV, 8:77 BB:K ratio), although he's suffered later in the season from an over-reliance on his fastball.
Behind Papelbon, though, the Sox don't have the depth that Tampa Bay enjoys. They're not bad, it must be said; Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, and Javier Lopez have done fine. But what if Mike Timlin gets the call in an important situation? It may not seem likely, but remember how much the team will use its bullpen, particularly in Matsuzaka's starts. The Sox also have some rookies that could play key roles (namely Justin Masterson), and if the series plays out the way I think it will, they'll need them.
These are two pretty evenly matched teams. This season, the Sox were the better team; I'd even say that they were the best team in baseball. But things change in the ALCS, especially when you lose an All-Star third baseman and replace him with a light-hitting center fielder. With Lowell, Drew, and Josh Beckett not at 100%, the Sox become a different team. Is it still good enough to beat the Rays?
I think the Sox' advantage in offense and starting pitching and closer means that they're easily the favorites here, even with their injury trouble. The Rays will make it competitive, especially since they enjoy home-field advantage. But the Sox should prevail.
Red Sox in 6