Monday, August 21, 2006

Handicapping the AL

Two things have been established this weekend. One, the Red Sox are not making the playoffs. And two, the Yankees are the team to beat in the American League. I don't really see any way that another team in the AL can beat them. For all of the "AL is head-and-shoulders better than the NL" talk (which is all true), there are some seriously flawed teams competing for the playoffs this year in the Junior Circuit.

Let's start with the Red Sox. Here are their assets: a lethal 3-4 combination in the batting order, a certifiable if aging ace in the rotation, and the best young closer since... I don't even know when. That's it. That's the list. The rest of their pitchers, and this is no exaggeration, are question marks at best, due to age, injury, inexperience, shoddy track records... you name it. The manager is a moron, their three longest-tenured players are on the DL, they can't beat the Yankees or the Blue Jays (who they have 13 more combined games against), Coco freaking Crisp is leading off, and management has all but come out and say "we're not playing for this year." Whether or not that's wise is another story, but the point is, you can stick a fork in them. They're done.

The AL West will likely send only their division champion to the playoffs, but it's gotten to be a pretty interesting division. Sure, the A's have opened up a decent lead (4.5 games over Anaheim, 5.5 over Texas), but Huston Street just went on the DL, the Rangers added Carlos Lee, and Anaheim has better pitching than any of them. The A's play each team six more times down the stretch, so there's plenty of time for either team to make a run, but the only one of these teams really built for October is the Angels. Texas has no pitching, so they're out right away. Oakland could sport a scary rotation if Harden comes back, but that's hardly a given, and the Street injury only makes them more vulnerable. Anaheim, with the Weaver-Lackey-Santana-Escobar foursome (and of course, Vlad) could make some noise, but it's hard to tell how Weaver will hold up into October, so I'm taking the A's.

Which brings us to the Tigers. Look, I think they're for real, as far as the regular season goes. They should win 100 games easily and win their division, which is the best in baseball. They're a great story. But the fact is that they're leaning on Justin Verlander to play the Schilling to Bonderman's Johnson, and I just don't see it. His highest innings pitched total for a single season is 130, and he's at 140 already this year and we're not even into September. I hope he holds up, but if he doesn't, you're suddenly leaning on Kenny Rogers to be your playoff stopper. Warren can tell you how well that works. Add to that the fact that an already free-swinging lineup just added Neifi "thanks for extending my career, Dusty" Perez as their everyday second baseman, and I think this team is in trouble. Oakland or Anaheim would eat them up in the first round, and we just saw what Texas can do to them. Leyland or not, I'll pass.

As for the wild card, it's either the White Sox or the Twins, most likely the White Sox with Liriano a question mark the rest of the way. Chicago's 3-4-5-6 is amazing, of course, but their pitching has hit a wall this year. Maybe it was all of those innings last year, maybe they just caught lightning in a bottle, but these aren't the same guys that stormed through last October. The way it stands now, they'd face the Yankees in the first round, and that lineup (which would probably at least have Matsui back by then) would chew right through their rotation. Their season is eerily similar to the 2005 Red Sox, still good enough to win 95 games and make the playoffs a year after ending the drought, but there's just something missing, and they'll probably get swept in the first round. Not good times.

I'll just say this about the Twins: if Liriano does come back and they do make the playoffs, they would scare the bejeesus out of me. With Santana-Liriano-Radke getting the ball to Nathan, that's the only team that could slow down the Yankee offense (unless the A's get Harden back), and even then Gardenhire might screw it up. Without Liriano, though, I don't think they even make it, which is too bad.

So my revised predictions on August 21 would look something like this: Yankees over White Sox 3-0, A's over Tigers 3-1, Yankees over A's 4-2, Yankees over Dodgers (or someone else, if Warren can convince me with a "Handicapping the NL" post) 4-0. I will now drink a bottle of anti-freeze.

1 comment:

Warren said...

I've noticed that when people write and talk about the playoffs, they tend to talk about teams in terms of how "scary" their pitching or lineups are. Ross has said that he doesn't mind facing the A's or Twins because their lineups aren't scary. That may be true, but both of those teams have won their games somehow. Nothing magical happens in the postseason so that teams that are good in the regular season are all of a sudden unsuited for the conditions. It's pretty straightforward what the differences between the regular season and the postseason are:

1. There's less need for depth in position players, since (if your starters are healthy) they'll be starting every game.

2. The top of your rotation is more important, because you don't need your 5th starter, and if the timing works right, you only need your 4th starter half as often as your top 3.

3. The best pitchers in your bullpen get a higher percentage of the innings, because you don't have to bother to rest them as much.

4. The pressure. I think this part is overrated except in rare cases (Kenny Rogers).

These are important differences, and some teams (particularly the Yankees with Rivera) are particularly well suited for a postseason environment. But there's nothing in the postseason that makes elite hitters still great, but turns average hitters into crappy ones. The consensus seems to be that the White Sox offense will be fine in the playoffs because Thome/Konerko/Dye are so good, but the A's offense is doomed, because there's no one scary in the lineup. Of course the White Sox lineup is much better than the A's lineup - it's better in the regular season, and it will most likely be better in the postseason (should both teams make it). But that's as far as it goes. Both teams will likely hit worse in the playoffs than they did in the regular season because they'll be facing tougher pitching. But I don't buy this argument that some of these teams are pushovers because they aren't "scary".

Now, you could certainly argue that many of the AL teams are ill-suited for the postseason because they've gotten their wins through depth (which isn't all that useful in the postseason), or because they have injuries now (like potentially Liriano), or because the team is simply playing over its head right now (Detroit).

If Harden comes back healthy, I sure wouldn't want to face the A's in the playoffs, even with their non-scary lineup. A healthy Harden is better than any starter that has a real shot at the playoffs, other than Santana, in my opinion. And Zito and Haren are probably better than any other teams' 2nd and 3rd starters.