LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.
Team Synopsis: Texas Rangers
2013 record: 91-72 (lost play-in game to TBR)
2013 runs scored: 730
2013 runs against: 636
2013 pythag. record: 92-71
The Rangers overcame multiple pitching injuries and were excellent at preventing runs in 2013, led by Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus on defense. The offense had a very inconsistent year, but produced at an above average level overall. But the real story of the Rangers’ 2013 season was the September crash.
The Rangers as currently constructed have run out of gas each of the last three seasons, but progressively earlier. They’ve looked like one of the best teams in baseball at different points in each of the last three years. But they were an out away from the Championship in 2011, and couldn’t close. They made it to the playoffs in 2012, but a disastrous last week of the season cost them the AL West title, a designation that they were 96% certain to achieve at the start of the week.
Last year, the fade began at the beginning of September. The Rangers couldn’t right the ship until the final week of the season, but by then they had no lead in the AL Wild Card race, and had fallen far out of the AL West race, a race they led on September 1. They had an unbelievably strong record against David Price of the Rays, the man they faced in the 163rd game, and the Rays still beat them decisively.
The question now is: are the Rangers still a good team? They’ve aged since they peaked as an organization around the 2010 season. They’ve done a great job of developing and signing their young talent in order to sustain their success. Despite that, it’s an older team, and a lot of the big moves the Rangers have made (like trading Ian Kinsler to Detroit for 1B Prince Fielder) is about managing a roster that hasn’t been living up to the expectations they have set for themselves in recent seasons.
Who is having a good spring?
The Rangers are not having a good spring as a team, but Jurickson Profar is showing signs of the breakout season many are anticipating with a .300/.364/.525 line. Yu Darvish looks like himself, and RHP Joakim Soria has yet to allow a run this spring.
Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Rangers
The organization continues to produce a lot of talent. Profar could improve on Kinsler at second base, Fielder will probably improve on Mitch Moreland at first base, and Alex Rios will play right field for a full season over Nelson Cruz, who left in free agency. The Rangers’ bullpen was excellent a year ago and should remain a strength.
The offense is likely to improve from last season as a group. Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder join Adrian Beltre to give the Rangers a much more legitimate middle of the order than what they had been running out there the last two seasons. Andrus and Profar are perfectly capable of holding down the top of the order. Trying to build an offense when Ian Kinsler is the second best player on it is now Detroit’s problem. A.J. Pierzynski batting fifth for a team with legitimate playoff aspirations is a thing of the past.
Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Rangers
The catcher acquired to replace Pierzynski, J.P. Arencibia, is actually worse offensively than Pierzynski is. The Rangers project to be a good offensive team, but they’re still going to run out a bottom of the lineup that will be an out machine: Arencibia, Leodis Martin, and a Moreland/Michael Choice platoon maybe?
The pitching rotation is going to be problematic, unless the Rangers can sustain the great defense they enjoyed last season. Darvish and Holland are a good top of the rotation, except that Holland is going to miss a couple of months, and some scouts are a bit skeptical about Darvish’s health with his velocity down a tick this spring. Matt Harrison, who made two starts last season, is still not healthy. Matt Garza left in free agency, so young prospect Martin Perez is bumped up to the second spot in the rotation — he’s best suited to be a no. 4 starter. Then the back end of the rotation looks like Joe Saunders/Alexi Ogando/Tanner Scheppers/Colby Lewis for three spots. Lewis is back as a non-roster invite, Ogando was the team’s swingman last year, Saunders was second in the AL in hits allowed for the Mariners, and Lewis missed the season with Tommy John. Scheppers has been the most effective of the group this spring, but he was a relief ace last year, and hasn’t been stretched out quite yet this spring. This is a desperate situation until Holland returns.
Scheppers to the rotation also means he can’t inherit Joe Nathan’s role as the closer after Nathan signed with Detroit in the offseason. It could be Neftali Feliz who regains the role, after missing most of last season before returning to the bullpen in September.
The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Rangers is 41.2, 3rd in the American League. Their 23.0 Batters WAR projection is 7th in the AL. Their 18.1 Pitchers WAR projection is 4th in the AL. Cool Standings projects the 2014 Rangers to win 85 games, a 6 win decline over last season. Yu Darvish is the Ranger with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 5.3. Adrian Beltre is the position player with the best average projection at 4.8 WAR.
The Rangers vs the rest of the AL West
The AL West is a below average division, and the weakest of the AL divisions in 2014. This despite having four above average teams and an “improved” Astros team. This is the case because no teams in the AL West are a lock to win 90 games. According to Cool Standings, the division winner is projected to win 86 games. It’s a true four team race in 2014. The Astros will not participate.
LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Texas Ragers
The projections are actually a fan of the Rangers’ pitching, but I’m a bit more skeptical of those chances. The Rangers’ rotation is projected to produce 13.9 wins by Fangraphs, but it produced 11 WAR last year as a unit, and that’s with 6 wins from Darvish and 33 starts from Holland. The rotation is in much worse shape this season. If they can get 9 wins out of it, they should feel good about that, given where they are right now. But that’s five wins in the projections the Rangers will have to make up somewhere.
Manager Ron Washington isn’t going to help much. The defense will help a little bit in addition to the conservative projections, but the whole operation is problematic, and those 3-4 wins are going to have to come from either deep within the organization, or outside it. I’m going to predict 82-80 based on the opening day roster, and whether they blow past that depends on whether impatient ownership forces GM Jon Daniels hand again and forces him to trade for pitching help (as happened last year with Garza).
The American League begins it’s 113th season with a stranglehold on MLB dominance in the regular season. However, no American League team has managed to take home the World Series since the Yankees did in 2009. Given where the Yankees and Red Sox are with regard to rebuilding their rosters and restructuring their finances, AL teams have a ton to prove this year.
Five teams have won multiple World Series since the Toronto Blue Jays last made the playoffs in 1993: the Yankees have won five times, and the Red Sox twice. But the other three teams: the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, and most recently, San Francisco Giants. The remarkable thing is this has happened over a period of AL dominance.
Lacking the consensus best team in baseball for the first time in awhile, the American League looks to reclaim bragging rights over the National League as interleague play becomes an all-the-time thing for the first time ever.
The American League Central
The Detroit Tigers (2012: 726 runs scored, 670 runs allowed) enter the 2013 season as the clear favorites to represent the AL in the World Series for the second straight year — and the third time in the last seven. The Tigers are a three man team in many ways, as the only way that Detroit can overcome a down year from RHP Justin Verlander, 1B Prince Fielder, or 3B Miguel Cabrera is for the other two to pick up the slack. The problems facing the Tigers are numerous: the team declined from its peak in 2011 through the 2o12 season, either slightly (run differential) or significantly (wins) depending on what measure you use. And outside of getting DH Victor Martinez back from an injury that cost him his 2012 season, it’s not exactly clear where all the Tigers’ perceived improvement is going to come from.
The reason the Tigers are favored heading into the year is because they have the clearest path to the playoffs through the AL Central: having just the White Sox, Royals, and Indians nipping at your heels gives you plenty of leeway. The Tigers are gambling that they can score 800 runs in 2013 because of an improved outfield, featuring Andy Dirks and Torii Hunter in full time roles instead of Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch. Actually, truth be told, the Tigers are gambling on a lot of things, especially a flimzy bullpen. However, improved defensive efficiency in the outfield leads me to bump the Tigers slightly to a 91 win team.
That should be good enough to win a division where there’s unlikely to be a trio of 85+ win teams, but wouldn’t it be nice if the Kansas City Royals (2012: 676 runs scored, 746 runs allowed) could push the Tigers this year. The Royals best profile as a 83-79 team, but that’s not totally going to take them out of contention for the second wild card, and should make things interesting with the Tigers into early September. The Royals have a chance to do special things with their bats this year. LF Alex Gordon enters 2013 a legitimate candidate for AL MVP, as you could make a charitable case for the two time Gold Glove winner as a poor mans* version of Mike Trout. The Royals spent an obscene amount of money to take the variance out of their pitching staff, which really lead their team’s run prevention through the first two and a half months last year before regressing to it’s true talent level of “minor league.” The upgrades make the Royals one of the safest, easiest teams in the AL from a projection standpoint: there’s not a ton of upside here, but the dark days appear to be over in Kansas City.
*Although Gordon will make about 22 times more than Trout will this season.
The Chicago White Sox (2012: 748 runs scored, 676 runs allowed) may be the most average team in baseball this year, as they head towards one more year of 82 wins. The excellent run prevention unit of the White Sox is likely to stay in the ballpark, so to speak: this is a strong defensive team led by SS Alexi Ramirez, C Tyler Flowers, and CF Alejandro De Aza, and a top-level pitching staff featuring LHP Chris Sale and RHP Jake Peavy. However, after shocking the world and putting up 748 offensive runs and leading the division in run scoring, the White Sox will have a really tough time doing that again. Run producers like Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are aging quick and there’s not much the White Sox can do to score if those two stop hitting bombs at such a high rate. It should be easier for the Cleveland Indians (2012: 667 runs scored, 845 runs allowed) to catch the Tigers in run scoring as the Tribe features a premier lineup, headlined by C Carlos Santana and 2B Jason Kipnis. But the Indians giving up 845 runs last year wasn’t a fluke: it was just horrific pitching. That’s a problem that went largely unsolved this offseason, shaping the Indians as a 77 win team. And Minnesota Twins (2012: 701 runs scored, 832 runs allowed) fans still get to enjoy C Joe Mauer’s best seasons, which is awesome. They won’t get to enjoy a whole lot a good baseball, but the Twins should be able to avoid 100 losses through some combination of dark magic and veteran contributions. Pencil the Twins at 65 wins.
The American League East
Dynastic. While most of the baseball universe realizes that we’re entering a year where the Red Sox and Yankees are strong underdogs against the Tampa Bay Rays (2012: 697 runs scored, 577 runs allowed), I don’t think the baseball universe much realizes how FAR the Yankees and Red Sox will have to go in order to reach where the Rays are going to be in three years. There’s no question that the Rays — division favorites as far as I’m concerned — have holes on the current team: they tentatively will DH Luke Scott, will play Ryan Roberts at second base, and James Loney at first base, we’re talking about a team that traded away RHP James Shields to Kansas City, and may set a modern American League record for runs prevented this year. They allowed just 577 runs last season, which is less preposterous when you consider the ballpark effect of Tropicana Field, but the Rays find a way to rank at the top in terms of defensive efficiency every single year. That won’t change with Desmond Jennings patrolling CF.
But more than any other team in the league, the Rays are injury-proof. Sure, they’d have just as much a problem as anyone replacing the lineup production of 3B Evan Longoria or 2B/RF Ben Zobrist in extended absence of their two best offensive players. But they can replace any member of their pitching staff using their lush farm system. Improving just a bit in terms of run scoring, I think the Rays are capable of a division winning 94 wins.
Their main challenger went all-in on their pitching staff this offseason, making the Toronto Blue Jays‘ (2012: 716 runs scored, 784 runs allowed) win-now tactic a sharp contrast to the win-always scheme preferred by the Rays. The Blue Jays had two main problems last year: every pitcher got hurt or struggled, and everyone on the offense underachieved or was hurt (save for DH Edwin Encarnacion). Similar to the Royals, the move all-in to acquire a new pitching rotation (added: RHP R.A. Dickey (Mets), LHP Mark Buehrle (Marlins), RHP Josh Johnson (Marlins)) means the Jays won’t be reliant on recovering pitching arms and prospects (such as Kyle Kendrick ->Tommy John surgery), which is a positive. But the Blue Jays had a second problem last year which isn’t necessarily going to be fixed purely through regression: their lineup really sucked. To fix that, they acquired a lot of the Marlins spare contracts, which made a lot of sense in theory until we consider the Marlins lineup also struggled last season. The cause for optimism is that the Blue Jays are now spending money, which makes them competitors in the AL East this year, and their rotation has a chance to be really, really good. But the makeover happens on a foundation that won 73 games last year. 90 wins would make them the most improved team in baseball, but the foundation would not fundamentally change unless the Jays push 100 wins, in which case a lot of things got a lot better pretty quickly.
It could be worse. The New York Yankees (2012: 804 runs scored, 668 runs allowed) haven’t even made it out of Spring Training in a state where Brennan Boesch is not considered an upgrade. Injuries to 1B Mark Teixiera and OF Curtis Granderson have headlined the spring in New York. But the Yankees are about to take the field on opening day with three regulars from last years lineup only: Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, and Robinson Cano. The rotation is rather promising, and should keep the Yankees out of the cellar by a good margin, but the bottom line is that the Yankees are a 79 win team this year. That should keep them in company of their rivals, the Boston Red Sox (2012: 734 runs scored, 806 runs allowed), also at 79 wins. Whereas the Yankees have some semblance of a plan, the Red Sox appear to be trying to tear down to rebuild and compete at the same time. On the positive side, the Red Sox were 5 games over .500 at the end of June last year, and this isn’t a completely hopeless ballclub. The rotation isn’t great shakes, but it’s littered with name guys like Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster, and John Lackey, which will probably end poorly in a couple cases, and work out well in others. You can say that about a lot of areas of a .500 team. And I think .500 happens to be a bit aggressive for the Baltimore Orioles (2012: 712 runs scored, 705 runs allowed), who finished 2012 impressively, winning all the games that Boston would lose. Baltimore shakes out as a 75 win team thanks to weaknesses in the rotation, and a team-wide issue with on-base percentage. There’s upside on the offensive end here with Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis all entering their age 27 seasons. The bullpen, led by closer Jim Johnson, doesn’t have to be as dominant as it was last year for the O’s to exceed 75 wins, but it must still be quite good.
The American League West
The AL West is the strongest division in the American League, and possibly all of baseball. It would be even stronger if the Houston Astros (2012: 583 runs scored (NL), 794 runs allowed (NL)) didn’t move into it. The Astros will be fighting to avoid losing 100 games all year. I think they’ll come close, topping out at 61 wins. But the real story is at the top of the division, where the Oakland Athletics won their final six games last season to steal the division from the Texas Rangers (2012: 808 runs scored, 707 runs allowed). The Rangers return as division favorites in my eyes, although many others prefer the Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim, a California-based baseball club (2012: 767 runs scored, 699 runs allowed).
Texas has been routinely criticized for “losing” in an offseason where they allowed Josh Hamilton ($125 million) to sign with the Angels, failed to reel in Zack Greinke ($147 million) after his contract expired (hard to blame them at those price tags). They ended up grabbing Derek Lowe on the cheap while biding their time for Colby Lewis to return from arm surgery. Here’s the thing though: I don’t hear a lot of people arguing that Texas’ offense won’t be alright without Hamliton (they’ll survive) even as most laud the Angels’ aggressiveness in the market. Texas is being criticized for not acquiring pitching. But after giving up just 707 runs playing 81 games in the Ballpark in Arlington (Park factor: 112) last season, people are under-rating the quality of the Texas bullpen. And their biggest offseason acquisition flew mostly under the radar, when the Rangers plucked Joakim Soria from the Royals at rehabilitation (torn UCL) prices.
Although there’s not a ton of pitching depth here, expect the run prevention of the Rangers to improve and they’ll lead the AL in wins this year at 98. The Angels on the other hand may feel confident in a lineup that can make pitchers face Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton in the first four batters. The issue with the Angels is that the pitching is a disaster. They don’t have the bullpen the Rangers do. They don’t have a bullpen that can consistently get outs. And unlike last year, they don’t feature a rotation that can get deep into games. The Angles jettisoned both Torii Hunter and Kendrys Morales to get…something. Hamilton and Mark Trumbo are a major improvement over Vernon Wells and Hunter, but since neither can play a premium defensive position anymore, the Angels opening day lineup will likely feature Peter Bourjos, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, and Chris Ianetta playing those tougher defensive positions. Those players will absorb about half of the team ABs for the Angels this year. Not only is this not a 1,000 run lineup, but it’s likely not even a 750 run lineup. The Angels are an 80 win team this year.
Does this mean the Royals are in the playoffs? Not exactly. The AL West is strong after the Angels as well, and the Oakland A’s (2012: 710 runs scored, 614 runs allowed) did win the division, posting a run differential exactly on par with the Rangers, and plucked the division on the season’s final weekend. They would have made a lot of noise if they had beaten the Tigers in the ALDS, but as is, the team returns a lot of it’s pieces from 2012. Brett Anderson will replace Brandon McCarthy (signed with Arizona) atop the rotation. Anderson is finally healthy after missing more than two thirds of last year with the torn UCL he suffered in 2011. The A’s don’t have the front line pitching to allow just 614 runs again, although 660 is a very reasonable expectation for a strong defensive team playing in the hitter graveyard that is the Oakland Coliseum. I think that 83 wins is a strong expectation for the A’s.
And that will not quite make the playoffs in the AL West. I am predicting the second wild card will fall to the Seattle Mariners (2012: 619 runs scored, 651 runs allowed), which I’m sure will make Ichiro happy. The Mariners have done well to rebuild their outfield on the fly, acquiring Michael Morse from the Nationals (in a questionable trade), to match with Casper Wells and Michael Saunders, who both came into their own last year. With the lineup looking like something other than the worst offense in the AL this year (although still pretty bad), Mariners fans and league observers can finally appreciate the dominance of Felix Hernandez every fifth day. But after making a lot of quietly sharp moves this offseason (possibly excluding the Morse deal, although that should help out in the aggregate), I think 85 wins might actually qualify them for the playoffs this season. If not, they’ll at least be right in it.
2013 AL Predictions
East Champ: Tampa Bay Rays (94-68)
Central Champ: Detroit Tigers (91-71)
West Champ: Texas Rangers (98-64)
AL Wild Card #1: Toronto Blue Jays (90-72)
AL Wild Card #2: Seattle Mariners (85-77)
Derek Jeter and Elvis Andrus will represent the American League in the all-star game among shortstops. That’s pretty cool, I guess. But who is the best shortstop in the American League today? And is he going to represent the AL in the all star game anytime soon?
Jeter is starting the all-star game carrying a .304/.351/.408 batting line, which is actually really good. With the exception of Jeter’s MVP caliber 2009 season, this is really who “mid-thirties Derek Jeter” has been for the last five years. The problem now is on defense. It’s fair to surmise that Derek Jeter has worked incredibly hard on his defense in order to be a better shortstop throughout his thirties than his twenties. But this year, we’ve reached the point where Jeter isn’t physically able to handle the position anymore. It’s not a conditioning issue, clearly: Jeter is himself at the plate this season.
Jeter’s run at shortstop for the last seventeen years may turn into one of the biggest stories of the offseason for the Yankees. It’s not clear where he will move to if the Yankees acquire a better defensive shortstop in the offseason, but Alex Rodriguez is getting very close to “full time DH” territory, and at that point, the natural move for Jeter might simply be a couple steps to the right.
Either way, when the Yankees move Jeter, that’s going to end his all-star candidacy at short. There are three obvious picks to take his place before we get to prospect types like Francisco Lindor and Jurickson Profar.
Asdrubal Cabrera is a gold glove winning shortstop who is more similar to Jeter than different because defensive numbers have shown that Cabrera has not been a good defensive player throughout his 20’s. There isn’t a debate though that Asdrubal Cabrera is a really fantastic hitter, regardless of his position. Beyond that, since Jason Kipnis has locked down the second base job in Cleveland for the forseeable future, Cabrera is going to become the most attractive trade piece for the Indians as Francisco Lindor progresses through the system. In fact, Cabrera is one of the most likely options to eventually replace Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Yankees via trade, although Lindor is not likely to see the majors in the 2013 season.
Cabrera is probably the top shortstop in the American League right now, however, there are two players who come with higher upside who are younger than Asdrubal Cabrera.
Escobar has been a sensational defensive player for the Royals since coming over in the December 2010 Zack Greinke trade, but this year he’s added a bat to go with that glove. Escobar always hit in the minor leagues and was a prospect of great stature in the Brewers system before struggling in the full time role in 2010. Moving to the American League in 2011 made things even more difficult, though he showed some life with the bat during the summer last year after the Royals demonstrated great patience with him throughout the spring.
Alcides Escobar is now a .309/.352/.413 hitter up to the minute. He’s still striking out a lot more than he walks (whereas someone like Asdrubal Cabrera is essentially one to one), and is a much better earlier in the account than he his when he sees a bunch of pitches, which has been a formula that has made him a poor hitter in the clutch this year. But the bat is real, and he looks like a legitimate top of the order hitter for the Royals with about five gold gloves in his future. The only problem is everything I’ve said about Escobar is true of another American League player about two years younger.
Andrus leads all AL shortstops in fWAR with 2.7 prior to the all-star break. He has combined consistently effective defense with a developing bat. Andrus isn’t quite as effective with the bat this season as Escobar has been for the Royals and he is never going to be in the same class as Cabrera, but Andrus could easily have a Jeterian-like career for the Rangers. He’s that young and that good. There’s just one thing about that.
I think the 23 year old Andrus is the best shortstop in the American League right now, and the only threat to that title is a guy in his own system by the name of Jurickson Profar.
Four days of baseball tells you…not much about teams. What it might tell us is that we just didn’t know what we were talking about in the preseason. After the seasons’ first series, I really want to take back all those picks I made without conviction.
Specifically speaking, I feel like I just overlooked the NL Central defending champion Cincinnati Reds. And this is an incredibly pre-mature mea culpa. In LiveBall’s NL Central preview, I hesitantly picked the Brewers to win after expressing concern that I was picking a sucker’s bet in a weak division. Well, the Brewers have begun 0-4, but you know, the Cardinals haven’t won either, and the Cubs didn’t get started on the right foot at Pittsburgh, while neither the Pirates or Astros can yet be taken seriously. The team I so obviously overlooked was last years winner, the Reds, who emphatically crushed the Brewers at home in a three game set. None of the games were close after Opening Day, when the Reds won in comeback, walk-off fashion. The Brewers have now fallen to 0-4, and while I think they will rebound to win 80-some games easily, the assertion that there is no clear favorite in the NL Central appears wrong. The Reds are a clear favorite. The Brewers may be the best of the rest, but after being swept in Cincinnati, it’s the Reds that are the team to beat.
What the Brewers have shown early on is a complete lack of depth. Corey Hart has a strained rib cage muscle, and is on the DL. The assumption with those picking the Brewers is that the always potent Brewers lineup would “score runs.” Of course, they traded their starting SS and potentially starting CF to the Royals in the Zack Greinke deal, and even though the now incumbent CF Carlos Gomez is showing some production with the bat, the Brewers simply don’t have the depth in RF with Hart out. Even with the top four in the lineup off to a good start, the bottom of this order after Casey McGahee is dreadful. Yuni Betancourt, an Erick Almonte/Nyjer Morgan platoon replacing Hart, and then George Kotteras and Wil Nieves at catcher. As a 6-8 in the NL, that’s a horrendous lineup. The Brewers will make a run when Hart and Zack Greinke come off the DL, but if the Reds play like they did last year, it’s not going to matter. The Reds will win the division with one of the NL’s best records, and the Brewers will have to scrap for a wild card berth. If they get that Wild Card, I still like them to go deep in the playoffs, even at 0-4 to start the season.
The weirdest series of the weekend was played in Kansas City, where the Royals won the series 3-1 winning TWO games on walkoff homers. In the entire 2010 season, the Royals won just once on a walkoff homer, by Alex Gordon, over the Orioles the week before Buck Showalter took over. They’ve doubled that total, and there are still 158 games to play.
One of the reason for increased walkoff homers is that the Royals never hit so many homers in a series in general. The Royals hit six homers in the series (all but one a solo shot), and they were hit by six different players. The Angels spent the entire series playing longball as well, going yard 9 times. 15 homers in a single series at Kauffman Stadium is a lot, even considering 4 games, and typically only happens when Royals pitching is feeling up to the task. For the Angels to hit 7 homers of 9 homers in a three game span, losing all three games in the process says a lot about the Angels. The weather was whacky as well, as both the Angels and Royals’ television production crews were forced to move out of “high home” position, thanks to gusting wins that blew water out of the signature fountains at Kauffman Stadium and would have potentially destroyed the cameras if left in normal position. Water wasn’t the only thing blown around by the wind, as Bruce Chen “fastballs” also ended up traveling further than they might have otherwise, if only for effect.
The Royals’ series win could spell trouble for the Angels — the Royals rarely outscore a team in a series. The Angels can’t trust their bullpen, can’t trust Scott Kazmir, and bat Bobby Abreu and Alberto Callaspo in a lineup of otherwise overrated hitters as they wait to bring 1B Kendrys Morales back to the lineup when he’s fully recovered from a broken leg suffered at home plate after a walkoff homer in 2010. But the Royals feature unbelievably impressive depth in their bullpen mostly from arms under the age of 25. Their ability to hold late leads and play defense late in games is an ability they pretty much lacked last season, and could prove to pit their decision makers in an odd dilemma: whether to push starting pitching prospects up to make a previously unfathomable run in the AL Central if they leverage a weak April schedule into a lot of early wins and a hot start.
Angels fans aren’t panicking quite like Red Sox fans after an 0-3 start. The Rangers played longball off Red Sox pitching, and though the Red Sox will score this year, pitchers Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Clay Buccholz simply weren’t up to the task on baseball’s first weekend. The Rangers meanwhile, threw fine in their first series without Cliff Lee on the roster, and look to be every bit the favorites in the American League this year. The Red Sox will be fine, but maybe were exposed a bit as overrated by the masses considering better than 70% of fans expected the Red Sox to beat the other four teams in the division. That’s a sizable majority, but the standings say: two games behind the Yankees (and three and a half behind the Orioles)!
Wrapping up, the AL East is also the place of the most meaningful early series, where the Orioles swept — yes, swept — the Tampa Bay Rays. This blog has the Rays returning to the playoffs behind only, ahem, the Red Sox, but those chances took a big hit as all-world 3B Evan Longoria will head to the disabled list, rendering the Rays offense largely punchless. Time to see if Ben Zobrist, John Jaso, and BJ Upton are worth the big bucks in Tampa, and it’s time for that rotation to carry them.
But the Orioles are the story of baseball in the early going, if only because their late season production last year seemed unsustainable. At this point though, last year’s season-best finish is a reason to buy the Orioles as a potential wild card contender. I don’t think they’ll be able to do it, but it does look like the Orioles aren’t heading to last place anytime soon, and could have the talent (particularly in the pitching staff) to hang with the Big Boys in baseball’s best division. After all, the standings are the only thing that matters this early in the season, and we’re still waiting on the first team to beat the Orioles in 2011. The Detroit Tigers will take another crack at pulling off such a feat tomorrow as baseball’s regular season hits high gear.
The AL’s truncated division rounds out our preview of the American League. I have the guard officially changing in the AL West after the Texas Rangers got all the way to the world series in 2010, but that doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk.
1) Texas Rangers (projected finish: 91-71)
For an encore after 2010, I am picking the Rangers to finish 20 games above .500 and to win the AL West. It won’t be a comfortable margin. The 91 wins would be one game additional to their 2010 record, and they’d be doing it without their most significant loss, Cliff Lee. Probability might actually suggest that the Rangers, who added Adrian Beltre in the offseason, would be better off than this, but there is a small adjustment in this prediction for a slow start with the unsettled pitching staff.
The offense is led by the duo of Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton in the outfield, and even considering the effect of the home ballpark on offensive totals, they are in the running to be the highest scoring offense in the AL. While it’s easy to say now, this lineup would be even more dangerous with Justin Smoak in it. Smoak was dealt away for Cliff Lee last year. Lee will bring pair of first round draft picks back at least due to the MLBs compensation system, but the Rangers are ready to win right now.
The rotation, at least right away, will be lead by C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, and Naftali Feliz. Naftali Feliz? The Rangers are trying to stretch him out in an attempt to replace Cliff Lee in the rotation. This means that: the back of the Rangers rotation is absolutely wide open, and could be a limitation on their ability to compete. As poor as manager Ron Washington’s bullpen management was in the world series, the Rangers do have a bevy of arms to turn to to make it a strength over an entire season.
This team is still better prepared to compete in the short series format than the regular season, and it won’t take much in terms of underachievement to put the Rangers on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
2) Oakland Athletics (projected record: 88-74)
Another thing you probably didn’t realize about last season in the MLB: the A’s finished with 81 wins, second in the AL West, and tied with the Tigers for the 8th best finish in the AL. Yes, the playoff-contending Detroit Tigers won just as many games as the A’s did last year. This year the A’s take the next step.
The bar for making the playoffs in the AL, according to the projections right here, is going to be 91 wins. At an expectation of 88 wins, the A’s may come up just short, but what they have going for them is that they have two ways of getting in if they can add help at the deadline: the AL Wild Card and AL West title look to be about equally obtainable this year.
They’ll have to get over 88 wins to do it, but with a strong season by Brett Anderson (above), or either David DeJesus or Chris Carter, and the A’s will have enough offense to support a pitching staff that just doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the youngest, and best, in the majors.
3) Los Angeles Angels (projected finish: 74-88)
The Angels have a good shot to be better than last year when they won just 80 games. Adding Vernon Wells makes them a little better, though not by as much as you would think if you just plugged Wells’ 2010 numbers into centerfield for the Angels. They had a comparable offensive threat in Mike Napoli who they couldn’t get a great number of at bats for, and his strong bat is who Wells will replace.
Kendry(s) Morales will be healthy this upcoming year, meaning the Angels get their best hitter back, and Alberto Callaspo should be much better as a full time second and third baseman than he was last season. The Angels should again feature an above average lineup, although they are counting on sustained production from an aging right fielder, Torii Hunter.
The pitching staff might let them down. Dan Haren can still get it done in this league, but his results the last two years have been closer to a middle of rotation pitcher than a top guy. Jered Weaver is the team’s ace, and Ervin Santana is a nice no. 3. I don’t know what the Angels are planning to do if Scott Kazmir flames out again, they simply lack the farm depth to not get drilled two out of every five games unless Kazmir can return to form. And I think that deficiency will take them out of the running before long.
4) Seattle Mariners (projected finish: 65-97)
For the Mariners, it wouldn’t appear that a significant regression to the mean is coming for their league-worst MLB offense (impressive, for an AL team that doesn’t have to hit its pitcher). Some improvement should come from guys like Chone Figgins. But an aging Ichiro was already a pretty good hitter on a horrible team last year, and marginal decreases in his on-base ability might wash out regression from Figgins.
The onus will be on guys like Milton Bradley and Justin Smoak to pull the Mariners out of an offensive tailspin. If they can, they actually have a pretty good shot at getting into the divisional race. Credit Felix Hernandez, now unquestionably the best pitcher in the American League.
The Mariners are going to be able to prevent runs this year, but without quality pitching depth, most of that prevention will be full-season effects of playing 81 games at SafeCo Field. This is a good defensive team, so it’s not time to cut every player on the “everyday starter” side, but they still only have 2/3 of an outfield with Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro, and the infield offers zero pop, and nowhere is that problem worse than at catcher.
The Angels are a far more talented team, but if the Mariners can do the small things much better than last season, and King Felix has another great season, the Mariners can make a push towards everyone else in the AL West this season.
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Up to this Point, the Texas Rangers have had anything but an easy ride in the playoffs. After winning two games in Tampa Bay to open up the ALDS, they dropped two at home and needed Cliff Lee’s Game 5 masterpiece to close out the series on the road. The series saw the Rangers being aggressive on the basepaths, but some of their big bats went silent. The bullpen remained a concern as rookie phenom Neftali Feliz looked shaky, but was not forced into pressure situations. In the end, the combined efforts of Lee, Andrus, Cruz and Kinsler were able to outlast the MLB’s best regular season team.
The Rangers went on to face the Yankees in the ALCS and surprisingly dominated them aside from a Game 5 lapse with the Yankees on the brink of elimination. Cliff Lee was only needed for his Game 3 domination as many of the Rangers’ bats came alive, most notably Josh Hamilton. Hamilton posted a 1.536 OPS in the series, cranking four home runs and drawing eight walks in 28 plate appearances. The Rangers continued their great work on the bases, and veteran Bengie Molina continued a resurgent postseason with a three-run home run against A.J. Burnett in Game 4. While C.J. Wilson struggled in his second start of the series, Colby Lewis was consistent, getting the win in the clinching Game 6. His 1.98 ERA for the series and 13 strikeouts over 13 2/3 innings were critical to the Rangers advancing.
Aside from the Game 2 bullpen breakdown and C.J. Wilson’s Game 5 start, the Rangers were firing on all cylinders all series long. This type of performance was what allowed them to run away with the AL West and will make them tough to defeat in the World Series. Most figure Hamilton and Cruz to get their hits and home runs, but when the Rangers are able to get strong production from Bengie Molina and Mitch Moreland like they did in the ALCS, they are unbeatable.
From the San Francisco Giants’ perspective, it’s clear that the road to the World Series was far more difficult in October for the Rangers, who had to dispel the best two teams in baseball over the 2010 season to reach the Fall Classic. Of course, the Rangers had to wait until the 5th game of the ALDS for the gut-check that comes with being put on the ropes by a potentially better opponent, and asking your offense to give Cliff Lee the support he needs to propel them to the next round. They had to wait until the first game of the ALCS to taste defeat in such a crushing manner and make sure they could bounce back from it and still remain the dominant team in the series.
For the Giants, this kind of adversity was a season-long proposition. It wasn’t until September that winning the division became any more of a reality than it was in Spring Training, when it was an expressed goal of the team. The San Diego Padres led in this division from April through the middle of September, before the Giants overtook them in the division with two weeks to go. Even appearing in the post-season wasn’t anything more than a likelihood on the final day of the regular season. Furthermore, the Giants offense that exists now started the season on many different teams, brought together in July and August to bolster the offense of a team that clearly had the pitching to make it.
Season-long statistics are unappreciative the power of this rotation, because there was a point in the season where Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum was in a batter-to-batter struggle to survive in a rotation. The Giants went through the whole regular season trying to survive Barry Zito, who started out fortunate, and ended up diasterous. In any case, the Giants bring an elite pitching rotation to the Texas lineup, one that was not thought to be elite as recent at three weeks ago when the playoffs began. Texas certainly must feel it’s advantages are held against a low-scoring Giants offense, but with rookie Catcher Buster Posey leading the charge, it’s uncertain if the Rangers hold many advantages at all in this World Series.
The Giants have a fairly straight-forward plan in this World Series: if the Rangers really need two victories from Lee to stay in it, they can really stick it hard to the Rangers as early as tonight. A win for Lincecum over Lee, and every analyst who picked the Rangers to win is going to be strongly re-thinking such a front running pick.
SS Elvis Andrus (.265/.342/.301)
3B Michael Young (.284/.330/.444)
CF Josh Hamilton (.359/.411/.633)
RF Vlad Guerrero (.300/.345/.496)
LF Nelson Cruz (.318/.374/.576)
2B Ian Kinsler (.286/.382/.412)
C Bengie Molina (.249/.297/.326)
1B Mitch Moreland (.255/.364/.469)
Bench: Dave Murphy, Jeff Francoeur, Julio Borbon, Esteban German, Andres Blanco, Matt Treanor
The Rangers come into the World Series with two incredibly hot MVP caliber players: Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. Both were dinged up at times during the season while posting a wOBA over .400. This success continued into the ALCS and both look unstoppable. Ian Kinsler was one of a few elite second basemen in the playoffs, but is the only one left. Kinsler, Michael Young and Vlad Guerrero round out the meat of the order, but the leadoff, 7 and 8 hitters are still not black holes. Mitch Moreland followed up his solid rookie campaign with a consistent postseason effort and will force Giants’ hurlers to make quality pitches. Catcher Bengie Molina had a terrible season at the plate, but has come alive in the playoffs. The Rangers won’t depend on him hitting against his former team, but he is more than capable of driving in runs. Andrus will never hit for much power, but his ability to make contact and wreak havoc on the bases make him a valuable hitter.
The real loss to the Rangers will come in the games in San Francisco; Vladimir Guerrero will either not be in the lineup or taking the place of David Murphy. This takes out one quality hitter from the lineup, but leaves the Rangers will a better bench bat than anything the Giants have to offer. Manager Ron Washington has said that he will start Guerrero in right field in Game 1 to keep his bat active, but we may see a switch to Murphy in Game 2.
The Rangers are going to score runs in the series, one way or another. The Giants will not only have to focus on slowing down Josh Hamilton, but also Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and the running game of the Rangers.
San Francisco Giants
CF Andres Torres (.268/.343/.479)
2B Freddy Sanchez (.292/.342/.397)
1B Aubrey Huff (.290/.385/.506)
C Buster Posey (.305/.357/.505)
LF Pat Burrell (.266/.364/.509)
RF Cody Ross (.288/.354/.466)
3B Pablo Sandoval (.268/.323/.409)
SS Juan Uribe (.248/.310/.440)
Bench: SS Edgar Renteria, IF Travis Ishikawa, IF Mike Fontenot, OF Aaron Rowand, OF Nate Schierholtz, C Eli Whiteside
The Giants use their bench interchangeably with their starting lineup in many places. Every player on their team has started a playoff game except Schierholtz, Ishikawa, and Whiteside. Fontenot is a platoon player, but Rowand and Renteria might as well be listed with the starters, giving them 11 interchangible players. Schierholtz is a defensive replacement for the late innings. Whiteside pinch hits deep in games and otherwise sits there and waits for something terrible to happen to Buster Posey.
The one consistent thing among this bench is that there are really no bats on it. Edgar Renteria has seen his playing time and plate appearances increase in the playoffs, as he usually leads off for the Giants when he plays shortstop. When Renteria plays, the Giants usually bump Uribe over to third, or sit Uribe and play Sandoval. The playing time there is pretty even. Rowand and Torres play fairly evenly in Center. Torres is better. Rowand gets paid more.
Renteria is believed by the team to be a clutch option in the postseason. He is 3-for-18 with a walk this postseason. Juan Uribe is 4-for-28 with a walk and a homer. Sandoval is 3-for-14 with two walks and a double, good for a sparkling .313 on-base-percentage this postseason, leading all 3rd basemen and shortstops on this team.
You probably know by now that Posey and Ross have been tearing the cover off the ball this postseason. Huff has been a masher for this team all season, and Sanchez gives the team exactly what they are paying for in that two hole. Cost-free pickups Burrell and Cody Ross are the reasons the Giants have made it this far. The Giants’ biggest problem is they lack a leadoff man. Torres is the best man for the job, sporting a .409 on base percentage in the NLCS, but Torres hasn’t convinced manager Bruce Bochy to play him every day in the postseason, and Bochy uses his bench as much as any manager in the game. Edgar Renteria is an inadequate leadoff man, but as long as Cody Ross is hitting for power, he’s the best the Giants can do in games that Torres doesn’t play. Mike Fontenot is a decent option to leadoff against RHP. That’s not a group that includes Cliff Lee.
The other problem here is that the Giants have no bats after the 6 hole. That’s really going to hurt them on the road in Texas when they have to bat nine position players. That’s a problem you’ll run into if you only have 5 hitters on your roster. The good news is, for spots 2-6 in this lineup, the Giants are nearly as strong as the Rangers are.
Game 1: Cliff Lee (3.18 ERA, 212 1/3 IP 185K 18BB)
Game 2: C.J. Wilson (3.35 ERA, 204 IP 170K 93BB)
Game 3: Colby Lewis (3.72 ERA, 201 IP 196K 65BB)
Game 4: Tommy Hunter (3.73 ERA, 128 IP 68K 33BB)
Cliff Lee is without a doubt the best pitcher on the Rangers and in the World Series. He also has little competition for “Best Pitcher in the League” honors. The Rangers are 3-0 in his starts this postseason and have a high likelihood of going 2-0 in his two games. Lee last faced the Giants on July 31 of 2009 as a member of the Phillies, pitching a complete game and giving up one run on four hits with a 6/2 K/BB ratio. The Giants team he will face this time is a bit different: Randy Winn, Eugenio Velez and Ryan Garko won’t play a role in this series and Pablo Sandoval and Aaron Rowand are now part-time players. Needless to say, we can’t learn too much from that performance. After shutton down the Yankees, the Giants should be a cakewalk. However, when Cody Ross can homer twice off Roy Halladay, anything is possible.
The rest of the rotation is solid, but will have trouble winning games singlehandedly. Ron Washington made the decision to go with Tommy Hunter again in Game 4, keeping the other pitchers from going on three days rest. Colby Lewis has looked the best in the playoffs, but had some issues giving up the longball during the season. C.J. Wilson has been shaky and led the AL in walks issued, second in the majors to Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants. Tommy Hunter won’t miss many bats, but has some pretty good control. If the Giants come out overaggressive against him, he could eat up some innings in Game 4.
Overall, this rotation is good enough to win the series, but not good enough to sweep. The ultimate fate of the Rangers will depend on how many quality starts they get out of Wilson, Lewis and Hunter.
San Francisco Giants
Game 1: Tim Lincecum (3.43 ERA, 212.1 IP 231K 76BB)
Game 2: Matt Cain (3.14 ERA, 223.1 IP 177K 61BB)
Game 3: Jonathan Sanchez (3.07 ERA, 193.1 IP 205K 96BB
Game 4: Madison Bumgarner (3.00 ERA, 111 IP 86K 26BB)
It’s because of the strength of this group that Tim Lincecum doesn’t qualify as the unit’s clear ace the way that Cliff Lee does for the Rangers. If we took off the names, you’d struggle to pick the two-time Cy Young award winner’s line out of that group (you’d probably confuse him and Cain), but it’s Lincecum who is expected to draw Cliff Lee twice in this series.
Matt Cain was very underutilized in the NLCS, starting Game 2 and pitching masterfully for a win before not appearing again in the rest of the series. Because of the strength of the Texas Rangers as a ballclub compared to the Phillies, it’s Cain and not Lincecum who is really going to decide the course of this series. Even if the Giants are able to steal one from Lee, it’s hard to see the Giants winning the series if they cannot win both of Matt Cain’s starts.
Jonathon Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner will be asked to keep the Giants competitive, which is a tough task since two runs in the first six innings is considered an above expectation performance from the Giants offense. Colby Lewis is a very tough draw for Sanchez in particular, as the main difference between the two pitchers is that Sanchez has a tendency to put guys on base via the walk. Bumgarner will be an odds on favorite to win Game 4, which could be a swing game in this series. I don’t have to tell you how jittery big league managers get about playoff pressure on rookies pitching in the World Series, but if the Giants take home the title, you’ll have to look at Bochy’s decision to pitch Bumgarner in the playoff rotation over the overpaid Barry Zito as one of the biggest decisions of the postseason.
LHP Derek Holland, LHP Darren Oliver, RHP Neftali Feliz, RHP Darren O’Day, RHP Alexi Ogando, LHP Michael Kirkman, RHP Dustin Nippert, LHP Clay Rapada
The Rangers stocked their bullpen with left handers in the ALCS, selecting Kirkman and Rapada over Nippert and infielder Esteban German. Ron Washington may prefer the infielder to an extra pitcher given the four possible games in San Francisco The need for left handers is also less against the Giants as only Andres Torres is a bigger threat against right handers.
Holland will continue his role in providing long relief in case Wilson, Lewis or Hunter leave early. Darren O’Day, Darren Oliver and Alexi Ogando will mix and match for the late innings if needed. Clay Rapada got a lot of appearances against the Yankees, but without the need for a lefty specialist, he could have a minimized role.
After Neftali Feliz’s shaky start to the postseason where he walked five batters in 2 1/3 innings, he has struck out four over his last 2 innings pitched. This was after only walking two batters in the entire month of September. Also, Feliz gave up only one home run after July 18th, but then surrendered one in Game 2 against the Rays. He still hasn’t been presented with a save situation in the playoffs and is a real wild card if he is called upon late in a game.
The Rangers’ bullpen is underrated, but has been the weak link thus far in the playoffs. O’Day, Oliver and Ogando all had great regular seasons and missed bats frequently. However, we’ve already seen nearly every pitcher struggle thus far and the bullpen as a whole is weaker than it looks on paper.
San Francisco Giants
RHP Brian Wilson, RHP Sergio Romo, RHP Guillermo Mota, RHP Ramon Ramirez, LHP Jeremy Affeldt, RHP Santigo Casilla, LHP Javier Lopez
The bullpen is the biggest strength of the Giants over the Rangers, but a lot of that is based on my assumption that the Rangers’ pen won’t revert to regular season performance expectations. The Giants’ pen had a miniature meltdown in Game 2 of the NLDS, as Sergio Romo didn’t record an out in the 8th inning, and Ramon Ramirez got too much of the plate to Rick Ankiel. Since then, this group has been tremendous.
If they have a weakness, it’s to left handed batters, but more in quantity than in quality. Javier Lopez has been a tremendous pickup from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Jeremy Affeldt, who struggled out of the pen this year, has been an effective reliever in the playoffs. He faced nine batters in the NLCS and gave up one run on no hits. There are no other available lefties, though late in this series (as well as in the first game), they can use Bumgarner out of the pen.
They are strong and powerful on the right side. Few superlatives can adequately describe the season that closer Brian Wilson is having. Wilson technically blew a save in Game 2 of the NLDS, but he hasn’t given up a run in the post season. Sergio Romo and Ramon Ramirez have been strong contributors to the pen this season. Guillermo Mota was an effective big league fireman just a season ago, but has had a wildly inconsistent career, and his results have never backed up the stuff he has. Mota has not appeared in the playoffs this season.
The case for Texas: For being an American League team, the Rangers are structured quite well to play National League style baseball. They have demonstrated extraordinary capabilities on the bases and have a bench full of power, speed and defense. The National League winning the All-Star Game could end up being an advantage for the Rangers.
Nevertheless, the Rangers were much better at home this year, going 50-31 while being under .500 on the road. Cliff Lee winning Game 1 is critical as it swings the homefield advantage in favor of the Rangers. The real question is if the Rangers can hit nearly as well at AT&T Park as they can at home.
Staying with Cliff Lee for a moment, he is also more rested than Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum, thanks to the Rangers win in Game 6 against the Yankees. He will have eight days off between starts while Lincecum will have only 5. This may be good or bad, but Lee has racked up a lot of pitches in the postseason and probably needed some time off for his arm.
Last, the defense is a mixed bag for the Rangers. They have some of the best of the arms in the game, but Guerrero (a once great arm) moving to the outfield makes the defense a tad shaky. Kinsler and Andrus are improving defensively, but Michael Young is moving in the wrong direction. Molina’s veteran presence should solidify their infield defense, but there are places to be concerned.
After their performance in the ALCS, the Rangers seem to be the team to beat. They have a mix of young an old, a few good stories, and a franchise that has done anything but win over its history. It certainly feels like it is the Rangers’ time, but we will have to wait until the finish to know for sure. Until then I am predicting they win the World Series in five games.
The case for San Francisco: The Giants have been a run prevention team all season long, and actually, have done a strong job preventing runs for many consecutive years, which caused them to be a trendy pick to come out of the NL this season. Those who picked them to reach the World Series ended up being correct. There is no flaw in run prevention for the Giants. They finished the season 2nd in all of baseball in team UZR. They have strikeout pitchers throughout their rotation, and one of the most efficient rotations in baseball. After they take the starters out, their bullpen holds the lead. Their poorest rated defenders, Cody Ross and Mike Fontenot, make it up with the bat, and Fontenot has been a plus defender in the past.
Their manager, Bruce Bochy, gets criticized for poor tactical decisions (read: bunting), but he does the big things well. He gets his bench involved in the world series run, and he makes the tough decisions when it’s obvious that he needs to in order to improve win percentage. Bochy is a big reason the Giants have come this far. There’s a reason that Jose Guillen and Barry Zito are not on the playoff roster.
The Giants have overcome a lot to get this far. They weren’t a great pick to make the World Series, I didn’t think. This was a weak NL playoff field. Not many thought the Giants had a chance to beat the Phillies, but they proved to be the tougher of the two teams. They pitched better than the Phillies and because they had the better pitching performances, the hitters performed better.
The key for the Giants is to ensure that they don’t get down two games in the series to the Rangers as the Rays and the Yankees did. With Cliff Lee sitting on the other side, that’s easier said that done. The Giants are ahead if they can go through the rotations once and be tied 2-2 or ahead of the Rangers 3-1. The Rangers have to be up early, and they have to clinch with Lee when they have the chance. At the very least, the Rangers need to return to SF up 3-2 if they can’t clinch in 5.
Because of that, I like the Rangers in a short series, but the longer it goes, the more I think it’s viable that the Giants are a World Series Champion. Right now, I think if they can get by Cliff Lee once, the Giants will win in six games. Their margin of error isn’t much though, so a sweep or five game series at the hands of the Rangers could be a reality if their offense struggles even just a bit.
Brian Cesarotti wrote the Rangers-centric parts of this post. Greg Trippiedi covered the Giants.
It may not be a particularly bold move to declare the Rangers the certain favorite to advance to the World Series, but there is still some hope among Yankee fans after the strong showing in Game 5. Here’s five reasons why the Rangers will close out the series
1. Cliff Lee
If the Rangers fail to win Game 6, they have the safety of Cliff Lee pitching at home in Game 7. We all know about his ridiculous performance this post-season and astronomical K/BB ratio. With Mark Teixeira out, Lee will continue to improve upon the .612 OPS he held the Yankees to during the regular season.
2. Homefield Advantage
The Rangers were a stunning 51-30 (that’s .630 baseball) at home during the regular season and didn’t even muster a .500 record on the road. Against the average team in random circumstances, they would have an 85% chance to win one of the two games. This went a bit by the wayside in the ALDS and in Game 1, but you can’t keep down such a good home team too long.
3. Josh Hamilton
Some wondered whether Hamilton could be brought back to speed quick enough for the Rangers in the playoffs. The long series against the Rays helped him out and he has found his swing, completely mashing the ball. His career .991 OPS at the Ballpark in Arlington is surpassed by his season 1.044 OPS. If Hamilton is in form, it will be hard to keep the Rangers off the scoreboard.
The Rangers have excelled in baserunning this postseason and the Yankees haven’t slowed them down a bit. So far in the series, they have 9 stolen bases, many directly contributing to runs. The only way to stop them is to keep them off the bases, something the Yankees didn’t even do in their Game 5 win.
5. Yankees hitters
While Robinson Cano has woken up to become the Yankees best hitter both during the regular season and playoffs, the rest of the Yankees have been a disappointment, aside from Curtis Granderson. With Mark Teixeira out, they will all need to wake up soon to be able to win this seires. Unfortunately, they’ll have to do so against Colby Lewis and Cliff Lee, something I don’t see happening.
The Rangers will win Game 6 to close out the series. Bring on Halladay/Lincecum to face Cliff Lee in Game 1 of the World Series.