Friday, September 17, 2010

October Ain't May

By The Common Man

With the Twins sweeping the White Sox out of the pennant race yesterday, it’s time to look forward to the coming postseason and the Twins chances of advancing to the World Series. The Twins have a winning record against the Texas Rangers (7-3 with a +15 run differential), but would not be eligible to face the Rangers in the first round, since the Wild Card winner is coming out of the AL East.

Unfortunately, the Twins have fared poorly against both the Yankees (2-4 with a -3 differential) and the Rays (3-5 with a -6 differential). So, on the surface at least, the Twins and their fans should be concerned about getting through the Division Series. But are the Twins that the Yankees and Rays will face in October the same Twins they played in May, June, and July? And are the Yankees and Rays the same clubs they were?

Let’s look at the Twins starters through six games with the Yankees. The bad news is that the Yankees had to go up against Justin Morneau six times and still beat the Twins this year. Morneau, obviously, is unlikely to contribute much in the postseason, even if he is added to the roster. More likely, the Yankees will face off against Michael Cuddyer at 1B, which is a huge defensive downgrade. The good news is that Cuddyer’s shift opens up additional playing time for Jason Kubel (who played only 4 games against the Bombers, Delmon Young (who also played 4). This, and the fact that Drew Butera should remain stapled to the bench throughout the postseason (meaning Joe Mauer won’t have to DH), will provide additional opportunities for Jim Thome (who only got into 2 games). That lineup shifting may not be enough to make up for the run differential itself though, especially with Morneau sitting out.

However, the Yankees faced off against just three of the Twins starters, facing Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, and Nick Blackburn twice each. They met little success against Liriano, who limited them to 5 runs in 13 innings, while striking out 14. They teed off Scott Baker in their first meeting (5 runs in 6 innings), but he shut them down for five innings in his second start. And Blackburn also proved largely stymieing (5 runs in 13 innings). The Yankees are not likely, however, to face Baker. It may face Blackburn, who has a 1.71 ERA in 31 innings since being recalled from the minors, but only in a game 4. New York is more likely to have to go against Liriano, Carl Pavano, and Brian Duensing in games 1-3.

The main problem for the Twins was their bullpen performance. In 14 innings, the Twins relievers gave up five home runs, and allowed 5 of 6 inherited runners to score, in addition to allowing 9 runs of their own. It was a miserable performance. And this is where the Twins may have made up significant ground on the Yankees, as they have significantly bolstered their bullpen with the additions of Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes, and with the reemergence of Jesse Crain. Their success pushes Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, and Jose Mijares into lower-leverage roles. And other relievers like Alex Burnett and Ron Mahay will not be part of the post-season pen.

The Yankees, meanwhile, are dealing with a hobbled Alex Rodriguez, a concussed Jorge Posada, a brittle Andy Pettitte, a slumping Robinson Cano, and an ineffective Derek Jeter. And when the teams played earlier this year, the only players likely to play in the playoffs who did not get a crack at the Twins were Posada (who played in 2 games) and Curtis Granderson (who did not play at all). In all, the teams look well-matched.

Similarly, the Twins who faced the Rays are vastly different from who Tampa will see now that the Twins’ lineup and rotation have stabilized. Drew Butera caught 4 of the 8 contests between the teams. Alexi Casilla got into 4 games at 2B with Orlando Hudson out. Michael Cuddyer got 3 starts at 3B, significantly weakening the left side IF defense. Nick Punto and Trevor Plouffe split 3 starts at SS. And Jim Thome only got four starts at DH. Here, the damage caused by Morneau’s absence in the final analysis is mitigated somewhat because he only started four games against the Rays before his concussion knocked him to the sidelines.

The Twins’ rotation will also be significantly different from the arms Tampa faced in the regular season. The Rays got Pavano twice (6 runs in 12.1 innings), Liriano once (and were thoroughly dominated), and Duensing once (6 innings, 3 runs), but also got two cracks at Baker (but failed, as Baker dominated them), one at Slowey, and one at Blackburn (who was bombed). And again, the relief core proved unreliable, with 15 runs allowed (and 10 runners inherited scored) in 20.2 innings. But, as before, much of that damage was done without Capps or Fuentes available.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell what the Rays’ postseason lineup is going to look like, given their roster flexibility. Where, for instance, does Ben Zobrist play? He’s manened CF and 1B versus the Twins, but could also play RF or 2B. Does Brandon Jennings make the postseason roster? Which struggling hitter, Carlos Pena or Manny Aybar, sits? Will lefty-hitting catcher be allowed to play against Liriano and Duensing, or will the disappointing Kelly Shoppach platoon?

Perhaps even more interesting is the pitching staff. Lefty David Price would undoubtedly pitch twice in a five game series against the lefty-heavy Twins. Then, what do the Rays do with former stalwart James Shields and his 4.86 ERA? Conceivably, he could be entirely left off in favor of Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Matt Garza, but will the Rays feel they can afford to bench the franchise leader in victories, even though he's been their worst starter?

Again, despite the Twins’ record against the Rays, they look like they could be evenly matched. But there are probably too many questions surrounding the team’s playoff construction to answer definitively.

What we do know, however, is that the Twins’ record against both teams is deceiving. They were not significantly outscored in either case, and their reconstituted roster and newfound health (Morneau withstanding) means that either opponent is in for more than they got during the regular season.

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