Friday, September 10, 2004

Sizing Up the Competition

The Twins got a well-deserved day off yesterday, so I thought that I would take the opportunity to present my thoughts on a popular topic of conversation. The lead in the Central is eight games (remember, no team has EVER lost a lead that big in September) and the magic number has been whittled down to a mere 16. We can safely start to look towards October, but since playoff speculation will be an oft-discussed topic on this site over the next three weeks, I thought that I would start slowly by answering the following question: If the season were to end now, who of the four possible AL playoff teams (New York, Boston, Oakland, and Anaheim) would I rather see the Twins play in the first round?

1. Anaheim (season series: 5-4 Anaheim)
This choice should come as no surprise to anyone out there. Statistically speaking, the Angels are probably the least impressive of all the AL contenders. Bartolo Colon, allegedly the ace of this Angel staff, still has a 5.33 ERA. He has been much better in the second has (8-3, 3.79) but is still far from his old dominant self. Kelvim Escobar has been the team’s most consistent starter but is no one to be afraid of. Neither is the wildly inconsistent John Lackey (4.89 ERA). Twins-killer Aaron Sele is really the only guy that scares me on that team, as he’s already pitched well against the Twins three times this season. Besides big boppers Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Guillen, the Angels use their speed to score many of their runs (they’re tops in the majors with 122 stolen bases). Throwing out baserunners is Henry Blanco’s specialty, so he would be a great asset in a series against the Halos. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Twins will play the Angels in the first round, as they would have to win the AL West and Oakland would have to win the wild card.

2. Oakland (season series: 5-2 Oakland)
I know there are many people out there that will disagree with me here, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one. My reasoning here isn’t based so much on statistics or head-to-head match-ups as it is intuition. We all remember what happened in October of 2002: an upstart bunch from Minnesota stunned a 103-win Athletics by winning the pivotal game 5 in Oakland. Were the Twins to play the A’s in the first round, there is no doubt that both teams will have that series in the back of their minds. I also took into account how much easier it is to win in Oakland in front of 30,000 laid back Californians as opposed to 60,000 cursing New Yorkers. As important as statistics are, you simply cannot completely discount the impact of the intangibles. That being said, I think Santana vs. Mulder and Radke vs. Hudson, match-ups that would occur twice in a five game series, appear to be almost even. Game three is where the Twins would have some trouble, as Rich Harden pitched very well last month against the Twins and is having a terrific second half. Offensively, the A’s have scored a few more runs (706 vs. 657) and hit a few more homers (171 vs. 162) than the Twins, but both numbers are reasonably close. The Twins have a huge edge in stolen bases (obviously) which could be the deciding factor in a short series. However, given the A’s recent slide, it is highly unlikely that the Twins would get to play them in the first round.

3. New York (season series: 2-1 Twins with 3 games to play)
I’ve seen many people say that the team they hope the play in the first round is the New York Yankees. I’m here to tell them that they’re crazy. Sure, the Yanks haven’t been playing their best baseball of late, and sure, there’s a chance the Twins might beat them, but I want nothing to do with the Yankees in the ALDS. We all know that the Twins are liable to be shut down by the worst of starting pitchers, and the Twins match up very poorly with Orlando Hernandez, in my opinion. After Hernandez (who might actually start Game 1!) things get a little shaky for the Yankees. Javier Vazquez has been very ordinary, and Mike Mussina has yet to regain his velocity after missing a few months with an injury. Kevin Brown just broke his own hand, although he may be back for the playoffs. The bullpen trio of Quantril, Gordon, and Rivera has been overworked this season but will still be very tough.

Despite all these positive signs (for the Twins) the Yankees still have one of the best offenses in the majors. Let’s not forget that A-Rod didn’t play in either of the Twins’ wins against New York at the Dome this year. Sheffield, Jeter, and Matsui are also extremely dangerous hitters. This year, it seems like the Yankees are still the Twins’ most likely first round opponent. While I still think the Twins could win the series, I would rather see the Twins take on the Angels or A’s.

4. Boston (season series: 4-2 Twins)
The Red Sox are the team that no one wants to face come October. They’re the hottest team in the league right now, and feature a squad tailor-made for the postseason. Martinez and Shilling are right on par with Mulder-Hudson and Santana-Radke as far as pitching duos go, although after Keith Foulke their bullpen is a question mark. However, the Boston offense more than makes up for whatever shortcomings they experience on the mound. They’ve built a solid surrounding cast around Ramirez and Ortiz, and their offensive numbers at home (.306 team batting average) are astounding. If the Sox can overtake the Yankees and face the Twins in the ALDS, the Beantown Bombers would most certainly be heavy favorites. This is one team that I want absolutely no part of, even in the ALCS.

Well, there you have it. If you agree or disagree with my opinions, feel free to drop a comment below and I’ll be certain to engage in a lively debate when I get the time. Right now, I’m going to bed. Have a good one, everybody.