Monday, September 27, 2004

Playoff Previews: Why This Could Be the Year

The last two times the Twins made the playoffs they have failed to reach their ultimate goal of winning the World Series. They were favored to make it in 2002 but lost to the eventual champion Anaheim Angels. Then last year they had a meager performance against the Yankees and failed to advance past the first round. There is something different about this year’s team. They are playing with more purpose and in less awe of their own achievements. They have 2 big time pitchers for the first time and the kind of power bullpen that dominates in the playoffs. Their defense is at the high level the Twins have grown accustomed to. The real cause of the Twins playoff struggles has been their inability to score runs. This year the additions of Justin Morneau and Lew Ford and an entire lineup that has looked less intimidated could change that. Below is a comparison of this year’s position players and the last 2 playoff teams. For the most part we will use the outdated batting average as a measure of the player’s ability because it is easy to understand and work.

The first 2 division winners were anchored by A.J Pierzynski at this position. A.J batted over .300 both years while providing a spark to the lineup. Joe Mauer was supposed to be his replacement but injuries have hampered his season and will almost certainly keep him out of the playoffs. Henry Blanco has struggled to bat over .200 but his defense is an upgrade over Pierzynski in the field. AJ batted .344 in his first playoffs but struggled to .231 last year.
Edge – Previous Years – This team could really use Joe Mauer but has played without him all year.

First Base
Doug Mientkiewicz was once considered the heart of the team. He now plays in Boston and has been replaced by Justin Morneau and his 18 homeruns. Justin is the powerful cleanup hitter this team has lacked in previous years and his defense is above average. Doug batted .263 with 6 RBI’s in 2002 but really struggled against the Yankees batting .133.
Edge – 2004 Twins – What Morneau gives up defensively he more then makes up for with his bat. His mere presence in the lineup forces teams to pitch differently.

Second Base
Comparing Luis Rivas to Michael Cuddyer/Luis Rivas. It is still unclear who the starting second baseman will be come October. Cuddyer filled in admirably while Rivas was hurt and is even playing better in the field. He is the better hitter of the two. Rivas came out strong when he returned from injury but is again hurting. Rivas will probably start if healthy. He batted .250 in 2002 and went 0-13 in last year’s playoffs.
Edge – 2004 Twins – Even if Rivas starts, he cannot possibly equal last year’s lack of output.

Third Base
Which Corey Koskie will we see? The one who Peter Gammons claimed was the heart and soul of the 2002 team or the one who has never hit over .205 in the playoffs. Koskie’s average is down this year .243 but his power numbers are up, 24 to 14 last year. He played a big part in turning the Twins season around when he homer'd in Cleveland in mid-August. He also was a big reason the Twins offense struggled the past two playoffs. He needs to be a solid, middle of the order, contributor this year.
Edge – 2004 Twins – With experience comes more production…we hope.

Cristian Guzman has been the Twins shortstop for all three Division Championships. His play has been slightly improved this year but he is still no where near the player he was in 2001. He hit .231 in the 2002 postseason and .154 in the '03 postseason. His numbers need to be closer 2004's .277 batting average if he is going to make an impact in the playoffs. This team doesn’t need his production but it would go a long way towards improving their postseason scoring. The one improvement he may have made is that his defense appears to be better this year than it was the past two.
Edge – Even

In 2002 Jacque Jones batted .175 in the playoffs. Last year Shannon Stewart batted .400 and was billed as a major reason the Twins made the playoffs. Stewart was not the reason the Twins didn’t hit last year. He will bring much of the same to this year’s second season. He sets the tone for the lineup and even contributed a big defense play in last season’s playoffs. This year his return to the lineup once again correlated with the Twins improved position in the standings.
Edge – Even

In no player has the increased maturity been more evident this year than Torii Hunter. Hunter bats in the middle of the order and has contributed as much as any Twin to the offense the last two years. In 2002 he scored 6 runs and hit 6 doubles. Last year he scored 3 of the 6 total runs the Twins had in the ALDS while batting over .400. This year he has sent a message that he wants to go further and that his team is ready to do it. He has played big in the biggest games with his charging into Jamie Burke being a defining point of the season. On top of that his defense remains stellar.
Edge – 2004 Twins - Fantastic numbers the last two years do not outweigh the drive going into this year’s playoffs. He may just be the key player for the Twins offensive fortunes.

Cuddyer and Dustan Mohr split time in the 2002 playoffs and both contributed offensively. Last year Jacque Jones was worse than in 2002 by hitting just .125. His defense should be improved this year with more time in right but his offensive struggles have now spread to the regular season. Right now he is mired in a slump and his average is at .256, well below his career mark of .285. He does have 24 homeruns. The big question is whether Jacque will start against lefties. Unless Ron Gardenhire has changed his philosophy, he probably will and that lowers the grade of this position further.
Edge – Previous teams

Designated Hitter
In 2002, it was a platoon of Matt LeCroy and David Ortiz. LeCroy batted .417 while Ortiz getting the bulk of the playing time hit .276, driving in 4. This was not the David Ortiz of today who is now hitting .297 with 40 homeruns and a .376 OBP. In 2002 the DH was again LeCroy who batted .091. There is no way Lew Ford will play worse then that this year. He is also more versatile and can give the outfielders a day off should the Twins begin to go deep into the postseason. Ford has a sweet short swing made for the playoffs and has hit .302 this year with a .388 OBP.
Edge – 2004 Twins – One of those guys who will not play scared.

The Twins are certainly posed to be a better offensive team than they were the last two postseasons. With the additions of Justin Morneau and Lew Ford they have more weapons than before. The only major loss was Pierzynski. The real question is whether another year of experience will be enough to put the Twins over the hump of their offensive woes. That will be determined in October but as it stands now this looks to be a more potent hitting team. Many people would point to the Twins big 2 starters and hard throwing bullpen as the biggest reason they stand a better chance this year. Tomorrow we will take a look at how the pitching compares. Mark Buerhle may have to make a couple of calls before it’s all over.


Playoff Perspectives
Anaheim won 5-3 over Texas to go 88-68, .5 GB in the West. Texas is 86-70, 2.5 GB.
Recap – Bartolo Colon pitched 8 innings giving up 3 R, 2 ER. Kenny Rogers missed out on his 18th win giving up 4 R in 7.1 innings. Vlad Guerrero homered in the top of the 2nd but Texas took the lead off a Kevin Mench 2 run homer in the 4th. The Angels came back with 1 in the 7th 2 in the 8th and 1 in the 9th to seal the win. Chone Figgins had 3 hits and 2 RBI for Anaheim. Twins killer, Troy Percival recorded his 31st save.
Notes – In what amounts to a stunning move the Angels suspended outfield Jose Guillen for the rest of the season including the playoffs. He was .294 with 27 HR and 104 RBI.
Boston beat Tampa Bay 7-3 to go 94-62, 3 GB.
Recap: Bronson Arroyo pitched 6.1 innings giving up 2 ER to get his 10th win of the season. The Red Sox scored all their runs on 4 home runs by Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and David McCarty. Keith Foulke pitched a scoreless 9th.
Oakland won 6-5 over Seattle to go 89-67, 1 GA in the West. If the season ended today they would play New York.
New York DNP, they are 97-59.
Notes – Kevin Brown struggled in his bid to come back from a broken hand by giving up 4 runs in 2/3 of an inning Sunday.
National League
Atlanta PPD, they are 92-64 and would play Chicago if the season endedtoday.
St. Louis lost 10-3 to Houston to go 103-53 if the season ended today they would play Los Angeles.
Chicago won 12-5 over Cincinnati to go 88-68, 1 GA in the Wild Card.
Houston won 10-3 over St. Louis to go 87-70, 1.5 GB in the Wild Card.
Los Angeles won 8-7 over Colorado to go 90-66, 3 GA in the West.
San Francisco DNP, 87-69, 1 GB in the Wild Card.
San Diego DNP, 85-71, 3 GB in the Wild Card.

Playoff Previews: The Picture Begins to Focus…Sorta

Before this weekend began, I was one of those who believed much of the American League’s playoff picture would be all but decided. Someone, I thought, would make a statement. The Yankees would sweep or take two of three from the Red Sox. The Athletics would finally right their ship and put away the Angels. The Twins would snap out of their doldrums and take three of four from the Indians, thereby securing home field advantage in the ALDS.

As is true with most of my premonitions, absolutely none of those things occurred.

The Red Sox battered a much-maligned Yankee staff Saturday and Sunday, outscoring the Bombers 23-9 in taking two of three. The Angels made a statement against Oakland, convincingly winning their weekend series with the A’s to move within a game of first. And our Twins managed to tread water while battling the late-season injury bug, splitting a four game series with the Tribe.

Right now, here is what the overall standings look like in the American League:

x-New York Yankees9759.622--
Boston Red Sox9362.6003.5
Oakland Athletics8867.5688.5
Anaheim Angels8768.5619.5
Texas Rangers8669.55510.5
x=clinched playoff berth; y=clinched division

Just one quick glance will tell you exactly what we know for certain about the AL playoff picture: absolutely nothing. The Yankees could still conceivably finish second in the AL East; the Twins could easily still wind up with the third-best record among division champions; and either the Athletics, Angels, or Rangers could wind up as the AL West champion. The fact that all these possibilities still exist with only six or seven games to play in the regular season is truly amazing. Here are the four most likely playoff match-ups for the ALDS:

Scenario 1: Oak/Ana/Tex @ New York, Boston @ Minnesota
Scenario 2: Oak/Ana/Tex @ Boston, New York @ Minnesota
Scenario 3: Minnesota @ New York, Boston @ Oak/Ana/Tex
Scenario 4: Minnesota @ Boston, New York @ Oak/Ana/Tex

There are also two other mathematically possible scenarios (Ana/Oak/Tex @ NYY, Oak/Ana/Tex @ MN and Ana/Oak/Tex @ NYY, MN @ Oak/Ana/Tex) but they are all highly unlikely, given that the Athletics, Angels, and Rangers are 5, 6, and 7 games behind Boston respectively with only 7 to play.

All this mathematical posturing begs a few questions. Which one of these possibilities is most likely to occur? Which would favor the Twins the most? How the hell has Texas managed to stay in the race this long?

The short answers? One, One, and I have no idea.

Now, I know you didn’t come all the way to Twins Chatter to be satisfied with just one-word answers, so I will elaborate somewhat (at least on the first two questions). First of all, my guess is that the playoff picture will remain as it is now. The Athletics host the lowly Mariners for four games this week, and I suspect that the A’s, perhaps out of sheer desperation, will take care of business (although the M’s did take two of three from the Rangers this weekend). I’m predicting that Oakland takes three of four. Meanwhile, the Rangers and Angels will tango four times this week. The pitching match-ups do not grossly favor either team, so I’m going to go the safe route and predict a split. That would leave the A’s two games up on the Halos and three up on the Rangers, meaning the A’s would only have to win one game in their three-game set against Anaheim this weekend to take the division crown. Things could very easily pan out much differently, but that is what I’m envisioning.

As for our Twins, I’m going to go out on a limb here (albeit a very sturdy, conservative limb, complete with matching wooden hand rails) and say they finish the season 3-3 to finish 93-69 overall, an extremely respectable mark. Tomorrow’s Lohse vs. El Duque match-up isn’t particularly favorable, and the team has the double misfortune of facing Scott “I-pitch-like-Cy-Young-against-the-Twins-and-Scott-Elarton-against-everybody-else” Elarton and giving Terry Mulholland his final start of the season this weekend against Cleveland. 3-3 (or possibly 4-2) sounds about right to me, and it will probably give the Twins home-field advantage in the ALDS.

As for the Yankees-Red Sox, I’m thinking that this thing is probably decided. The Sox needed to sweep the Yankees this weekend to win the division, and they did not. The Twins are struggling with the injury bug a little bit, and I don’t think that they’re in a position to sweep the Yanks in the Stadium this week (although 2 of 3 is a definite possibility). Once the BoSox clinch a playoff berth, which will probably happen within the next couple days, I suspect they will rest some regulars and set up their rotation for the playoffs. I think it’s likely that both teams will finish the season right where they stand today.

So there you have it. Even though this weekend didn’t exactly solidify a ton of things in the push for playoff posturing, it did clarify a few things somewhat:
-The Yankees will win the East and the Red Sox the Wild Card
-The Twins aren’t going to totally collapse over the season’s final six games
-The AL West is still very much up for grabs, although the A’s hold a slight advantage

Be sure and check back here tomorrow, when we continue our “Playoff Previews” series. No doubt John will have some wise nuggets of wisdom to share with all of us, as he taps his vast reservoir of exquisite baseball knowledge. Take care, everyone.

-Ryan Maus

Playoff Perspectives

...will be taking the day off. Almost all of the information you would have found here is covered in today's post. This feature will be back tomorrow.