Sunday, October 4, 2009

2009 ALDS/NLDS Preview

By Rick Morris

The one word that sums up this forthcoming October like no other is “continuity.” One factor that I like to examine each year (by the way, here are links to the 2008 and 2007 playoff previews) centers around star players making their postseason debuts. Last year, I counted 14 such players (as teams like the Dodgers, Brewers and Devil Rays were taking the stage with some fine young talent) – this year, I count only four, all of whom are pitchers: Rick Porcello, Edwin Jackson, Randy Wolf and JA Happ – and two of them won’t be playing if the Tigers lose the play-in game on Tuesday. And since Wolf is a little long in the tooth for the “young star makes his playoff debut” storyline, that just drives home the reality even more.

In the American League, every pennant winner this decade except for 2005 (White Sox) and 2008 (Rays) is represented in the playoff lineup, again, if the Tigers make it in. In the National League, every pennant winner since 2004 except 2005 (Astros – man, 2005 was a weird year, wasn’t it?) is included. No less than five teams still have a chance to nail down “Team of the Decade” honors and they are all, unsurprisingly, represented in this postseason: Boston (two World Series titles, two ALCS losses), New York Yankees (one World Series title, two pennants, one ALCS loss), Philadelphia (one World Series title), LA Angels (one World Series title, one ALCS loss), St. Louis (one World Series title, one pennant, three NLCS losses). Granted, the Angels and Phillies would probably have weaker claims than the Red Sox if they were to win the World Series, but this much uncertainty as to the best team of the decade is almost unprecedented with the last games on the horizon (with the only potential parallel coming ten years ago when the Braves could have tied the Yankees for most World Series wins in a decade with two and would have had three additional pennants and two NLCS losses as a handy tiebreaker).

By the way, while the Florida Marlins were due to win the World Series this year, having previously done so in 1997 and 2003, many key players from the 2003 team are represented this fall, in keeping with the team's "potential dynasty that wasn't" theme that sprung from the financially-induced breakup of the core. Josh Beckett, AJ Burnett, Carl Pavano, Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera and Juan Pierre all still have a chance to win a ring this postseason.

Here’s a look at the individual series, with both potential Yankee series being mentioned rather than holding this column until Tuesday night:

TIGERS vs. YANKEES: Coming into the season, it appeared as though the top four teams in the AL were, in any order, the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Angels. While the Rays faded late and the Rangers were a factor for longer than anyone could have possibly anticipated, the basic premise still applies inasmuch as it is anything but clear that the Tigers are one of the top four teams in the American League. Conversly, when FDH Baseball Analyst Tim Foust and I broke down the pennant races on our FDH LOUNGE (Wednesdays, 7-10 PM EDT on program back in August, I noted to him that the Yankees certainly spent their offseason free agent money inefficiently in the long run – but that the money was well-positioned in 2009 and 2010 at least. Surely, this team is light years away from the salary inefficiency in 2007, when they were vulnerable to an upset from the incredibly flukish Cleveland Indians of that year. While history tells us that the long-term big-money deals given to CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett will look bad before they expire and while Mark Texeira doesn’t quite fit the profile of a megaslugger who should command that kind of salary, the Yanks did what they had to for 2009 when they were looking to make a ginormous impact in their new park. They have few weaknesses, a bullpen that is a serious threat to make games seven-inning affairs for the first time since Mariano Rivera filled the Phil Hughes role in 1996 and an infield that took a good first step towards being considered the best of all time. Meanwhile, the mediocre Tigers limped pathetically into the postseason. They have a puncher’s chance with the ace arms at the top of their rotation (ironically, the same situation as 2007 when the Sabathia/Carmona-led Indians gave the Tribe whatever semblance of a chance they had on paper going into the series) and much inconsistency in their lineup. One thing is for sure: if Miguel Cabrera (the lineup’s only megastar) gets any big hits to eliminate the Yankees after what he did in the World Series six years ago, the Steinbrenner family will not be pleased! YANKEES in 4.

TWINS vs. YANKEES: While the Twins have pulled off several miracle runs in their years in the HHH Dome, they may have saved their most miraculous one for last. When we held our October baseball preview roundtable on THE FDH LOUNGE program last Wednesday, they were not even remotely on our radar and as such were not discussed at all. This Minnesota team is different from the ones of recent vintage, though, in that they are not anchored by one ace in Johan Santana or two (the 2006 Twins had both Santana and the pre-injury Francisco Liriano). No, their starting pitching barely qualifies as average these days, but their usual slaptastic lineup now has more pop as bona fide slugger Justin Morneau has been joined by no-longer-a-slappy Joe Mauer and power generators Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. The rest of the lineup, with only a few exceptions, can be pitched around, leaving only the team’s outstanding middle and late relief as a true area of parity with the Yankees. In a horrible matchup for the Twinkees, that won’t be enough. YANKEES in 3.

RED SOX vs. ANGELS: The famous 1986 collapse against Boston in the ALCS presaged a tough 2000s decade for the Angels against the Sox, as they lost in 2004, 2007 and last year in the ALDS. They have matched up very well with Boston every time on paper, though, as most Angels playoff teams of this decade have actually been better on paper than the ’02 World Championship squad that has kept this decade from being a complete bust. Both teams are actually somewhat mirror images of each other right now, as both had ace pitchers with somewhat disappointing regular seasons (Beckett, Lester, Lackey), both had secondary starting pitchers who really fell off (Dice-K, Santana), both had DHs who were unable to deliver the foundation production expected (Ortiz, Guerrero) and both had pretty good power up and down the line. The Red Sox do have a deeper and more reliable bullpen, as well as a better bench. The Angels have the element that cannot be quantified: motivation to play for their fallen comrade Nick Adenhart and his friends who were in the tragic DWI crash in April. As we saw with the Red Wings in the 1998 Stanley Cup, sometimes that intensity can be so overpowering that it overcomes all obstacles. However, while these Angels will be the sentimental favorite for many people (including me), they still need to prove that they can surmount what appears to be an obvious mental block in the form of a team that is not any better than they are but has still owned them in recent years. They have proven me wrong before when I picked them, we shall see if they can do the same in reverse. RED SOX in 5.

ROCKIES vs. PHILLIES: In the midst of their historic 21-1 run in ’07, the Rockies knocked off Philadelphia in their only previous postseason matchup. Given that Colorado was in “the zone” to such an inhuman degree before Boston brought them back to earth in the World Series, it’s impossible to extrapolate anything from that result. Then, as now, that unlikely team from the mountains had no ace pitcher and did not have an overwhelming lineup. Then, as now, they benefited from a thin NL wild card field, as the slap-heavy Giants actually provided them with their main opposition for most of this summer. There are differences, though, as the ’07 Rocks had franchise slugger Matt Holliday and had a different manager in Clint Hurdle. When Hurdle was fired this year, the team mounted another rampage to get back into the playoff chase with Jim Tracy now on the bench. Timely hitting and a “hero of the day” mentality pervades this Colorado team once again and Troy Tulowitzki has taken Holliday’s place as the main superstar in the lineup with Brad Hawpe still providing a great secondary presence. The bullpen, now anchored by Huston Street, provides the only real advantage over Philadelphia, who is flailing about now that Brad Lidge has rediscovered his ’05 postseason vintage. The starting rotation is much stronger than Colorado’s from top to bottom and the lineup has been above-average and well-balanced now that Jimmy Rollins remembered that he was Jimmy Rollins at the same time that Raul Ibanez remembered that he was Raul Ibanez. Jayson Werth’s career season is a bit of a wild card in the equation, as is Ryan Howard’s improved contact rate this year. While the Phillies could be at a distinct disadvantage in the late innings, they have too much lineup and rotation strength to presume that they will be down late in most games. PHILLIES in 4.

CARDINALS vs. DODGERS: The two most storied franchises in the history of the National League (Cards have ten World Championships and seven other pennants; Dodgers have six World Championships and 12 other pennants), whose paths have not crossed over the years that much in consequential games, do battle for the fourth time since the National League playoffs began 40 years ago. And while their crosstown rivals the Angels are dealing with a much more obvious albatross in terms of the constant losses to the Red Sox, the Dodgers also have never beaten their opponent in postseason play, dropping the memorable 1985 NLCS and also the 2004 NLDS. The 1980s were actually a microcosm for how these teams have been the most successful in the history of the NL as well as how their paths didn’t cross much: they made it to the NLCS (which, back then, was the only round of the NL playoffs) a combined five times and they were a combined 4-1 with the only loss being the aforementioned Dodger defeat in ’85 – and they were the most successful teams in all of baseball that decade as the Dodgers won two World Series and the Cards captured one World Series and two additional pennants (and were arguably a Don Denkinger call away from surmounting the Dodgers for “Team of the Decade”). This Dodger team is actually the quietest of the NL field over the course of this decade, only really coming into their own over the past two seasons due to the acquisition of Manny Ramirez, a young core of talent that was probably the best in the minor leagues 3-4 years ago and the steadying hand of Joe Torre. Like their fellow countrymen from the West the Rockies, they lack a true ace, as Chad Billingsley seemed ready to seize the title in the first half of the season but has looked like garbage for much of the time since then. Aside from their superlative outfield, they’re not going to scare too many pitching staffs with Russell Martin’s disappointing year and James Loney’s Wally Joyner-esque production at the power position of first base. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are quite simply the best-balanced team in the entire playoff field, moving from a position off the radar of most analysts coming into the season to the status as arguably the team to beat after the Matt Holliday acquisition, Chris Carpenter’s unbelievable comeback and the amazing development of the rest of the rotation and bullpen. Barring any injuries along the way, St. Louis cannot come into any postseason series without being regarded as a favorite. CARDINALS in 4.

Here are my predictions for the subsequent rounds:

ALCS: Yankees over Red Sox in 6.
NLCS: Cardinals over Phillies in 5.
World Series: Cardinals over Yankees in 6.

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