Friday, September 30, 2011

ALDS and NLDS Predictions: Momentum Vs. Talent

After the Best Night in Baseball History Ever, we're right into the first two games of the postseason today, with the American League kicking things off. In other words, it's prediction time. Let's have at it!

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Tampa at Texas

The defending American League champions have home field, a rested rotation, and the knowledge that they won their division without much drama at all, simply by being better. They've got a meat grinder of an offense with Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, etc., et cetera -- it's just deep and experienced and super grindy. You used to be able to beat them in the bullpen, but ever since adding Mike Adams and Koji Uejara down there, the bridge to the end of the game has been much better. If the starting pitching is not top tier -- and it isn't -- it's not awful either, and they aren't going to panic if things go badly for them at the start. They could easily go back to the Series.

As for the Rays, momentum is an exciting mistress... but there are holes a plenty in this lineup. Desmond Jennings hasn't hit for a month, BJ Upton makes a lot of outs, and they've gotten very little out of catcher and shortstop this year. The offense pretty much ends with Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, Casey Kotchman, Johnny Damon and Evan Longoria; in the playoffs, that's usually not enough. As for the arms, everyone's young and throws the hell out of the ball, but David Price has been secretly terrible for the last month, Jeremy Hellickson nibbles too much, and they are starting rookie Matt Moore in Game one. He was awesome in his last start, but Young Pitchers Will Break Your Hurt, and so will these Rays. Rangers in five.

Detroit at New York Yankees

It's rare to think that a 5-game series will be decided in Game One, but it will... because that's the game that Justin Verlander will pitch in New York against C.C. Sabathia, and neither of these teams is going to recover from their ace going down. Especially not the Tigers, but the trouble is that they've got (much) better starting pitching, especially with Doug Fister a solid matchup against the Yankees' lefty bats.

I'm also not entirely sold on Ivan Nova, the Yankees' Game Two starter. Having watched him hard for the last three months as a spot starter on my fantasy team, he just doesn't miss enough bats, and is prone to big innings against with defensive lapses. Put him in a must win Game 2 situation against an improbably effective Fister, and I could see the Yankees actually going winless in New York, though they probably won't.

In Detroit, the hometown Tigers are going to have something that the Yankees don't usually encounter until October -- a united home crowd that well and truly hates them. This is one of the hidden plots of MLB+ teams, and why they frequently fail in October; they just aren't prepared to play games where they hear concentrated hate, at least not in anywhere near to what the other teams deal with. Even in Boston, there's 10-20% Yankee contingent in the crowd, because the seats are so expensive and the commute from New York isn't that penal. Very few people from the New York area, or ex-pats, are going to Detroit by choice, even for elimination games for their team. They just aren't fun, and when you are going to Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, or a 3-days rest Sabathia to get things back to the Bronx, it's even less fun.

Can Detroit hit enough to win this, or close games with the occasionally shaky Jose Valverde? Just enough, with Miguel Cabrera getting a little help from Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila (the secret AL Rookie of the Year with an .895 OPS behind the dish). There will be games in this series where the Yankees crush them like bugs, where Curtis Granderson shines his MVP credentials, where Robinson Cano looks like the game is beneath his make it look easy talent. They've also got the much better bullpen, if a game goes into extra innings and long.

So what happens? A split in New York. A split in Detroit. And Verlander, on rest and on target, looming in Game Five. Give me the Tigers, in five.

Arizona at Milwaukee


This series isn't going to be seen, but it might be the most fun. Two young teams with emerging arms, some of the best young power hitting outfielders in the game in Justin Upton and Ryan Braun, the going-away party for Cecil Fielder, and a Rays' team that's been winning Those Games all year. You know Those Games; the ones where bizarre stuff happens and you should not win, but you do anyway. As for the Brewers, they've got a suspiciously great top three of the rotation in Yovani Gallardo, Shawn Marcum and Zach Greinke, and the home field advantage. This could be a great, great series.

I'm going to go with the DiamondBacks on this one, just because I think you can pitch to the bottom part of their lineup more than the DBs; once you get past Braun and Fielder, there's a lot of men left on base. The DB bullpen isn't as good, and neither is their top three, but Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Josh Collmeter aren't awful, and the Brewers haven't had a good defense in, well, forever. At the end of this, give me Geraldo Parra and Ryan Roberts over Nyjer Morgan and Corey Hart. And Arizona to win in four.

St. Louis at Philadelphia


Three days ago, before the Real Phillies showed up and ended the Braves just to be mean, no one in town was feeling all that great about the playoffs. We were either going to get a Braves team that was going to be playing with house money from avoiding the greatest collapse in September history, or a Cardinals team that was coming in like a house on fire, with an offense that's downright frightening.

Now? The Cardinals struggle mightily with the Astros, needing the start of the year from Chris Carpenter to cash in the engraved invitation that the Phillies sent them. They've spent the last six months playing spin the bottle with closers, and Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal are banged up. And there's still that little matter of what happened to them in March, when Adam Wainwright went down and everyone in town wondered if they'd be better off just cashing in their chips and retooling for 2012.

Game One will be Kyle Lohse vs. Roy Halladay, and while Lohse has been good down the stretch, that's a mismatch. Game Two is Cliff Lee versus Edwin Jackson, and while Jackson is capable of greatness, he's also capable of complete meltdown; there's a reason why a man with his stuff is, at age 28, on his sixth franchise, with a 60-60 record and 4.46 ERA and 1.48 WHIP.

Which gets us all the way to game three before the Cardinals can fire with Carpenter, and he's faced with Cole Hamels, who isn't exactly devoid of postseason success. And as a guy who has watched Carpenter hard all year, I can tell you that he's at the age where back to back dominant starts don't happen.

Personally, if I was Tony LaRussa, I'd be getting to Jaime Garcia a lot faster in this series than Game Four; I think he could steal you a game against the Phillies lefty-dominant bats. But I'm not even sure that Tony's heart is entirely in this, given his age and possible future employment; you don't get the feeling that he wants to be here without Albert Pujols.

Put it all together, and you have one of those mismatches on paper that all too often goes awry; there is a reaosn, after all, why the MLB playoffs are so excitingly random. But I have to pick the team that has the starting pitching advantage in every game. Phillies in four.

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