Thursday, October 3, 2013

ALDS Picks: Bet What You Don't Want To Happen

Normally, I don't wear the tie
Well, after two straight play-in days, we finally have the slate of ALDS games. I have clear and preferred outcomes for both series, which will not happen, leaving me bitter, broken, and without anyone to root for in the ALCS. But at least I'll have made some money from the pain, right?

RED SOX over Rays

Boston went 12-7 against Tampa this year, and while Tampa has the clear Destiny's Child action of back to back road eliminations against Texas and Cleveland, they aren't in Boston's league in a lot of ways. The first and most obvious is with the sticks in their hands.

Boston is best thought of as the AL's answer to St. Louis. They don't care if you are bored of seeing them in post-season, have wildly spoiled their fans with more or less constant contention and frequent championships, and will turn you into bloody mulch if you aren't really good at not just throwing, but pitching. By the numbers, they aren't as good when a lefty is on the mound, mostly because that turns David Ortiz from pants-wetting terror to just another guy, but they are pretty good against those guys, too. Everybody hits -- not just the guys you've heard of, like Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, but even the Mike Carps, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Daniel Nava. As good as Tampa can be on the mound, these guys are going to cross the plate 4 or 5 times every game, and that's on the low end.

On the arms side of things, Jon Lester has rolled all year, and Clay Buchholz ended the year strong. The back end of the rotation is veteran but vulnerable, with John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster all in various stages of abuse at the end of a long year. But they don't have to go very deep or be very good, what with the offense pounding away and the relievers (Koji Uehara, Franklin Morales and Craig Breslow) locking it down. Perhaps Uehara spits the bit in a pressure situation later; he had a soul-selling year that has the feel of explosion when he remembers he's mortal. But it's hard to see how that's going to lose more than a game for these guys, let alone three out of five.

On the Tampa side of the ledger, you've got to admire how a middle of the road offense with no home crowd to speak of, and not very much in the way of veteran playoff experience, could just go and rip the hearts out of various cities in quick succession like that. There is also more than a few pieces of a good offense here with Will Myers, Desmong Jennings, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, and the Where Did That Come From? service of Delmon Young and James Loney. In general, that sort of thing dries up in the playoffs, though.

On the mound side of things, even though they've used David Price and Alex Cobb to get here, Matt Moore and Chris Archer aren't exactly chunk steak; Moore in particular could give Red Sox fan a lot of nightmares, and they are already justifiably afraid of Price from past years. But the reason why Tampa had all of this drama in the past few weeks is that their bullpen has been a tire fire for much of 2013, and the recent tolerable work of Fenando Rodney does not seem like it's just going to go on and on in the playoff glare.

Add that all up, along with Boston having home field and Tampa, well, likely playing to a fairly neutral crowd... and I'm not rooting this way. But I am picking it.

Red Sox in four.

TIGERS over A's

As close to a repeat of last year's ALCS as you could get, with well over half of the rosters doing the exact same thing 12 months ago. In that time, much has happened that would seem to favor the swing of a game or two to Oakland. Justin Verlander became ordinary, Miguel Cabrera got more banged up, Jhonny Peralta took a 50-game PED penalty, the Tiger bullpen imploded, and the A's won more games and took their division with relative ease. Plus, Oakland is young, and young players tend to get better, especially with a little taste of playoff experience. Why shouldn't the club I love get a first round win?

Well, um, no. Because when you dig into it, not so much.

Detroit won 93 games and Oakland 96... but Detroit played in a division where Houston wasn't giving up wins hand over fist, and if you judge by historically accurate things like run differential, Detroit really was better than that record. Many of their losses came from early season bullpen woes that have been rectified, and while Verlander has slipped, Max Scherzer has surged, and it's not like they fall off the table with Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello. While Cabrera is banged up, he's still going to be a frankly terrifying presence, and between Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter, the offense is better. Joaquin Benoit has been solid in closing for a while now, too. Oh, and Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson and yeesh.

Can Oakland win? Of course; they are a very good club in their own right.  They have home field from those three extra wins. 3B Josh Donaldson has played at a borderline MVP level. There is power up and down the lineup; maybe not jaw-dropping power, but they can punish a mistake. The bench is deep and spectacularly varied, and manager Bob Melvin does a masterful job of getting work for all of the spare parts. They play very good defense. Jarrod Parker, Bartolo Colon, Sonny Gray, AJ Griffin and Dan Strailly can all dominate, and if the game gets into a deeper bullpen, they have all sorts of good options, both in short and long relief. With Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, Jerry Blevins and Grant Balfour, they are usually very good in late innings. Unlike last year, they aren't just happy to be here.

But in the final analysis, stars win playoff games, and the Tigers have most, if not all, of them, especially when you are dealing with equivalent teams. What won games for Oakland in the regular season -- starting pitching depth, grinding OBA players who forced teams to rely on deep bullpen guys, and kicking mud holes in bad teams and stomping them dry -- isn't going to be a factor here.

Tigers in four.

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