Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Don't Blink - ALDS Previews


The field has been whittled from 30 to eight, and the race to the World Series title begins later today. Before I get to my thoughts on the four series to come, I must address what I believe is a major problem for MLB, which of course has no shortage of problems. That's the fallacy of the five-game LDS, instituted in 1994 but first put into practice the next year due to the strike.

Baseball prides itself on supposedly having the most meaningful regular season of all professional sports, and I'd agree it does. The long, arduous season of 162 games rewards only the very best over that stretch. Unlike the NBA, NHL or NFL, it's exceedingly rare for a team to get in the postseason with a .500 record or worse. Mediocrity doesn't have a place in the MLB playoffs, most of the time.

So it has never made sense to me that a sport whose standard for entering the postseason is so high would treat their entrants with a measly five-game series. There's no question there have been some classic Division series (Yanks-Mariners in '95, Mets-D'Backs in '99, Red Sox-A's in '03, Braves-Astros in '05 among others) but it strikes me as contradictory that the fate of the supposedly best teams comes down to winning three games out of five. Any team can beat any other team in that scenario.

I know baseball's strict adherence to October as the only month for postseason play makes adding games to the schedule difficult (especially in a weird calender year like this where it looks like a long World Series will take us into November), but the LDS needs to be seven games. The best teams need to win, not just teams like Colorado in '07 or St. Louis in '06 that get hot at the right time. The regular season needs to mean something. Five games isn't enough.

With my rant out of the way, let's move on to the previews. Starting with the N(AAAA)L:

PHILADELPHIA (93-69, East Champs) vs. COLORADO (92-70, Wild Card Champs)

The defending World Series Champions will be looking to repeat as they face off with the upstart Rockies, once again the feel-good story of the MLB postseason. After firing Clint Hurdle this summer, the Rockies took off under Jim Tracy and never looked back. They'll head to Citizens Bank Park to start their NLDS with a hungry but flawed Phillies team.

Certainly the experience factor goes to Philly, most of these guys have a ring. Cliff Lee will start Game 1, and he should be followed by Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton. Hamels was not even close to this year to the dominant force he was in last year's postseason, and the Phils will likely sink or swim dependent on how he does. Ubaldo Jimenez, the flamethrower who finally broke out this year, will go first for the Rockies.

Both teams have very good, balanced offenses, but the bullpens for both clubs could be a question. The Phillies saw a phenomenal drop-off for Brad Lidge this year after having the best season ever for a closer in 2008. It's a total mystery who Charlie Manuel will use in the 9th inning going forward, which isn't a good thing for this or any club. Regardless, I think the starting pitching and offense for the defending champs gets in done. Phillies in five.

LOS ANGELES (95-67, West Champs) vs. ST. LOUIS (91-71, Central Champs)

There are plenty of stories that go along with these two clubs, who have been postseason staples for much of this decade. Last year, the Dodgers won their first postseason series since 1988 and look to improve on that in their second straight playoff appearance under Joe Torre. The Cardinals earned their seventh Central title under Tony LaRussa based on one primary strength, and it's a huge strength to have: starting pitching.

LaRussa and longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan have lined up their rotation with Chris Carpenter (17-4, 2.24 ERA), Adam Wainwright (19-8, 2.63 ERA) and Joel Pineiro (15-12, 3.49 ERA) set to go starting tonight in Chavez Ravine. This is a massive advantage the Cardinals have over the Dodgers, who can't count on anyone past Randy Wolf, who'll square off against Carpenter tonight. That uncertainty means they won't go far in the playoffs.

The Dodgers can still hang their hats on balanced offense and a strong bullpen anchored by beastly Jonathan Broxton. Ryan Franklin will look to round out his strong year by closing the Cardinals to another World Series title. Let's also not forget this fellow Albert Pujols, coming off an absurd regular season and keeper of a 1.022 OPS in the postseason. The Cardinals are a popular pick in this series, and I can't see why not. Cardinals in four.

On to the American League:

LOS ANGELES (97-65, West Champs) vs. BOSTON (95-67, Wild Card Champs)

Another year, another Angels-Red Sox ALDS. For the third straight year, and fourth of the last six, Mike Scioscia's Angels and Terry Francona's Red Sox will meet to open the postseason. The Red Sox have won each of those matchups, and I expect this year to be no different. The Red Sox have advantages almost everywhere on the field and the hunger to avenge last year's loss in the ALCS to the Rays.

Jon Lester and Josh Beckett will start the first two games in Los Angeles with Clay Buchholz set to go in Game 3 back in Boston. Buchholz has been shaky in his last two starts, and they'll need him to overcome that if they want to go far this year. The Angels starters have been much shakier than in year's past, with John Lackey going in Game 1 followed by Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders. Lackey can't seem to beat the Red Sox in the playoffs, regardless of where the game is played.

Overall the offenses are even with the Angels much improved in that category, but the Sox have a clear advantage in the bullpen. Brian Fuentes as underwhelmed while Jonathan Papelbon is poised to lead the Red Sox to another title. A lot is being made about the Angels and their ability to run all over Red Sox pitching, but I can't see that being a serious deal. They've always been a running team and haven't beaten the Red Sox yet this decade. Red Sox in four.

NEW YORK (103-59, East Champs) vs. MINNESOTA (87-76, Central Champs)

The Twins wrapped up the most improbable of division comebacks in a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat tiebreaker game against the hapless Tigers in the Homerdome last night. In this space a few weeks ago I said the Twins had no chance of coming back after losing Justin Morneau. But the Tigers choked away their lead, culminating in yesterday's instant classic. For their efforts, the Twins get to fly and face the best team in baseball, the New York Yankees.

The Yankees might have the worst playoff rotation of any team to ever win 103 games, with CC Sabathia's struggles, A.J. Burnett's lack of a history and Andy Pettitte's age and wonky shoulder. Minnesota's rotation is no bowl of sunshine either, but if upstarts Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker are strong, the Twins will have more than a fighting chance. After what they've done in the last month, anything seems possible.

Maybe I'm crazy, maybe I'm naive, maybe I just hate the Yankees. But the Twins will be coming into this series on a major high. Couple this with the fact that New York hasn't played a meaningful game in more than six weeks and I think the stage is set for some major surprises. If the Twins take one game in New York, they can take both games in the Homerdome and shock the world. Well, except for me. Twins in four.

One last night before I go: After winning the game yesterday, Orlando Cabrera told Craig Sager the tiebreaker was "the most unbelievable game" he'd ever played in or seen. Umm...what? Did you forget about Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS? What about Game 4 of the World Series, the game that, you know, won you the World Series? Really, O.C.? That bothered me, a lot. Baseball players have short memories, apparently.

Anyway, enjoy the games, starting with Philly and Colorado at 2:30 today.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Ubalddoooooo!
I told you to look out for him even before the season started, Jake.

Also, in that Sox-A's 2003 ALDS, Derek Lowe threw a BALL to Terrence Long...not a strike.