Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Playoff Preview From My iPod

Let me introduce you to
The characters
In the show
"I Dare You" by Shinedown

The biggest show in baseball is nearly here. And the characters should be familiar. Of the eight teams in the playoff field, all eight have been in its League Championship Series since 2002, six have been to the World Series since 2002 (the Dodgers and Twins are the only teams that haven't), and five have won the whole thing this decade.

For many years now, ESPN's John Buccigross has used song lyrics in his NHL season preview columns, using a couple of lines that he found to be especially apropos for that team in that particular season. I've decided to adapt this concet in my preview of the 2009 MLB Playoffs, and to give 'Bucci' dap for it, since it's not my idea. As you can see, my iPod has a hard rock edge to it. Without further ado...

American League

1) New York Yankees---

And all you seek
And all you gain
And all you step on with no shame
There are no rules
No one to blame
The price to play the game
"Price to Play" by Staind

Overview: The Yankees enter the 2009 post-season as the de facto favorite in the mind of many. Their 103-59 record in the regular season was six games better than the second best record in baseball. Offensively, the Yankees set the pace for everyone, leading MLB in runs, home runs, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The numbers are likely skewed by their new hitter-friendly ballpark, but regardless, the lineup is legit from 1-9. The offseason additions of C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett have also stabilized the front of the rotation, which sorely lacked horses at the lead the last few seasons. However, in New York, making the playoffs is the very, very least that is expected, and now the real season- and the real expectations- begin anew for the Bronx Bombers.

What Could Go Right: The lineup of mashers overwhelms their opponents. The starting staff does a good job front-runner, taking advantage of strong run support from the offense. C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte all pitch well enough to get the game right to Mariano Rivera.

What Could Go Wrong: Sabathia lives up to his 7.92 career playoff ERA, Burnett continues his meltdown, and Pettitte shows his age. Joba Chamberlain, who stinks, is needed. Middle relief falters again and can't get the ball to The Sandman. A-Rod continues to struggle in the playoffs and he pulls the lineup down around him.

Bottom Line: The lineup will almost certainly score runs, so the Yankees ultimate fate in 2009 rests with how well the starting pitchers perform.

2) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim---

Our scars remind us
That the past is real
"Scars" by Papa Roach

Overview: No team is dealing with as much heading into the opening round of the playoffs as the Angels. LA's other team will play the Red Sox in the ALDS, a team that has eliminated the Halos three times in the past five seasons. The 2009 season started off in trying fashion with the tragic death of 22-year old pitcher Nick Adenhardt hours after his season debut. Ace reliever Scot Shields was lost for the season after 20 games. And in a late-season series in Boston, manager Mike Scioscia and closer Brian Fuentes insinuated that the Fenway crowds get into the heads of umpires, which means that either the Fenway crowds, or the umpires, or both, have gotten into their own heads. But this team doesn't win 95 games a year on accident, and they are a formidible, tough, scrappy bunch heading into the post-season.

What Could Go Right: When you can roll out John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana and Scott Kazmir in a short series, you've got a chance. The Angels don't hit for power, but their speed game never slumps, they don't make mistakes, and they make you pay for yours. Pitching, speed, defense and execution is a good combination come playoff time.

What Could Go Wrong: Bobby Abreu is their best hitter, and he's never been one to shy away from trying to stand there get a big walk. Fuentes has been shaky at times this year, and the playoffs would be a bad time for that to re-appear. The Angels lack of power is completely overwhelmed by the power arms Boston rolls out. The Red Sox and/or Fenway Park and its crowd remain in the Angels collective heads.

Bottom Line: Maybe it's just the matchups, but the Angels can't seem to shake Boston. But if they can, they've fared pretty well against the Yankees in recent years, particularly in the playoffs.

3) Minnesota Twins---

Do you bury me when I'm gone?
Do you teach me while I'm here?
Just as soon as I belong
Then it's time I disappear
"I Disappear" by Metallica

Overview: The Twins trailed the Tigers by seven games on September 6th, and trailed by three games with only four left to play. It took until the 12th inning of the thrilling 163rd game, but the Twins finally came all the way back and took the AL Central title from Detroit, all the while playing without Justin Morneau since September 12th. However, the combination of chasing down the Tigers, and then the one-game playoff, then playing in New York the next day is probably too much to come back from in a short series.

What Could Go Right: The Twins are a 'whole is greater than the sum of their parts' kind of team. They're scrappy, run well, move runners, pitch well enough and have a great go-to guy in MVP level catcher Joe Mauer. If they can get an early lead in a game or the series, the Yankees could start to feel the pressure they're under, similar to the Cubs in 2008. The Twins are just young enough to not recognize how tired they are and that they're not supposed to even compete with the Yankees. Joe Nathan shuts it down and serves as a late-inning neutralizer to the Yankee lineup.

What Could Go Wrong: The Yankee lineup completely overwhelms the ace-less Twins staff. The Twins fall too far behind in games one and two to even get their feet under them after the play-in win over Detroit. The Yankees are just a better team, and beat the Twins in all seven regular season matchups in 2009.

Bottom Line: The Twins have done an amazing job making the playoffs five times since 2002 with a bad stadium, small market, and losing players such as David Ortiz and Torii Hunter in that time frame. However, they haven't had the elements to win in the playoffs, and I don't think that will change this season.

4) Boston Red Sox---

When no one understands at this point
That a handful of redemption's all we need
"Handful of Redemption" by Boy Sets Fire

Overview: The trip to the playoffs is a familiar one for the Red Sox, who have been a part of the post-season derby every year but one since 2003. However, they're still left with the sting of losing in seven games to a Tampa Bay team they were probably better than in last year's ALCS, and enter this year's playoffs looking to make amends. As September shifts to October, the Sawx may be the team best set up to make a run in October. They have starting pitching, bullpen depth, a lockdown closer, and a lineup that remains formidable despite have a few spots that have shown age. The Sox also have playoff experience, grit, and several old war horses that are sure to crank it up with everything on the line.

What Could Go Right: Power arms win in the playoffs, especially out of the bullpen, and you would be hard pressed to find more power than Billy Wagner, Daniel Bard, Ramon Ramirez and Jonathan Papelbon coming out of any pen. Add in lefty specialist Hideki Okajima, and the Sox have the ability to shut a game down after five or six innings. Veterans like Jason Varitek and David Ortiz play with an awful lot of pride on the line, and have always come through when the games matter the most. Leading in with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and a revitalized Dice-K don't hurt the cause. Neither does having MVP caliber players like Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis.

What Could Go Wrong: Ortiz and Varitek look old, creating two big holes in the lineup. Dice-K looks more like the first half of the year, Buchholz gets overwhelmed by the big stage, Beckett's struggles continue. The Angels get over their Sawx-related issues.

Bottom Line: On the eve of the playoffs, the Red Sox are the team with the fewest questions. All of the areas for concern are pretty well addressed. Surprises and upsets do happen, but this team will not go down easily, because they don't have a discernable weakness that could drag them down and cost them games repeatedly. But that's certainly not to say they're going to win it all, or even the first round. But their flaws are not as obvious or exploitable as those of other playoff teams.

National League

1) Los Angeles Dodgers---

'Cause yesterday's got nothing for me
Old pictures that I'll always see
Time just fades the pages
In my book of memories
"Yesterdays" by Guns N' Roses

Overview: Joe Torre and Manny Ramirez grab all of the headlines and play prominently in the dream World Series scenarios of fans and media alike, but the past glory of Torre and Ramirez aren't going to help a Dodger team that staggered to the finish line. Perhaps no top-seeded team in any sport has held that top seed with as tenuous a grasp as the Dodgers hang onto the number one seed in the 2009 NL playoffs. When Randy Wolf is slated to start game one of the playoffs for you, you know things aren't going real well.

What Could Go Right: The young core of Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and James Loney continues its ascension to the upper echelon of young talent with another strong postseason outing. The bullpen is pretty good, probably the best of the NL playoff field, and more than capable of shutting down a game in which the Dodgers have a late lead.

What Could Go Wrong: Manny Ramirez' final numbers look alright, but look at his pre and post suspension splits... .355 vs. 255, 9 home runs in 36 games vs. 10 in 68, only two more runs scored after his suspension than before in 32 games more. Not good. Since the Manny got to the Dodgers, they go as he goes, and he hasn't gone much of anywhere lately. Randy Wolf starting game one, Chad Billingsley being so bad that Vicente Padilla gets talked about potentially getting a start... these are not good scenarios for the Dodgers.

Bottom Line: Sometimes a team will slide down the stretch and turn it on in the playoffs and make a run (see: 2005 White Sox). I don't think this is one of them, not with their starting pitching in the state it's in.

2) Philadelphia Phillies---

I need somebody
Not just anybody
You know I need someone
"Help" by the Beatles

Overview: On paper, the 2008 world champs might be the best team in baseball. A bruising lineup, deep bullpen, and perfect closer were augmented with a more steady producer in left with Raul Ibanez, and the 2008 AL Cy Young winner in Cliff Lee. However, as Kenny Mayne was fond of saying, games aren't played on paper, they're played inside of television sets. The lineup remained great, Raul became an instant hit in Philadelphia, Cliff Lee was a great pickup, but the bullpen completely fell apart. Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero, Clay Condrey and Scott Eyre all missed significant time to injury (and in Romero's case, suspension too), while Brad Lidge went from the best closer's season ever to one of the worst, blowing 11 saves in 42 chances. Ryan Madson remained dominant in a setup role, but was about 50-50 as the closer, and even a few more potential contenders to the throne (Chan Ho Park, Brett Myers) were felled by injury. The Phillies bullpen situation remains the single biggest question in the postseason, and could ensure another Phillies world title, or cause an early exit.

What Could Go Right: Lee and Cole Hamels lock down the first two games of each series, followed by a steady stream of quality starters in Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ and/or Pedro Martinez. The lineup pounds teams and makes it easy to front run the starting pitchers. The starters are economical with their pitches to limit bullpen innings. Madson is the only reliever the Phils have to use. Lidge shakes off the regular season, and buyoed by a clean slate, pitches decent enough to close consistently.

What Could Go Wrong: Chase Utley continues to struggle in the playoffs. The regulars remain worn down from all the at-bats in the regular season. The injury bug continues to bite... And, of course, the back end of the bullpen, no matter who it is, explodes.

Bottom Line: If you give me the Phillies pitching numbers in save situations in this year's playoffs, I'll tell you how far they went. Sometimes baseball is a very simple game. Analyzing the Phillies' chances in 2009 is one such time.

3) St. Louis Cardinals---

I'ma do the things that I want to do
I ain't got a thing to prove to you
I'll eat my candy with the pork and beans
Excuse my manners if I make a scene
I ain't gonna wear the clothes that you like
I'm fine and dandy with the me inside
One look in the mirror and I'm tickled pink
I don't give a hoot about what you think
"Pork and Beans" by Weezer

Overview: Tony LaRussa has spent a long time managing in the Major Leagues, doing things his own way. Some people like him, some can't stand him, but no one can argue with the success he's had. Joined by his reliable deputy, pitching coach Dave Duncan, the Cardinals are perenially in the hunt for the National League pennant, and this year, like many others, the Cards are getting seemingly miraculous seasons out of players found on the scrap heap. Players like Ryan Franklin, Joel Piniero, Joe Thurston and Skip Schumacher. I'd call it luck, except LaRussa's teams always come up with these guys. But make no mistake: the Cardinals are dependent on four guys. Four. Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. Whatever the Cards get out of these four will be what they get out of this playoff run.

What Could Go Right: Wainwright and Carpenter win two games a series, and Holliday and Pujols keep tearing the cover off the ball.

What Could Go Wrong: What's listed above doesn't happen.

Bottom Line: Barring a huge playoff outing from a guy like Brendan Ryan or Rick Ankiel or Jason Motte, the Cardinals fortunes really do ride on their big four. Other teams know it too, and are likely to try to make Schumacher and Mark DeRosa and Yadier Molina, etc try to make the difference.

4) Colorado Rockies---

Into the flood again
Same old trip it was back then
"Would?" by Alice in Chains

Overview: The Rockies enter the playoffs as the Wild Card team taking on the Phillies for the second time in three years, looking to use a hot September as a springboard into the postseason. This year's edition is an apparent amalgamation of themselves from 2007 and the Marlins of 2003. In 2007, the Rockies won 14 of their last 15 regular season games to snag the NL Wild Card, then captured seven straight playoff games to advance to the World Series. This year, the Rockies won 18 games in September to leap over the Giants for the NL Wild Card, and played to within the final weekend of catching the Dodgers for the NL West title. The '03 Marlins started out 16-22 and fired manager Jeff Torborg, replacing him Jack McKeon. McKeon then guided the Marlins to a 75-49 record the rest of the way, winning the NL Wild Card, and eventually, the World Series. This year's Rockies started 18-28, fired manager Clint Hurdle, and under the guidance of Jim Tracy, have gone 74-42 and have taken the NL Wild Card. How much further the parrallels extend remains to be seen. But you don't go 74-42 over any stretch if you're not a very good team.

What Could Go Right: The Rocks continue to ride the wave of momentum that has carried them into the playoffs. They've clearly shown that they're the type of team that plays it's best in the second half when the games matter the most.

What Could Go Wrong: The Rockies struggle against left-handed pitching, and the Phillies are likely to trot out three lefties in the first round. The loss of Jorge de la Rosa could leave a void they can't easily fill. Middle relief gets pounded by better lineups in the playoffs than they face all year in the NL West. Jason Marquis remembers that he's Jason Marquis.

Bottom Line: The Rockies are a tough out, but they're pitching is probably playing over its head. However, they are playing better entering the playoffs than the other three NL playoff entrants. But as the saying goes, momemtum is tomorrow's starting pitcher, which probably equalizes that factor. The Rockies are good enough to win a round or two, but aren't as good as the Phillies or Cardinals, so if they do it will most likely be because they're opponent played poorly. Which could very well happen.

AL Predictions:
ALDS: Yankees over Twins (3-0), Red Sox over Angels (3-1)
ALCS: Red Sox over Yankees (4-2)
ALCS MVP: Jason Bay

NL Predictions:
NLDS: Cardinals over Dodgers (3-1)
I don't predict games or series that my teams are in, so I'm not picking anything NL wise unless or until the Phillies are eliminated

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