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ALDS Preview: Rangers-Rays

For being an exact rematch of last year’s ALDS, the roles of the Rays and Rangers have been reversed since last season. Last year, the Rays were the favorites; they were loaded with talent in Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, and a pre-Boston Carl Crawford. They won 96 games and beat out the Yankees for the AL East title, while the Rangers won 90 games and reached the postseason for the first time in over a decade. The Rangers were underdogs, but underdogs with a dominant starting rotation and a gutsy, scrappy* attitude.

*Yeah, I just used scrappy in FanGraphs post. I should probably hand in my resignation now.

This season, though, it’s the Rangers who enter the postseason having won 96 games, and they are undoubtedly the favorites in this series. While Vegas has the two teams as a close matchup — odds for the pennant: Rays 4/1; Rangers 13/4 — the Rangers simply have the better team here. They have one of the best offenses in the majors (.348 wOBA), and they are very balanced team, good against both righties and lefties. Their starting pitching staff shouldn’t be overlooked, as they have three starters with sub-4 ERAs and FIPs in C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison. They aren’t going to be an easy team to walk through.

Meanwhile, the Rays have a mediocre offense (.320 wOBA) and have been carried into the postseason primarily on the wings of their pitching (3.58 ERA, 4.03 FIP) and defense (2nd in majors in UZR, 1st in DRS). They got hot down the stretch, going 17-10 in September and beating up on the Yankees and Red Sox, so this year they’re the club with the “intangibles” going for them.

But let’s dig in a bit deeper and take a look at some of the potential key matchups on either side. Both clubs have hidden strengths that could prove to be the deciding factor in the series.

The Rangers’ Secret Weapon: Their Bullpen

You’d never know it from the leaderboard, where their bullpen ranks second to last in the majors with a 4.38 FIP (and 26th with a 4.11 ERA), but the Rangers have an absolutely dangerous back end to their bullpen. Neftali Feliz is still a shut-down closer — although he’s developed a walking tendency this season (4.3 BB/9) — and Darren Oliver provides the Rangers with a dominant left-handed reliever as well (2.29 ERA, 2.77 FIP).

Around these two studs, the Rangers have added a collection of scary-good arms recently. They traded for Mike Adams and Koji Uehara midseason, and they have moved Alexi Ogando back into the bullpen for the postseason. Even though the Rays are a difficult team to play matchups against, the Rangers have a collection of five bullpen aces that are dominant against either hand…and the Rays lack any big bats on their bench for pinch hit matchups. With these five relievers, the Rangers can theoretically turn a ballgame into a five inning affair.

Viewed in this context, the weakest link for the Rangers is their starting pitching. The Rays will need to hit the Rangers hard in the early innings if they want to have a chance in this series, so a lot will hang on if C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, and Colby Lewis have their A-games or not.

Oh, and I can’t forget this: the Rangers also have Mike Gonzalez in their bullpen. He’s essentially a LOOGY at this point (2.78 FIP vs. lefties, 5.59 FIP vs. righties), and the Rays have hit him hard in the past. If Ron Washington is silly enough to let him face any right-handed hitter on the Rays, that’s going to make me smile.

The Rays’ Secret Weapon: Matt Moore

I’ve already written extensively about Matt Moore for FanGraphs, so it should be blatantly obvious that I have a serious man-crush going on. In my mind, he’s already one of Tampa Bay’s best pitchers, and I believe Joe Maddon is making a great choice in having him start Game One. But in case you don’t believe me, here are some #MattMooreFacts:

– His minor league numbers (13.5 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 in Triple-A) are comparable to such starters as Tim Lincecum, Stephen Strasburg, Tommy Hanson, and Jered Weaver. There are pitching prospects, and then there are pitching prospects. Matt Moore falls into the later category.

– In his first major league start — which took place against the Yankees, in New York, in the midst of a playoff race — he struck out 11 hitters in only five innings pitched. He’s the first pitcher ever to strike out 11 Yankees in five innings (or less) of work. And while you might say, “Why did he only last five innings?”, Moore only threw 84 pitches that day and left early before the Rays had scored 13 runs already.

– On pure stuff alone, Moore could potentially be considered the best pitcher on the Rays’ staff right now. This might seem like quite the exaggeration, but scouts are in love with Moore’s pitches; I’ve tried finding someone with a negative opinion of him, but everywhere I look all his pitches are being ranked as “plus”. His fastball, changeup, and curve (looks like a slider) are all very refined for a 22-year-old.

To help put this in perspective, try imagining what the hype would have been like if Stephen Strasburg made his second career start in Game One of a playoff series. Yeah. This is a big deal.

The Rays’ hopes this postseason are centered squarely on their pitching — and notably, their starting pitching. While the Rays’ bullpen has started to coalesce as the season has progressed, their team’s main strength is in their pitching, and they will only go as far as their pitching takes them. With this in mind, Moore could be the X Factor — an ace that almost no one has seen yet. The Rangers are a very right-handed heavy lineup and have hit both hands well this season, but I’m not sure it will make much of a difference against a pitcher of Moore’s caliber. If he goes out and pitches like he is capable of, the Rays have a very good chance of starting off this series on the right foot.

And yes, you’ll want to watch this first game. It could be a doozy.