Archive for October, 2013

How To Improve The Angels

Was there a bigger disappointment in 2013 than the Los Angeles Angels? Perhaps the Washington Nationals or the Toronto Blue Jays are in the conversation, but to suffer 84 losses after spending on Josh Hamilton and being an overwhelming preseason playoff pick was nothing less than a crushing blow for Arte Moreno’s heavily-hyped team.

Coming off their terrible season, the Angels find themselves in something of a difficult position headed into 2014. Once likely arbitration cases are figured in, they have approximately $140 million in contracts on the books, including four different players — Hamilton, Albert PujolsJered Weaver and C.J. Wilson — making at least $18 million, and that limits their flexibility to improve.

The good news is that after starting out at 17-27, they were above .500 (61-56) from late May through the end of the season. As we saw with the Red Sox, a team with star talent can make a quick turnaround, and since the Angels already have an expensive payroll with big names, they are motivated to go for it all in 2014. Here’s how they can turn it around.

Any accounting of what the team must do has to begin with what they have, and the Angels aren’t without their share of positives. That starts, of course, with Mike Trout, who is just about unarguably the best player in baseball even if he won’t be the Most Valuable Player. Trout made just less than $1 million total over the past two seasons while giving the Angels more than 20 WAR.

Unfortunately, more help isn’t coming from within the organization. The team’s consensus top prospect, third baseman Kaleb Cowart, hit only .221/.279/.301 at Double-A, and everyone else in their top 10 is either low impact or several years away, with only relieverNick Maronde perhaps likely to impact the 2014 team.

That’s what will happen when you haven’t had a first-round pick since 2011 thanks to your free-agent signings. With the state of the system being what it is, the Angels really can’t afford to give up yet another top pick by signing a player who comes with a qualifying offer, or they’ll never right this ship. That means expensive free agents like Shin-Soo Choo orRobinson Cano can’t really be considered, even if they did fit into the budget.

Pitching, pitching, pitching

The Angels really didn’t have a terrible offense last year, finishing seventh in runs scored and fourth in wOBA, though no doubt skewed somewhat by just how obscenely good Trout is. Their downfall came instead on the mound, where the team finished 23rd inFIP and 24th in ERA, which is no way to build a winning team. That’s especially true in the rotation, where only Wilson was healthy and effective all year long.

While Jered Weaver was fine after returning from an early-season broken left elbow that cost him nearly two months, his declining velocity is a huge red flag, and he can no longer be seen as the ace he once was. With the back end of the rotation in shambles — Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson were disasters, Jason Vargas can be a free agent and Jerome Williams should be a long reliever or emergency starter only — the Angels need at least two starters to go with Weaver, Wilson and Garrett Richards.

Depending on how wide Moreno is willing to open the checkbook, Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka is a perfect fit here, because he’ll provide badly-needed talent without costing a draft pick — and his posting fee won’t count against the luxury tax. Unfortunately for the Angels, that’s the exact same rationale that will make him so attractive to suitors like the Yankees and Dodgers. But if Moreno is motivated to take some of the spotlight back in Southern California, that’s how you do it.

Be active on the trade market

Peter BourjosHowie Kendrick and Mark Trumbo have heard their names in trade rumors for most of the past year, and now is the time to move one or more of them to add more pitching. Bourjos is a sublime defensive outfielder who has had trouble staying healthy, and may find himself without a spot if 2013 surprise Kole Calhoun proves he’s worthy to start next to Trout and Hamilton. Trumbo’s obvious on-base deficiencies are somewhat masked by the fact he has plus power (95 homers in three years) in a game where that’s increasingly difficult to find, and he’s already been linked to clubs like San Diego, Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Kendrick is an interesting case because while replacing him with Grant Green or an inexpensive alternative like Mark Ellis (assuming the Dodgers decline his option) would be a step down, his talent and contract — due $18.9 million over the next two years — make him a valuable asset in an extremely thin second-base market. Assuming Cano returns to New York, it’s easy to see contending teams with excess pitching and room to improve at second base (Baltimore, Detroit if Omar Infante leaves, Atlanta, perhaps Kansas City or Washington) being willing to send starting pitching value in return.

Pray for Hamilton and Pujols

The sad truth, however, is that the Angels absolutely need their two highly-compensated stars to start giving a return on their investment. There’s almost no hope at this point that either one will actually be worth all of the money they’re receiving, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t another Wells situation, at least not yet. Hamilton was of course a mess in his first season in California, but still managed roughly league-average production with 21 homers and 1.9 WAR. It’s also worth noting that he was much better in the second half (.344 wOBA) than in the first (.302 wOBA), so it’s not unreasonable to expect better production in 2014.

Pujols is more of a concern, because while he had a .329 wOBA in a league that averaged .318, if you compare him only to designated hitters, he’s below average (.335). This is quickly looking like one of history’s all-time worst contracts, but the hope is that after eight full months of rest (he didn’t play after July 25), his troublesome left foot will allow him to at least be a mild asset in 2014.

The Angels won 78 games despite the fact Hamilton struggled and Pujols and Weaver missed much of the year. With healthy seasons from all three and the continued excellence of Trout, that’s the core of a winning team. With a few shrewd moves, they can compete with the A’s and Rangers.


$300 Million May Not Be Enough For Yankees

For just the second time since the 1994 strike, the New York Yankees missed the playoffs, and as you’d expect, they’re not taking that setback lightly.

ESPN New York’s Andrew Marchand reported that the Yankees are considering a $300 million spending spree this winter to put the team back into contention, while still planning to stay below the $189 million luxury tax threshold they’ve been working to avoid for years. The last time the Yankees did that, they followed up their 2008 playoff miss with a $423 million offseason run that brought them A.J. BurnettCC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira — and helped them win the 2009 World Series.

Of course, part of the reason they’re in the situation they are today is because of that 2009 spree. Those three players cost them $64.5 million this year (including the portion of Burnett’s contract they’re paying for him to pitch in Pittsburgh) and brought them just 2.5Wins Above Replacement, with Teixeira injured and Sabathia declining. Still, in the short term, that helped them to a championship, and the hope is that they can do it again.

But while $300 million is certainly an impressive number, is it actually enough to propel the Yankees back to glory? Probably not.

Misleading dollar amount

To start with, let’s stop saying “$300 million” as though it will all immediately affect the 2014 team. When the team went on that 2009 spending binge, the deals signed covered a period of 20 contract years, with approximately $32 million of that actually hitting the books in the first year. (And, it should be noted, team payroll was actually down slightly from 2008 after the expiration of huge deals for Jason Giambi and others.)

With the team’s apparent insistence on staying under $189 million (really about $177 million, since administrative costs like player health insurance and worker’s comp count against the cap), there’s only so much room to add new talent considering what they already have committed.

Currently, the Yankees have approximately $100 million allocated to Sabathia, Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez,Derek JeterIchiro SuzukiAlfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells, assuming Jeter returns from a lost season to exercise his $8 million player option. (For the purposes of the luxury tax, MLB uses the average annual value of each contract, the sum of which comes to $100 million for those seven players. That is not necessarily what they earn in that year.)

As a whole, this group contributed just 4.5 WAR for the season, or basically what Jason Kipnis gave Cleveland on his own, and even that dollar figure might be light because it doesn’t include taxable performance bonuses like the $6 million Rodriguez would get for hitting 16 more home runs to reach 660 for his career.

Let’s estimate the money needed for rookies and lesser 40-man roster players at around $5 million, and make it $105 million so far. At this point, the Yankees have $72 million left to play with, and you can probably see where this is going. Without yet adding any new players, replacing Andy PettitteHiroki KurodaCurtis Granderson and Mariano Rivera, or even accounting for arbitration cases like Brett Gardner and Ivan Nova, the payroll is largely ticketed for a group that consists of one aging starting pitcher, as well as three infielders and three outfielders well past their primes.

If we assume that Gardner, Nova and fellow arbitration case David Robertson return at around $12 million total, and Cano returns as part of the shopping surge at something like $25 million annually, that’s another $37 million on the books, yet even that is problematic. All four are quality players who can help the Yankees win, but the team will have merely maintained some of last year’s status quo, not improved anything. That is, Cano made $15 million in 2013, and he’s now in line for a substantial raise, yet he’s not expected to substantially increase his already-excellent play to match.

The A-Rod factor

Rodriguez’s status is, of course, the huge question mark here, since he may or may not be suspended for the entire season, saving the Yankees the pro-rated portion of his salary. The best guess at this point is that he’ll rightfully win his appeal and not be forced to serve the 211 games MLB is trying to impose, but that he will certainly sit out at least 50 or 100 games, which will recoup some savings for the team.

However, it may be another month or more before his situation is clarified, which makes it difficult for the Yankees to plan around, and of course if he’s gone, the team then needs to find another third base option in a painfully thin market.

The numbers we’ve tossed out so far are high-level and may not be accurate to the penny, because an in-depth examination of the contracts and the rules of the salary cap and luxury tax would require far more than this space allows for. But they’re in the right range, and you can already see the problem here, can’t you? A team in an exceptionally tough division that miraculously won 85 games in 2013 — “miraculously” because they were outscored by 21 runs, and were under .500 from early June through the end of the season — is being weighed down on one end by an old and expensive core, and limited on the other by the insistence of adhering to a luxury-tax limit New York could easily afford to exceed.

So sure, the Yankees could gamble on Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka to join the rotation, or add the aging (yet still productive) Carlos Beltran to the outfield, or make a risky bet on catcher Brian McCann — or even all three. To do so would add something in the neighborhood of $45 million in salary (Tanaka’s posting fee would not count against the luxury tax), and would basically max out the remaining available payroll. It also leaves them perhaps two pitchers short of a rotation (depending on what free agent Kuroda does), light in the bullpen and without any sort of adequate backup plans for the multitude of risks Teixeira, Jeter and Rodriguez offer in the infield.

For this plan to work, the team would need an influx of talent from the minors to make an immediate impact, but the Yankees don’t have the kind of prospects on the horizon who can be expected to make a difference in 2014.

The Yankees can improve their team this winter, and they can also stay under the cap limit. It’s just going to be very hard to do both, and unless Sabathia, Teixeira and Jeter suddenly look like they did five years ago, the Yankees might not be able to spend their way out of this hole any time soon.


World Series Preview: Red Sox and Cardinals

Much is made of how baseball in October can often be a crapshoot. The differences between the remaining teams, at this point in the season, are so small that nearly any outcome is reasonably possible. And yet, it would be hard to argue that when the dust settled, the best team from the American League and the best team from the National League are still playing. It’s a battle of baseball’s elite, with two great teams looking to exploit any minor advantage they can find. Let’s look at some of the areas that might make a difference in the final series of the season.

Cardinals X Factor: Allen Craig

No National League team needs the DH more than the Cardinals, as Craig’s foot injury has reportedly healed enough for him to hit but not really do anything else. Luckily for St. Louis, they’ll get a position to let Craig do exactly that in their road games, and adding him back into the line-up could be a huge boost for the Cardinals offense.

Craig might not have the stature of some of baseball’s more well known sluggers, but over the last three years, Craig ranks 15th in baseball with a 140 wRC+, meaning his offensive production is 40% better than the league average hitter. It’s difficult for a guy who racks up as many RBIs as Craig does to be underrated, but because he’s a first baseman who specializes in singles and doubles, he tends to get overlooked when discussing the game’s impact bats. But, when healthy, he absolutely has been one.

But the health remains a huge question mark. The Red Sox just exploited a beaten down Miguel Cabrera in the ALCS, and while Craig might be healthy enough to swing the bat, it is possible that Boston will find a way to attack him in a part of the zone that he can’t cover as well at less than 100%. Craig’s production is a wild card, and his ability to hit at something approximating full strength might be a deciding factor in the outcome.

Red Sox X factor: Xander Bogaerts

John Farrell inserted Bogaerts into the starting line-up for the final two games of the ALCS, and given how he performed, it’s basically impossible to see him returning to the bench for the World Series. The 21-year-old is a physically gifted hitter, but he’s been astonishingly patient at the plate so far in the post-season, drawing five walks in just 11 plate appearances. Bogaerts has actually walked more times in the postseason than Dustin Pedroia, even though he’s only started those two games in the first two rounds.

Bogaerts approach at the plate is extraordinary for a 21 year old, so Cardinals pitchers won’t be able to attack him out of the zone as they would be able to with most inexperienced rookies. While Will Middlebrooks possesses more power at the moment, Bogaerts gives the line-up more depth and another hitter who can run up a starter’s pitch count. And as he showed with his big double when he finally did get something to hit from Max Scherzer, he’s not just a walk machine, as he can hit too. The World Series may end being remembered as the coming out party for Boston’s next superstar.

Cardinals key reliever: Kevin Seigrist

The Red Sox feasted on the Tigers bullpen to advance through the ALCS, but they’re about to see something from St. Louis that Detroit didn’t have: a lefty who sits near 100 mph. Seigrist threw hard in the regular season, averaging 95.3 mph during all his regular season outings, but the last month or so, he’s taken it to another level; his fastball has averaged 97.7 mph so far in the playoffs. The only reliever in baseball who threw that hard during the regular season was Aroldis Chapman.

Interestingly enough, however, the huge uptick in velocity hasn’t let to more strikeouts, as he’s only struck out one of the 12 batters he’s faced in the postseason after striking out a third of the batters he faced in the regular season. Usually, increases in velocity also lead to increases in strikeouts, but Seigrist’s strikeout rate began to tail off as his velocity rose in September, and that has now carried over into October as well.

It’s possible that the extra velocity is straightening out his fastball, making it actually easier to hit than it was when he was sitting at 95. He hasn’t struggled so far in the playoffs, and having a lefty who throws 98 is a nice problem to have to figure out, but the Cardinals might want to consider whether or not the extra velocity is actually helping Seigrist, because they’re going to need him to go after Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz in big situations.

Red Sox key reliever: Junichi Tazawa

While Koji Uehara has been shutting down opponents in the 9th (and occasionally the 8th) inning, Tazawa has been nearly as important to the team’s playoff run in 2013. Between the first two rounds of the postseason, Tazawa has appeared in eight of the 10 game the Red Sox have played, and barring an early blowout, he’s a good bet to pitch in every game of the World Series.

The Red Sox middle relief is the shakiest part of their team, and with Uehara showing he can pitch multiple innings, the Red Sox will have the ability to bring Tazawa in in the sixth or seventh inning to help bridge the gap between the starter and the dominating closer. John Farrell has used Tazawa as more of a situational reliever in the early rounds, but Tazawa was an effective pitcher against left-handers this year too, and may be asked to take on a bigger role in the World Series.

Key Matchup: David Ortiz vs Randy Choate

Evan at age-38, Choate is still humming along as the epitome of the cliched left-handed specialist. Choate appeared in 64 games this year but only threw 35 innings, because he frequently is called upon to pitch to the opponents best left-handed hitter and then is promptly removed when he gets that guy out. In his five postseason outings this year, Choate has thrown a grand total of 20 pitches.

But you’re likely going to see Choate in every close game this series, and he’s going to be used to try and neutralize David Ortiz. The complicating factor is that, during the three games in St. Louis, Ortiz is likely to have to serve as a pinch-hitter, as the DH will not be in play in the National League park. So, Mike Matheny is going to have to anticipate when John Farrell will use Ortiz as a pinch-hitter, and get Choate warm in anticipation of that match-up. The key for Farrell might be using Ortiz in early critical situations so that Matheny hasn’t gotten Choate up in time, giving him a chance to swing the bat against a right-handed starting pitcher. For the Red Sox, success will be avoiding this match-up, and keeping Ortiz away from Choate whenever possible.

Cardinals key bench player: Shane Robinson

Jon Jay has been pretty miserable in the postseason, not hitting or fielding his position well, and Matheny turned to Robinson to make a surprise start in Game 6 of the NLCS; he rewarded his manager’s confidence with two hits the day after hitting a pinch-hit home run. With a few days off to get reset, Jay should be back in the line-up for the series opener, but if he continues to falter, don’t be too shocked if Matheny goes back to Robinson at some point in this series. He’s not a big bat by any means, but he’s a better defender than Jay, and might prove useful for the Cardinals in this series.

Red Sox key bench player: Quinton Berry

As we noted during the ALCS preview, Berry has never been thrown out attempting a steal in his Major League career, and he’s a real weapon as a pinch runner for the Red Sox. However, the Cardinals have a guy behind the plate who just shuts down the running game entirely, and replacing a big hitter like Ortiz or Napoli for the right to try and steal off the game’s best defensive catcher might not be an appealing trade-off for Boston. However, even with Molina behind the plate, Berry’s ability to put a stolen base on the table makes him a fascinating option, and if the Red Sox put him in the game, the drama of Berry-versus-Molina should be a lot of fun to watch.

Key stat: STL pitchers in NLCS: 1.77 BB/9

The Red Sox offense is notorious for taking pitches and drawing walks, but the Cardinals pitching staff just doesn’t issue them. Between them, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha have combined to walk five batters in their six postseason starts, and the Cardinals entire pitching staff just pounded the zone against the Dodgers, forcing their hitters to swing the bats if they wanted to put runs on the board. The Red Sox did a good job of mixing up their approach and getting more aggressive against Detroit when it was clear that their work-the-count approach wasn’t working, and they might need to just scrap it all together against St. Louis, at least until their pitchers stop pounding the zone on every pitch.

Modest proposal: The Red Sox should go back to Daniel Nava as their left fielder.

Citing his energy and some gut feelings, John Farrell essentially ended his left field platoon in the ALCS, giving Jonny Gomes regular starts against right-handed pitchers, even though he’s been used mostly against left-handers during the regular season. This promotion for Gomes meant that usual starter Daniel Nava was moved into a reserve role, and he’s now only hit 14 times in the postseason despite. This follows a regular season performance in which Nava hit .303/.385/.445, and hit .322/.411/.484 against right-handed pitching.

The move worked, in that the Red Sox won the series against the Tigers, but with the World Series title on the line, it’s time to put away the hunches and put the best team they can on the field. And the Red Sox best team against right-handed pitching — the only kind of starters the Cardinals have — includes Nava, not Gomes, in left field. Gomes can’t even claim the hot hand advantage, as he’s hit just .200/.259/.280 in the postseason, not a huge surprise considering he’s being asked to face elite right-handed pitchers, a role he’s just not made for. Gomes might be an intense personality whose energy sparks his teammates, but he can yell from the dugouts steps and inspire his teammates by encouraging them between innings.

Nava is a better player than Gomes, and he was the team’s regular left fielder this year for a reason. It’s time for him to get a shot to prove that he can help them win a World Series too.


ALCS Preview: Red Sox and Tigers

The Cinderellas are dead, and so the ALCS will be a battle of two high payroll perennial contenders, but that doesn’t mean that this series isn’t interesting. It’s pitching versus hitting, old school versus new school, big name stars versus a balanced roster. What will be the key factors in this battle? Let’s examine.

Tigers’ X factor: Miguel Cabrera

It’s a little weird to call the best hitter on the planet an X factor, but the reality is that no one really knows what Cabrera is right now. Hobbled by a body that is betraying him, Cabrera has been an immobile singles hitter for most of the last six weeks, as his home run in Game 5 of the ALDS was only his second since the beginning of September.

As Jeff Sullivan noted, the Tigers primarily pounded Cabrera on the outer half of the zone for most of the series, and his home run came on a mistake inside. The Red Sox surely noticed that the pound-him-away plan worked, and are likely to continue until Cabrera shows he can drive the ball the other way like he is capable of.

Beyond just his questionable offensive skills, Cabrera remains a liability at third base, and at some point, Jacoby Ellsbury or Shane Victorino might decide to start bunting in his direction to see if he can adequately play the position. The A’s didn’t have guys who were particularly good at bunting, but the Red Sox have a couple who could use Cabrera’s injuries to get on base regularly, and if his health doesn’t improve, Leyland may still be forced to choose between Cabrera’s less threatening bat in the line-up and taking away free bunt hits from the Red Sox hitters.

Red Sox X factor: Shane Victorino

The Red Sox offense is built around David Ortiz, but over the last couple of months, Victorino has been the reason that this team was a run scoring juggernaut. After giving up switch hitting and batting exclusively as a right-hander, he became a different hitter, pounding right-handed pitching in a way he never had before. For the season, he hit .274/.319/.389 against RHPs as a lefty, but he hit .300/.386/.510 against RHPs as an RHB. And he’s going to see a steady diet of RHPs in this series.

The Tigers rotation is entirely right-handed, and their bullpen pieces lean heavily towards the right side as well. Traditionally, this would have been a problem for Victorino, but he’s mastered the art of getting hit on inside fastballs by right-handed pitching, and his swing has more power from the right side than the left, so he’s both gotten on base and hit for power against righties of late. If Victorino keeps hitting this well from the right side against right-handers, the Red Sox line-up will become basically unstoppable.

Tigers key reliever: Drew Smyly

The Tigers ALDS pitching staff consistent of nine right-handers and two lefties, and of those two lefties, one of them is starter turned long reliever Jose Alvarez. In effect, Smyly was the only left-handed pitcher on the team for the first round, and he’s the only one likely to get called upon to get David Ortiz out in a critical situation.

Ortiz is basically Miguel Cabrera against right-handed pitching, as he hit .339/.440/.652 against RHPs this year. Against lefties, he’s more Omar Infante, as his .260/.315/.418 line shows. Ortiz is going to love facing all the Tigers right-handers, but in late and close situations, he should be fed a steady diet of Drew Smyly, who held left-handed hitters to a .187/.225/.246 line this season. Smyly doesn’t have to be used only as a situational lefty, so they can bring him in to go after Jacoby Ellsbury and let him stick around through Ortiz, and he should probably pitch in every close game this series.

Red Sox key reliever: Ryan Dempster

If the Red Sox have a weakness, it’s probably the bridge innings between when the starters exit and when Koji Uehara enters, which is one of the reasons they acquired Jake Peavy at the trade deadline. Not only did Peavy boost their rotation, but he allowed them to shift Dempster back to the bullpen to strengthen their relief core.

While he’s been exclusively a starter since 2008, Dempster was a pretty good reliever with the Cubs from 2004-2007, and a move back into that role for October will give John Farrell another option to get multiple innings from a reliever who doesn’t have to specialize. Dempster’s fastball/splitter combination plays up in relief, and even as he had his struggles this year, he was much better against opponents the first time facing them. In his first PA against a batter this season, he had 66 strikeouts against 20 walks, but the second time through, that fell to 43/32. In a relief role, only facing batters one team each, Dempster could be a real weapon for the Red Sox again.

Key matchup: Prince Fielder versus Craig Breslow

Primarily, these left-on-left match-ups are fairly straight forward. Team brings in funky sidearming lefty specialist to exploit big slugging left-handed power hitter who is vulnerable to sliders low and away, and specialist throws nothing but sliders to big slugging power hitter. Rinse and repeat. This match-up, though, will probably not be much like that at all.

There’s no question that Prince Fielder is not a premium offensive player against left-handed pitching, as he’s hit just .267/.347/.457 against southpaws in his career. And Breslow, being the Red Sox primary left-handed reliever, will likely be called on to face Fielder during this series. But Breslow is not your traditional left-handed specialist, and in his career, he’s actually been equally effective against right-handed batters (.289 wOBA against) as lefties (.285 wOBA against).

Breslow is a lefty reliever, but not really a lefty specialist. With Cabrera hobbled, Fielder is going to have to pick up some of the slack, and he’s going to get the benefit of facing a mostly right-handed pitching staff without a true dominant left-on-left reliever in the bullpen. Breslow isn’t a bad option against Fielder, but as far as facing ace lefty relievers go, this is a pretty good match-up for Fielder and the Tigers.

Tigers key bench player: Andy Dirks

The Tigers left fielder for much of the season, Dirks has been unseated by Jhonny Peralta (and, weirdly, Don Kelly) in the playoffs, and only got three at-bats against the A’s in the first round. Dirks, though, is easily the Tigers best defensive left fielder, especially for the games in Fenway Park, where The Green Monster comes into play. While the Tigers aren’t a team known for their defensive skills, punting experience in left field during the games in Boston seems like a big risk, and letting Dirks handle those games is probably the best plan. Despite getting displaced in the first round, Dirks could be a big key for the Tigers in the ALCS.

Red Sox key bench player: Quinton Berry

The Sox aren’t going to need to platoon or pinch hit much in this series, since the Tigers are all right-handers all the time, so you’re probably going to see few substitutions from John Farrell. However, he will need to pinch run occasionally, and that’s why Berry is on the Red Sox roster. Including the postseason, Berry is 27 for 27 in stealing bases in the big leagues, so while he’s not as fast as Billy Hamilton, he is a similar kind of weapon off the bench. With the Red Sox starters not exactly being the speediest group in the game, look for Berry to get a few chances to run in this series, and given his track record, he’s probably going to be safe.

Key stat: Red Sox .325 wOBA allowed against right-handed hitters

The Red Sox have a bunch of good right-handed pitching, so it doesn’t seem like this should be a weakness for them, but they actually ranked tied for 24th in holding down opponents RHBs this season. And the Tigers have some pretty good right-handed hitting.

Some of this weakness will be neutralized by leaving lefties like Felix Doubront, Matt Thornton, and Franklin Morales off the roster or using them sparingly against the Tigers, but even the Red Sox right-handers had some problems against right-handed hitting this year. John Lackey, Ryan Dempster, and Brandon Workman were all better against southpaws this year, and although reverse platoon splits are usually just small sample size, these guys are not traditional right-handed pitchers who dominate right-handed hitters. Toss in two starts from Jon Lester, and this could be a nice series of match-ups for Torii Hunter, Omar Infante, and Austin Jackson.

Modest proposal: The Tigers should bench Jose Iglesias.

The Tigers acquired Iglesias from the Red Sox to patch the hole created by Jhonny Peralta’s suspension, but Peralta is no longer suspended and is the team’s best option at shortstop. They got him into the line-up by using him in left field in the first round, but the defensive downgrade in having Peralta running around the outfield — especially behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, two fly ball pitchers — is larger than the upgrade they get by having Iglesias man shortstop instead. The Tigers are a better team with Peralta at short and Dirks in left field than they are with Iglesias at short and Peralta in left. Dirks’ bat is significantly better than Iglesias, Peralta can play short better than he can left. Iglesias can still be inserted for defensive purposes, but their best line-up doesn’t include him in it.


NLCS Preview: Cardinals & Dodgers

It’s hard to feel shortchanged by this year’s NLCS, because the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals have arguably the two deepest, most talented rosters in the league. These two franchises have been competing against each other since the 19th century, and the previous time the Dodgers made the playoffs, in the 2009 NL Division Series, it was they who ended the Cardinals’ season in a series that will long be remembered for Matt Holliday’s flubbed catch.

This promises to be a lengthy, hard-fought series for the right to advance to the World Series. Here’s a look at the key matchups and under-the-radar players.

Cardinals’ X factor: Michael Wacha

In Wacha’s final start of the regular season, he came within one out of a no-hitter against the Nationals. In Game 4 of the NLDS against the Pirates, he took another no-hitter into the eighth inning. He’s also all of 22 years old with 10 starts under his belt, so there’s more than a little potential for volatility here in both directions.

For the Cardinals, one of the downsides of needing Game 5 to eliminate the Pirates is that ace Adam Wainwright won’t be available until Game 3, so St. Louis needs its other starters to step up against the rested Dodgers rotation. Wacha is undeniably talented — 74 strikeouts in 72 innings, including his NLDS start — but still inexperienced, so how he responds to the growing spotlight in what might be two head-to-head starts against Clayton Kershaw could tell the story of the series.

Dodgers’ X factor: Don Mattingly

The fourth and final game of the NLDS victory over Atlanta will be remembered for two eighth-inning managerial decisions that loomed large. After Atlanta’s Fredi Gonzalez went with David Carpenter to hold a 3-2 lead rather than give the ball to the dominant Craig Kimbrel, Juan Uribe slammed a two-run homer that proved to be the winning margin … but only after Mattingly had called twice for Uribe to give Carpenter an out with a sacrifice bunt, even though Yasiel Puig was already in scoring position and Uribe had proven throughout the season that bunting isn’t a skill he has.

That came on the heels of a Game 2 head-scratcher that had Mattingly calling for a bases-loading intentional walk so that the struggling Paco Rodriguez could face Jason Heyward rather than Reed Johnson — a decision that ended as poorly as one would have expected.

Mattingly showed a deft touch with his starters by lifting the ineffective Hyun-Jin Ryu after three innings in Game 3 and successfully starting Kershaw on short rest in Game 4, but every decision gets magnified in the playoffs, and his choices thus far have often been questionable at best.

Cardinals’ key reliever: Randy Choate

With St. Louis expected to use exclusively right-handed starters in the NLCS, it will fall on manager Mike Matheny to effectively use his bullpen to neutralize lefty Dodgers bats such as Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Adrian Gonzalez. Kevin Siegrist will help with that, but he’s so effective against hitters from both sides that he’s more of a full-inning type than a situational one, meaning that ageless ex-Dodger Choate will be the true lefty specialist here. (Choate appeared in 19 more games than Siegrist, yet threw 4 1/3 fewer innings.)

Choate, 38, hasn’t allowed a homer to a left-handed hitter in more than two years, a streak he’ll need to keep alive in big spots in the late innings.

Dodgers’ key reliever: Paco Rodriguez

For most of the year, the young lefty with the funky delivery was one of Mattingly’s main bullpen weapons, striking out 63 in 54 1/3 innings with a sold 3.08 FIP as he became Kenley Jansen’s primary setup man. Through the end of August, he’d allowed opponents to hit just .140/.214/.185 against him.

But as September arrived, Rodriguez struggled terribly (.308/.438/.731), then allowed six of the eight Braves he faced in the NLDS to reach, including a Heyward home run. Chris Capuano is more of a long reliever at this point, so if Rodriguez can’t be trusted, Mattingly is left with only J.P. Howell as a lefty reliever, potentially creating some matchup problems.

Key matchup: Hyun-Jin Ryu against the Cardinals’ offense

With Kershaw and Zack Greinke leading the way (more on them below), the Cardinals absolutely have to get to the lesser Dodgers starters in order to keep pace. Unfortunately for them, they’ll likely see the lefty Ryu in Game 3, and only one team in the NL had a harder time hitting lefty pitching than St. Louis did.

Ryu had a wonderful debut season in the United States, but struggled badly in Game 3 of the NLDS, lasting just three innings. Interestingly, he has a reverse split — he was more effective against righties (.280 wOBA) than lefties (.322 wOBA), making this likely Game 3 showdown a key one for the series. If the series goes to a full seven games, the Cardinals could see a lefty starter four times.

Cardinals’ key bench player: Kolten Wong

With Allen Craig still nursing a foot injury, Matt Adams has moved into the lineup and left the Cardinals’ bench almost entirely devoid of offensive utility. That could be a real problem as the games get tight, because Adron Chambers, Shane Robinson, Wong, and whoever isn’t starting at shortstop between Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma, are less-than-dangerous threats. (Craig is now claiming he could play in the NLCS, but even if he does, it’s unclear how effective he would be.)

Wong, who is coming off a very good .303/.369/.466 season in Triple-A, is really the best of this bunch and should get the high-leverage pinch-hitting opportunities. He very well might be the starting second baseman next season, and Matt Carpenter’s defensive versatility allows him to play five positions. Late-game double-switches that take advantage of moving Carpenter as needed could allow Wong to play a surprising role.

Dodgers’ key bench player: Michael Young

Young’s best days are long behind him, as is the value he once provided with his glove, but he’s clearly become Mattingly’s top pinch-hitting option. Mattingly rarely used his bench in the NLDS — Young and Ethier were the only pinch hitters used — and Ethier now hopes to be healthy enough to move back into the lineup.

That makes Young the man who is likely to get the bulk of important pinch-hitting appearances late in games. Now appearing in his fourth consecutive postseason, it’s going to fall to Young — not Nick Punto or Tim Federowicz or Skip Schumaker — to make the most of those chances.

Key stat: 76.5 percent

That’s the percentage of starts this season in which Kershaw (28 of 35) and Greinke (21 of 29) allowed two runs or fewer. They are lined up to start four games in this series, and that gives the Dodgers an edge in the pitching department — especially since Wainwright won’t be available before Game 3.

That percentage actually might be a little misleading, because it includes Greinke’s road back from the broken collarbone he suffered in April; the previous time he allowed more than two earned runs was July 27, more than two months ago. Since then, the duo has allowed two runs or fewer in an incredible 23 of 24 starts, making for a huge uphill battle for the Cardinals’ offense.

Modest proposal: Give Shelby Miller a home start

This is unlikely to happen, because Joe Kelly or Lance Lynn is likely to start Game 1, but it should. Matheny chose Lynn to start the second game of the NLDS, and Lynn couldn’t deliver, allowing five runs in less than five innings as the Cardinals fell 7-1. That, along with Wacha’s ascendance, left Miller without a start in the series — an odd fate for a pitcher who finished the year right between Cy Young Award candidates Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale in the overall ERA rankings.

Miller did have a somewhat tougher go of it in the second half, compared to his first, but he rebounded in September (.238/.317/.324 line against him), and he’s got massive home/road splits (.253 wOBA against in St. Louis as opposed to .345 on the road) that basically make him Wainwright (who had a .252 wOBA) at home. He should be a candidate to start at least one game in St. Louis.

Prediction: Dodgers in 6


Red Sox and Rays: The Keys

The Red Sox and Rays have already matched up 19 times this year; the Red Sox went 12-7 in those contests. These two teams know each other, and there won’t be any secrets when the division series between them kicks off on Friday. So, what factors are going to determine whether the Rays can the turn the tide on their AL East rival and advance to the ALCS? Let’s take a look.

Rays X-Factor: Jose Molina

The Red Sox offense is notoriously patient, and no team in baseball swung at fewer pitches in 2013 than Boston did. Guys like Daniel Nava, Stephen Drew, and Jonny Gomes go up there looking to take pitches early to get into fastball counts, and this approach bleeds through the entire line-up.

Molina is the guy who could help the Rays exploit those tendencies. He is perhaps the game’s most notorious pitch framer, using a complete lack of movement behind the plate to convince umpires that pitches off the plate were actually in the zone. He’s gotten so good at this that getting rung up on a pitch off the plate is now occasionally referred to as “getting Molina’d”.

If Molina can turn a few early balls into strikes, the patient Red Sox hitters might find themselves regularly down 0-1 or 1-2 instead of being in good hitters accounts, and that makes things a whole different ballgame.

Red Sox X-Factor: Mike Napoli

With Matt Moore and David Price set to pitch the first two games of the series, and Moore likely slotted in for a Game 5 start if it gets that far, Boston’s going to see a bunch of left-handed pitching in this series. With David Ortiz likely to be somewhat neutralized, Napoli is going to be the team’s primary power hitter, and they’ll need his lefty mashing ways to advance in this series.

Boston’s offense was the best in baseball against right-handers this year, posting a 122 wRC+, but the team isn’t likely to see many right-handed pitchers if their right-handed bats like Napoli can’t do some damage. It’s not just that he needs to create runs, but he needs to help force bullpen maneuvers that bring right-handers in to face the rest of the line-up. The longer Moore, Price, and Jake McGee are on the hill, the better Tampa’s chances of winning. Napoli needs to be the one to make sure they don’t stick around too long.

Rays Key Reliever: Alex Torres

As noted, the Red Sox line-up is notably weaker against left-handed relievers, and Torres is the kind of pitcher who Maddon can trust to pitch multiple innings to maintain that advantage on days when the team starts a right-handed pitcher. Torres gave the Rays a brilliant season, pitching well against both lefties and righties, so he doesn’t have to be used situationally. If Joe Maddon needs to get David Ortiz out in the 5th inning, he can turn to Torres and still trust him to get the ball through the 6th or even 7th inning, as he faced 10 or more batters in a game five times throughout the season.

Red Sox Key Reliever: Brandon Workman

Workman may be an inexperienced rookie who posted a 4.97 ERA in his time in the majors, but expect John Farrell to ask him to get some important outs in this series, and don’t be surprised if he turns in some dominant performances. His ERA masks how well he threw, but his 26% strikeout rate could be a taste of things to come. Without having to worry about pacing himself in starts, Workman can dial his fastball up to 96 and attack hitters with power stuff, and he may very well end up doing for Boston this year what Trevor Rosenthal did for the Cardinals last year.

Key Match-Up: Jon Lester vs Evan Longoria

With Lester slated to pitch Games 1 and 5 (if necessary) for the Red Sox, there’s going to be a lot riding on his left arm. Unfortunately for Lester, the Rays best hitter is right-handed, and Lester is significantly weaker against opposite handed hitters. Delmon Young, Wil Myers, and Desmond Jennings can be beaten even by lefties, but Lester’s going to have to figure out how to keep Longoria from driving the ball. In their career, they’ve met 63 times and Longoria has eight extra base hits.

Rays Key Bench Player: Matt Joyce

With the acquisition of David DeJesus, Joyce’s playing time has taken a bit of a hit, and he was out of the line-up in both of the team’s elimination game victories. Joyce, however, is an above average hitter who can really hit right-handed pitching, and should be an effective pinch-hitter for Joe Maddon. The key will be to pick spots where John Farrell isn’t going to counter with a lefty, because Joyce is about as good at hitting southpaws as I am.

Red Sox Key Bench Player: Xander Bogaerts

Farrell has made it clear that he’s willing to consider pinch-hitting Bogaerts for Stephen Drew against tough left-handers if the situation is deemed necessary. Bogaerts turned 21 on October 1st and has all of 50 big league plate appearances, but there’s a strong likelihood that he’s going to be sent up to the plate to try and get a big hit in a key situation. Pinch-hitting is hard for anyone, and Bogaerts has started nearly every game he’s played growing up, but the talent is there for him to grab the big stage and announce his presence as the Red Sox next great star.

Key Stat: Rays team wRC+ of 108

Everyone always thinks of Tampa Bay as a pitching-and-defense team that scratches and claws out enough runs to win, but this isn’t that kind of team. This team can hit, and their offensive production overall was 5th best in baseball, once you factor in their home park. Their attack is more to throw nine quality hitters at you than to scare with a few elite bats surrounded by glaring holes, but their approach is equally effective. Don’t underestimate this team’s ability to score runs.

Modest Proposal: The Red Sox should bunt a lot.

The Rays are baseball’s most notorious shifters, moving guys even within the same at-bat based on what the count is and where they expect a batted ball to go on that specific pitch. They routinely take Evan Longoria away from third base and put him on the right side of the infield against a left-handed hitter, and teams rarely make them pay for this alignment by bunting the ball toward the abandoned position. Without facing a penalty for their actions, the Rays just keep shifting.

The Red Sox should make them pay when they leave a huge patch of grass unprotected, and with several days to prepare for this possibility, let’s see if they worked on pushing the ball down the third base line so they can take the free base being offered.


ALDS Scouting Report: Athletics-Tigers

For the second straight season, the A’s and Tigers will meet in the American League Division Series. Last year’s series was hotly contested, with each of the first four games being decided by two runs or fewer before Detroit broke things open at the end of Game 5. This series should be just as competitive.

Key matchup: Brandon Moss vs. Tigers starting pitchers

Since arriving in Oakland, Moss has brutalized right-handed pitching. His 158 wRC+ against righties during the past two seasons ranks eighth in baseball, and has easily been the best on the A’s. With the fearsome foursome in Detroit — all righties — the burden will fall on Moss to produce. Oakland will especially need him for power, as they are uncertain if they can rely on the hurting Yoenis Cespedes from that standpoint.

Athletics’ X factor: Sonny Gray

The club’s first-round pick in 2011, Gray quickly ascended to the majors and has posted great results since his arrival. His 74 FIP- was easily the best mark among Oakland starters, as was his 24.8 percent strikeout rate. But there are a couple of caveats. First, he only threw 64 innings in The Show. In addition, six of his 10 starts came against the Astros, Mariners and Twins.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to the theory that a pitcher has the upper hand the first time he faces a team, Gray holds all the cards. Not only has he never faced the Tigers, he never faced a Tigers affiliate in the minors and hasn’t faced them in spring training either. The A’s have to hope that works in their favor.

Tigers’ X factor: Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera has compiled at least 80 plate appearances in 53 months during his major league career. He has never had a lower slugging percentage in a single month than the .333 mark he posted this September. It has been some time since Cabrera has been right health-wise, but in the postseason the Tigers need him to produce.

As good as the Tigers are offensively, they are powered by Cabrera. With Jhonny Peralta back, they could slide him or Jose Iglesias over to third base if Cabrera is still too hurt to play, but that is a pretty big drop-off offensively. It’s no coincidence that Detroit’s run production suffered markedly in September.

Athletics’ key reliever: Sean Doolittle

One of the 10-15 best relievers in the game the past two seasons, the lefty-throwing Doolittle hums it in there at better than 94 mph, and he does so as frequently as possible. Over the past two years no qualified reliever has thrown his four-seam fastball as frequently as has Doolittle, who throws it 87 percent of the time. When he does mix in his other pitches though, he is able to get swings and misses on them.

In essence, Doolittle is dominant. And Doolittle is no left-handed specialist. He is just as capable of setting down right-handed hitters as he is lefties. In fact, for his career, he has posted a better FIP and xFIP against righties (2.31 and 3.28) than he has lefties (2.74 and 3.67). This will be key because while he is most likely to be used against Prince Fielder, he won’t be vulnerable against Victor Martinez and Peralta on the way to Alex Avila.

Tigers’ key reliever: Joaquin Benoit

Tigers manager Jim Leyland made fewer bullpen decisions than most this season — the only team to make fewer pitching changes was the Royals, and then only by one. However, this was sort of necessary too, as Detroit had just 103 shutdowns, last in all of baseball (yes, they had even fewer than the Astros). With 30 shutdowns against four meltdowns, Benoit was the only reliever on the team to finish with at least 10 more shutdowns than meltdowns, and is really the only high-leverage reliever.

Of the Tigers pitchers likely to make the ALDS roster, only three had a pLI (Average Leverage Index) of 1.00 or higher: Benoit (1.71), Jose Veras (1.40) and Al Alburquerque(1.01). Leyland will need all three of them, but of the trio, Benoit has the longest track record of domination. Unfortunately, Benoit wasn’t that strong toward the end of the season (4.38 ERA in September), but he didn’t have any dramatic drop in velocity, so there is no reason for alarm, especially because momentum means very little heading into the postseason. That said, Benoit will need to be on his A-game — pun intended.

Athletics’ key bench player: Daric Barton

With Cespedes laboring through a shoulder injury, he may see some more time off than Oakland would like. If he does, Moss figures to spell him in left field, leaving Barton as the last man standing at first base. He won that role partly by default, as the A’s won’t carryNate Freiman on the ALDS roster. But Barton may also be key off the bench as he can draw out at-bats and force the Tigers pitchers to throw a lot of pitches. Oakland’s best chance of winning this series is to get to the bullpen as quickly as possible, and Barton and his double-digit walk rate can help them achieve that goal.

Tigers’ key bench player: Andy Dirks

With Peralta back, the most likely outcome for him is to play left field. This will make Dirks a backup, and he can be valuable in this role defensively. Peralta is learning left field on the fly — he had never played the outfield before the final weekend of the regular season. Austin Jackson is solid in center, but has battled some nagging leg injuries this season, and Torii Hunter is a good defender only by reputation at this point, having posted a below-average UZR in seven of the last eight seasons. In fact, Hunter’s poor defense has dragged down the defensive ratings of the entire Tigers outfield. Between him and Peralta, Dirks should find himself caddying for someone toward the end of every game.

Key stat: 77 FIP- for Tigers starting rotation

Top rotation FIP- in history

Team FIP-
2011 Phillies 77
2013 Tigers 77
1971 White Sox 77
1996 Braves 78
1997 Braves 78
2002 Diamondbacks 79
1998 Braves 79
1970 Cubs 79
10 teams tied 81

The Tigers’ 77 FIP- is tied for the best mark in baseball history (1901-present) with the 2011 Phillies and 1971 White Sox (see table), and they’re probably even a little better than that in the postseason, as fifth starter Rick Porcello moves to the bullpen. With an 88 FIP-, Porcello was good himself this season, but he still lags behind Max Scherzer (68), Justin Verlander (81),Anibal Sanchez (59) and Doug Fister (81).

Even against the A’s offense — which did hit righties well this season — this is the largest edge in the series and the biggest reason to put faith in Detroit. The Tigers rotation was tops in the majors this season at 25.3 WAR this season, which was 9.3 WAR more than the next-best team’s rotation and more than double that of the A’s rotation (11.2, 17th place overall).

Modest proposal: A’s need to be aggressive with their bullpen

Oakland’s starting rotation isn’t bad per se, but it’s better described as solid than spectacular. Only Bartolo Colon totaled more than 2.0 WAR, and at some point his act is going to wear thin. Combine that with the fact that hitters fare increasingly better against starting pitchers the more times they face them in the same game, and manager Bob Melvin is almost compelled to be aggressive with his bullpen. Luckily, he has the horses to make this happen.

In his bullpen, he has Brett Anderson, who is normally a starter and should be able to work extended stints. He also has Dan Otero and Jesse Chavez, both of whom recorded more than three outs per outing with regularity this season. Deploying this trio — who posted FIPs ranging from 2.12 to 3.33 as relievers this season — will give the A’s key length without sacrificing quality. Also, with Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour all capable of closing out games, Oakland has the freedom to insert one of them early in the game if there is a high-leverage situation. Given how good the top of Detroit’s lineup is, Oakland’s starting pitchers should rarely — if at all — be allowed to face it a third time.

Prediction: Tigers in 5


NLDS Preview: Braves & Dodgers

The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers face off in one of the more interesting divisional series of this postseason. The Braves led the NL East nearly wire to wire, easily beating out the favored Washington Nationals, while the Dodgers went on one of the most historic worst-to-first runs in the history of the sport.

As they prepare to meet in Atlanta on Thursday, let’s highlight the most important players and matchups.

Braves’ X factor: Kris Medlen

Medlen is a very good pitcher who has been handed a nearly impossible task — outduel the great Clayton Kershaw at least once and possibly twice. Medlen wasn’t quite able to repeat the wonderful 2012 run that saw the Braves win all 12 of the starts he made after moving from the bullpen, but he still had a solid 2013 and really turned it on down the stretch, putting up a 49/11 K/BB ratio and a 1.37 ERA over his final nine games.

Kershaw will make it difficult on the Atlanta offense, so Medlen’s ability to keep pace is among the most important stories of the series.

Dodgers’ X factor: Yasiel Puig

Like it would be anybody else. With Matt Kemp out for the season and Andre Ethier slowed by an ankle injury that has kept him out since Sept. 13, the Dodgers’ offense has taken some big hits, and Puig needs to be the man to stem the tide.

Puig slumped to end the season, hitting just .214/.333/.452 in September, but some of that can be chalked up to the inevitable regression of his BABIP from the unbelievable heights it had been during the summer. The good news is that he kept his walk rate at more than 10 percent for a second month in a row and maintained power, so Puig not only has a chance to bounce back with the bat, he has an opportunity to show those who are convinced that his mental errors will cost the team in the playoffs what he has learned during his whirlwind rookie season.

Braves’ key reliever: Alex Wood

Many Atlanta fans were disappointed when it was announced that Wood would be returning to the bullpen for the playoffs, especially with the prospect of the ancient Freddy Garcia perhaps starting Game 4 instead. The rookie lefty with the funky delivery had made 10 late-season starts for Atlanta and was a revelation, striking out 49 in 53 innings. Now, he’ll be in the bullpen, helping to give Fredi Gonzalez an intriguing weapon to help an effective yet relatively little-known cast of relievers — guys such as Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, and Anthony Varvaro — get the game to the sensational Craig Kimbrel.

 

Dodgers’ key reliever: Brian Wilson

Yes, that Brian Wilson, the ex-Giants closer known nearly as well for his beard and his look-at-me stunts as he is for helping lead San Francisco to the 2010 title. Wilson missed just about all of the Giants’ 2012 run to the World Series after blowing out his elbow in April, and didn’t even make his Dodgers debut this season until Aug. 22. Since the end of 2011, he has just 15 2/3 innings under his belt.

However, Wilson has allowed only one earned run in 18 games as a Dodger, as he works to regain some of his lost velocity and improve his cutter location. And with usual setup men Ronald Belisario (who recently endured a run of 52 batters during which he recorded only one strikeout) and Paco Rodriguez (six walks and three homers in 6 1/3 September innings) struggling at the end of a long season, it might be up to Wilson to be the bridge between a solid rotation and an excellent young closer in Kenley Jansen.

Key matchup: Luis Avilan vs. Adrian Gonzalez

Without Ethier, the Dodgers’ lineup likely will be heavy on righty hitters, with Gonzalez and Carl Crawford the only lefties certain to play. (Skip Schumaker might, but more on him below.) That means that that the Braves will be sure to have a steady diet of lefties ready for Gonzalez in the late innings. Along with Wood, Avilan will get a lot of that work. Avilan allowed just 15 hits and seven walks in 114 plate appearances against lefties this year, good for a paltry .144/.219/.163 line. Gonzalez, it should be noted, doesn’t actually have a terrible split against fellow southpaws, and whether he can take advantage of that skill — or not — will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this series.

Braves’ key bench player: Jordan Schafer

The Braves were supposed to have put together one of the most talented outfields in baseball this year, pairing newcomer brothers B.J. and Justin Upton with returning star Jason Heyward. It didn’t happen; B.J. Upton was a tremendous bust (.184/.268/.289) and Heyward missed time with a broken jaw.

Instead, catcher Evan Gattis has been seeing most of the time in left field, but he’s a enormous defensive liability, as well as having hit just .224/.262/.425 since Aug. 1. That means that Schafer might play a big role in the series, not only to replace Gattis on defense, but to add speed off the bench (22 steals) and exploit some of his own huge platoon splits. Schafer is no star, and he absolutely cannot hit lefties, but he can help out Atlanta in a lot of little ways.

Dodgers’ key bench player: Dee Gordon

Due to the health uncertainty in the outfield, the Dodgers aren’t likely to set their NLDS roster until the last possible moment. But what does seem certain is that their bench will have a lot of guys who offer positional flexibility (Jerry Hairston Jr.), good defense (Nick Punto), and a nice reputation (Michael Young) — i.e., no one all that exciting.

If Gordon sneaks his way on to the roster, he offers Don Mattingly elite-level speed, and while Gordon isn’t a major league quality player either at the plate or in the field, Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton has shown us all just how dangerous speed can be when used correctly. The latest reports on Ethier indicate that if he makes the roster, he’ll be restricted to pinch-hitting only, meaning Gordon should have plenty of opportunity to pinch-run for Ethier and make some noise.

Key stat: Atlanta’s 22.6 percent team strikeout rate

The Braves have a whole lot of swing-and-miss in them, whiffing more than all but two other teams in baseball. Even when you remove the anchor of pitchers batting and just look at regular hitters, they still strike out more than 26 other teams. That’s because in a league with an average of 19 percent, Atlanta has four hitters at 25 percent or higher: Justin Upton, Schafer, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, with the latter two over a whopping 30 percent. Pair that with a Dodgers staff that led the National League in strikeout percentage, and you have a recipe for an excessive amount of strike-three calls.

Modest proposal: Start Scott Van Slyke over Skip Schumaker

With Kemp out and Ethier slowed, the Dodgers suddenly find themselves without a center fielder. More than likely, utilityman Schumaker is going to fill the role, with the main argument apparently being “he started in center for the 2011 Cardinals during the World Series and they won a ring,” which ignores the fact that he managed just two singles in the series.

Schumaker offers little power or speed to go with a large platoon split, and most defensive metrics rate him poorly. Instead, Don Mattingly might be better served by living with the adventure that is Puig in center field in order to start Van Slyke — who isn’t much of an outfielder either, but at least showed good power in limited play this year — in right field. Against lefties, such as Mike Minor in Game 2, it’s an absolute must.

Prediction: Dodgers in five


Why the NL Teams Won’t Win It All

As we head into the playoffs, you’ll surely hear a lot about why each team has what it takes to go all the way and win the World Series. Today, we’re taking the opposite approach. Here’s a look at why each of the five National League playoff teams will not win it all.

Atlanta Braves: Lack of an “ace” and a top-heavy offense

Led by the underrated Mike Minor and boosted by rookie Julio Teheran, Atlanta’s deep rotation gave the club a chance to win every day, not only weathering a lost season from Brandon Beachy and a season-ending injury to Tim Hudson, but improving down the stretch thanks to 11 solid starts from rookie Alex Wood.

Yet while this rotation is built well for the day-in, day-out rigors of a long season, the Braves might find difficulty matching up with the elite-level starters they’ll find in the playoffs — such as Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the National League Division Series. Minor’s 3.39 FIP leads the remaining Braves starters (Wood is headed to the bullpen), yet is just 19th in the National League, behind four different Dodgers starters and two apiece from the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

The Braves might also find themselves limited by their top-heavy offense, which has a few star-level performers in the second half (Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons, provided you include his defense) but also some complete anchors (B.J. Upton, Evan Gattis, Dan Uggla and Jordan Schafer). Catcher Brian McCann, he of the .296 OBP since the All-Star Game, is now also dealing with a strained adductor muscle. And though it’s not expected to be serious, it’s another issue he doesn’t need.

Cincinnati Reds: Struggle against the best

Reds fans should be terrified about Dusty Baker’s usage — or lack thereof — of closer Aroldis Chapman, as well as his infuriating bunting tendencies, but the biggest reason the Reds won’t go all the way is that they have been unable to beat the best teams this year. Cincinnati fattened up on lousy teams like the Cubs, whom they beat 14 of 19 times, and went 55-30 against teams under .500.

Good teams are supposed to do that, but they’re supposed to be able to beat their own class, too, and the Reds are the only NL playoff team with a losing record against teams above .500 — finishing with a poor 31-39 record against winning opponents.

October baseball is all about beating the best, of course, and the Reds posted losing records against fellow playoff teams the Braves, Pirates and Cardinals. (They beat the Dodgers four out of seven times.) Considering their performance against elite opposition and Baker’s tendency to help his opponents with some of his decisions, Cincinnati might be in for an uphill battle against the best the game has to offer.

St. Louis Cardinals: Closer and injury issues

Having to replace your struggling All-Star closer 97 percent of the way through the season wasn’t exactly the plan Mike Matheny’s team had hoped to follow. The good news is that even Edward Mujica’s collapse isn’t as fatal as it might be on other teams, because Matheny can turn to talented arms like Trevor Rosenthal (108 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings), Kevin Siegrist (two earned runs in 38 2/3 innings) and perhaps even starter Michael Wacha, but all three are rookies, which always is a concern at the end of a long season.

If relying on such youth in the bullpen isn’t enough to stop this team, the health of a lineup that already has a black hole at shortstop might be. First baseman Allen Craig, one of the top run producers in baseball, hasn’t played since injuring his foot in early September and is unlikely to be available for the NLDS. He’ll be replaced by Matt Adams, who has been dealing with a sore elbow that cost him a few days earlier this month, though he’s still hit well. Outfielder Carlos Beltran has a sore wrist, while catcher (and MVP candidate Yadier Molina) has put up his worst month of the season after returning from a knee injury that cost him half of August.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Skip Schumaker, starting center fielder

With the unexpected news following Sunday’s season finale that Matt Kemp’s injured ankle would sideline him for the postseason, the Dodgers find themselves with a huge hole in center field. It’s true that Kemp wasn’t around for most of the team’s record-setting summer run anyway, but Andre Ethier was — and Ethier hasn’t started since Sept. 12 with a sore ankle of his own, making his availability for the NLDS a very uncertain proposition.

Don Mattingly indicated he would prefer to keep Yasiel Puig in right field, so if Ethier can’t go, that leaves the team stuck with bench player Skip Schumaker as the starter. Schumaker played just 12 complete games in center this year and was rated as below average by most defensive measures. At the plate, he’s a subpar hitter who had just four steals and homers combined, and has a large enough career platoon split that he’s nearly an instant out against lefties.

The Dodgers should also worry that usual setup men Paco Rodriguez and Ronald Belisario have struggled over the past few weeks ahead of elite closer Kenley Jansen, but that’s a secondary concern. Going from Kemp and Ethier to Schumaker is a huge blow that could cost them in October.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Facing right-handed pitching

The Pirates are a team that wins with pitching, defense and MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. That’s been enough to overcome what is generally an average offense — their .311 wOBA was just 18th in baseball, between the noncontending Brewers and Giants. The good news is that no team in the National League feasted on lefties the way Pittsburgh has, topping all others with a 108 wRC+ against southpaws, including having five different Pirates who had at least 40 plate appearances put up a wRC+ mark of at least 176 against lefties.

Unfortunately, the Pirates were merely middle-of-the-pack against righties, and are last among all NL playoff teams; McCutchen was the only one who managed to get to even 125 in wRC+ against righties. Other than McCutchen, their best hitters against righty pitching (third baseman Pedro Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker) are all but unplayable against lefty pitching, creating matchup problems against lefty specialists in the late innings.

The lesser production against righties is a concern considering that even if the Pirates can get past Cincinnati righty Johnny Cueto in the wild-card game, they’ll end up facing a St. Louis team that will likely have an all-righty starting rotation in the NLDS.