Playoff Preview

When it comes to picking the playoff winners, most people look at the regular season records and say that the teams with the best records should win and it's only bad luck if they don't.  What they often fail to take into account is that the regular season record is largely due to the effort of 35-50 different players and pitchers.  No team ever ends the season with the same 25 guys they start with.  More often that not, there are significant changes made to the line-up and the pitching staff as the season progresses.  So the 25 guys each team starts with in the playoffs are quite often a significantly different group than the one that compiles the majority of the in-season record. 

Then there's the issue of the manager, who's moves during the regular season are largely to preserve the team's chances of winning enough games to get into the playoffs.  That is, they don't always play every opportunity, not do they always make substitutions in an effort to win every game.  In the playoffs, they have to take advantage of every opportunity and they have to play to win every game.  One lost game is a step closer to watching the new fall season on network TV.

So with that in mind, here're a few things I will be looking for this postseason and why I think we may be in for some surprises.

Yankees vs Twins

On the surface, this looks like a blowout.  The Yankees haven't lost to the Twins since 2001 and they completely dominated them this April.  However, the Yankees have the 6th worst offense in the American League versus lefties and the Twins will throw one of the best in the American League, Johan Santana, against them in Game 1 and possibly in Game 4 or 5 if the series goes that far.  The Twins also have Eric Milton and Kenny Rogers to call on if necessary and two decent lefties in the bullpen, JC Romero and aging Jesse Orosco, ahead of lefty closer Eddie Guardado.  The Yankees faced Santana twice earlier this year, but both times he was coming out of the bullpen.  The results? 5.2 innings pitched, 5 hits, 3 walks, 10 strikeouts and no runs allowed.  The Yanks did not face either Milton or Rogers in their earlier match-ups so the Twins will be coming with an entirely different look out of the starting rotation.  The Twins bullpen is slightly deeper and they have far superior speed and range on defense than the Yankees.  The Yankees have more overall power, but the Twins have 8 guys in double digits in home runs, the same number as the Yanks.  The Twins are second stingiest allowing walks (the Yanks are first), so that may take away from the Yankees ability to get runners on base.  The Twins' hitters are pretty aggressive anyway so the lack of walks probably won't affect them as much.   If Santana can keep his nerves in check starting Game 1 in Yankee Stadium, it's very possible this series could be over in 3 or 4 games... in the Twins favor. 

Giants vs Marlins

I was not overly impressed with the Marlins entering September, but the more I look at them, the more dangerous they appear to be.  They have unbelievable speed throughout the line-up (5 guys in double figures in steals, 4 with at least 6 triples), good defense and their power on offense is surprisingly deep.  They have 6 players who have hit at least 15 home runs this season, seven total in double figures.  They throw 5 pretty solid guys out there in the rotation and the bullpen is better than I thought when I appraised their chances a month ago.  With the additions of Chad Fox, Rick Helling and Ugueth Urbina to Braden Looper, they can pretty much do whatever they please with right-handers.  The problem is that Barry Bonds bats left and the Marlins really don't have a solution for him other than to walk him.  Bonds isn't the only power in the line-up either: the Giants have 8 guys in double figures in home runs.  The biggest difference between the two offenses is the superior speed of the Marlins and the Giants vulnerability to the strikeout.   The Giants have 3 guys who strike out three times as much as they walk and against a staff that strikes guys out (the Marlins were 5th in the NL), that may be a big problem.  With the rebirth of Dustin Hermanson, I don't think depth in the rotation will be a problem for the Giants.  The bullpen, however, has a tendency to allow an awful lot of baserunners and that could be trouble with a team that runs as well as the Marlins.  I'm still not convinced that Tim Worrell is the type of closer who can get a team through three rounds of the playoffs.  As good as Bonds is, I'm not sure he's enough to pull this offense through to the next round.

Red Sox vs As

Without Mark Mulder and a healthy Jose Guillen, I can't figure out how the A's will win even one of these games.  Zito, Hudson and Lilly have been good to very good down the stretch, but they are facing a team that has doubled everyone to death this season and without better outfield defense, I don't see how the As are gonna stop that from happening again.  True, the Red Sox rotation does not exactly inspire fear, but Pedro is money in the playoffs and Derek Lowe is extremely tough in Fenway (11-2, 3.21 ERA).  I'm eager to see Game 3 between him and Lilly because Fenway has been very friendly to left-handed starters, so it should be a terrific pitching match-up.  But the As simply don't have an answer on offense.  Durazo did not become the offensive juggernaut many thought he'd become with regular at bats, and as good as Eric Chavez, Ramon Hernandez and Miguel Tejada are, they don't have the supporting cast that Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek have.  Unless the Red Sox bullpen completely collapses, this one looks over in 3 and it might not even be that close.

Braves vs Cubs

This is a classic match-up between the Braves' power line-up and the Cubs' power rotation.  However, I think the series will be decided by the bullpens.  If the Braves can get to Smoltz consistently, then they should win.  However, that will not be an easy task with retreads like Roberto Hernandez, Kent Mercker, Jaret Wright, Will Cunnane and Ray King toeing the rubber.  The Cubs, on the other hand, don't have the same quality at the end, but have better quality to get there with Mike Remlinger, Kyle Farnsworth and Dave Veres.  And Joe Borowski is no Tim Worrell; he's good enough to get the Cubs to the promised land.  The Cubs have a better offense than they are currently credited with and the Braves rotation, especially Mike Hampton, could be surprisingly tough in a short series.  This series looks to be the most intriguing and probably the closest match-up of teams.  It may even come down to which manager makes the most mistakes - Cox or Baker... in which case, it's still a toss-up.  Finally, about Braves' catcher Javy Lopez' assertion that the Cubs can't win because they don't have team chemistry... well, you can bet if they didn't have it before, they have it now.  I picked the Cubs for the World Series at the beginning of the season so I'll stay with my pick.