The Board is Set, the Pieces are Moving

No more wild card drama. No more ‘is my team making the playoffs?’ This is the big stage; if you didn’t come to play, then you might as well go home now.
But obviously everyone came to play. Every playoff team that got in were, in my opinion, the best teams to get in. Number 1 seeds down to the wildcards in both leagues, everyone earned it. Nobody hobbled in.
That’s what makes the postseason the most exciting time of year, but I’m straying from the point.
Just in case you live under a rock or fell down a well, these are the playoff matchups, with the numbers showing their seed. -
American League-
1 New York vs 3 Detroit
2 Texas vs  4 Tampa Bay
National League-
1 Philadelphia vs  4 St. Louis
2 Milwaukee vs 3 Arizona
There isn’t a typo here. That’s right, no Boston, no Atlanta, no defending champion San Francisco. The first two teams led the wild card for most of the year and then simply got cold, dull, fell apart. Whatever term lights your fire.
Boston can only blame themselves for their collapse. Atlanta on the other hand just couldn’t score, also their own fault. San Francisco had the same problem as the Braves.
But now it’s time to talk about the playoff teams, no biased garbage about big-market teams getting all the attention.
It is terrible that people will look at Boston’s collapse or Atlanta’s and spend hours talking about that. Granted this is fine if you’re in the greater Boston or Atlanta area or are a fan of one of those teams, but people in the media have to start celebrating or more or less recognizing teams like Arizona who were in last place last season and are now in first. Or Detroit, who sells out on Wednesday afternoons despite the economic down turn in Motown. Or even Tampa Bay who lost their entire bullpen, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena  and Carl Crawford and have a payroll of 40 million, AND still won the wild card.
First off is the league where the pitcher hits, the National League.
St. Louis went on a crazy-man run to catch the Braves and get in as the wild card. They may have trouble with their pitching seeing as Chris Carpenter threw a complete game shut-out on the final day of the season to get them into the playoffs. Obviously he isn’t starting game one, but luckily the Cards have options with trade deadline acquisition Edwin Jackson, upstart Jaime Garcia, as well as seasoned vets Jake Westbrook and Kyle Loshe.
Philadelphia is the team the Red Birds will play, and with a rotation that will roll out Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and the Vanimal, Vance Worley.  I’m no bandwagon jumper, but Philly probably wins this series. It is to be noted that St. Louis has beaten the Phils 6 out of 9 times this year, so maybe if there is a team to dismantle the ‘Super Friends’ then this is the one. I’ll take the Phillies to win it 3 games to 1.
Next up are the Beer Makers and the Snakes. Arizona has been this year’s Cinderella after collecting dust in the NL West cellar last year. Not only did they win 94 games and the division, but they beat the defending champs in the process. Led by 21-game winner Ian Kennedy, the D-Backs won’t go quietly, watch out Brew Crew.
Milwaukee experienced their struggles last year, but have been dynamite this year especially at home with new acquisitions Zack Greinke , Shawn Marcum and Francisco Rodriguez bolstering a team that used to be all hitting. A 57-24 record will be tough to beat at home so I’m taking the Brewers to sweep 3 games to 0.
(If you’re counting at home yes that is 4 different names I called Milwaukee).
Next up we will head over to the junior circuit where the field is a little more tight record-wise.
There is no run away number one seed, and there’s no clear-cut favorite. This is where it gets good. I’m not saying the NL won’t be good, but the AL will just be more exciting. Honestly, any of the four teams could run the table and wouldn’t surprise me. New York has the offense, Tampa has the pitching and Detroit and Texas a lot of both.
New York plays Detroit in what won’t be the first televised game, but seed-wise is the first on the list. New York has done it with their offense and CC Sabathia and a few bullpen guys. Ivan Nova has been spectacular, but a rookie starting pitcher in the playoffs? He’s not going to be any 2001 Randy Johnson, but he’ll be good. MVP candidate Curtis Granderson will be facing his former team in the playoffs in what figures to be a nail-biting series.
Detroit not only has the best pitcher in baseball in likely Cy Young winner Justin Verlander , but also might just have the best hitter in baseball in first baseman Miguel Cabrera who hit a robust .344 and won the American League batting title. Both are top MVP candidates and could benefit in the MVP race from Boston’s own MVP candidates missing the playoffs, but back to the Tigers’ playoff ability.  The Tigers have what could be a luxury of playing on the road. The main reason being Verlander. Verlander has lost one game since the All-Star break… ONE! This kind of cancels out the home field advantage for the Yankees or any team with a better record that plays the Tigers because you beat Verlander once, you get lucky. But there is no chance you beat him twice, which means at least one win on the road if Jim Leyland uses his ace in games 1 and 5. Even more support for the Tigers is the fact that they are 95-67 on the season. The exact same record they had when they won the wildcard and the AL Pennant in 2006. What’s more,during that year they opened the playoffs on the road in, you guessed it, New York, and promptly won that series. I’m just saying, history sometimes repeats itself. If you haven’t guessed yet I’m taking the Tigers to sweep 3 games to 0.
In our last first-round matchup we have the Texas Rangers hosting the Tampa Bay Rays. Texas has an offense that is getting hot at the right time with the power bats of Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, Adrian Beltre  and not to mention Michael Young. This is a dangerous team that can round the bases easily but can also steal 2nd and 3rd to get into scoring position. They also have the bonus of rolling out CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland, all three potential Game 1 starters (it’s apparently Wilson ).
While Texas has 3 game-one starters,Tampa Bay might have 5. The Rays have a young and talented rotation comprising of “Big Game” James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann. I’d be scared of Tampa if I were Texas.  This is no walk in the park. But all in all I think the Rangers offense is too much for the Rays, and the Rangers go to the ALCS for the second year running and win the series 3 games to 2.
Just to recap, I have the Phillies beating the Cardinals in 4 games, the ball-club formerly known as the Seattle Pilots (for those of you still counting at home that’s 5 different names for the Brewers) sweeping the Diamondbacks. Over in the AL I have Detroit pulling the brooms out against the Yankees and the Rangers beating the Rays in 5.
Stay tuned for championship predictions after the divisional series.

While a Win in the Tie Breaker is Nice…

While a win in the tie-breaking game determining a playoff spot is nice, it may not be the best position to be in.
Since 1946 there have been only 13 tie-breaker games, only 8 of those have decided a division or wild card berth.
Of the 8, only two have made it to the World Series, and only one (the 1978 New York Yankees) won it.
Then there is the fact that some teams feel compelled to pitch one of their best pitchers on short rest or not in the tie breaker to have the best chance to win. This is their choice and is fine, but what if they do in fact win the game? The #1 or #2 pitcher then isn’t available until later in the series, like say game 3. This means going with guys who might start game 3 or 4 in game 1 or 2. I’m not saying those pitchers don’t deserve it, but like I said, they’re more likely to start game 3 or 4. This could put the team in a big hole.
Going into a tie-breaker game usually means that you’re either on a tear or in the midst of an extreme collapse. There are the occasions when both teams play evenly to get in, but those tend to be less common.
Now, if you’re the former then that’s great. But the last team to win a tie breaker while on a tear was those pesky 2009 Twins who got flattened by the Yankees in the ALDS.
If you’re the latter then you might be in trouble. You can say all you want about how history favors a team who comes limping into the playoff, but truth be told it’s probably easier to play when you’re on a 3-4 game winning streak than having lost 13 of 19.
Another nugget here is that Tampa might be the favorite heading into a tie breaker with Boston.
I’m not discounting Boston, but think about it. Not only are the Rays pitching MUCH better, but they haven’t been on a torrential slump like the Red Sox have. If you look at other tie breakers the team that goes on the head-turning-run generally wins. Look at the 1995 Seattle Mariners and (it pains me to say this) the 2009 Minnesota Twins and the 2007 Colorado Rockies. All went on unbelievable runs and won the tie breaker. The only downside to this is that none of them won a World Series. So, maybe Tampa breaks the streak, maybe they don’t even make the playoffs, maybe there’s no tiebreaker and the Sox win it, who knows? But one thing is for sure, there’s going to be some good baseball come October.

August Trades

The August 31st waiver trade deadline is a chance for teams to acquire a player to help them fill a hole that they didn’t address at the July 31st deadline or are filling a hole created by injury.
Sometimes the deals made in the year’s eighth month can shape a division or championship race. Just look at the Giants acquisitions of Cody Ross and Jose Guillen. Without Ross, and to some degree Guillen, the Giants wouldn’t have been in the position they were in.
Then there are deals that maybe didn’t work out, and the team faded out of it (See Pedro Feliz to Cardinals in August 2010).
Some acquisitions this year could end up being the next Cody Ross or they could be the next Pedro Feliz.
There were some teams that made some trades or a singular trade look like a sheer fleecing, and then there are the guys who absolutely lost the deal.
The Fleecing- Tigers Acquire Delmon Young from Twins. The Twins probably weren’t going to tender Young a contract, but they still lost the deal. The former number one overall pick has a .285 batting average while hitting in front of All-Universe first baseman Miguel Cabrera. The Twins got 2 minor league pitchers in return.
The Save-Some-Money-on-an-Expiring-Contract-Deal- Braves Acquire Jack Wilson. The M’s dealt their Opening Day second baseman after he continued to struggle with a bat, and to clear all the debris out of the path of prized second baseman Dustin Ackley.
The Sentimental Trade- Indians Acquire Jim Thome. The Indians brought back the newest member of the 600 homerun club for one last hurrah. That hurrah died in a bit of an awkward silence as the Indians fell behind the scorching Tigers.
The Contractual Albatross Pickup- Diamondbacks Acquire Aaron Hill and John McDonald for Kelly Johnson. Aaron Hill is only two years removed from a season in which he hit 36 homeruns and had 108 RBIs along with a .286 batting average. He’s only 29, so this could be a steal long term. In 31 games with the Snakes the second baseman has a .298 batting average. Much better than his .225 with the Blue Jays this year, and his .205 batting average last year.

Playoff Scheduling

In the playoffs you want your best starter to be on the hill in Game 1, followed by your second best and so on. But some teams who are in a playoff race don’t have that luxury.
Take this year’s Boston Red Sox for example. Boston has a 2.5 game lead over Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim with 6 games left on their schedule.
The Red Sox have Jon Lester slated to pitch on Friday at New York, followed by Tim Wakefield on Saturday, Jon Lackey on Sunday, Erik Bedard at Baltimore on the following Monday, Josh  Beckett the day after and Lester again next Wednesday.
Wednesday, if you’re not aware, is the season finale, which means that Lester and Beckett, 15-8, and 13-6 respectively won’t be available to pitch until Game 3 of the ALDS. Boston will likely have to go on the road to either Detroit or Texas IF they make the playoffs. This is looking less and less likely seeing as they are not only 3-7 in their last 10 games, but their only win in their last 6 games was against Brian Matuz, who in 11 starts has an ERA upwards of 10. Yes, that’s right, 10.
If Boston does make the playoffs they will likely have to start one of the aforementioned Bedard, Wakefield or Lackey in Game 1 and one of the others in Game 2.
To make matters worse Lackey owns an ERA of 6.92 in 2 starts vs Detroit in the last three years. Even more eye opening is his north-of -7 ERA in 10 starts vs Texas (7.29).
Wakefield has fared much better against the Tigers and the Rangers with his ERAs against both squads in the last three years being low (2.57 and 1.50).
Bedard is much better against Detroit in the last three years (1.64 ERA in 2 starts), but he has only lasted 11 innnings total in both and surrendered 12 hits as well. Bedard is also decent against Texas with a 4.05 ERA. But if you look at the ERA in just Texas it shoots up to 27.00. Yikes.
It’s likely that it’s going to be one of the latter two in Game 1. Even so, if they play Detroit I don’t think either of them will beat Justin Verlander on the hill IN Detroit.
If it’s Texas that they play in the first round I’m not totally sure that one of those three can match up with CJ Wilson in Arlington either.
While Boston might have to start their 3rd, 4th or 5th starting pitcher in the playoff opener, teams like Detroit, Philadelphia and New York now have the time to set up their rotations for the playoffs. Meaning they can line up their starting pitchers.  So, when Game 2 comes around they’re available to pitch on normal rest.
Take the Tigers for example, who in their 6-3 win over the Royals on Wednesday had Max Scherzer start the game and throw 5 innings. Jim Leyland then used Doug Fister to pitch three innings out of the bullpen followed by Papa Grande ( Jose Valverde ) to close it out in the ninth.
The thinking here is that Verlander will pitch Game 1 regardless of venue. If Game 2 is at home then we will likely see Scherzer there with Fister in Game 3 on the road.
If the Tigers get home-field advantage, then it will be Scherzer behind Verlander. If not it will be Fister on the road and then Scherzer at home for Game 3. The Tigers are employing this because Scherzer’s ERA is a run and a half lower at home than on the road. And Fister’s ground-ball style will be much more effective in hitter’s parks like Yankee Stadium or Fenway.
Leyland used them both on Wednesday so that they will both be in line to start in Game 2 on proper rest at whichever stadium is more advantageous.
One thing is for certain — the Tigers will be ready come October.

 

Preferred Playoff Opponents AL

The American League playoff picture has become more clear, at least for the Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers have clinched their division, and at this point we know two of Tampa Bay, Boston and New York are going to make it, as well as Texas or Anaheim.
It now moves from “Who’s going to make the playoffs?” to “Whose playing who in the playoffs?”
A month or two ago the obvious choice among contenders would have been Detroit. Except for maybe Texas, who has been dismal against Motown this year, not to mention they had lost MVP Josh Hamilton to injury in Detroit.
But things have become increasingly murkier as the Tigers have made a mockery of the AL Central and in the process passed Texas in the race for the top seed in the AL.
Now the answer might be Texas, who to no fault of their own have seen Detroit leap frog them. But it is their fault that Anaheim is within shouting distance. The Angels catching Texas would make for interesting playoff baseball. Not only is there the dynamic one-two punch of Jared Weaver and Ervin Santana, but also the fact that they could potentially face Detroit again in the ALCS. No one is going to forget the yelling-heavy matchup of Justin Verlander and Weaver on the July 31 trade deadline for a while.
First things first, or rather first things second, is that whichever two of the AL East Squads make the playoffs can’t play each other in the first round (this rule applies to all divisions). So, because New York currently has the best record they would play the AL West club (who has the worst), while Detroit takes on the AL East team that isn’t sitting on its couch watching (second and third best record).
I think for New York the obvious decision, and maybe one that they won’t have control over, is Texas. Detroit is the only other option, and while Texas rotation is good, Detroit’s is much better, not to mention Texas is easier for New York to match up with. The Yankees have winning records against all but two teams this year. Those two teams are Detroit and Boston. They are also 7-2 versus the Rangers on the campaign, which doesn’t hurt.
Detroit is 12-4 combined against Texas and Tampa, and while they are 1-5 against Boston I firmly believe they can beat the Sox thanks to Boston’s rotation questions. More importantly is Detroit’s lack of rotation concerns. It’s impossible to play Texas in the first round even if Detroit overtakes the Yankees for the top seed.  This is because of the aforementioned rule about division teams playing in the first round.  Tampa is probably the easiest of the East teams to beat, but I’d take a long look at Detroit in the playoffs. The dream scenario would be to beat Tampa in the division series and beat Texas in the Championship series.
Boston is a mixed bag. They have clobbered their arch rival Yankees 11 out of 15 times. But they can’t play New York in the first round. So, between Texas and Detroit the more favorable statistically is Detroit, but I just think Boston’s pitching concerns are too daunting for them to last long in the playoffs. There is also the threat of the Sox missing the playoffs period and spending some quality time with their couches and TV screens.
Texas doesn’t have much of a choice here. Barring a losing streak from either of the teams ahead of them, the Rangers will have the lowest seed in the playoffs. This isn’t great, because if the Yankees lock up the top seed then it will be a 2010 ALCS rematch. However, when Texas and New York have matched up this year, Texas has won 2 of 9. So, Texas should be hoping for a first-round matchup with Boston since they’ve won 6 of 10 against Beantown.
Tampa Bay and Anaheim are currently on the outside looking in. They both need to win and get help to get in. It might not bode well for the Angels who are 5 games back of Texas and are 7-9 on the campaign against the Rangers. What could be even more troubling is LA’s struggles against all other playoff contenders.  Through the 20th the Halos are 21-27 against Detroit, Boston, New York, Tampa and Texas. The only winning record of the bunch is against the Tigers where they are an unimpressive 4-3. Ideally after they catch Texas they would like to play New York just because they can’t play the Tigers and have lost 6 of 8 to the Red Sox.
Tampa on the other hand is 2 games out of it in the wildcard and has gone 7-3 in their last 10 games. While Boston and New York, the squads ahead of them, are 8-12 combined over their last 10. There’s no doubting that the Rays are on a roll, but if they make the playoffs they would likely play is not Detroit. The Tigers are a team the Rays dropped the ball against: fumbling to a 1-6 record against the Tigers. Against playoff contenders not named the Detroit Tigers, Tampa is 23-20 with 11 wins coming against Boston. The downside to this is that Boston is the team the Rays will likely have to leapfrog to get in. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t bad against Texas and the Yankees at 8-10, but I’m not sure that will cut it if, and that’s a gargantuan IF , they A catch Boston, and B beat Detroit.
While things are still murky with the playoff races in the AL West and East/Wildcard, one thing is for sure. It’s going to be one damn good postseason.

Analyzing the Chase for the Top Seed in the American League Playoffs-

The Detroit Tigers became the first AL squad to clinch a playoff berth and a division title Friday night with a 3-1 win over Oakland.

We can now officially put their name into the hat for the top AL seed in the postseason.
The only other real contenders for the other top seed are Boston and New York, with all due respect to Texas, Anaheim and Tampa Bay.
It’s all about the schedule. And while this isn’t a resume builder a la March Madness, scheduling still helps. New York, Boston and Detroit all have a little over ten games left, and each one could be vital to their chances of getting the ever-important top seed.
We’ll start with New York because at this point in time they are the leader in the clubhouse.
The Yanks finish their series with Toronto before going home for a make-up game with the Twins on the 19th. They then welcome Tampa Bay and Boston to town for a three-game set and a four-game set, respectively. The Bombers will then wrap up the regular season in Tampa for three games. It should be noted that New York doesn’t have an off day and has to play a double header at home with Tampa.
New York-
Games Remaining- 12
Games Remaining Against Teams Above .500- 11

Next up is Detroit, who has ten games left before the postseason. They finish up with an afternoon game with Oakland before an off day and two games in Kansas City. They will then go back to Detroit to take on the O’s and Indians before the playoffs.
Detroit-
Games Remaining- 10
Games Remaining Against Teams Above .500- 0

The last legitimate contender is the Boston Red Sox. While they trail the Yankees by 4.5 games, they still have 3 games with New York to make up ground. There is also the threat of Tampa Bay catching them, seeing as they are only 3 games ahead of the Rays. The Sox will play 7 games against Baltimore, including a double dip, as well as 2 more games against the Rays and the aforementioned Yankees series.
Boston-
Games Remaining- 10
Games Remaining Against Teams Above .500- 5

 
Overall Analysis-
Detroit probably has the easiest schedule for a couple of reasons.  One reason is that they already have the division clinched while Bean Town and New York have to play each other for the division title. This could also very well favor the latter two because they are playing playoff like baseball throughout the rest of the year. Meaning they are more prepared for October. This situation could also favor Detroit again on the flip side, because they get to rest up a bit and avoid injury. To put it plainly, Detroit has the easiest schedule, New York has the toughest and Boston has one somewhere in between.

History Says…. Detroit Tigers

History may suggest that teams heading into the postseason do much worse if they are on a hot streak. The only team that has defied this in recent memory is the 2004 Boston Red Sox. History also suggests that teams that stumble or drag themselves into the postseason do much better, with a recent example being the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals.

However, there is some history backing Detroit’s candidacy as well.
• Since 2000 in both the AL and the NL, Cy Young winners who have competed in the postseason the year that they won the award are 12-5 in the postseason. (Assuming Justin Verlander does in fact win the Cy Young).
• What’s more, the Cy winners who happened to have 20 wins in the regular season had 8 of those 12 wins.
• To a greater extent the last winner of the award given to the best pitcher threw a perfect game in his first start in the postseason that year. (Roy Halladay)
• Now I’m not saying that Verlander is going to throw another no-no like Halladay, but it wouldn’t surprise me seeing as both threw no hitters earlier in the year.
• Another nugget that could be meaningless or extremely important is that over the last six years the AL and NL have alternated winners. This isn’t by design by any means, but if history repeats itself then an AL team probably takes home the trophy.
• More historical backing for the Tigers is that their two longest winning streaks before their current one were in 1968 and 1984. Both years Detroit won the World Series.

The Tigers not only have historical backing, but they have statistical backing and backing on paper.
Granted this is on paper and not a real game, but go with me here-
The Tigers lineup will likely look like this in the playoffs:
1. CF Austin Jackson
2. RF Magglio Ordonez
3. LF Delmon Young
4. 1B Miguel Cabrera
5. DH Victor Martinez
6. C Alex Avila
7. SS Jhonny Peralta
8. 2B Carlos Guillen/Ryan Raburn
9. 3B Brandon Inge/ Wilson Betemit

Honestly I would take Miguel Cabrera over any other first baseman in baseball at this point, playoff bound or not. I’d say the same for Victor Martinez at DH, Alex Avila at catcher, Jose Valverde closing the game out and obviously the aforementioned Verlander and Jhonny Peralta is having the best year of any shortstop going to the playoffs.

The Tigers have also benefited from timely play from role players. Brandon Inge has rebounded nicely from his minor-league stint. Wilson Betemit and Delmon Young have both played exceedingly well since coming over from Kansas City and Minnesota.

Every year there is always an un-heralded hero in the playoffs ( See Colby Lewis, Cody Ross ). The Tigers version could be Ryan Raburn. Raburn is a .213 career hitter in the first half of the year while he goes bananas with a career .327 line in the second half. If you’re looking for an un-heralded hero, this is your guy.

Another note on Valverde, the last time a pitcher had a most consecutive streak going was Brad Lidge in 2007-2009 with the Astros and Phillies. And in ’09 the Phils won the World Series. I think Valverde will be OK with a blown save at some point if Detroit runs the table.