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Boston Red Sox: Ranking Their 6 Biggest American League Threats

Sterling XieCorrespondent IIJuly 29, 2013

Boston Red Sox: Ranking Their 6 Biggest American League Threats

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    Though the Red Sox have held first place in the AL East nearly wire-to-wire so far, they've only recently garnered consideration as an elite team.  The skepticism was understandable after 2012's disaster, but now over 100 games in, it's time to reconfigure expectations.

    Red Sox fans may not see 2013 as a World Series-or-bust season, but playoffs are certainly a reasonable supposition given the team's current record.  Nonetheless, October baseball is not yet a lock in Boston, especially with the distress surrounding the team's depleted pitching staff.

    As opposed to the National League, the American League playoff race still includes a fair number of contenders, with at least eight teams holding realistic postseason hopes.  With that in mind, here are the six AL teams Boston fans should most worry about, both as impediments to reaching the playoffs and potential opponents if the Red Sox make the dance.

     

    *Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Fangraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com

6. New York Yankees

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    Season Series: Red Sox lead 6-3

     

    Reasons to Worry: The Yankees still have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Though the difference between their fifth-ranked pitching staff and their 24th-ranked offense is one of the biggest discrepancies in the league, it is still possible to make the postseason with such a large split. Just last year, the Orioles made the playoffs with the 23rd-ranked offense and the 15th-ranked pitching staff.

    Moreover, exchanging Eduardo Nunez and Zoilo Almonte for Derek Jeter and Curis Granderson should provide a boost to that offense.  Even if the aging veterans aren't what they used to be, those two upgrades alone should be worth two to three extra wins.  For a team only 2.5 games out of a wild card spot, that could make all the difference

     

    Reasons to Relax: When Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are your fourth- and fifth-best hitters, respectively, you have a problem. Even with the trade for Alfonso Soriano and the return of a few veterans, this offense has too many holes and not enough firepower behind Robinson Cano. Their hot April will likely give them a winning record, but they're really just a .500 team in disguise.

     

    Threat Level: 3/10. You can argue with the order of the other five teams, but the Yankees are undoubtedly the weakest of this bunch. Their offseason cost-cutting moves hamstrung them in free agency, and their minor-league depth has been virtually useless this season. If only for a year, it seems safe to write off the Yankees.

5. Texas Rangers

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    Season Series: Rangers won 4-2

     

    Reasons to Worry: This year isn't the outlier between the two teams, as the Red Sox are just 12-22 against the Rangers since 2010. Obviously, the personnel has turned over since then, but some of the same problems still exist. For instance, even though Texas' offense is a bit down in 2013, they still averaged 4.5 runs in five games against Boston.

    Moreover, if the Red Sox and Rangers face off in the play-in game, Yu Darvish is as frightening a pitcher to face in an elimination game as any. It doesn't help that the Sox have only faced him twice before, and unfamiliarity with this kind of stuff could lead to big trouble.

     

    Reasons to Relax: For the first time in years, the Rangers offense doesn't feel particularly dangerous. Yes, they've had success against the Sox this year, but that's a fairly small sample size and doesn't reflect Texas' struggles. Over the past month, the Rangers have been a bottom-10 offense in virtually every category, leading to their sudden slide down the standings.

    Moreover, their offense may receive a huge blow soon with Nelson Cruz's involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. If Cruz is suspended or decides to cut a deal like Ryan Braun did, the Rangers would lose their best power bat. For a decidedly average offense, that would be crushing.

     

    Threat Level: 5/10. The Rangers are more playoff-tested than most teams on this list, and their pitching staff is dynamite. Those are important ingredients, but Texas is not as well-rounded as some of the other AL contenders, bumping them down a notch on this list.

4. Oakland A's

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    Season Series: Tied 3-3

     

    Reasons to Worry: The A's have the least talent on paper of all the remaining teams, but their system produces consistent results. Overall, their offense is middle-of-the-pack by almost any significant measure. However, with men in scoring position, they've actually been one of the best. That and their stellar bullpen have accounted for the A's holding the third-best record in games decided by three runs or less.

    Moreover, because they are dependent on developing young players and finding bargains, Oakland tends to have a fairly balanced lineup. Indeed, though only Josh Donaldson has approached star levels, the A's have eight batters worth at least a win so far (WAR). For reference, the Red Sox's vaunted offense only has one more.

     

    Reasons to Relax: For whatever reason, the A's model seems to collapse every postseason. Maybe their low-contact, high-power offense fizzles out against better pitching. Maybe their lack of star power hurts in the small sample sizes of a postseason series. Maybe "Moneyball" is just a practical joke orchestrated by Billy Beane's minions. 

    Whatever the reason, the Red Sox have finished their season series against Oakland, so they won't have to worry about them until October.

     

    Threat Level: 6/10. The A's may be leading their division, but for whatever reason, they don't strike as much fear as some other teams. For all of their smart management, they've won just one postseason series this millennium. And since they're not an AL East rival, that puts them off Boston's radar for a while.

3. Detroit Tigers

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    Season Series: Tigers lead 3-1

     

    Reasons to Worry: The Tigers' may be a top-heavy team, and that lack of depth has hurt their regular season record the last couple of years. However, that formula has proven successful in the postseason, as Detroit has won three playoff series the past two years. The Tigers' offense has four players worth two or more WAR this year, trailing only the Rays and Orioles for the most in the AL.

    And for all the hubbub over Justin Verlander's purported decline this year, he's still been the eighth-best pitcher in the American League this season. Even more frightening, his 3.0 WAR makes him only the third-most valuable Tigers pitcher, behind Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. As the Giants have shown, that kind of elite pitching can carry a team to a championship.

     

    Reasons to Relax: Detroit's one Achilles' heel is a significant one: their bullpen. The Tigers' 4.02 bullpen ERA ranks 23rd in the majors, though the peripheral stats look a bit better. Nonetheless, apart from solid seasons from Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit, every other arm has been fairly dismal

    The Tigers are the only non-divisional opponent on this list that the Red Sox still have to play, with a three-game series at Fenway between the two teams scheduled for September 2-4. That kicks off a brutal stretch in which Boston plays 16 games against the Tigers, Yankees, Rays and Orioles. 

     

    Threat Level: 7/10. The Tigers currently have the worst record among division leaders, so if the Red Sox can take the AL East, there's a good chance they would have to face Detroit in the ALDS. Even if Clay Buchholz comes back healthy, the pitching matchups would appear to heavily favor the Tigers in that series.

2. Baltimore Orioles

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    Season Series: Orioles lead 6-4

     

    Reasons to Worry: It's all about the offense in Baltimore. The O's are just a smidgen behind the league-leading Rays and Red Sox, though their lineup composition is a bit different from their AL East rivals. Baltimore's "Big Three" of Chris Davis, Manny Machado and Adam Jones have combined for an astounding 12.4 WAR this year. For reference, the Orioles got 12.8 WAR from their entire lineup in 2012.

    The Sox have given up an average of five runs per game in their six losses to the O's this season, a reflection of the staff's trouble with Baltimore's potent offense. The Sox's starters have pitched fewer than six innings five times in 10 games, putting strain on their shaky bullpen. You could argue that Buchholz has only made one of those starts, but it's hard for Sox fans to count on him at this point.

     

    Reasons to Relax: If indeed the Orioles are the Red Sox's main competition for a wild-card slot, Boston can take solace knowing that Baltimore's 25th-ranked pitching staff is not exactly terrifying. Indeed, only Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez have been worth more than 1.0 WAR this year, and both have poor peripheral stats. 

    The mediocrity extends to their bullpen, which has suffered some serious regression in 2013. Only three teams have blown more saves, illustrating closer Jim Johnson's steep decline. Johnson has been among the worst relievers in high leverage situations, and his late-inning bumblings can quickly undo the offense's work.

     

    Threat Level: 8/10. The Orioles may not be the second-best team on this list, but they pose a strong immediate threat to the Red Sox. Boston's schedule ends with a three-game series at Camden Yards, recalling bad memories of 2011's unceremonious end. The same stakes may very well be on the line in 2013, and Sox fans can only hope for a different ending.

1. Tampa Bay Rays

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    Season Series: Red Sox lead 10-5

     

    Reasons to Worry: Unlike seasons past, the Rays actually have an elite offense to complement their stellar starting rotation. On a park-adjusted basis, Tampa's offense is the second-best in the majors, trailing only the Tigers. Red Sox cast-off James Loney has had the best season of his career, putting up a .321/.369/.469 slash line for the Rays while only costing $2 million.

    And as for that pitching staff, the past month has been nothing short of astounding. Per ESPN's Stats & Info blog, the Rays' starters in July have put up numbers virtually identical to Pedro Martinez's legendary 1999 campaign. In the past 30 days, the starters have accounted for a 3.3 WAR, nearly a full win more than any other AL team. Even with some regression, the Rays are undoubtedly an elite staff.

     

    Reasons to Relax: Well, there is that 10-5 season lead. The Red Sox have not had much success against the Rays since 2008, so it is encouraging to seem them fare well this year. Unfortunately, most of that damage came in April and May, when the Rays were injured and scuffling.

    If there's one silver lining, though, it's that closer Fernando Rodney is back to being his shaky self after a spectacular 2012. After an uncharacteristic 1.8 BB/9 last year, his 5.7-mark in 2013 exceeds even his lofty career average. Moreover, following his ridiculous 89.4 percent strand rate that ranked fourth last year, Rodney is back down near his normal rate at 72 percent.  

     

    Threat Level: 9.5/10. The Rays won't keep playing like the '27 Yankees, but they are probably the most likely candidate to steal the division crown from the Red Sox. If that happens, the Sox would be in the untenable position of being in the wild card play-in game, if they even make it that far.

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