Who's #1? Ranking The American League's Playoff Teams
The American League's playoff field is virtually set. The Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, and Texas Rangers will duke it out for the right to represent the American League in the World Series. Each team has some key strengths and a few glaring weaknesses. Find out who will represent the American League in the 2010 World Series.
#4 Texas Rangers; Will The Ranger Youth Prevail?
Due to some key injuries, the Texas Rangers come in fourth on my list. The Rangers have been without AL MVP candidate Josh Hamilton since September 4th. After crashing against the outfield wall, Hamilton cracked a few ribs and has been unable to return to the field. Hamilton (.361, 31 HRs, 97 RBIs) is a key fixture of a Ranger lineup that is hitting .274 on the season, third best in the American League.The Rangers are 10-8 without Hamilton in the lineup, so his return is vital to the team's success.
Outside of Hamilton, pitcher Cliff Lee has dealt with lower back soreness on two occasions. Lee (12-9, 3.29 ERA0 was sidelined for the first two weeks in September, but upon his return, he posted some impressive figures (2-1, 2.57 ERA).
1. Lineup Depth:
Even without Hamilton in the lineup, the Rangers pack some serious punch. Designated hitter, Vladimir Guerrero (27 HRs, 107 RBIS) and Nelson Cruz (21 HRs, 75 RBIs) provide raw right-handed power while rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus has provided speed (30 stolen bases) and Michael Young (20 HRs, 86 RBIs) has provided consistency at the top of the batting order.
2. The Bullpen:
Collectively, the Ranger bullpen has posted a 3.22 ERA and 43 saves. Twenty-one year old rookie closer, Neftali Feliz is 37-for-40 in save opportunities. More impressively, Feliz has struck out 66 hitters in 64 innings while posting a 0.95 WHIP. Feliz is a stone-cold lock to win the American League's Rookie of the Year Award.
In addition to Feliz, the Darrens (O'Day and Oliver) have collected 35 holds while posting a 2.20 ERA. Keep an eye on flamethrower Alexi Ogando (4-1, 1.16 ERA). He has posted a 8.61 K/9 rating since being called up in June.
3. Ace in the Hole:
When the Rangers sent their top prospect Justin Smoak to Seattle, they knew they were receiving a bona fide ace in return. Cliff Lee gives the Rangers a big-game pitcher who has had post-season success. Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts for the Phillies last post-season. Lee notched the only two Philadelphia victories over the New York Yankees in the World Series, something that may come into play during the playoffs. Expect Lee to deliver big performances in October.
1. Lee then Who?: Baseball fans know that Cliff Lee is as solid as they come, but who will the Rangers send out for Game 2? CJ Wilson (14-7, 3.15 ERA) seems like the logical choice, but he has never pitched in the playoffs. Colby Lewis (11-13, 3.79) and Tommy Hunter (12-4, 3.83 ERA) also figure into the mix. Overall, the Rangers' starters lack postseason experience and that may ultimately hurt them.
2. Team Youth: Outside some of the grizzled veterans on the team (Guerrero, Oliver), the Rangers simply do not have a lot of postseason experience. Will Feliz deliver in big spots? Will Hamilton embrace the spotlight? This are all major question marks for the Rangers.
Overall, the Rangers went out and got their ace that they desperately needed for their postseason run. Hamilton should return to the lineup before the playoffs kick-off, so his progress is something to monitor. If Guerrero and Cruz can provide the protection for Hamilton while Wilson and Lewis deliver strong performances, the Rangers should advance.
#3 Minnesota Twins; No Morneau, No Problem?
The Twins have been without 2006 AL MVP first baseman Justin Morneau since July 4th. Morneau suffered a devastating concussion and has been all but ruled out to return this year. Morneau's absence has created a huge void in the middle of the Minnesota batting order, but solid pitching has carried the Twins all season. Among the American League's playoff teams, the Twins have the lowest overall team ERA (3.74). Currently, the Twins are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the best record in the American League (92-61).
1. Solid Starters: Like all great teams, starting pitching is the focal point. Francisco Liriano (14-9, 3.48 ERA) and Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.60) give the Twins a solid, one-two punch at the top of the rotation.
2. Home Sweet Home: The Twins have posted the best home record in the American League (52-25) at brand new Target Field. With two-thirds of the playoff field hailing from warm climates, look for the Twins to use their cold confines to their advantage.
3. Good Glove Work: The Twins have committed the second fewest errors (69) in the American League.
1. Bullpen Concerns: After Joe Nathan went down with a season-ending injury, the Twins have attempted to fill that gap in the bullpen. Jon Rauch (21 SVs, 7.03 ERA) had the first crack at the job, but gave it away by mid-season. The Twins acquired Matt Capps (15 SVs, 2.25 ERA) and Brian Fuentes (1 SV, 0.00 ERA). Capps has no postseason experience and Fuentes gave up a big home run to Alex Rodriguez in Game 2 of the ALCS last season. Their bullpen is definitely a huge question mark.
2. Power Outage: The spacious Target Field has turned a lot of sure-fire home runs into doubles. The Twins only have one player with 20+ HRs (Jim Thome), so Twins do not want to get into any slug fests.
Overall, the Twins will use strong starting pitching and tight defense to win in October. Under manager Ron Gardenhire, the Twins have never made it past the Divisional Series. Will this be the year for the Twins breakout?
#2 Tampa Bay Rays; Young, Athletic, and Fearless; Can Price Deliver?
The Tampa Bay Rays are arguably the American League's most athletic team. The Rays have stolen a Major League high 164 bases and feature two of the fastest players in the game in BJ Upton and Carl Crawford. Their 3.87 team ERA is the second lowest among their AL competition while their 1,118 strikeouts rank first. Led by southpaw David Price (18-6, 2.84 ERA), the Rays rotation features a bevy of young talent. Matt Garza (14-9, 4.01 ERA) and James Shields (13-13, 4.96 ERA) have post-season experience and will provide support for Price.
1. The Rays Are Battle Tested: The Rays have posted a 41-28 record against American League East opponents. Many regard the AL East as baseball's top division, so the Rays' tough tests will payoff in October. The Rays went 10-8 against the Yankees this season, securing the tie-breaker over their AL East foe.
2. The Bullpen: Closer Rafael Soriano may be one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball this year. Soriano's 44 saves are tops in the American League. More impressively, Soriano has 10 saves with a 0.69 ERA against AL playoff teams. Setup man, Joaquin Benoit (1.41 ERA) has been an integral part of the bullpen. After the Rays lost JP Howell for the year, Benoit was given the opportunity to set-up Soriano and has not looked back since.
3. Discipline: Manager Joe Maddon preaches sound, aggressive offensive baseball. The Rays lead baseball with 643 walks and 164 stolen bases. They make teams pay for their miscues.
1. Workload Overload: David Price has now thrown seventy more innings than he threw last season. Price has not shown signs of fatigue, which should make Rays fans feel optimistic, but most young pitchers hit a wall when they reach 200 innings. (Price is currently at 198 innings).
2. Experience: The Rays did it make it to the World Series in 2008, but expectations were very low. Evan Longoria and David Price were expected to contribute, not control the series. These two will be the focal points for the Rays advancing. In addition, pitchers like Soriano, Benoit, and Jeff Niemann have no postseason experience.
Overall, the Rays are the perfect blend of speed and patience. Their bullpen is very good and their young rotation will deliver quality starts. Experience is a question mark for this young team, but Joe Maddon will have this team ready to play.
#1 New York Yankees: Experience and Confidence, But Starting Pitching Concerns?
The New York Yankees are a great blend of power and patience. The Yankee offense has scored a league high 821 runs and boast a team on-base percentage of .351. The Yankees have slugged 193 home runs, best among AL playoff teams. Ace CC Sabathia (20-7, 3.26 ERA) figures to be in the running for the AL Cy Young award, but after Sabathia, the Yankees have some major pitching concerns.
Baseball's all-time post season wins leader, Andy Pettitte (18-9, 3.90 ERA) has only made two starts since returning from a groin injury. In his most recent start, the Boston Red Sox touched Pettitte up for seven runs in 3 1/3 innings. Will Pettitte be healthy enough to have impact?
Righties AJ Burnett (10-14, 5.05 ERA) and Phil Hughes (17-8, 4.36 ERA) have both been inconsistent. Burnett has not won a road start since July 28th and Hughes has a 4.94 ERA at Yankee Stadium. Hughes has piled up 169 innings this year, 83 more than 2009. Will Hughes tire in the playoffs?
1. Experience: No other team has much post-season experience as the Yankees do. The 'Core 4' (Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte) collectively have 20 World Series rings. Jeter, the all-time postseason hits leader (175), has been coined as 'Mr. November' for his clutch performance during the playoffs.
2. Protection For A-Rod: When Hideki Matsui left via free agency in the off-season, a major void was created behind Alex Rodriguez in the batting order. However, the emergence of Robinson Cano (.319, 28 HRs, 104 RBIs) has made many Yankee fans forget about Matsui. Rodriguez hit .365 with 6 HRs during the 2009 post-season so Cano's production will be vital for Yankee success.
3. Mariano Rivera: No other team has what the Yankees have: Mariano Rivera. Rivera, regarded by many as the best closer ever, has been historically great in the post-season. Rivera's 39 post-season saves are the most ever and his 0.74 ERA in 88 games makes him virtually touchable. The Yankees will feel extremely confident if they carry a lead into the ninth inning.
1. Rotation Depth: Outside of Sabathia, the Yankees will need to hope for strong performances from Burnett, Pettitte, and Hughes.
2. Mark Teixeira's Toe: Teixeira has been playing with a broken toe since August 30th. Since then, Teixeira has only hit one home run. Teixeira's defense does not seem to be compromised by the broken toe, but Yankee fans must monitor his power.
Overall, the Yankees have the experience and star power needed to return to the World Series. Rotation depth is definitely a concern for the Yankees, but the Yankee lineup is easily the best one in baseball.
The American League Champion Is....
Ultimately, the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees will square off to decide the American League crown. Given the Yankee experience and lineup depth, they are my selection to represent the American League in the World Series.
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