September 20, 2010

Pick your poison: Yankees or Rays?

To be the man, you gotta beat the man. - Ric Flair

Now that the Twins have chewed up and spit out the White Sox to lock up the AL Central title, attention can be turned to potential playoff matchups. Barring something crazy happening in the next two weeks the Twins will begin the postseason on October 6, at Target Field, against either the Yankees or Rays. Two teams from the same division can't play in the first round, so the AL East winner will host Texas while the runner-up heads to Minnesota as the Wild Card.

Because only a half-game separates the Rays and Yankees in the AL East trying to predict the Twins' likely ALDS opponent makes little sense, but trying to figure out which team represents the more favorable matchup is another story. In nine years under Ron Gardenhire the Twins are 18-54 against the Yankees, including 2-9 in the postseason with three ALDS losses, so I'm sure most fans would answer "not the Yankees" regardless of the alternative.

My gut reaction is the same, in part because of how much the Twins have struggled versus the Yankees and in part because New York is simply a really good team. They're the reigning World Series winners and headed to the playoffs for the 15th time in 16 years with the best record in baseball at 90-59 and have out-scored opponents by an MLB-high 181 runs. With all that said, the Rays are no joke and in some ways represent an even tougher matchup for the Twins.

As usual the Yankees have a very strong lineup, leading MLB in scoring and ranking among the AL's top three in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers, and walks. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are having career-worst years, but for Rodriguez that still means batting .273/.342/.502 and they have many other dangerous bats in Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada, Lance Berkman, Curtis Granderson, and Marcus Thames.

In fact, come playoff time New York's starting lineup will probably include just one player with a below-average OPS: Jeter. Tampa Bay's offense is also very strong, scoring the second-most runs in baseball, but the Rays have done all that damage without a particularly dangerous lineup. They rank just 11th in batting average, eighth in on-base percentage, sixth in slugging percentage, and eighth in OPS, which would normally add up to a middle-of-the-pack offense.

So how have they scored more runs than any team but the Yankees? Clutch hitting and speed. Tampa Bay has hit much better with runners on base and leads MLB in steals while hitting into the fewest double plays. Consider that the Rays have 160 steals and 86 double plays, while the Twins have 58 steals and 153 double plays. They won't bludgeon you into submission like the Yankees, but the Rays will run you to death and Evan Longoria is an MVP candidate.

There's no doubt that the Yankees have the deeper, more dangerous, and superior lineup and that shouldn't be overlooked regardless of how many cliches people spout about pitching and defense winning in the postseason. However, not being as scary as the Yankees offensively doesn't mean the Rays have any trouble scoring runs and their exceptional team speed could present big problems, particularly if Carl Pavano is tabbed to start twice in a five-game series.

Pavano has surrendered the second-most steals in the league this year and in 42 starts since joining the Twins last season he's allowed 46 steals at an 88 percent success rate. As a team the Twins have 58 steals and Denard Span is the only guy with more than seven. Tampa Bay has six different guys with double-digit steals, including 43 from Carl Crawford, 40 from B.J. Upton, and 24 from Ben Zobrist. They have the ability to wreak havoc in Pavano's starts.

On the pitching side the Yankees and Rays look very similar, ranking third and fourth among AL clubs in runs allowed behind the A's and Twins. Both rotations are headed by a stud southpaw (CC Sabathia and David Price) and both bullpens feature an elite closer (Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano) and potentially dominant setup man (Joba Chamberlain and Joaquin Benoit). And both teams have some question marks in the rotation after the ace.

Andy Pettitte has been as good as ever at age 38, going 11-2 with a 2.81 ERA in 19 outings, but just rejoined the rotation yesterday after spending two months on the disabled list with a groin injury. Phil Hughes went 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA in the first half, but has a 5.37 ERA since the All-Star break and may be wearing down from throwing twice as many innings as last year. A.J. Burnett has a 5.08 ERA and Javier Vazquez has been demoted to the bullpen.

Matt Garza has been his usual self, going 14-8 with a 3.88 ERA after posting ERAs of 3.70 and 3.95 in his first two seasons in Tampa Bay, but Opening Day starter James Shields has taken a step backward with a 4.86 ERA and AL-high 32 homers allowed. Jeff Niemann has struggled in the second half, so Wade Davis or maybe August call-up and Baseball America minor league player of the year Jeremy Hellickson are likely to get the nod as fourth starter.

Tampa Bay's staff is deeper, with Hellickson a versatile weapon in any role and Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and Randy Choate as the bridge to a Benoit-Soriano duo that has combined for a 1.64 ERA and 122-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 115 innings. Of course, if Pettitte is healthy and Hughes gets back on track a Sabathia-Pettitte-Hughes-Burnett rotation is plenty imposing in a five-game series, Chamberlain has been lights-out in the second half, and Rivera is Rivera.

Exceptional team speed also gives the Rays one of the best defenses in baseball, with the top Ultimate Zone Rating of any sure playoff team, an outfield that chases down everything in the gaps, and a pair of truly elite defenders in Crawford and Longoria. If you believe pitching and defense rule in October and expect low-scoring games the ALDS the Rays' base-stealing and fly-catching should not be overlooked. They're the team the Twins are often perceived to be.

Another factor is that trying to defeat the Yankees three times in five games sure sounds a lot more doable than four times in seven games, so in that sense you'd rather tackle them in the first round. On the other hand, not playing the Yankees at all may sound even better and if the Twins face the Rays in the ALDS there's at least a decent chance the Rangers will knock off the Yankees. Although then the Twins might have to face Cliff Lee three times in seven games.

Some years there's a clear weak spot in the playoff field, but this isn't one of them. New York and Tampa Bay are excellent teams with unique strengths that make them very dangerous to the Twins and with Lee atop the rotation Texas is anything but a pushover. If given the choice I'd likely take my chances with the Rays, but ask me tomorrow and that may change and part of me wants to see the Twins slay the dragon if they're going to make a World Series run.

31 Comments »

  1. From a purely psychological perspective, I’ve gotta go with taking on the Rays here.

    There seems to be some mental block when the Twins face the Yankees, and I think that the Twins can more than handle facing the Rays (granted, and equally tough team) on a purely psychological level.

    Plus, I’m REALLY tired of seeing the Twins get to the post-season, only to be dominated by the Yankees.

    I think the Rays would give the Twins a better chance to move to the ALCS.

    Comment by Bloody P — September 19, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

  2. I’d prefer to meet the Yankees because of their starting pitching. I’d put my money on Lirano and Pavano instead of Sabbathia and their number two (whoever it is this week). Besides, if the Twins are legitimate, they can’t expect anybody else to beat the Yanks. I say bring ‘em on.

    Comment by Chris — September 19, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

  3. I think a case can be made either way.

    On paper, I suppose it’s better for the Twins to run into the Yankees in a 5 game series than a 7. However, there’s part of me that thinks the Twins have a better chance to beat the Yankees in 7 than in 5. Besides, it would be a different atmosphere in their matchup – so that might be better psychologically.

    Honestly, both the Yankees and Rays are very good teams. Either one is going to be tough to beat.

    Comment by Son of Shane Mack — September 19, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

  4. Bring on the Yankees. This is the best Twins team I’ve ever seen. If we are going to get to the World Series we need to beat the Yankees. I’d rather the Twins did that as the home team in the ALDS then hope the Rangers beat them.
    And frankly, I think it would give this team a boost of confidence. I believe the Rays are a tougher opponent.

    Comment by Marv — September 20, 2010 @ 12:16 am

  5. only one chance..bring up the rays..not the yankees

    gardenhire allways loses to them…and also we would have 3 games at home vs them..we still will lose in 3 or 4 to them…i do not want to face them….also the rays are good either!!!

    Comment by chris — September 20, 2010 @ 3:58 am

  6. I want Yanks in the 1rst… Pavano seems like a sure loss against the Rays… I don’t think we have a sure loss against any of the Yanks although no games where we’re clearly favored.

    Plus the prospect of playing the Yanks in 7 (assuming they still have a better record) is somewhat daunting given our challenges in NYC. Therefor, I think it’s more important to be assured homefield against the Yanks than against the Rays.

    Bring on the Yanks!

    Comment by MC — September 20, 2010 @ 6:34 am

  7. Honestly from the start of the year, excited as I was about the Twins, I thought the Rays were the best, deepest team in the AL. I guess that means I want the Yankees in the ALDS, but I’m not sure it matters. As AG said, any of these four teams can take it.

    I think the key to the Twins’ post-season is Liriano. They’re setting it up for Frankie to start Game 1, and he’s going to have to pitch like an ace. Hopefully he’ll be over that rash thingy.

    Same goes for Mauer’s knee thingy.

    Comment by Neil — September 20, 2010 @ 8:00 am

  8. So, for you guys wanting the Yankees. Sabbathia starts game 1 and Pettite game 2 at Target Field. All the Yankees need to do is to win one of those games and then it’s back to Yankee Stadium where the Twins need to win one, and if memory serves, they’ve only won one game there in three years. If somehow they can do that, they still come back and have to face Sabbathia. Lefties can neutralize Span, Kubel, and to a large extent Thome. That means Cuddyer, Young and Valencia have to have big at bats. I don’t like that scenario. At all.

    Comment by Old Twins Cap — September 20, 2010 @ 8:51 am

  9. I don’t see the Twins winning more than one game against either team. If I had to choose I’d say the Rays, merely for the fact that I can’t stand another ALDS sweep at the hands of the Yankees.

    Comment by Paul — September 20, 2010 @ 9:49 am

  10. Both. I want the Twins to play both teams in the playoffs, as that means they’ve made it to the championship. I don’t care which one they play first.

    Comment by mike wants wins — September 20, 2010 @ 9:52 am

  11. If you don’t beat the best, your victory is diminished.

    Comment by jimbo92107 — September 20, 2010 @ 10:17 am

  12. I’ll take Sabathia twice over facing David Price twice…but maybe that’s just me.

    Comment by Dome Dog — September 20, 2010 @ 10:17 am

  13. I know this is wrong, and you should root for whatever will get you to the World Series, but I can’t help it — I think that emotionally, I would get more satisfaction from beating the Yankees and then bowing out of the playoffs, than from winning the World Series without facing the Yankees. Isn’t that weird? But knocking the Yankees out of the playoffs would be the most satisfying thing I can possibly imagine, World championship included.

    Comment by By Jiminy — September 20, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  14. the twins are good enough to beat the yanks, rays, and rangers. they are also good enough to beat the reds, padres, giants, and phillies.

    Comment by yefrem — September 20, 2010 @ 11:29 am

  15. Whoa, Pettite’s back? If he regains his sharpness before the playoffs begin, the Yankees just got a lot tougher. Personally I’d rather face the Yankees first.

    Comment by Dave T — September 20, 2010 @ 11:43 am

  16. I don’t think the Twins hold a distinct advantage against either. I just want it to be the Yanks as I’d prefer the certainty of home-field and starting in TGT field against the Yanks where as I don’t think it’s as important against the Rays.

    Comment by MC — September 20, 2010 @ 11:48 am

  17. it just doesn’t matter. both teams are great and it’s going to take the twins playing near perfect twins ball to beat either. that being said, i think bringing to rays to a freezing atmosphere for 3 games and then playing the other 2 in a dome sounds about right for these twins to start the playoffs.

    Comment by whalefeet — September 20, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  18. The Rangers swept the Yanks in both series they played this year and they just seem to matchup with them better, so I’m hoping they can take down the empire. We’re 7W to 3L against Texas this year and seem to do well against Lee/Lewis, so would have a good chance against Texas. In our series matchups against TB, Baker faced the Rays twice and went 15 IP allowing only 1 ER; Liriano faced them once and was his usual dominating self (7 IP, 1 ER, 10K); Pavano, Duensing, Slowey, and Blackburn were all passable in there starts. If Baker is healthy enough, I’d like to see us go Liriano/Baker for the first two @ Target field, followed by Pavano (0.5 better ERA on the road) and Duensing in TB. Although I’d still toy with they idea of Blackburn mixed in there somewhere with his recent resurgence.

    Comment by Hutch — September 20, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

  19. Just don’t let Guerrier pitch against TB (except mop up duty). In 4 IP he gave up 8ER, 6H (2HR), 4BB and collected 3L’s (and 1W).

    Comment by Hutch — September 20, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

  20. I like Lee against the Yankees, and I’d rather see the Twins play against less-experienced teams. So let’s go with Tampa, then Texas, then anyone but Philly.

    Comment by BR — September 20, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

  21. Poison is right. The path of least resistance would be TB in ALDS, hoping for Texas to take care of NY. Then beating Texas before losing to Phillies or SF.

    Comment by brian — September 20, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  22. If Lee is dealing and Hamilton healthy the Rangers have a shot against the Yankees. Tampa Bay is the toughest team overall. If the Twins take them they can handle either NY or Texas. Philly would be tough but they can take any other NL team. All of this is if the M & M boys are healthy.

    Comment by Brian — September 20, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  23. Not much to choose between the Yankees and Rays, but I think Texas matches up better with the Yankees. So I hope the Twins get the Rays in the hope that Texas knocks off the Yankees.

    Comment by Phillip Steven — September 21, 2010 @ 6:16 am

  24. I say Yanks. We need to beat them some time. Plus that would be a big boost and relieve most of the pressure to win.

    Comment by Doofus — September 21, 2010 @ 10:04 am

  25. Anybody who would prefer to play the Yankees is out of their minds. Haven’t you guys been paying attention the last 5 years. They own us. Plain and simple. It sucks but it is true.

    Rangers have done well against the Yankees this season. We’ve done well against the Rangers. We’ve held our own against Tampa.

    The Twins have a psychological block against beating the Yanks. Sure it would be neater than heck for us to beat them in the playoffs but let’s face it, Rangers have a better chance against that team. Twins butt muscles just tighten up when the Yanks take the field. Not sure why. I think they are afraid to beat them or something.

    Comment by Jake — September 21, 2010 @ 11:03 am

  26. I really don’t mean this to sound pithy, but the Twins best chance is if Tom Kelly took over as manager for the playoffs. Gardenhire will again manage with both hands around his own throat. I can’t wait until the first game against the Yankees, when he has Hudson bunt Span over to third in the first inning despite the fact that the Yankees will score at least five runs by game’s end.

    Comment by Twinstalker — September 21, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

  27. Re: Twinstalker.

    HA! Oh, will Gardy puff his chest out after that sac bunt. Sure, Mauer will pop up and Cuddy will strike out after that, but dangnammit, they played it the right way.

    Comment by Walter Solbcheck — September 21, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

  28. I think we need to remember that Guerrier, Mijares, Rauch, and even heaven forbid Flores, are actually going to be pitching in the fucking playoffs of all things. Probably when we’re already down. Trying to hold the lead. Against those hitters. Then, and only then, will we all collectively realize how in over our head we really were.

    Comment by brian — September 21, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  29. Some young kid not named Delmon is looking real good to try in that 3-hole about now…

    Comment by robb — September 21, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

  30. Awesome! Congrats to Gardy and the Twins. I may not like him as a game manager, but there’s no doubt the players play for him and the mentality (sans vs Yanks) is the right one for a baseball team.

    Comment by Twinstalker — September 22, 2010 @ 12:07 am

  31. I say the Yankees at home in round one is our best chance, get this monkey off our back plus Yanks are beatable on the road. This is best Twins team in years and they will be rested and hungry come playoff time. Lets get Jim Thome his ring. GO TWINS!!

    Comment by scot — September 23, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

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