July 31, 2015

Deadline deal: Twins acquire reliever Kevin Jepsen from Rays

Kevin Jepsen Rays

Faced with clear weaknesses at shortstop, catcher, and reliever heading into Friday afternoon's trade deadline the Twins addressed only the bullpen, acquiring right-hander Kevin Jepsen from the Rays in exchange for pitching prospects Chih-Wei Hu and Alexis Tapia. Their lack of activity should come as no surprise, in part because the Twins are typically fairly conservative and in part because meaningful midseason upgrades at shortstop and catcher are hard to find.

On the other hand contending teams adding veteran bullpen reinforcements at the trade deadline is an annual tradition and this year was no different, with nearly a dozen quality relievers on the move. That list includes Jepsen, who has a 3.80 ERA in eight seasons with the Rays and Angels, but beyond clearing the low bar of representing an upgrade over Casey Fien and Blaine Boyer he's an underwhelming pickup.

Jensen throws hard, averaging 95 miles per hour with his fastball, but his career strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine innings is merely average for an MLB reliever and has dipped to a career-low 7.3 per nine innings this year. Jepsen also has terrible control, walking 3.6 per nine innings for his career and 4.3 per nine innings this year. Jepsen's nice-looking 2.81 ERA in 46 appearances for the Rays this season comes attached to a poor 34/20 K/BB ratio in 42 innings.

He's essentially an average reliever. There are 152 different pitchers with at least 100 innings out of the bullpen since 2013 and among them Jepsen ranks 60th in strikeout rate, 111th in walk rate, and 64th in ground-ball rate, which adds up to an 80th-ranked 3.15 ERA and a 73rd-ranked 3.54 xFIP. By comparison Fien has logged more innings than Jepsen with an identical 3.54 xFIP since 2013, albeit with a higher ERA.

Jepsen throws hard, strikes out a decent number of batters, and does a good job limiting homers, but he also struggles to consistently throw strikes and has a lopsided platoon split that makes him a poor matchup against good left-handed hitters in the late innings. He's not especially good, he's not especially bad, and there's certainly a very realistic chance that he provides the Twins with 20 useful innings down the stretch.

In question is whether Jepsen was the correct veteran reliever for the Twins to target as their lone trade deadline addition when plenty of bullpen arms were on the move and, beyond that, whether an average 31-year-old middle reliever with declining secondary numbers was worth parting ways with a decent 21-year-old starting pitching prospect in Hu (along with a 19-year-old rookie-baller in Tapia) rather than simply giving a chance to an in-house option like Michael Tonkin.

Hu ranked 19th on my list of the Twins' top prospects coming into the season and has improved his stock since then, posting a 2.44 ERA and 73/19 K/BB ratio in 85 innings at high Single-A and tossing six innings of one-run ball in a spot start at Triple-A. Signed out of Taiwan for $220,000 in 2012, he lacks dominant raw stuff but is hardly a soft-tosser and has shown good control against older, more experienced hitters.

There's no chance of Hu turning into a top-of-the-rotation starter and non-elite Single-A pitching prospects have a very high attrition rate, but he's a young pitcher who currently ranked among the Twins' top 12-15 prospects and would probably crack the top 10 in a lot of farm systems. You can view Hu as a solid prospect or as a lottery ticket with good but not great payoff potential, but either way swapping him for a mediocre middle reliever is questionable.

Jepsen is under team control via arbitration for next season, which could be spun as a positive compared to the various impending free agents changing teams as two-month rentals. However, given his $3.03 million salary this season Jepsen would likely get $5 million or more through the arbitration process next season and if the ability to retain an average 31-year-old reliever for that salary carries value it isn't much.

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January 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Waivers, trees, hearings, numbers, and scouts

Rob Delaney signed with the Twins in 2006 after going undrafted out of St. John's University and his numbers were always far better than his raw stuff, so they viewed his success in the minors very skeptically and didn't give him a chance in the majors until a week before his 26th birthday. Delaney made just one appearance in a month with the Twins, serving up a homer to Ian Kinsler of the Rangers on September 4, and Thursday he was designated for assignment.

It's no shock that the Twins ditched Delaney before ever giving him an extended opportunity, because he's been sort of like a poor man's Anthony Slama and they haven't seemed all that inclined to give the actual Anthony Slama a lengthy look. It's also no shock that Delaney was claimed off waivers by the Rays, whose front office relies way more on statistical analysis than the Twins' decision-makers.

Delaney's numbers went from amazing in the low minors to merely solid in the high minors. He pitched well in two seasons at Triple-A with a 130-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 128 innings, but his ERA was an unremarkable 4.65 thanks to serving up 17 homers. He's racked up lots of strikeouts with a repertoire headed by his low-90s fastball and has excellent control with just 1.9 walks per nine innings.

As a fly-ball pitcher with so-so raw stuff Delaney has little margin for error and the Twins were certainly right to view his success skeptically when it comes to translating to the big leagues, but he was worth giving a chance to considering the question mark-filled bullpen. Tampa Bay is in a very similar situation, needing to replace most of what was a fantastic bullpen following free agent departures, and Delaney is capable of being a solid middle reliever for the Rays.

• Delaney was dropped from the 40-man roster because the Twins needed to clear room after claiming Dusty Hughes off waivers from the Royals. He spent most of last year in Kansas City's bullpen, posting a nice-looking 3.83 ERA in 56 innings, but the 29-year-old left-hander also had a terrible 34-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio and wasn't particularly effective against lefties (.260) or righties (.283) while allowing opponents to bat .273/.351/.380 off him overall.

Hughes is left-handed and had a superficially strong ERA last year, but there isn't a whole lot else to like about him. Hughes was even older than Delaney when he debuted in September of 2009 and unlike Delaney his minor-league numbers have never been impressive. In two years at Triple-A he had a 4.10 ERA and 112-to-66 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 143 innings and his raw stuff is hardly special, as Hughes averaged just 90.2 miles per hour with his fastball.

Much like their decision to give a 40-man roster spot to Giants castoff Eric Hacker after signing him to a minor-league deal in November, losing Delaney to add Hughes to the 40-man roster is an odd move that seems predicated on looking at the wrong numbers. Hacker had 16 wins at Triple-A last year, but it came with a 4.51 ERA, sub par secondary numbers, and a track record full of mediocrity from a 28-year-old.

In this case Hughes' nice-looking 3.83 ERA caught the Twins' eye (and being left-handed surely helped too), but he needed an awful lot of smoke and mirrors just to have modest success for 56 innings and brings with him a similarly uninspiring history of mediocrity in the minors at age 29. Delaney isn't a huge loss and would've placed near the bottom of my annual ranking of the Twins' top 40 prospects, but picking Hacker and Hughes over giving him a shot is unfortunate.

• One of the misconceptions about park factors is that the dimensions of the field determine if a ballpark skews pitcher-friendly or hitter-friendly. In reality the dimensions definitely play a big role, but the run-scoring environment is also greatly impacted by other stuff like wind patterns, humidity, playing surfaces, and hitting backgrounds. Target Field was pitcher-friendly in its first year of existence, for a number of reasons, and the Twins have decided to make one change.

Hitters complained that the trees planted behind the wall in center field hurt their ability to see pitches, particularly in day games, so the Twins will remove them and install a new background designed to reduce glare. Obviously not being able to see pitches is something that had to be addressed, but it'll be interesting to find out what the overall impact ends up being considering the Twins went 53-28 at Target Field and actually scored more runs there than on the road.

Matt Capps ($7.15 million), Kevin Slowey ($2.7 million), Alexi Casilla ($865,000), and Glen Perkins ($700,000) have each avoided arbitration with one-year deals, leaving Delmon Young and Francisco Liriano as the unsigned arbitration eligible players. Young filed for $6.25 million, compared to $4.65 million by the Twins. Liriano filed for $5 million, compared to $3.6 million by the Twins. No player has gone to a hearing with the Twins since Kyle Lohse in 2005 and 2006.

• Much has been made about Bert Blyleven needing to wait 14 years before baseball writers voted him into the Hall of Fame, but he's also had to wait those same 14 years for the Twins to retire his number, which they'll officially do on July 16. Blyleven, who has the most strikeouts in Twins history and ranks second to Jim Kaat in wins and innings, will join Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Kent Hrbek in the retired numbers club.

Eric Bynum of Baseball Journeyman recently interviewed Cary Broder, a Twins scout based in Asia whose evaluations played a big part in the team bidding on Japanese players Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Hisashi Iwakuma this offseason. They signed Nishioka for a total commitment of $15 million and finished runner-up for Iwakuma, who ended up not signing with the A's. Broder is a good guy and it's always interesting to learn about people working behind the scenes.

Jayson Stark of ESPN.com included Michael Cuddyer on his "all-underrated team" and I was preparing to rant about how incredibly misguided that is, but then Nick Nelson did it for me.

• I just put the finishing touches on my annual "Top 40 Twins Prospects" series, so the first of eight installments (covering five prospects apiece) will run later this week.

November 11, 2010

Blowing up the bullpen on a budget: Low-cost free agent options

Joe Nathan going down for the year with a torn elbow ligament in the middle of spring training left the Twins without one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history and forced some unexpected changes on the bullpen, but Jon Rauch and Matt Capps converted 37-of-43 save opportunities while replacing him as closer and the relief corps as a whole ranked fourth in the league with a 3.49 ERA.

Nathan's recovery from Tommy John surgery will hopefully have him ready for Opening Day, but with Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Brian Fuentes all free agents the Twins could be forced to completely remake the bullpen this offseason. That quartet of free agents logged 45 percent of the Twins' total relief innings, including the vast majority of high-leverage work, and it seems unlikely that more than one or maybe two of the pitchers will be re-signed.

Healthy or not Nathan is under contract for $11.25 million in 2011 and as an arbitration eligible player Capps is all but guaranteed to get a sizable raise from his $3.5 million salary, meaning the Twins may have to rebuild the rest of the bullpen on a budget. Spending about $17 million on Nathan and Capps alone could make it difficult to re-sign any of their own free agents and also likely takes the Twins out of the running for other big-name relievers on the open market.

Nathan, Capps, and Jose Mijares are the under-contract holdovers and some other in-house options include Alex Burnett, Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Pat Neshek, Jeff Manship, Glen Perkins, and Kyle Waldrop, but whether it means re-signing their own free agents or bringing in outside help my guess is that at least two bullpen spots will be filled by pitchers not on that list. With a close eye on the budget, here are some potential low-cost suggestions ...

Koji Uehara: He couldn't stay healthy as a starter after leaving Japan to sign a two-year, $10 million deal with the Orioles two winters ago, but Uehara quietly had a ton of success following a move to the bullpen this season. He posted a 2.86 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 55-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44 innings, including an absurd 45-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half.

As a 35-year-old with a history of arm problems Uehara is risky, but that should also keep his asking price down and perhaps make him available for a reasonable one-year contract. Uehara converted 13-of-15 saves for the Orioles after moving into the closer role late in the year, but would make an ideal setup man for the Twins and certainly fits pitching coach Rick Anderson's preferred strike-throwing mold.

Chad Qualls: With a 7.32 ERA in 59 innings between two teams Qualls had a dreadful season, but most of that can be blamed on a .399 batting average on balls in play that was the worst in all of baseball among the 327 pitchers who logged at least 50 innings. In fact, Qualls was one of just two pitchers with a BABIP above .375. Qualls could be unlucky again in 2011 and that number would still probably drop by 40 points, and his career mark is .309.

Thanks to a solid strikeout rate and high percentage of ground balls he posted a nice-looking 3.91 xFIP that would've ranked second on the Twins behind only Francisco Liriano and both his xFIPs and ERAs were consistently in the 2.75-3.50 range from 2004-2009. He's maintained good velocity on a fastball-slider combo and if the Twins can avoid being scared off by his ugly ERA there's a quality setup man to be found in Qualls' track record and secondary numbers.

Dan Wheeler: Keeping the ball in the ballpark has been Wheeler's weakness, with 28 homers allowed in 172.1 innings over the past three seasons, but he still managed ERAs of 3.12, 3.28, and 3.35 in that time thanks to a 144-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That includes a 46/16 K/BB ratio and .207 opponents' batting average in 48 innings this season, which made it surprising that the Rays declined to exercise their $4 million option on the 32-year-old right-hander.

As a Type A free agent it's possible the Rays will offer Wheeler arbitration even after declining his option, in which case the Twins should cross him off their list because he's not worth giving up a first-round pick to sign. Even if they don't offer arbitration other teams with more money to toss around than the Twins may snatch him up for more than the declined $4 million option. He has a 3.31 ERA in 392 innings since 2005, including a sub-3.50 mark in five of six seasons.

Octavio Dotel: Available after the Rockies declined his $4.5 million option, Dotel is somewhat similar to Wheeler in that limiting homers has been his biggest weakness throughout most of his career. He's also 37 years old and has lost a bit of velocity in recent years, but Dotel still averaged 92 miles per hour with his fastball this season and racked up 75 strikeouts in just 64 innings. He's never averaged fewer than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in a full relief season.

To put that in some context consider that in Twins history there have only been 10 instances of a pitcher logging 50 or more innings while cracking double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, with Nathan and Johan Santana accounting for six of them. Dotel has done it eight times since 2000, including each of the past three seasons. He'll serve up some homers, but Dotel will also miss a ton of bats and put together plenty of dominant outings.

Frank Francisco: Early struggles saw Francisco lose his closer job to Neftali Feliz in April and a strained rib muscle got him left off the Rangers' playoff roster, but in between he posted a 2.84 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 57/16 K/BB ratio in 51 innings from mid-April to the end of August. He also had a 3.43 ERA, .206 opponents' batting average, and 140/41 K/BB ratio in 113 innings during the previous two seasons.

There's a strong chance some teams may still view Francisco as a closer option, in which case the Twins can't really compete for his services, but if he fails to draw any offers for ninth-inning duties they shouldn't hesitate to offer the 31-year-old righty a two-year deal. He's consistently had elite raw stuff and results, perhaps masked by ugly outings in April and a non-arm injury. He's a Type A free agent, so they'll have to wait to see if the Rangers offer arbitration.

Chan Ho Park: He was a bust in New York after signing a one-year, $1.2 million contract last winter, but Park's struggles can be traced to serving up seven homers in 35 innings for the Yankees. Obviously that's not a positive thing, but his ground-ball rate suggested it wouldn't continue and sure enough he allowed just two homers in 28 innings after the Pirates claimed him off waivers in early August.

His overall numbers include a 4.66 ERA and 52/19 K/BB ratio in 64 innings and Park was a big part of the Phillies' bullpen in 2009 with a 2.52 ERA and 52/16 K/BB ratio in 50 innings. At age 38 and with the poor first-half showing in New York he's unlikely to be in high demand and I certainly wouldn't trust Park with a high-leverage role in 2011, but he still looks very capable of being a solid middle reliever and the price figures to be right.

Will Ohman: I first advised going after Ohman two offseasons ago only to see him miss most of 2009 following shoulder surgery, but he bounced back with a 3.21 ERA and 43/23 K/BB ratio in 42 innings this season. He's been used primarily as a left-handed specialist and struggled versus right-handed hitters this season, but Ohman did a solid enough job against righties in previous years to be more than a one-batter-per-appearance guy.

And he's been death on lefty bats, of course, holding them to .229/.323/.313 this season and .208/.298/.348 for his career. Ohman makes sense as a second lefty alongside Mijares, but if the Twins are looking for more of a true southpaw specialist side-armer Randy Choate may be a better target. Choate led the AL in appearances with 85 yet logged a total of just 45 innings. He can't be trusted versus righties, but has held lefties to .217/.297/.301 for his career.

September 27, 2010

Answering some playoff-related questions

Since the Twins clinched the division title last week many of the same playoff-related questions have been asked repeatedly in the comments section, on Twitter, via e-mail, and by the phone callers when I co-hosted "Twins Wrap" on 1500-ESPN. In an effort to address many of those questions--and also to simply get them all in one place for easy referencing--I've put together the answers, best guesses, and predictions below ...

Which team will the Twins play in the first round?

All four AL playoff teams are set (Minnesota, New York, Tampa Bay, Texas) and two teams from the same division can't play each other in the first round, so that means the Twins will host the Wild Card team while the AL East winner hosts the Rangers. As of right now that would mean a five-game matchup against the Yankees beginning October 6 at Target Field.

Which team should the Twins want to play in the first round?

In an attempt to answer that question, I wrote about the Yankees and Rays last week. I tend to think the Rays are a slightly more favorable matchup for the Twins, but both AL East teams are extremely good and ... well, you should read the whole thing.

When will the playoff games be?

Game 1 of the ALDS will be next Wednesday, followed by Game 2 next Thursday, Game 3 on Saturday, Game 4 on Sunday, and Game 5 on Tuesday. The start times for the games won't be announced until the regular season is over, but if the Twins indeed face the Yankees there's a very strong chance most or even all of their games will be at night, in primetime.

Can the Twins get homefield advantage throughout the playoffs?

Because homefield advantage for the World Series is decided by which league wins the All-Star game, that means the team that comes out of the NL will host the World Series this season. Beyond that the Twins are basically guaranteed homefield advantage for the ALDS and would have homefield advantage versus the Rangers in the ALCS, so securing the AL's best record would only add to their homefield advantage if they played the AL East winner in Round 2.

What is the playoff rotation?

Francisco Liriano will start Game 1 of the ALDS, followed by Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing. Nick Blackburn is the fourth starter, although presumably his playoff rotation spot isn't quite etched in stone yet given that he was at Triple-A a month ago. Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey are the alternatives to Blackburn, likely in that order. If healthy and effective Baker is the class of that trio, but he's been hurt and Blackburn has done well since returning from Rochester.

Will the Twins have Justin Morneau for the playoffs?

Justin Morneau hasn't played since suffering a concussion on July 7, and while nothing official has been announced yet last week Ron Gardenhire all but ruled him out until 2011. Morneau is highly unlikely to be available at any point in the playoffs, even as a bench player.

How many pitchers and how many position players will be on the playoff roster?

Because of increased off days and the reliance on better starting pitchers there's far less need for a deep bullpen in the playoffs, and in fact many recent teams have made World Series runs while essentially relying on just 3-4 relievers. Despite that it sounds like the Twins will go with 11 pitchers and 14 position players for the playoff roster.

Who are the 11 pitchers?

Liriano, Pavano, Duensing, and Blackburn in the rotation, with Matt Capps, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, and Jose Mijares in the bullpen. That would leave one spot open on an 11-man pitching staff, presumably for Baker or Slowey. I can't see the Twins trusting any starter in a key bullpen role, which means Baker or Slowey (or Blackburn) will be a long reliever, mop-up man, and "break glass in case of emergency" option for extra innings.

Who are the 14 position players?

Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Danny Valencia, Delmon Young, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, and Jim Thome are the starters, with Drew Butera, Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, and Jason Repko as the reserves. That would leave one bench spot for Matt Tolbert, Jose Morales, or Ben Revere, with the latter available despite not having a 40-man roster spot on September 1 thanks to some disabled list-related roster maneuvering.

Who should get the final bench spot?

Starters rarely take days off, so playoff reserves are limited to pinch-hitting, pinch-running, and coming in as defensive replacements. Tolbert, Morales, and Revere are unlikely to pinch-hit for anyone in the lineup. Morales ranks behind Butera defensively, while Tolbert is behind Punto and maybe Casilla. Revere is behind Repko, but with Kubel and Young two outfield gloves may be handy. Revere is also the fastest runner of the three. To me he has the most playoff utility.

Will the Twins continue to use Butera as Pavano's personal catcher in the playoffs?

Prior to Mauer's knee injury the Twins planned to let him catch Pavano's final few starts to get them comfortable working together, because clearly as much as they love Butera defensively they don't want him in the playoff lineup. Butera has certainly done a nice job catching Pavano, helping to limit his weakness holding runners and posting a 3.65 ERA in 15 starts together, but Pavano also has a 3.96 ERA in 16 starts with Mauer catching. Mauer will catch everyone.

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.

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