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October 9, 2001

Playoff Prospectus

Seattle Mariners vs. Cleveland Indians

by Joe Sheehan

The general consensus is that this is a mismatch, with the greatest regular-season team in AL history taking on a fading dynasty on its last legs.

The thing to remember is this: in a short series, anything can happen.

Anything.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)

Seattle Mariners

RF Ichiro Suzuki (.350/.381/.457/.311)
SS Mark McLemore (.286/.384/.406/.306)
DH Edgar Martinez (.306/.423/.543/.346)
1B John Olerud (.302/.401/.472/.320)
2B Bret Boone (.331/.372/.578/.329)
CF Mike Cameron (.267/.353/.480/.307)
LF Stan Javier (.292/.375/.391/.292)
3B David Bell (.260/.303/.415/.260)
C Dan Wilson (.265/.305/.403/.257)

Cleveland Indians

CF Kenny Lofton (.261/.322/.398/.257)
SS Omar Vizquel (.255/.323/.334/.240)
2B Roberto Alomar (.236/.415/.541/.334)
RF Juan Gonzalez (.325/.370/.590/.324)
1B Jim Thome (.291/.416/.624/.344)
DH Ellis Burks (.280/.369/.542/.312)
LF Marty Cordova (.301/.348/.506/.290)
3B Travis Fryman (.263/.327/.335/.241)
C Einar Diaz (.277/.328/.387/.252)

This a matchup of the two best offenses in the American League this year. Each got there a bit differently: the Mariners with a league-leading .360 OBP, the Indians with an AL-runner-up .457 slugging percentage and 212 longballs.

Despite the lasting perception that the Mariners' lineup is a collection of ciphers after Mike Cameron, the last three hitters all had acceptable EqAs. The effects of Safeco Field on run-scoring and offensive statistics are strong, making the Mariners' league-leading total of 927 even more impressive. Helping the bottom of the lineup is that the Tribe will start left-handers in two of the first three games, making David Bell and Dan Wilson that much more effective.

What the Mariners do better than any team is avoid outs, adding up to runs. Like the Indians of a few years ago, they wear down opposing starters and see a lot of middle relief innings. Against the Indians, this may not be an asset, as the Tribe's middle relief may be stronger than its rotation. Regardless, look for the Ms not named Ichiro to work the count and draw more than their share of walks.

The Tribe's offense is less subtle, but just as effective. More of its value is concentrated in its best hitters--they start three players with inferior EqAs to the Mariners' worst starter--and they have a much greater quick-strike capability. Their key is at the top: if Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel can revert to their late-'90s form, making the Mariners' starters pitch from the stretch to the middle of the lineup, the Indians can put up a ton of runs. For a team that's going to need five or six runs a game to win, this is going to be the difference.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

Seattle Mariners

OF Al Martin (.240/.330/.382/.267)
OF Jay Buhner (.222/.340/.400/.273)
IF Charles Gipson (.219/.282/.312/.226)
3B Ed Sprague (.298/.374/.436/.298)
SS Ramon Vazquez (.229/.222/.229/.179)
C Tom Lampkin (.225/.309/.348/.248)

Cleveland Indians

OF Russ Branyan (.232/.316/.486/.275)
OF Wil Cordero (.250/.313/.343/.238)
UT Jolbert Cabrera (.277/.312/.348/.241)
C Eddie Taubensee (.250/.315/.362/.243)
C Tim Laker (.182/.308/.273/.221)

American League postseason series are generally decided by the starters, and this year is no exception. The Mariners have a couple of platoon options, or guys to pinch-hit for Dan Wilson and David Bell if things get desperate. The Tribe could very well play the entire series without any of their bench players getting into a game, although Russ Branyan hit enough down the stretch to warrant a Game 3 start in left field against Aaron Sele.

Rotations (Support-Neutral Value Added, ERA, IP)

Seattle Mariners

Freddy Garcia (2.7, 238 2/3, 3.05)
Jamie Moyer (2.2, 209 2/3, 3.43)
Aaron Sele (0.9, 215, 3.60)
Paul Abbott (0.3, 163, 4.25)

Cleveland Indians

Bartolo Colon (2.1, 222 1/3, 4.09)
C.C. Sabathia (1.1, 180 1/3, 4.39)
Chuck Finley (-0.7, 113 2/3, 5.54)

A considerable mismatch at first glance, as the Mariners have two of the popular Cy Young Award candidates as well as a guy who was the favorite around June 1. The Indians, though, catch the well-covered scheduling break that keeps them from having to use Dave Burba or Steve Woodard or Ken Schrom.

This is where I think the series is being misjudged. The Mariners have a great rotation, but like the great Braves rotation of the 1990s, its defining strength is its depth, and the depth isn't all that important in a five-game series. The Indians have two guys, in Bartolo Colon and C.C. Sabathia, who have shown the ability to own a baseball game with their power arms.

I expect the Mariners' pitchers to do their usual good job, at least in the first two games. But I expect that either Colon or Sabathia is going to have one of those ridiculous starts we seem to see every year in the Division Series, some 80ish game score that steals a game for the Tribe in Seattle and changes the entire nature of the series.

I think it'll be Colon in Game 1.

Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA, IP)

Seattle Mariners

Kazuhiro Sasaki (14.1, 66 2/3, 3.24)
Arthur Rhodes (23.9, 68, 1.72)
Jeff Nelson (18.4, 65 1/3, 2.76)
Norm Charlton (9.2, 47 2/3, 3.02)
John Halama (8.8, 29 1/3, 1.84)
Jose Paniagua (-6.3, 66, 4.36)

Cleveland Indians

Bob Wickman (19.2, 67 2/3, 2.39)
Ricardo Rincon (15.8, 54, 2.83)
Danys Baez (8.3, 50 1/3, 2.50)
David Riske (5.6, 27 1/3, 1.98)
John Rocker (1.3, 66 2/3, 4.32)
Paul Shuey (4.5, 54 1/3, 2.82)
Dave Burba (as starter: SNVA: -0.9, 137 2/3, 6.54)

The Mariners' bullpen cooks with gas, albeit a little less hot in the second half than in the first. They'll have to emphasize the use of the big three, because the other three guys they're carrying--including John Halama instead of Joel Pineiro--aren't particularly strong. The script for the series involves the Mariners' pen pitching as it did against the White Sox in last year's Division Series, and not as it did against the Yankees in last year's ALCS.

Or against the Indians on August 5.

The Indians have less experience in key roles, relying heavily on rookies David Riske and Danys Baez after a season and a half of open auditions in the pen. They can go lefty/righty with the Mariners as well, and given the vulnerability of John Olerud, Ichiro to lefties, and Bret Boone's wide platoon split, Charlie Manuel is going to have be aggressive in the middle innings.

These games will run the longest of any series.

Defense

The Mariners play very good defense normally, but have been weakened by the loss of shortstop Carlos Guillen. Mark McLemore has received kudos for his play in limited time at shortstop, but is 36 and hasn't played the position with any regularity as a professional. The change has to hurt a team whose defense was a big part of its success. The Ms outfield defense, notably Mike Cameron in center field, is very good, especially if Stan Javier plays a lot. Ichiro's reputation doesn't match his defensive numbers, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

The Indians have a lot of guys who have been great fielders at one time or another, but on the whole, they aren't. They are extremely sure-handed, but lack the range that the Mariners show afield. On the other hand, their rotation is strikeout-heavy, limiting balls in play.

Managers

Lou Piniella has never been a favorite of analysts, but ever since Bryan Price arrived to handle the pitchers, he's looked a lot smarter. He's a little quick to use one-run strategies, but given his team's ability to prevent runs, he can be forgiven a willingness to get the bird in hand. In four postseasons with the Mariners, he hasn't done anything to get the kind of reputation that, say, Bobby Cox has.

Charlie Manuel is something of a cipher. He inherited a veteran team from Mike Hargrove and hasn't made many significant moves in his two seasons. His health situation--he's been in and out of the hospital for months--calls into question his ability to keep the job past this season. The biggest impact he can have on this series is making the right decisions on when to go to the pen, and being very aggressive about exploiting the Mariners' left-handed hitters. We should know by the end of the day whether he's going to be up to the task.

The Call

There are a ton of reasons to pick the Mariners. At least 116, I'd imagine. However, it was just a year ago that the Ms wiped out the #1 seed in the AL in three short games, thanks largely to their pitchers' work in shutting down the Sox's best hitters.

The Mariners remind me of the that Sox team. Good starting pitching, great bullpen, and a good offense, but one that needs the big bats in the middle of the lineup to perform. Take away two of Olerud, Boone, and Edgar Martinez, and you suddenly have an unimpressive team. Keep the Mariners off the board, and you limit the impact of that great bullpen.

The two most important players in this series are Bartolo Colon and C.C. Sabathia. If they have starts at the top of their range, they can take out the Mariners just like the Mariners did to the Sox. Even one great start will enable the Indians to get back to Cleveland tied, changing the nature of the series.

I think at least one of them will do it, and Colon will be tough in Cleveland on Sunday. Indians in four.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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