September 28, 1998
Playoff Preview - Boston vs. Cleveland
Our Appraisal of the Red Sox/Indians playoff
The Red Sox offense somehow outscored the Indians this year, but they did it with mirrors that are unlikely to work as well in the playoffs. The only position at which the Red Sox are clearly better offensively is shortstop, with MVP candidate Nomar Garciaparra. Comparing lineups, you see so many strengths for the Indians - Lofton leading off, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Dave Justice, Brian Giles, Richie Sexson, even Travis Fryman - that you realize that their main problem is how to fit all of them into the lineup. Even the weaker offensive contributors like Joey Cora and Omar Vizquel help the core of the lineup by getting on base. The only spot in the Indians' lineup which is a real hole is the one occupied by catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. and his equally weak backups. The Red Sox lineup, on the other hand, is anchored by two great hitters in the middle of their lineup - Mo Vaughn and Garciaparra - but the rest is much weaker. Leading off is Darren Lewis, whose on-base percentage is below average for a leadoff man and who has few if any other positive offensive attributes. Most of the real production in the lineup will come from the bookends around the Vaughn-Garciaparra 3-4 combo: #2 hitter John Valentin and DH Mike Stanley in the fifth spot (if he's healthy) The rest of the Red Sox lineup will be filled by likely offensive duds, such as Mike Benjamin, Jason Varitek, Troy O'Leary (who has not hit at all since the All-Star break), and Damon Buford (who will be hard-pressed to continue his lucky season into the playoffs), although catcher Scott Hatteberg is a useful offensive player in the bottom part of the order. Aside from Mo Vaughn, the Red Sox lack a single player who really excels at getting on base, and Garciaparra and Vaughn may find themselves with no one to drive in during the playoffs.
This year's Red Sox team has featured something Red Sox fans rarely see: good defense. This has been especially true in the outfield: Darren Bragg, Buford, Lewis, and O'Leary have covered ground better than any Red Sox team in memory. The Indians outfielders - Giles, Lofton, Justice and Ramirez - aren't comparable, but they do help themselves with better throwing arms. In the infield, the Indians are strong at short thanks to Omar Vizquel, but generally mediocre at the other positions, especially at second with a slowing-down and scatter-armed Joey Cora, while the Red Sox excel with Mike Benjamin at second and John Valentin at third, but Mo Vaughn's first base play is awful and Garciaparra hasn't yet lived up to his defensive reputation. The Sox catching corps of Jason Varitek and especially Scott Hatteberg have been solid defensively, while Sandy Alomar's injuries have weakened his defensive play as well.
The Red Sox have a clear advantage over the Indians in starting pitching. The Sox ace, Pedro Martinez, is one of the most dominating starters in baseball. After Martinez, the Sox aren't off too badly with Bret Saberhagen, who aside from an adjustment period in May pitched excellent ball all season, and Tim Wakefield, whose knuckler baffles opponents a large proportion of the time. The Indians, on the other hand, haven't had a real ace in years, but they do have decent pitching depth thanks to John Hart's policy of collecting arms in the hope of patching together a rotation over the course of the season strong enough to win. The Indians are currently planning on using a rotation of Jaret Wright, Doc Gooden, Charles Nagy and Bartolo Colon. Each of these pitchers has run hot and cold this year, in some cases due to Mike Hargrove's overuse of them during the first half. None of these pitchers are likely to be good enough at this point to shut the Red Sox down, but the Indians hope they'll provide enough decent innings to get to their bullpen in good shape. The Red Sox' fourth starter, Pete Schourek, was picked up for virtually nothing midseason and serves as a good example of the Red Sox' lack of pitching depth.
Both teams have outstanding closers. Tom Gordon has gotten more publicity since he's established a new consecutive saves record, but Mike Jackson, given the opportunity to close after a long and successful career in middle relief, also flourished in 1998, and has pitched almost as well as Gordon this season. Behind Jackson in the Tribe's bullpen is Steve Reed, one of the best relievers in baseball if his recent circulatory problems have cleared up; Paul Shuey, considered the team's future closer; and veteran change-up artist Doug Jones. The left-handed side of the Indians bullpen is weaker than the right side, manned by Paul Assenmacher and Jim Poole. Dave Burba, who has been in the starting rotation all year, will be used in long relief. The Red Sox bullpen doesn't have the depth that Cleveland's does, and as a result, Jimy Williams won't hesitate to go to Gordon in the eighth inning. Jim Corsi and Greg Swindell will probably be the middle relievers used in most key situations while Derek Lowe, Steve Avery, and Dennis Eckersley will be used when Williams has no other choice.
By virtue of having too many hitters who don't fit in the lineup, the Indians have a better bench. Richie Sexson figures to be the odd man out of the lineup the most, and will provide an outstanding bat off the bench for Cleveland. The rest of the bench will consist of Mark Whiten, Pat Borders and possibly Einar Diaz, and a middle infielder or two (Jeff Branson or Enrique Wilson) Its unlikely that Hargrove will use the bottom of his bench much at all. The Sox will rely on Midre Cummings as their lead pinch hitter, with Donnie Sadler, Chris Snopek, and whichever catcher and outfielder isn't playing that day rounding out the bench. The Sox need a good bench more than Cleveland, but they don't have one.
The Red Sox are unlikely to be able to overcome the Indians' overpowering lineup unless Pedro Martinez regains the dominating form that he has not shown the last month. The Indians are a deeper team both offensively and defensively, and should be able to deal with various contingencies much more easily than the Red Sox, who have little beyond their frontline talent. The Sox' only real advantage is their starting pitching, and that is unlikely to be enough to beat the Indians. Prediction: Indians in 5 games.