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October 4, 2004

Playoff Prospectus

New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins

by Dayn Perry

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These two crossed swords in last year's AL Division Series, which the Yankees won rather easily in four games. Those were different times, though. Johan Santana wasn't yet JOHAN SANTANA!!!!, and Brad Radke was still tinkering with his new release point on his change-up. Once refined, it helped him become the "command freak" that he is today.

That was also before Justin Morneau had arrived, and it was before Jason Giambi's panoply of maladies. In short, this is a better Twins model than the one that went down meekly to New York in the 2003 postseason. Where last season was somewhat perfunctory, this year will be engaging and hotly fought.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

New York Yankees

SS-R Derek Jeter (.291/.343/.469/.291/58.7)
3B-R Alex Rodriguez (.288/.377/.515/.315/63.7)
RF-R Gary Sheffield (.291/.395/.537/.322/65.0)
CF-S Bernie Williams (.260/.357/.428/.279/28.9)
C-S Jorge Posada (.272/.400/.481/.311/49.7)
LF-L Hideki Matsui (.298/.390/.522/.319/57.6)
DH-R Ruben Sierra (.244/.296/.456/.264/10.1)
1B-L John Olerud (.282/.362/.399/.277/7.3)
2B-R Miguel Cairo (291/.336/.417/.277/22.4)

Minnesota Twins

DH-R Shannon Stewart (.302/.378/.447/.290/24.5)
RF-L Jacque Jones (.254/.313/.427/.255/9.5)
LF-R Lew Ford (.297/.380/.447/.298/42.4)
1B-L Justin Morneau (.270/.340/.540/.294/22.4)
CF-R Torii Hunter (.273/.331/.480/.279/31.7)
3B-L Corey Koskie (.253/.344/.501/.288/26.4)
SS-S Cristian Guzman (.275/.302/.286/.243/14.9)
2B-R Mike Cuddyer (.260/.337/.428/.265/12.7)
C-R Henry Blanco (.205/.251/.365/.213/-8.6)

That's the lineup the Yanks will likely go with for Game One against Santana. When Radke takes the mound for Game Two, Kenny Lofton will take over in center field and Williams will replace Sierra at DH.

However they fill out the lineup card, New York has a distinct advantage here. The probable Yankee lineup, in terms of average EqA, bests the probable Twins' lineup by more than 20 points. That's a steep advantage for the Bombers.

On Minnesota's side, Jones and Blanco are notable holes in the lineup. Despite Jones' defensive contributions, a corner outfielder with a .313 OBP and fewer than 50 extra-base hits is a liability. The bold move would be to start Jason Kubel in right field, but that's even too unconventional for Ron Gardenhire, who's shown a willingness to go with the untested hand in postseason play.

The good news for the Twins is that they'll be facing a full docket of right-handed starters. In 2004, the Twins ranked eighth in the AL in runs scored versus right-handed pitching but only 11th against left-handers. Since the Yankees have only right-handed starters and nothing but ambulatory car wrecks in terms of lefty relievers, the Twins will get to play to their relative strengths on the offensive end. Still, there's no comparing the two offensive attacks.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

New York Yankees

C-R John Flaherty (.252/.281/.465/.253/3.8)
IF-S Enrique Wilson (.213/.253/.326/.204/-7.6)
IF-L Jason Giambi (.212/.346/.385/.267/5.8)
OF-L Kenny Lofton (.276/.346/.396/..271/11.7)
IF-S Tony Clark (.222/.298/.460/.264/6.5)
OF-L Bubba Crosby (.154/.193/.308/.182/-3.9)

Minnesota Twins

C-R Pat Borders (.308/.317/.410/.259/2.4)
C/IF-R Matt LeCroy (.268/.320/.414/.256/7.3)
IF-R Luis Rivas (.254/.279/.431/.252/11.1)
OF-L Jason Kubel (.296/.367/.444/.280/4.1)
IF-S Augie Ojeda (.345/.414/.466/.318/7.6)
IF-S Jose Offerman (.259/.365/.400/.271/7.6)

The Yankees have some tactical options on the bench. Lofton provides pinch-running chops and modest on-base skills (although he'll be starting when a right-hander is on the mound for Minnesota), and Giambi also gives the Yanks some OBP off the bench. When Sierra is not in the lineup, he and Clark give them some late-inning pinch-hitting sock. Flaherty has also hit for power this season, but that's likely an aberration. Wilson isn't a slick defender at the key positions and certainly can't hit. Crosby, if indeed he makes the roster, is completely and utterly useless.

What does it say about the Twins' catching situation that if they're not going to start LeCroy, then Borders is their best option? Rivas will work as Cuddyer's late-inning defensive replacement. Offerman can pinch hit against right-handers, but Kubel should and will be pinch-hitting option number one. There's the distinct possibility that the Twins will not face a lefty the entire series, which means LeCroy might not see action at all. Don't buy into those numbers of Ojeda's; he's a pinch runner and defensive replacement.

The Twins have more defensive flexibility, but the Yanks can go deeper in terms of running out effective pinch hitters. Bench strength is generally overrated in terms of post-season import, but we'll give a narrow edge to the Yankees and their handful of power bats.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNVA)

New York Yankees

RHP Mike Mussina (4.59/164.2/0.1)
RHP Jon Lieber (4.33/176.2/0.3)
RHP Kevin Brown (4.09/132.0/0.8)
RHP Orlando Hernandez (3.30/84.2/1.9)
RHP Javier Vazquez (4.91/198.0/-0.1)

Minnesota Twins

LHP Johan Santana (2.61/228.0/5.9)
RHP Brad Radke (3.48/219.2/3.5)
RHP Carlos Silva (4.21/203.0/1.4)
RHP Kyle Lohse (5.36/193.0/-1.5)

This is a staggering advantage for Minnesota. Santana, according to a litany of measures, has been the best starter in the AL this season. Radke, meanwhile, boasts the third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the AL in 2004. It's almost certain that the Twins will opt not to give Lohse a start and, if necessary, will start Santana in Game Four and Radke in Game Five, both on three days' rest. It's only been a measly 20 innings--sample-size police, I'm acknowledging your authority--but Santana has dominated the Yankees throughout his young career.

As for Radke, the key to touching him may be the third time through the Yankee order. He's a pitcher who depends on exacting control and location in order to succeed. The upshot is that his modest stuff can be caught up to after hitters see it a couple of times on a given day. Consider these career splits for Radke:


Time through Order      Runs/Game

1st and 2nd               3.60
After                     5.75
Once opposing hitters get a third look at Radke, they score 59.7% more runs off of him. The gap from Radke's later innings to the middle-relief corps will be critical in Game Two and, if needed, Game Five. It's worth noting that since June 1, Santana has made it through seven complete innings in 19 of his 24 starts. That means, in all likelihood, the bullpen isn't going to be taxed during his starts. Gardenhire can then give the semi-early hook to Radke (and certainly to Silva) if circumstances warrant.

As for the Yankees, the success of Hernandez should provide nominal hope, but he's suddenly saddled with concerns. After two straight lousy outings, the fear in the Bronx is that "El Duque" may be battling a tired arm, which is why the Yankees will likely opt to drop him to fourth in playoff rotation. Should Hernandez's side sessions fail to impress, Vazquez may get the nod in Game Four. While too much is generally made of half-season splits, Vazquez's grisly second-half ERA of 7.06 (!) is a bit hard to ignore.

There's good and bad in the fact that the Yankees will trot out an all right-handed rotation in the ALDS. On the good side, LeCroy, the Twins' only remotely dangerous catcher (at least with Joe Mauer still convalescing), will be relegated to the bench with no left-handers to face, and that means accommodating doses of Blanco or Borders at the bottom of the order. The Twins would do well to ignore LeCroy's apparent platoon issues and plug him in the lineup anyway, but that's not likely to happen. On the downside, it means the Yanks will be tempted to go to a left-hander out of the bullpen in the critical middle innings. More on that quandary below.

Bullpens (ERA/IP)

New York Yankees

RHP Mariano Rivera (1.94/78.2)
RHP Tom Gordon (2.21/89.2)
RHP Paul Quantrill (4.67/94.1)
RHP Steve Karsay (2.70/6.2)
LHP Felix Heredia (6.39/38.0)
RHP Javier Vazquez (4.91/198.0)

Minnesota Twins

RHP Joe Nathan (1.62/72.1)
RHP Juan Rincon (2.63/82.0)
LHP J.C. Romero (3.51/74.1)
RHP Grant Balfour (4.35/39.1)
RHP Jesse Crain (2.00/27.0)
LHP Terry Mulholland (5.18/123.1)

How dependable will the Yankee middle relievers be? In terms of usage, Gordon and Quantrill have both been "rode hard and put away wet" this season. Gordon has never thrown this many relief innings in one season, and ditto for Quantrill, who has an 8.04 ERA since August 1. Karsay has been effective since his return, but it's been merely 6 2/3 innings, and he's still at risk of breaking down.

Then there's the left-handed half of the pen. The options the Yankees have are an unpalatable as they are uninspiring. Heredia has been awful, but it's either him or C.J. Nitkowski, which is a choice of poisons from the Yankee perspective. The upshot is that Heredia isn't a reasonable option to face lefty sticks like Morneau and Koskie in high-leverage situations. Joe Torre knows this, which is probably why the Yankees will forego attempts to get platoon advantages and instead let Gordon work against both sides. That's a wise call.

As for the Twins, they made a reasonably bold (and correct) decision in constructing their ALDS roster by passing on the veteran stylings of Joe Roa and Aaron Fultz in favor of the younger-and better--Jesse Crain and Grant Balfour. While Balfour has been somewhat less than optimal this season, he's not a bad fifth option out of the pen, should the Twins need to go that deep in a close game.

The lone high-leverage lefty, Romero, actually shows reverse platoon splits this season, but that's out of step with the rest of his career. Should the Twins find themselves wanting for confidence in Romero, both Nathan and Rincon do a find job of dampening the opposite side, so match-ups shouldn't be as much of a concern for the Twins. As for Crain, his minor league relief credentials are tremendous, and he's kept runs off the board in 27 major league innings this season. However, his modest peripheral stats suggest he's been a bit fortunate in that regard. Even so, Gardenhire isn't afraid to use youngsters in critical situations; expect Crain to have his trial by playoff fire in this series.

Nathan has been Rivera's equal this season, and the Twins' middle relievers aren't as tired there are more choices available to Gardenhire. Advantage Minnesota.

Defense

Yankee hitters, somewhat surprisingly, hit a fair number of ground balls. That means that second baseman Cuddyer's presence in the lineup for the Twins (in place of the banged-up Rivas), at least on the defensive side of the ledger, could be somewhat costly for the Twins. Of course, that likely won't be the case when Santana, a fairly extreme flyball pitcher, is on the mound.

In terms of Defensive Efficiency rankings, the Yankees actually grade out a bit better than the Twins (thank you, A-Rod). This doesn't necessarily square with perceived realities, but there it is just the same. The Twins this season have hit the fourth-most groundballs in the AL, which should, by and large, minimize the damage that the spotty Yankee outfield defense can do.

Managers

The challenge for Torre will not be in managing a bullpen that's decidedly top-heavy (he's accustomed to and adept at that), but in managing a bullpen that's both top-heavy and fatigued. I expect he'll resist the temptation to use Heredia in a critical situation simply because he's left-handed, which will help the cause. The key decisions will be how much and when to use Giambi and how to handle the third and fourth slots in the rotation. In other words, I don't expect Torre's mettle to be tested so much in tactical regards; rather, it'll be in whom he chooses to deploy.

Gardenhire has shown a willingness to be creative in the postseason. Whether it's giving time behind the plate to LeCroy or playing matchups with the then-untested Cuddyer, he's not afraid to use his best players regardless of experience. Interestingly, I think he has less to decide than Torre does. It would be nice to see LeCroy behind the plate--even against right-handed pitching--and Kubel starting ahead of Jones, but those things aren't likely to happen. Gardenhire's task then becomes simply to avoid making a huge gaffe. That he can do.

Prediction

Summarily speaking, the Twins own the run-prevention side of things, and the Yankees dominate run scoring. The series will likely hinge on whether Santana and Radke can pitch effectively on short rest and, in a related matter, whether the Yankees can buck trends and get to Radke early. I'm saying the Yankee bullpen fatigue and rotation disrepair are too much to overcome, even with that lineup. I'll stick to my research guns and say that superior starting pitching holds sway. Twins in five.

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