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October 6, 1999

Playoff Prospectus

Cleveland Indians vs. Boston Red Sox

by Christina Kahrl

The thousand-run team against the man who has put up possibly the best single-season pitching performance ever, and a bunch of his friends. Is it a lopsided matchup?

Lineups

The Indians have offense in spades, which made life considerably easier for them over the course of 162 games. Now that we're into a short season, a thousand runs is no more than a nifty historical footnote, like the 1950 Red Sox.

If Kenny Lofton is 100%, the top of the Indians lineup will keep starters pitching from the stretch and have them laboring hard by the fourth inning. Lofton, Omar Vizquel, and Roberto Alomar garner the easy attention because they can all get on base, work long counts, have good power and can run. The three of them are the major reasons why Manny Ramirez plated 165 men this year, although after leading the American League in Equivalent Average (.339), his year serves as another nice reminder of how good a player can be at that peak age of 27.

What makes the Indians such a great team offensively isn't simply the top of the order, it's that they're not sequentially dependent on the top of the order to generate a big inning. After Ramirez in the cleanup slot, they've got Jim Thome, Harold Baines and David Justice, all with OBPs over .380. The only spot in the order where the Indians aren't automatically threatening a big inning is if the bottom two hitters, Travis Fryman or the catcher du jour, lead off.

While Hargrove doesn't have to take advantage of it very often, Lofton and Vizquel can play the little man's offensive game, setting up bunts or the hit-and-run pretty well. The trio of left-handers lined up make a very tempting target for Jimy Williams to use Rheal Cormier. How Hargrove adjusts (or not) should be critical in the non-Pedro games in the series. If Grover pulls them all in the sixth or seventh innings to get Wil Cordero or Richie Sexson into the outfield or DHing, he could regret it dearly by the eighth or ninth innings against Derek Lowe.

The Red Sox have few offensive strengths that compare. They're a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of runs scored, EqA (.260, 16th in MLB and 8th in the AL at last count). They're not a great power-hitting team, a great on-base team, a fast team or a great bunt-and-grunt-for-a-run team.

They've got a nice leadoff man in Jose Offerman, but Jimy Williams frequently elects to use one of his light-hitting center fielders (either Damon Buford or Darren Lewis) in the #2 slot. Nomar Garciaparra is a great weapon in the cleanup slot, but hitting third might be Brian Daubach, or maybe Jason Varitek, depending on whether Williams gets a hot flash on one or the other. Hitting fifth is Troy O'Leary, who can be charitably termed adequate. Mike Stanley is one of the team's best on-base hitters, but he's usually batting sixth.

Essentially, the Sox are Nomar and his willingness to do anything to get Offerman to home plate, five adequate guys, the punchless pair in center, and John Valentin scuffling through a miserable year. He's capable of being much more, but if he sticks with what he's done this year, he's effectively another zero in the lineup.

Bench

The Tribe really ought to have an advantage here. While Enrique Wilson is a fine utility infielder, the Indians probably won't have the roster space to carry a real backup for Fryman. Why not? They seem convinced they need to keep Cordero, Sexson deserves a spot and Dave Roberts is likely to make it lest Lofton pull up lame in-series. That and a second catcher, and they've used up their roster space, so no Carlos Baerga or Tyler Houston, let alone a really good alternative to Fryman like Russ Branyan.

The cup is also half-full: Lofton does need a caddy, because no other outfielder on the Indians' roster can play center field. But who is Cordero going to pinch-hit for? The pitcher's slot won't be coming up until the World Series, and the Indians have more immediate situations to tackle now.

The Sox bench is basically pretty bad. Scott Hatteberg is a sturdy backup catcher, but Buford's only virtues are with leather, not wood. Either Butch Huskey or Daubach should provide Williams one solid pinch-hitter. Reggie Jefferson was dropped because the Sox need to have room for a backup shortstop and a backup third baseman, thanks to the health questions surrounding Valentin. Both Lou Merloni and Donnie Sadler will suit up, but dropping one of them to keep Jefferson's lefty stick around would make more sense. Merloni or Sadler could come in at third base if Williams pinch-hits for Valentin with Jefferson, who could alternately take one at-bat per game from the center fielders. With the Sox's offense, they can't afford to waste their opportunities.

Starters

Like last year, there won't be any threat of Martinez starting game four, which means that the "everybody else" pile of people from the non-Pedro universe are going to have to start three games. Worse yet, their third-best starter on the year, Pat Rapp, has been so bad against the Indians (10 runs and four home runs allowed in 8 1/3 innings) that he won't even be on the roster for this round. So when the Sox aren't shutting down the Indians in Games 1 and 5, they'll have Bret Saberhagen for about 90 to 100 pitches, Ramon Martinez for about five runs and Kent Mercker for a few outs.

Saberhagen is the great hope here, but the lefty-heavy and patient Tribe lineup should tire him out by the fifth inning, even in a good outing. Ramon Martinez has beaten the Orioles twice, and gotten rocked by the Indians once. There isn't any reason to expect success. Although the Indians have been weaker against left-handed pitching this season, Mercker has had problems against just about everyone in both leagues and from either side of the plate. Don't expect a repeat of Pete Schourek's inspired outing against the Indians from last year's playoffs. With these three, Williams is going to have to turn to his pen early. The question is whether he'll do it by design, or whether he'll be forced to by too many runs being scored. If he's aggressive, he could really help himself and his team.

The Indians have three guys who are pretty decent starters in their own right, in that these days people with ERAs under 5.00 are better than average. Bartolo Colon has been strong down the stretch, but he has had his problems with the Red Sox: a 4.44 ERA, with 41 baserunners allowed in 24 1/3 innings over four starts this year, with no wins. (Admittedly, he's drawn Pedro a couple of times, which hardly helps.) Even in the two bandboxes these teams pitch in, that's a lot of baserunners.

Charles Nagy should start the second game, although there are persistent rumblings about Jaret Wright getting the start, and he's generally been the Indians' money pitcher in the postseason. Although he's had one bad start against the Sox this year, historically he's owned Boston: 7-1, a 2.86 ERA and only five home runs allowed in 92 2/3 innings. Dave Burba has gotten very little credit for the season he's had, putting up a 4.25 ERA. While nobody gets called a crafty right-hander, he can throw five different pitches, although the curve is usually just for show.

No matter what they choose to do with him, Jaret Wright will start only once. While he's already being hailed as a potential surprise, he's more likely to be exposed as a riddle. He tires quickly, and hasn't gotten his breaking stuff over in months.

Bullpens

One of the major strengths of the Red Sox, and something that is virtually hidden behind Pedro or the misconception that they were critcally hurt by Flash Gordon's long absence or helped by Rod Beck's recent arrival. More than any frothy blather about closing and closers, the Sox have lived on the old fashioned hard work of Derek Lowe, Rich Garces, Rheal Cormier and, to a lesser extent, John Wasdin.

Lowe has been the sixth-best reliever in MLB, giving the Sox lots of innings in high-leverage situations, instead of merely logging one-inning saves when the opportunities crop up. Cormier's ERA belies his overall effect on the staff: he's done an outstanding job of preventing inherited runners from scoring, not coincidentally by doing a great job of avoiding extra-base hits. Since coming up at mid-season, Garces has simply been one of the most unhittable relievers in the league; a comparison to the Braves' salvage work with Rudy Seanez is applicable, given that Garces was once upon a time a top relief prospect, and may finally fulfill that long-forgotten promise.

The Shooter, Beck, is also available, and as long as he doesn't have to see any individual hitter twice in the same series, he may even get out of the jams he inherits or creates. The Sox obviously have a tough choice with Gordon, and whether or not they can afford to let him work his way back into a key role when they cannot afford a mistake. Wakefield has been valuable in relief roles during the season, and given the potential struggles of Ramon Martinez, Mercker or Saberhagen, he will probably be needed in a long relief role during the series.

The Indians were supposed to have fixed all of their bullpen problems over the winter, but just as picking up Jack McDowell never really worked out for their rotation, neither did picking up Ricky Rincon for the pen. Overall, Tribe relievers are a mere seventh in the AL according to Michael Wolverton's RRE. While Rincon has been much more effective of late, Steve Reed has been a bitter disappointment, Paul Shuey has alternated his usual bouts of ineffectiveness, greatness, and injury, and Mike Jackson has been terribly inconsistent. Worst of all, their best long reliever, Steve Karsay, is still damaged goods after the brief experiment of returning him to the rotation: his velocity is down, and while he's saying his curve is back, Indians pitchers have been ineffectively "hiding" injuries all season long, from themselves, from pitching coach Phil Regan, and from any interested watcher. There's other bad news: Paul Assenmacher and his eight-plus ERA will almost certainly make the postseason roster, thanks to tenure. If the Indians' pen has to go inning for inning against the Red Sox pen, Tribe relievers can at least take solace that they're facing the Sox lineup, and not their own.

Defense

The Indians get plenty of press attention for their double-play combo, but they're not really an outstanding defensive team. Lofton is still an asset in center field. Unfortunately, even in the best of times, Fryman isn't one of the better third basemen at guarding the line, Justice is an indifferent defender in left, and Thome probably has more range at first than Hal Trosky, what with Hal being dead and all.

Ramirez takes flak for some Canseco-style stumbles, but he's got decent range and an arm, if also a rep for having the flakes. None of these things are so bad that it kills the Tribe over the long haul, but in a tight game, there are plenty of ways their defense can hurt them. The Indians have done a pretty good job of stopping the running game, at least as long as Doc Gooden isn't on the mound. Most of that is to Einar Diaz's credit: Sandy Alomar's bad knees prevent him from throwing well.

Fitting in with the team's overall theme, the Red Sox defense is a composite of varying positives and weaknesses. Garciaparra and Offerman aren't anyone's dream combo on the deuce, but Valentin has talent at the hot corner. The outfield is potentially outstanding, in that Lewis and Buford can fly to the gaps, and neither Trot Nixon nor O'Leary have been guilty of any infamous transgressions in the corners.

When Butch Huskey puts on a glove, he's a menace to himself and others. Varitek hasn't been dominating as far as stopping the running game, but his weak overall numbers in stopping the running game are considerably abetted by the slow deliveries of Wakefield and Rapp. Overall, the only major strength is when they bring in Buford and move Lewis to a corner.

Overall

The big-offense-versus-great-pitcher aspect of this confrontation is only the top of the fight card. Equally interesting are the battles to be had in games two through four. Will Jimy Williams forget what worked during the regular season, and leave his mediocre starters on the mound because it's "their" game? Or will be Captain Hook, and get his great pen in action early and often? If he's playing to win instead of to satisfy machismo, Sox relievers could end up tossing from 12 to 15 innings in the three games.

The big challenge for Hargrove will be how he responds to Rheal Cormier: if he settles for straight substitutions and has Cordero and Sexson at the plate in the ninth against guys like Garces or Lowe, he'll have been tactically outmaneuvered.

In a pyrrhic victory, the Red Sox win in five, going into the ALCS without having Pedro available until the third game. While it would be nice to believe the Sox can keep their streak of World Series appearances up (once per decade in the '60s, '70s, '80s and now the '90s), if it takes five to get to the ALCS, they're dead in the water.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Bad Start,  Indians,  Year Of The Injury,  Bad Season

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