October 3, 2006
Twins versus Athletics
This is the toughest of the four opening series to call. The A's and Twins have played excellent baseball for months, and while the A's lost some ground in the last week after their clinch, the Twins are missing one of the key drivers of their success, lefthander Francisco Liriano.
For all the talk of how postseason baseball is dominated by teams in big markets, these two small-market franchises have now accounted for almost a third of the AL's playoff slots since 2000. They play in a pair of universally derided parks, the Twins' Metrodome and the A's Coliseum. The former has always been a target of cracks, while the latter was a nice little park before the Raiders ruined it with an addition in the late 1990s.
The point is that you don't need to come from a big market or play in a new mallpark to put a winning baseball team on the field. You just need to draft, develop, and make judicious use of the trade and free-agent markets.
2B-B Luis Castillo (.296/.358/.370/.262/21.2)
C-R Jason Kendall (.295/.367/.342/.260/12.1)
With both teams starting left-handers in Game One, you'll see something different before the above make their appearances in Game Two. Look for the Twins to DH Phil Nevin and move Rondell White to left field. The A's could put the 5-6-7 spots in almost any order on any day; against Johan Santana you'll likely see Jay Payton move up, and perhaps even a Bobby Kielty sighting in Mark Kotsay's space.
Seasonal stats don't do either team justice. Each team's main slugger-Justin Morneau and Frank Thomas, respectively-got off to a very slow start running through the middle of May. Since, each has become a mainstream MVP candidate, sanity be damned. For the Twins, replacing Tony Batista and Juan Castro with Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett was worth around six wins, and helped trigger the run that put them into a Playoff Prospectus. Even White has gotten into the act, batting .300 with power since coming off the DL in late August. Michael Cuddyer hit well enough to be a viable right-handed separator for Morneau and Mauer, a critical tactical defense against lefty specialists.
The A's also bumped up their production after a slow start. In addition to Thomas' monster season, Jason Kendall and a healthy Milton Bradley have spurred an effective offense. The A's had a .360 team OBP after the break, with every regular posting at least a .342 mark and only Kendall below a .400 slugging average. Marco Scutaro has completely ouplayed the injured Bobby Crosby; we knew the A's would be good at shortstop this season, we just didn't pick the right name. On the other hand, Jay Payton batted nearly 600 times despite a .325 OBP, often hitting in the #5 and #6 slots. He can be handled by good right-handed pitching, and the nature of this lineup means he'll be up a lot with runners on base. The Twins could use him as an escape hatch in rough innings.
Both of these teams have good OBPs and enough power to move guys around in the middle of the order. The key to each offense is the lack of dead spots, at least of late; both the Twins and the A's are getting good production from everyone in the lineup. They can start rallies in any inning, even from the bottom of the order, and the 1-through-9 OBP makes them dangerous late in close games, when a leadoff runner is critical.
The A's still don't steal bases much, but when they do they do it well (75% success rate), and they have average to plus speed in seven lineup spots. The Twins use the stolen base a lot more, and they hit-and-run enough to stay out of double plays with a very slow middle of the lineup. The Twins are more likely to waste outs with bunts, although once attempting a sacrifice, they're a good bet to do so successfully.
1B/3B/OF-R Phil Nevin (.190/.340/.286/.239/-2.0)
OF-B Bobby Kielty (.270.329/.441/.268/4.8)
That's a fairly effective bench for the Twins, although the 2006 numbers are lousy. Mike Redmond is one of the game's best backup catchers. Lew Ford plays defense in the outfield, pinch-runs, and pops the occasional double. Nevin acts as the scare card late in close games when a homer would matter, but it will be hard for him to get an at-bat against a lefty late in a game in this series. Luis Castillo's legs are unreliable enough that you might see a bit more of Luis Rodriguez than you would expect.
There's some guesswork here. The A's have just 16 position players on their roster, and Antonio Perez is out with a broken finger. That should put D'Angelo Jimenez on the roster; Hiram Bocachica barely played this year, and it's possible the A's could go with twelve pitchers and leave him home. That's a bit silly for a five-game series, although the uncertainty surrounding Rich Harden may make it defensible. Well, in theory.
The nicest thing you can say about this bench is that it can get the platoon advantage, which isn't entirely a bad thing against the Twins' endless array of nasty right-handed relievers. Kielty should start against Santana, Dan Johnson could pinch-hit for the right-handed infielders, and Adam Melhuse is most likely to get his ABs against Joe Nathan very late in games.
Everyone who thought Boof Bonser would be starting ahead of Brad Radke in the playoffs, raise your hand. It's the right call, as Bonser has an 84/24 K/BB this year, not unlike a young Radke. The longball is an issue for him, as even his late-season rush was marred by a homer every five innings. His equation is simple: if he allows one homer or less, he'll be fine. Any more, and it's Matt Guerrier time.
Radke is a wild card. He was OK against the Royals last week, with a stat line that didn't quite reflect how shaky he looked at times. He should be on a short leash, with Matt Garza or Willie Eyre-whoever wins the final spot-backing him up. The #1 starter is pretty good.
The clash of styles here is going to be very interesting. While no longer a softball team, if they ever were, the A's do try and work counts, and are quite willing to draw walks. The Twins didn't set command records this year, but they pound the strike zone and make you swing, usually from behind in the count. The winner of the that battle will control the series, and this is where I think the Twins have the edge.
The A's can't match Santana in Game One, and the decision to use Loaiza in Game Two is interesting. Loaiza pitched about at his level after an early-season DL stint, but he's not as good as Haren, who will start Game Three back in Oakland. I think it's a gamble to hold back Haren; doing so, however, gives the A's a significant edge in Game Three, and unless Santana comes back on short rest, a bigger one in Game Four.
Bullpens (ERA, IP, WXRL)
RHP Joe Nathan (1.58, 68.1, 6.550)
RHP Huston Street (3.31, 70.2, 3.284)
Once again, there are some extra bodies in here. The Twins are deciding among Garza, Eyre, and Perkins for the final spot. Eyre pitched the most out of the pen, Garza is Radke insurance. However, Perkins would give the Twins a second lefty, and that's something they could use against Kotsay and Chavez. As I write this, they haven't announced their decision, but Eyre and Garza don't give them anything unique. Perkins does, and he should be the guy.
Whoever makes the team will be in good company. The Twins once again have a deep, effective bullpen, especially from the right side. Joe Nathan is the best closer in the postseason this year, and no playoff team can match the Twins from the seventh inning on. If you look around at the playoff bullpens, you'll see what a strong statement that is.
The A's also have a good pen, although Huston Street's battles with extra-base hits and physical problems are reasons for concern. Duchscherer is the backup closer and main setup guy, with Calero and Kennedy providing tactical help in front of him. Kirk Saarloos and Joe Blanton will serve as long men and Harden insurance, and at least one other pitcher, possibly two pending a call on Bocachica, will make the team. The A's have to be a little concerned about Street, and how Ken Macha handles the situation on the fly could swing a game in this series.
Defensive Efficiency pegs both teams as middle-of-the-pack, belying observational evidence and recent history. Defense is where the A's miss Crosby, as Scutaro is at least 20 runs worse over a full season. Nick Swisher isn't a glove man at first, and the various injuries have kept Kotsay and Bradley at less than 100 percent this year. Jason Kendall is average, average-minus at controlling the running game, an issue against a Twins team that stole more than 100 bases this year.
The Twins ovehauled their infield during the season, trading defense for offense at shortstop and nothing for offense at third base. White is a shadow of his Expo self in left, and even Torii Hunter has lost some steps in center. Mauer is chasing Ivan Rodriguez for a Gold Glove, and while he won't catch him this year, he will shortly. He's the only superior Twins defender, though, and a catcher who can throw is a holstered weapon against the A's, who run about as often as I do.
Gardenhire made a bunch of questionable choices last time he was in the room, pushing Brad Radke and Joe Nathan too far rather than using Jesse Crain. He may not make that specific mistake this time, and with a much deeper roster that largely plays itself, he won't have to make very many decisions. He gets a little small-ball happy at times, a trait that is often magnified in the postseason. The biggest decisions he'll have to make are in deciding how short a leash to keep on his non-Santana starters. With his bullpen, there'll be no reason for him to let them lose a game themselves.
Ken Macha also has a largely push-button team, although he's managed around so many injuries this year he may not recognize his full roster. He's already put himself out there on one decision, using Loaiza in Game Two. He may be put to the test again if Street isn't effective. It will be interesting to see if he's willing to pinch-hit for his infielders and Kendall late in games. They've all hit in the second half, but the Twins' power righties are best attacked from the left side of the plate, even if it means sacrificing some defense.
In a five-game series between two teams that are as evenly matched as these two are, any outcome is reasonable. A sweep would surprise me; nothing else would. Beyond that, I think the combination of Johan Santana, a deep and powerful bullpen, and two great left-handed hitters give the Twins the edge here. Winning in four would give them the best chance in the ALCS, but they'll need Santana twice in this one. Twins in five.
Alex Carnevale contributed research to this article.