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October 1, 2008

Prospectus Today

Settling the Central and Making Picks

by Joe Sheehan

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The Brandon McCarthy-for-John Danks trade was largely considered a win for the Rangers at the time. McCarthy, a stat-head favorite for his ability to prevent walks, was seen as the kind of strike-throwing machine who would anchor the always-troubled Rangers rotation. Danks, on the other hand, had something of a failed-prospect sheen to him, and with his high fly-ball rate, seemed to be the type of pitcher who would struggle to establish himself.

Last night, Danks put the final touches on the reversal of that story, throwing eight shutout innings to help give the White Sox a 1-0 win in the one-game playoff for the AL Central title. Danks, now more a ground-ball pitcher than he ever was before, worked his cut fastball in on the hands of the Twins' right-handed hitters and away from Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, allowing just one runner to reach third base. He also exploited the Twins' impatience at the plate and their collective lack of power.

Nick Blackburn almost matched Danks, but for one fastball left up to Jim Thome in the seventh inning. As I mentioned in our in-game roundtable, I would not have even allowed Blackburn to face Thome in that situation, what with Thome and then Ken Griffey due up, the likelihood that the game would be decided on one swing of the bat, and the platoon differentials of those players. Ron Gardenhire, no doubt influenced by Blackburn's effectiveness through six innings, left his rookie right-hander in, and he paid for it. Blackburn clearly wasn't the goat last night-nor was Gardenhire, despite that questionable decision-but the Twins' hitters, who simply had poor approaches all night, are the ones to blame. After the Michael Cuddyer double in the fifth, the Twins sent 15 men to the plate, and Danks, along with Jenks who came on in the ninth, allowed nothing but a walk and a single, and used just 47 pitches between them. That's hideous, and it's why Minnesota's season ended last night.

That gives us our slate of eight teams for the Division Series. My writeup of the Red Sox/Angels matchup appears elsewhere on the site. To sum up, it's unclear how healthy the Sox will be, so I'll assume mostly good health and take the better team, the Red Sox, in four. We now know that J.D. Drew is healthy, leaving Mike Lowell and, more importantly, Josh Beckett as the primary question marks.

Here are my takes on the other three series:

Brewers/Phillies

Separated by just two games in the standings, the gap between these two feels much larger. The Brewers have about four pitchers they feel comfortable using right now, two of whom are CC Sabathia, who will start Thursday's Game Two, his third straight start on short rest. In today's Game One, they're going with Yovani Gallardo, who missed nearly five months with a knee injury and who has thrown four innings since May 1. Not that they're desperate or anything.

About the only thing in their favor is that they'll see southpaws Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer in two of the first three games, which works for a team with a 70-point OPS split against lefties (.269/.348/.458) and righties (.246/.317/.421). The Brewers, essentially, will have a good lineup in three of the five games in this series, and a terrible one in the other two. Because of the Phillies' southpaws, this is the best possible matchup for them.

With that said, it's not easy to see them pulling this out. They would have to win both Sabathia starts and one other, and when you look at Gallardo, Dave Bush, and Jeff Suppan against the Phillies' lineup, backed up by a bullpen that has little in the way of shutdown relief, it's hard to see them getting to a Game Five. It was three weeks ago that the Brewers went into Philadelphia and lost four games to put their wild-card slot in danger. Now they return, with the only difference being Sabathia will get to make his fourth start in 12 days in one of the games.

He's been so good that it's hard to bet against him, but I can't see him getting two bites at the apple in this series. Phillies in four.

Cubs/Dodgers

The Cubs have been my pick to the go to the World Series for a while, as the best team in the National League. They should be a significant favorite over the Dodgers, who won 84 games in a weak division to reach the playoffs. They are, in fact, about a 2-to-1 favorite based on posted odds.

Yet each time I look at this series, I get a bit more convinced it's going to be the best one of the first round. Much of the Cubs' edge over the long season was depth, with a good five-man rotation, a deep bullpen, and a fairly good bench. This is the best one-through-25 roster in the majors. In a short series, however, the bottom ten roster spots don't do you as much good. Or as Bill James wrote, "In a short series, depth don't count." You win a short series with your regulars, your frontline starters, and top relievers, and the Dodgers-the Dodgers who may take the field tonight-can just about match the Cubs in these areas.

The Dodgers have three very good right-handed starters in Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, and Hiroki Kuroda. All have had starts this season in which they've been unhittable, and Billingsley is, in some ways, a good match for the Cubs' Rich Harden in terms of power and peak performance. The Dodgers have frontline relief that's as good as any post-season team's outside of the Angels, and their lineup, with Manny Ramirez in place of Juan Pierre, has been a strength for the last two months.

As in the Red Sox/Angels series, health is a big factor. Is Takashi Saito back to full health? If so, that gives the Dodgers a hard-to-beat combination of Saito and Jonathan Broxton late in games. Throw in Joe Beimel and you have three relievers who allowed three home runs, combined, all season long. The biggest question is Rafael Furcal, who is in tonight's lineup batting leadoff. With Furcal for the season's first five weeks, the Dodgers averaged 5.4 runs per game. Between his injury and Ramirez's arrival, they averaged just over three runs per game. The upgrade on both sides of the ball from Angel Berroa to Furcal is significant even in a short series, and the presence of a high-OBP leadoff hitter makes the Dodgers' middle of the order that much more effective.

The Cubs are the best team in the league, but that doesn't matter as much as being the best team over the course of a week. This Dodgers team, despite finishing far behind the Cubs in the regular season, is as strong as it has been all season long and has the frontline talent to match the Cubs in each and every game. The Cubs are still the better bet, but this is the series that will give us something to watch next Monday. Cubs in five.

White Sox/Rays

Having had to use Danks just to get here leaves the Sox at a disadvantage heading into this series, as the southpaw would have been valuable against a Rays team that is the anti-Brewers: dangerous against righties (.267/.344/.434), tame against lefties (.246/.330/.396). The Sox will get just two starts from lefties in the series, and just one in the first three games.

That's not the only factor working against the Sox. They'll play three of the five games on the road, where they were a poor team this season. They'll have just one day of rest going into the series, having played three elimination games in three days, and the first game begins about 40 hours after their celebration at US Cellular Field on Tuesday night.

It's hard to know what to expect here. The White Sox rely so heavily on the long ball for their offense that the Rays' greatest strength, their team defense, is almost a non-factor. The White Sox get less on balls in play than any team in baseball, so a team that is designed to cut down on offense on balls in pay doesn't affect them much. (A Twins/Rays matchup would have been much more interesting in that regard.) In fact, this entire series may come down to the single factor of White Sox home runs. If they hit enough of them, they might win. If they don't, they won't come close. A team that scores nearly half its runs on long balls may be even more reliant on them this week.

The Rays are a middle of the pack team at preventing homers, maybe a bit better than that if you just consider the pitchers they'll use in this series. It's not a particular strength or weakness for them, so it's hard to predict whether they can neutralize this one strength.

Looking at it from the other direction, the Rays were second in the league in walks drawn, the White Sox fourth-best in walks allowed. This is a particular strength of the Sox frontline relievers, who do an excellent job of pounding the strike zone. When the Rays get on base, they will run; first in attempts and steals in the AL. A.J. Pierzynski allowed 96 steals at an 82 percent clip, and Toby Hall was much worse than that, despite two lefties in the rotation-including Mark Buehrle, a running game-stopper the 1985 Bears would envy-and a righty, Javier Vazquez, who holds runners well. The Rays can definitely steal on these catchers.

This may be something of a nondescript series. The White Sox should get good starting pitching and hope to run into a few balls along the way. The Rays need to draw some walks and keep the ball in the park. Look for fairly quick games and low scores. Rays in five.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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