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OFFENSE


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.


DEFENSE

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.


STARTING PITCHING

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.


BULLPEN

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.


BENCH

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.


OVERALL

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.