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My initial predisposition is to pick the Mariners. They’ve got baseball’s
best player and Edgar Martinez, and both of them outhit Frank
Thomas
to the point that the Big Hurt’s MVP campaign should be DOA. On
top of the two great ones, the Mariners have got a starting rotation that
is, if nothing else, physically ready to pitch (with one exception). So why
can’t I shake the feeling that it isn’t quite that simple?

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)

(Ed. Note: For players who played for multiple teams, their EqA only
reflects their performance with their current team.)

Seattle

LF Rickey Henderson (.238/.362/.327/.259*)
CF Mike Cameron (.267/.365/.438/.284)
SS Alex Rodriguez (.316/.420/.606/.344)
DH Edgar Martinez (.324/.423/.579/.339)
1B John Olerud (.285/.392/.439/.294)
RF Jay Buhner (.253/.361/.522/.296)
3B David Bell (.247/.316/.381/.242)
C Joe Oliver (.265/.313/.490/.269)
2B Mark McLemore (.245/.353/.316/.248)

Chicago

2B Ray Durham (.280/.361/.450/.266)
SS Jose Valentin (.273/.343/.491/.272)
DH Frank Thomas (.328/.436/.625/.335)
RF Magglio Ordonez (.315/.371/.546/.297)
1B Paul Konerko (.298/.363/.481/.275)
LF Carlos Lee (.301/.345/.484/.268)
3B Herb Perry (.302/.350/.467/.267*)
C Charles Johnson (.304/.379/.582/.311*)
CF Chris Singleton (.254/.301/.382/.225)

The White Sox offense has Frank Thomas for marquee value, but this lineup’s
strength is that it features eight hitters who can hit the ball often and
hard. That’s different from the A’s or Yankees or Indians, who work
pitchers for a lot of walks. None of Chicago’s hitters are wildly
undisciplined, but nobody has Frank’s patience. It’s less of an Earl Weaver
team than a team that can crank out a few frenzied innings highlighted by a
shower of extra-base hits. Because playoff strike zones tend to get big, it
will be interesting to see if the White Sox adapt better to the changed
circumstances than the A’s, Mariners or Yankees, because they’re not as
reliant on exhausting the opposing starter with a relentless barrage of walks.

None of the Sox hitters had an extraordinarily fluky season, other than,
arguably, Jose Valentin. It would be nice to see Charles
Johnson
take on a more important offensive role than batting eighth and ninth,
and now that there’s no tomorrow to rest him for, perhaps Jerry Manuel will
bump him up a couple of slots.

While the White Sox led the American League in scoring, the Mariners were
hardly slouches. Lou Piniella has done some creative work with his lineups
this season. What’s listed above is almost entirely speculative, and based
on what the lineup against left-handed starters will probably look like.
Against right-handed starters, Rickey Henderson will probably get
dropped for Al Martin, who would bat seventh with Mike
Cameron
leading off, Mark McLemore batting second and David
Bell
and Joe Oliver dropping to the eighth and ninth slots.
Maybe. Piniella has used more than 130 lineups this season, so each lineup
will probably be tailored for each game.

The Mariners’ offense functions very simply: get on base and let either of
the team’s minor deities drive you in. It isn’t quite that simple, but the
Mariners have two of the best hitters in baseball, better than anyone the
Sox will use. As long as Cameron, Henderson and McLemore do a good job of
attacking their on-base responsibilities, everything will depend on Alex
Rodriguez
and Edgar Martinez not pulling a Biggio-and-Bagwell-sized
disappearing act. John Olerud will be hard-pressed to do much damage
with the left-handed pitching the Sox have at their disposal. He’ll have
plenty of opportunities to try to top the indignities Paul O’Neill
forced on Rheal Cormier last season, but I doubt he’s going to
capitalize on them nearly as well. With Olerud likely to be a non-factor,
the Mariners’ problems with their third basemen, their catchers and their
left fielders become a little more problematic, creating an even greater
reliance on Edgar and A-Rod.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

Seattle

C Dan Wilson (.235/.291/.336/.215)
IF Carlos Guillen (.257/.324/.396/.248)
OF Stan Javier (.275/.351/.401/.264)
OF Al Martin (.285/.338/.452/.268*)
Life Form Raul Ibanez (.229/.301/.329/.224)

Chicago

DH Harold Baines (.254/.338/.417/.257*)
C Mark Johnson (.225/.315/.319/.210)
IF Tony Graffanino (.274/.363/.357/.245)
OF Jeff Abbott (.274/.343/.395/.244)
CF McKay Christensen (.105/.227/.105/-.063) or
IF Craig Wilson (.260/.316/.301/.206)

For the Mariners, the bench is not a major asset, but it does feature the
most important non-regular on either team. Al Martin should start
one or both games against right-handers James Baldwin and Sean
Lowe
, but in the first two games in the series he’ll be a good
pinch-hitter to use for McLemore, Bell or Oliver. With Martin having hit
.310/.364/.506 on the year against right-handed pitching, Piniella will
have to pick his spots to use him to best advantage against Chicago’s deep
pen.

Stan Javier will probably get a spot start, but mostly represents
insurance for Martin and Henderson’s shortcomings and Jay Buhner‘s
decrepitude. Carlos Guillen will spend the series as the utility infielder,
while Raul Ibanez‘s excuse for not going home early is his notional
value as an emergency catcher.

It’s a mixed blessing that Charles Gipson isn’t on the roster. While
Gipson is an outstanding utility man, Piniella would use him to pinch-run
for Edgar Martinez before the ninth inning, a major tactical mistake that
wasted Gipson’s core skill (glovework) while discarding a key hitter for a
minor gain.

The White Sox bench is a relative asset, although how often it will come
into play is in doubt. Harold Baines is really only dangerous enough
to pinch-hit for Chris Singleton, who also bats left-handed. Jeff
Abbott
is a good hitter to have lying around on the bench, but again,
only Singleton requires being pulled. Tony Graffanino is a useful
hitter for a utility infielder, but his defense at both third base and
shortstop is questionable.

For that reason and because of Herb Perry‘s tight hamstring, there’s
some doubt about who will get the last spot on the bench: a pinch-runner
and defensive replacement in the outfield like McKay Christensen, or
Craig Wilson, who can definitely handle shortstop and third base. If
they don’t keep Christensen, Manuel may feel reluctant to pull Singleton
for a pinch-hitter, but if they don’t keep Wilson, they could be forced, if
Perry breaks down, to use Graffanino at a position where he won’t be at his
best. Not a fun choice, and one where the obvious solution (don’t keep
Harold Baines on the roster for this round of the playoffs) is out of the
question.

Rotations
(Support-Neutral Value Added, ERA)

Seattle

Freddy Garcia (0.9, 3.91)
Paul Abbott (0.7, 4.22)
Aaron Sele (1.5, 4.51)
Jamie Moyer (-0.8, 5.49) or
John Halama (-0.9, 5.08)

Chicago

Jim Parque (0.4, 4.28)
Mike Sirotka (1.9, 3.79)
James Baldwin (1.1, 4.65)
Sean Lowe (-7.8 ARP, 5.48)

We’ll go with the Mariners first, because they only have one or two issues,
whereas the White Sox are paging Billy Pierce and trying to find out if
Britt Burns is healthy yet.

The latest thunderings from Mt. Piniella seem to indicate that Paul
Abbott
is the choice to start Game Two, but Jamie Moyer is in
the wings if Piniella is still irritated with the White Sox for failing to
name starters for games back in August in a timely fashion. Game Four could
go to either Moyer or John Halama. Against the White Sox, Aaron
Sele
had one quality start in three games. Freddy Garcia had one
of his best starts and one of his worst against them. Moyer had his worst
start of the year against the White Sox, but he’s also been pitching hurt
since June. Abbott shut the Sox down in his lone start against them, while
Halama has one quality start to his name since the end of July. How Halama
and Abbott do in the first two games will be critical, because the Mariners
lack the bullpen depth to survive a couple of bad outings.

A potentially critical miscalculation by Piniella is his simplistic
observations about platoons and platooning. He believes that platoon splits
are some kind of immutable quality, where right-handed hitters are
automatically worse off against right-handed pitching, while noting that
the Sox should feature a lineup with six right-handed hitters. Garcia, in
particular, has been dynamite against right-handed hitters (limiting them
to hitting .205/.293/.311).

But it takes two to tango, and if you review how the White Sox hitters have
performed against right-handed pitchers, it doesn’t seem to make that much
sense to worry about platoon advantages. Ray Durham has a .375 OBP
against right-handed pitchers, .305 against lefties. Charles Johnson’s OBP
against righties is .398. Paul Konerko‘s slugging average and OBP
are both higher against right-handers. Herb Perry is slugging a hundred
points better against right-handers. Most importantly, Jose Valentin goes
from being almost worthless (.215/.319/.354) against lefties to the guy who
hit 24 of his 25 home runs against right-handers while hitting
.282/.348/.513 against them. If I’m Jerry Reinsdorf, I’m adding Lou to my
Christmas card list.

The White Sox rotation is an obvious weak spot because of the current
concerns about the health of James Baldwin and Mike Sirotka.
These aren’t minor, nagging injuries. While there’s a lot of brave talk
about how Baldwin is throwing over 90 mph again and has his curve working,
it isn’t hard to spot an element of wishcasting. He’s given up 16 runs in
the 9 2/3 innings he’s been healthy enough to throw in the last month.
Expect an early hook.

Sirotka is the best starter on either team, logging 20 quality starts in 32
total, but if he isn’t good for more than five innings the Sox are going to
rely very heavily on the seven-man pen Manuel and Ron Schueler have
tailored for this series. Jim Parque is probably the starter who
best symbolizes the rotation and its relationship to the team’s defense: he
doesn’t give up a lot of extra-base hits among his many baserunners, he
kills the running game and he relies heavily on the double play. Facing a
Mariners lineup with major problems at the bottom of the order and carrying
John Olerud’s slender contributions against lefties, it isn’t hard to see
how he’ll continue to flirt with danger and survive.

The plan to start Sean Lowe is the ugly result of Cal
Eldred
‘s elbow problems and a hesitance to call on either Kip
Wells
or Jon Garland. It’s also easy to interpret: Lowe, Mark
Buehrle
and Lorenzo Barcelo will basically have to suck up seven
innings in that game. That’s fine, but problematic if only because Game
Four comes after Baldwin’s start, and the Sox will probably need a
three-inning relief outing there as well.

Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA)

Seattle

Kazuhiro Sasaki (14.2, 3.16)
Arthur Rhodes (15.6, 4.28)
Jose Paniagua (11.7, 3.46)
Brett Tomko (1.9, 4.68)
Rob Ramsay (1.5, 3.40)
Jose Mesa (-9.5, 5.36)

Chicago

Keith Foulke (22.6, 2.97)
Bobby Howry (17.2, 3.17)
Kelly Wunsch (10.8, 2.93)
Lorenzo Barcelo (9.0, 3.69)
Bill Simas (8.0, 3.46)
Chad Bradford (5.6, 1.98)
Mark Buehrle (2.1, 4.21)

Here is the critical difference in the series. If the White Sox are going
to survive their starting pitching, it won’t be because James Baldwin
magically gets better or because Sean Lowe decides to phone in a lifeline
from Don Larsen. It will be because Jerry Manuel has one of the best
bullpens of any team in baseball.

The question is whether or not Manuel will exercise a little bit of
tactical flexibility, and elect to use Keith Foulke earlier than the
seventh inning if a game-critical situation demands the use of his best
reliever. He’s got a good group to use later on if need be, so for
entertainment’s sake I hope he maximizes his use of Foulke while counting
on everyone else to be effective when asked. Bill Simas and Bobby
Howry
both have experience finishing games, and the Sox’s margin of
error is too slender for them to shunt Foulke off to the closer’s role.

Lorenzo Barcelo and Mark Buehrle are good pitchers to go two
or three innings at a stretch, while Chad Bradford and Kelly
Wunsch
give the Sox a pair of sidearmers, one left-handed and one
right-handed, just as I’ve been hoping to see all season. Both of them are
platoon killers. Bradford may not be asked to get Edgar Martinez, but
Wunsch can count on getting John Olerud in any at-bat after the fourth
inning with a man aboard. Having limited left-handed hitters to
.160/.235/.236, that’s an advantage for the Sox.

My pet theory is Jerry Manuel would love to be credited for a bit of
genius, and going early and often to the pen to try to win this series will
be as good an opportunity to draw attention to himself as he’s ever going
to get. Because of the rotation’s problems, it’s also absolutely essential.

The Mariners’ pen is shallow, but the trio of Kazuhiro Sasaki,
Arthur Rhodes and Jose Paniagua is a solid group to call on
to pitch the last three innings of any game. Piniella has had to work each
of them relatively hard down the stretch. You might credit Piniella for
being aware of the problem, because he’s no longer limiting Sasaki to just
ninth-inning closer chores, trying to get as much out of all three by
extending Sasaki into the eighth inning.

A hunch I’m currently kicking around is that because Sasaki is a
first-pitch fastball pitcher with a fastball with little movement, and
because the Sox feature several hitters who will jump on that pitch, we
might get treated to some late-inning heroics. But if Sasaki gets ahead in
the count, he’ll hammer the Sox with his forkball.

Just as it’s important for the Sox to get to the pen as soon as possible,
it’s just as important for them to get to the Mariners’ pen as soon as
possible. If they force the Mariners to use the trio heavily in the first
two games while managing a split or better, they may get to feed off of
some quality time with the always flammable Jose Mesa. Because
Piniella is as orthodox in his platoon preferences in his bullpen use as he
is with his rotation, he may lose the opportunity to use Rhodes to his
advantage, instead doing something silly like bringing in Mesa because the
batter happens to be right-handed.

Defense

The White Sox get called a bad defensive team, but the Mariners look like
the weaker team defensively. The Sox attract attention for their errors,
but between their pitchers and the Johnson and Johnson catching duo, they
kill the running game. Jose Valentin and Ray Durham are probably the best
middle-infield combo the Sox have had since Chico Carrasquel and
Nellie Fox, and because the running game disappears, their ability
to turn the double play well becomes all the more important. Singleton and
Magglio Ordonez can field their positions and throw, while Carlos
Lee
is not an asset. All three Sox outfielders throw well, and usually
to the right place. Herb Perry is a cut above average, which is nothing
less than a miracle of modern surgery.

The Mariners have both major strengths and some major weaknesses. Mike
Cameron, Alex Rodriguez and John Olerud all have legitimate cases for being
the best or among the best defensive players at their positions in the
league. Mark McLemore plays deep and still ends up having to leave his feet
to make diving stops. At best, he’s competent. David Bell’s perceived
consistency is what has him playing third base after Carlos Guillen
managed 17 errors in less than half a season there. Joe Oliver gets good
marks for his receiving skills, but he’s also going to be taken advantage
of by Sox runners, especially late in the game.

The Mariners’ real problems come in the outfield corners. Jay Buhner hasn’t
been an effective corner outfielder in years, and now that he can’t throw
like he used to, has almost no defensive value. Rickey Henderson doesn’t
cover as much ground as he used to, and can’t throw. Al Martin is one of
the worst corner outfielders in baseball. There is no other team in
baseball where Raul Ibanez would get used as a defensive replacement in the
outfield. Bad corner outfield defense isn’t a death knell, but on balls hit
to the gaps, the Sox can count on getting an extra base between the poor
mobility and weak arms they’ll be challenging.

Managers

I’ve been highly critical of Jerry Manuel over the past few years, but the
man has several strengths. He’s willing to turn a blind eye to a player’s
limitations and focus on a player’s strengths. He’s willing to use a
bullpen aggressively and well. He’ll play for one run once in a while, but
he’s not that stubborn about it. He’ll let the guys who can run steal in
high percentage situations; between some indifferent Mariners pitchers and
Joe Oliver’s noodle arm, that should translate into some steals.

Lou Piniella has definitely impressed me this season as far as his
willingness to delegate responsibilities for the pitching staff to people
who know pitching, like Bryan Price. He’s been able to accept players like
Rickey Henderson and Mark McLemore for their only major offensive virtue,
OBP, where other managers might have worried over their shortcomings and
created a problem.

But as much as Lou has improved to the point that he’s no longer the man
who runs his rotations and his bullpens into the ground, he’s still a
relatively unimaginative field manager. I’m willing to bet that Manuel will
outmaneuver him a couple of times in the series, above and beyond turning
Olerud into a non-factor during the series with his left-handed pitching.

The Call

Like a lot of people, I like simple, neat answers. I’d like to think that
the team with the top talent has an easy advantage that should translate
into a straightforward victory. But this series is so fraught with
possibilities, accidents and interesting combinations of incompatible
strengths and weaknesses that I think we can expect a tremendous series
that goes five games.

Whereas the Sox will have to use their pen to make it this close, the
Mariners will have the luxury of a two-pitcher game, one in which Brett
Tomko
tosses three or four innings after Halama or Abbott, allowing
Piniella to use the relievers he does have late in the series to better
advantage. Mariners in five.

Chris Kahrl can be reached at ckahrl@baseballprospectus.com.