Saturday, October 3, 2009

Playoff Predictions: Yankees vs. Tigers/Twins

The Tigers lead the Twins by one game with two to go, so the American League Central championship is still up for grabs. The winner will face the Yankees, baseball's only 100-game winner. Neither team has a chance.

The Yankees, after eight years without a championship, have assembled a starting lineup good enough to slug them into the Promised Land. Melky Cabrera (.273/.336/.418 with 13 HRs) is the closest thing to a weak spot in the lineup; every other position player has an OPS+ of at least 122. Gopherball-prone starters simply will not survive three turns through the Yankees' lineup, not with seven regulars boasting at least 20 home runs.

The pitching is a little less stellar - the only hope that a team has of beating the Yankees in a short series is to bludgeon them to death. CC Sabathia (19-8, 3.37 ERA, 1.104 WHIP) is the ace of the staff, but has a 7.92 ERA in five postseason starts. AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte boast WHIPs north of 1.35 in 2009; good lineups have the potential to send both to the showers before the end of the fifth inning. Can Joba Chamberlain be an effective fourth starter - or will the Yankees have to pull him after 3 innings to "pwotect his widdle arm?"

The bullpen is unheralded, but still effective. Mariano Rivera remains a nonpareil; Phil Hughes has done a wonderful job setting him up. The middle relievers are relatively unknown, but surprisingly good. Prospective conquerors would do well to knock the starters out quickly and not to put the game in the hands of the bullpen.

It is amazing that the Twins are still in this race, considering the relatively mediocre roster that Minnesota began the season with and the injuries they've suffered from since. Only Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn have made 30 starts for the Twins, and only Baker (15-9, 4.18 ERA, 1.186 WHIP) has pitched well. Things got so bad in the rotation that Minnesota had to import Carl Pavano from the Indians to help down the stretch. Admit it - you want to see Carl Pavano walk to the mound to pitch a playoff game in Yankee Stadium, don't you?

The Twins' offense is carried by MVP candidate Joe Mauer (.367/.442/.593 with 28 home runs), who is putting up offensive numbers that put even Mike Piazza's best seasons to the test. Only Mike Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are legitimate major league hitters outside of Mauer; the Twins will be without former American League MVP Justin Morneau for the rest of the season.

The Tigers have a better chance against the Yankees, but only if they can set their rotation up to pitch Justin Verlander in Games 1 and 5. Verlander is scheduled to pitch the final game of the season, but if the Tigers can win on Saturday they can save him for the opener of the Yankee series.

Verlander, after a hiccup in 2008, has become the true ace he was predicted to be. The league leader in strikeouts with 264, Verlander also boasts an 18-9 record with a 3.45 ERA and a 1.179 WHIP. He can go nine against any lineup, even one as powerful as the Yankees, which is a good idea considering the sorry state of the Tigers' bullpen.

The key to a Yankees-Tigers series will be starters Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello. Each have had breakout seasons, but neither are playoff-tested and Jackson in particular has faded badly in the second half. If each had to pitch twice against the Yankees (as they would in a seven-hgame series), Detriot wouldn't have a prayer. But because both have the potential to put up seven innings of one-run ball against any team in baseball, the Tigers could make a short series interesting. No team in baseball wants to face Justin Verlander on full rest in the deciding game of a playoff series.

Predictions: Yankees in 3 (if they play the Twins); Yankees in 4 (if they play the Tigers)

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