The Yanks settled almost every playoff issue yesterday when they clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Red Sox and the Angels have magic numbers of two for the Wild Card and AL West, both over the Rangers, so with just six games left those races are about over. Only one playoff spot remains undecided: the AL Central, where the Twins have rallied to pull within two of the Tigers after being seven games back at the end of play on September 6. It has led up to this week’s four-game set, one which should decide the division.
It will also decide the Yankees ALDS opponent. A few weeks ago it seemed like the Tigers without question, as they had that seven game lead. But the Twins have gone 15-9 this month, and even more impressively have gone 11-2 since Justin Morneau last played in a game on September 12. He will miss the rest of the season with a stress fracture in his lower back. His teammates have more than picked up the slack, and this week they get a real chance to once again steal the AL Central from the Tigers, as they did in 2006.
The Twins, for their part, will have to take three out of four. Splitting would make things tougher in the final series, where the Twins would have to take two of three from the Royals and the Tigers would have to drop two of three to the White Sox, forcing a one-game playoff. It would be the second straight year in which the Twins would play a 163rd game. They dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker to the White Sox last year on the season’s final (and bonus) day.
While the Twins make a great baseball story, we’re still focused on what this will mean for the Yankees. Would they prefer Detroit or Minnesota? The question might sound like a no-brainer at first. The Twins are without their slugging first baseman and have generally been the inferior team during the season. But they’re the hot team, and hot teams can be hell on any team in the playoffs, even the team with the best record in baseball.
Joe Mauer, a near lock for MVP because of the Twins’ recent run, heads the offense. He not only leads the AL in OPS, but does it from a squatting position, making the production even more valuable. The catcher with the next highest OPS is Jorge Posada, and the two aren’t particularly close. Beyond that the Twins don’t have much, especially without Morneau, though they’ve seen a number of guys step up in the first baseman’s absence. Delmon Young is OPSing above .800 since the 12th, and Mike Cuddyer has a Pujols-esque 1.152 OPS in that span. Beyond those guys, both Jason Kubel and Denard Span have had solid seasons, with OPS+s of 137 and 120, respectively.
The reason the Yanks want to face the Twins is their pitching. It is a far cry from the 2006 staff which featured Johan Santana and a dominant Francisco Liriano. This year their best pitcher, in terms of ERA, has been Nick Blackburn, who sports a Wang-esque 4.2 K/9 rate. There’s also Scott Baker, whose 4.48 ERA has to be the highest ever for a pitcher with a 1.18 WHIP. Following those two is Carl Pavano, who has pitched well since the mid-season trip from Cleveland to Minneapolis. The one reason these three have pitched well: each has a BB/9 rate at or below 2.0. That helps make up for the lack of strikeouts.
The story with the Tigers revolves around one pitcher: Justin Verlander. After a rough 2008 he’s bounced back into his ace role. His dominant stuff makes him an undesirable playoff opponent, though he’d match up against CC Sabathia, no slouch himself. Edwin Jackson is having a fine season, though he’s fallen back to earth lately. After holding the Yankees to two runs over seven innings on July 19, Jackson has allowed 42 runs in 80.1 innings, a 4.71 ERA. His strikeout to walks ratio in that span is just barely over 2.00. So while he seemed like a tough playoff opponent the last time the Yanks saw him, he’s been something less over the past two months. After that it’s Rick Porcello, rookie extraordinaire, who boasts a 4.14 ERA over 158.2 innings this season. He’ll be the third starter in the playoffs, which is all the Tigers will need in the first round.
On the offensive side the Tigers are no great team. They rank 10th out of 14 AL teams in runs scored and 9th in OPS. Their only real weapon is Miguel Cabrera, though he is quite the hitter. His .951 OPS leads the team by far. The only other starter above .800 is Ryan Rayburn, and even that is over less than half a season. He’s been hot as can be in September, posting a .348/.404/.652 line in 42 PA. He’ll need to stay hot if the Tigers are going to have a chance.
(Also, is Brandon Inge’s .409 SLG the lowest ever for a guy with 27 homers? It has to be, right?)
Overall, the Twins are probably the weaker team. Their pitching lacks the top of the rotation arm that is Justin Verlander. When presented with the choice of facing Verlander, Jackson, and Porcello or Baker, Pavano, and Blackburn, it’s the latter in a landslide. They do have more offensive weapons, but a few of those guys — Cuddyer and Young, notably — are riding hot streaks that far exceed their season production. If one or both cools down before the 7th, it could be death for the Twins. Then again, the Tigers have Miggy and little else. Yet a few of their guys — Granderson, Inge, Rayburn — could be trouble in the playoffs if they’re hot.
Yes, I’d rather see the Yanks face the Twins, but it’s a tough call. Either way, the Yanks will be playing an inferior team. That doesn’t mean they’ll breeze through the first round, but it’s usually preferable to play the weaker team that got hot at the end. As we’ve seen in many years past, a late-season hot streak, or even a late-season cold skid in the case of the 2006 Tigers, carries over the break into the mid-week playoff start. It’s a fresh slate there, and because of that I’d rather have the Yankees face the weakest team overall. That would be the Twins.