Series Preview: Cleveland Indians

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It feels like the Yankees just got done playing the Indians, doesn’t it? That four-game series ended three weeks ago today with a 1-0 win for the Tribe, but that was a little easier to swallow after the Yankees won the first three games.

What Have The Indians Done Lately?

Their molten hot start is a distant memory, but Cleveland has rebounded to win four of their last six games, all against NL competition (Diamondbacks and Reds) in NL parks. They’re six games over .500 at 44-38, and their +16 run differential is actually one of the better marks in the league.

Indians On Offense

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The Tribe were struggling big time with the bats the last time these two clubs met, scoring just nine runs in the six games before that series started. The offense has come back to life though, and Cleveland has scored four or more runs in five of their last six games and five-plus runs in four of six. Travis Hafner is now off the disabled list, and he adds a huge bat (.341/.419/.563) to their middle of their lineup at designated hitter. The Indians lost the underperforming Shin-Soo Choo (.244/.333/.353) to a long-term thumb injury and benched the underwhelming Jack Hannahan (.213/.303/.333), replacing them with a Travis Buck (.272/.312/.398 vs. RHP)/Austin Kearns (.236/.286/.261 vs. LHP)/Shelley Duncan (.241/.293/.389 vs. LHP) platoon and top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall (.300/.300/.400 in five games), respectively. Otherwise it’s the same cast of characters we saw three weeks ago.

Michael Brantley has come back to Earth a bit as the leadoff man (.266/.330/.361), but Asdrubal Cabrera has assumed number three hitter duties and is still hitting the snot out of the ball (.291/.341/.496). Carlos Santana has started to add some power (.352 ISO in his last 15 games) to his OBP skills (16.4% walk rate, third best in baseball), and he’s being protected by the powerful (.222 ISO) but suddenly undisciplined (5.5% walk rate, half his career mark) Grady Sizemore. Those four plus Hafner represent the meat of their order, the guys Manny Acta relies on to produce runs night after night.

Matt LaPorta is on the disabled list, so Santana has been playing first while Lou Marson (.226/.272/.302) handles catching duties. Cord Phelps (.200/.280/.333 in limited time) and Orlando Cabrera (.262/.292/.353) are sharing the second base job. Overall, the Indians are essentially league average with a .319 wOBA, and they rely more on power (.145 ISO) and patience (8.3% walk rate) than speed (just 48 steals). Hafner and Santana are a scary 1-2 punch in the middle of the order, and you can’t ignore Asdrubal and Sizemore either. The other five guys can be pitched to, though.

Indians On The Mound

Monday, RHP Josh Tomlin (vs. A.J. Burnett): The clock struck midnight on Tomlin last month, as he’s followed up the 2.41 ERA in his first nine starts with a 5.86 ERA in seven starts since. The Yankees contributed to that 5.86 ERA by tagging him for six runs and a dozen hits in five innings a few weeks ago, though it’s worth noting he’s allowed just six runs total in three starts since. Tomlin isn’t flashy (88-91 mph fastball with a changeup and curve) and other than his walk rate (1.05 BB/9), nothing about his underlying performance stands out (5.08 K/9, 1.23 HR/9, 37.6% grounders).

Tuesday, RHP Carlos Carrasco (vs. CC Sabathia): Carrasco was the author of that 1-0 win three weeks ago, stymieing the Yankees with his four-pitch mix (low-90’s fastball, slider, changeup, curveball) over seven shutout innings. His 3.54 ERA is right in line with his 3.46 FIP and 3.65 xFIP, though his strikeout rate is unimpressive (5.74 K/9) and he gets by on limiting walks (2.20 BB/9) and keeping the ball in the park (0.67 HR/9, 49.8% grounders). Carrasco has a pretty drastic platoon split, especially in terms of strikeouts and walks, and he’s on a nice little roll at the moment (more than one run allowed in just one of his last five starts). Hopefully seeing him for the second time in three weeks gives the Yankees a bit of an advantage.

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Wednesday, RHP Justin Masterson (vs. Phil Hughes): Masterson is one guy the Yankees didn’t see three weeks ago, but they’re certainly familiar with him from his Red Sox days. He’s a low arm slot sinker (low-90’s)/slider (low-80’s) guy with a considerable platoon split, and he relies way more on ground balls (55.2%) than strikeouts (6.33 K/9). After a rough stretch at the end of May, Masterson has allowed no more than two earned runs in his last five starts, though high pitch counts kept him from going deep in the game.

Bullpen: Cleveland’s bullpen is sneaky good. Closer Chris Perez is actually their worst late-game reliever (3.64 FIP thanks to a K/BB ratio hovering around 1.00), and they just welcoming him back off the bereavement list. Right-hander Vinny Pestano (2.26 FIP, 12.62 K/9) and left-handed Tony Sipp (7.68 K/9, 4.77 FIP because of homer issues) are death on same-side hitters (.123/.240/.200 vs. RHB and .095/.191/.238 vs. LHB, respectively), and Rafael Perez gives them another solid option against lefties (.219/.250/.250). Side-arming righty Joe freakin’ Smith (.302 FIP) has a fluke reverse split this year (.293/.369/.320 vs. RHB but .138/.212/.172 vs. LHB) that is nothing like the rest of his career. It’s more sample size than anything, he spent some time on the disabled list earlier this year.

The rest of the pen is filled out with righties Chad Durbin (3.93 FIP), Frank “Pee Wee” Herrmann (4.22 FIP), and Josh Judy (just three innings so far). It’s a relief corps best used in matchup situations (especially late in the game) considering the platoon splits that Sipp, Smith, and the lefty Perez are rocking. Pestano is effective against everyone, and the righty Perez is the definition of a cardiac closer.

Recommended Indians Reading: The DiaTribe and Let’s Go Tribe

Series Preview: New York Mets

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This weekend marks the close of interleague play in 2011. After a two-series homestand the Yanks head across town to play their second to last series this year without the DH. The Yanks and the Mets met up during that brief interleague weekend in may, and after dropping the first one the Yanks took the next two. Overall they are 11-3 against National League opponents and have won their last five games.

What Have the Mets Done Lately?

The Mets have fared well since interleague play started. After dropping a series to Anaheim they won series against Oakland, Texas and Detroit. Included in those series wins is a string of four games in which they put up 52 runs, putting them over .500 for the first time since April 6th. They dropped the final game of the series to the Tigers, but they get a pass on account of facing Justin Verlander. Overall they’re playing some of their best baseball this season, which will certainly make this series a bit more exciting.

Mets on Offense

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As a unit the Mets rank eighth in the majors with a .324 wOBA, and get a slight bump in the adjusted numbers because of their pitcher-friendly park. Understandably, they don’t hit for much power, ranking in the bottom third of the league in ISO. They are, however, fourth in OBP and BA and first in triples, so they do get the job done on offense. Their 4.56 runs per game ranks third in the National League.

Jose Reyes leads the way in every rate stat, hitting .352/.397/.529 while stealing 30 bases and scoring 65 runs. You’ll hear people, particularly announcers, saying that the key for the Yanks is to keep Reyes off base. That’s all find and good as a concept, but clearly it’s no easy task. Reyes is actually tied atop the WAR leader board right now with Jose Bautista with 5.3 WAR. Carlos Beltran isn’t far behind, hitting .281/.370/.493 with a team-leading 12 home runs. Reyes and Beltran are clearly the biggest threats on the team, but there are others who can do some damage.

The Mets were looking for big things from Angel Pagan, but a slow start followed by an injury set him, and them, back for a while. He’s finally starting to get into the rhythm, so don’t be fooled by his .326 wOBA. He’s produced .341 and .358 wOBAs in the last two years and is coming into the series 9 for his last 17 with three doubles. Daniel Murphy has been another threat, hitting .302/.346/.426 while playing around the diamond (though mostly at first).

There are a few underrated guys to look out for as well. Ronny Paulino has been getting a few more reps at catcher, and he’s been a bigger threat at the plate than Opening Day starter Josh Thole. Paulino is hitting .346/.387/.442 in 112 PA. That might not be a meaningful sample, but you never know how long a hot streak will last. I’d bet on him getting two out of three starts in the series. Jason Bay has also been quite a deal better lately, hitting .317/.371/.444 since June 11th. It’s not the Bay the Yankees came to know while he was in Boston, but then again he wasn’t that player last year and he still managed to kill them.

Mets on the Mound

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Friday: LHP Jon Niese. A few weeks back I read somewhere that Niese’s rotation spot was in jeopardy. For a team with an already thin starting staff, I wasn’t sure why anyone would say that, but I guess they were frustrated by his 5.03 ERA on May 12th. Since then he’s pitched 49.2 innings to a 2.36 ERA, including 47 strikeouts to 13 walks. Overall on the season he’s thrown 98 innings to a 3.67 ERA and 3.62 FIP. On the whole he’s been the Mets most effective starter this year, and I’m sure they’re glad to have him going in the opener.

Saturday: RHP Dillon Gee. Gee has been a pleasant surprise for the Mets this year. In a way he’s like their Ivan Nova, but he’s produced better results. He has a below average strikeout rate and above average walk rate, but his ability to keep the ball inside the park helps his overall numbers: 3.32 ERA, 3.83 FIP. He started off June with three excellent starts in which he allowed one run combined, but he faced a few more struggled when facing American League lineups. Against Oakland and Texas he allowed seven runs in 10 innings. This time he faces his most difficult offense to date. It should be a bi gtest for him.

Sunday: RHP R.A. Dickey. On Sunday the Yankees will get their only repeat from the series earlier in the year. Unfortunately, it’s the one guy who held the offense in check. Dickey was going through a rough patch at that point, but since the Yanks series he’s pitched 51.1 innings to a 2.45 ERA, holding opponents to a .288 OBP. The Yankees have had trouble with knuckleballers — Dickey and Wakefield — this year, as well as guys who (according to John and Suzyn) they consider akin to knuckleballers (Doug Davis), so this could be another challenge. But it’ll be a day game, since ESPN mercifully picked up the Dodgers-Angels game.

Bullpen: The Mets bullpen has gotten beat up a bit this season, ranking 25th in WAR and sporting a 4.38 ERA. Francisco Rodriguez has been serviceable, if not good, in the closer role, but there have been problems setting him up. In particular watch out for Bobby Parnell. he was ineffective and then got hurt earlier in the year, but in June he’s allowed just two runs while striking out 12 and walking three in 12 innings.

Recommended Mets Reading: Amazin Avenue is our Mets blog of choice. Friend of RAB Caryn Rose also provides a good take on the fan experience at MetsGrrl.

Series Preview: Colorado Rockies

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And now it’s the National League’s turn to come to the Yankees. The Bombers have done their time in Chicago and Cincinnati, and now they’re back in their natural element, with nine real hitters in the lineup and no need for double switches. The less “strategy,” the better.

What Have The Rockies Done Lately?

Although they dropped their most recent game to the Indians, the Rockies are coming in hot. They’ve won two of their last three games, six of their last eight, and nine of their last 14. Most of those games have been close though, nine of the 14 were decided by two runs or less. Four of the last five have been one run affairs. Colorado is exactly .500 at 37-37, and their +11 run differentially is just a win or so better than average.

Rockies On Offense

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The Rockies can definitely hit (.323 wOBA as a team, ninth best in baseball), but their lineup is very top heavy. It starts right at the top with Carlos Gonzalez, who has followed up last year’s monster .416 wOBA, 6.6 fWAR season with a .348/1.5 effort this year. Since moving to the leadoff spot earlier this month, the center fielder is hitting .362/.392/.551 in 16 games. The number two hitter changes by the day, but of late it’s been either Jonathan Herrera (.319 OBP, .288 wOBA) or Chris Nelson (.279 OBP, .327 wOBA). They split time at second base as well.

Batting third is the best player in franchise history, Todd Helton. He’s having a great dead cat bounce year (.382 wOBA), doing his usual job of getting on base like a fiend (.387 OBP) while rediscovering some of that lost power (.190 ISO and nine homers, already more than he had last year in half the plate appearances). Troy Tulowitzki is generally one of the five most valuable players in baseball and the cleanup hitter, but he’s down to a .357 wOBA due to a prolonged stretch of mediocre hitting (.251/.300/.407 since the end of April). It’s worth noting that his last 14 games feature a .356/.387/.559 line, and he capable of doing major damage at any moment. Former Yankee Jason Giambi will be the designated hitter and protect Tulo, and he brings a .426 wOBA to the table in limited playing time. Hopefully the Yankees take a huge lead in one of these games and the Giambi parks one into the upper deck in garbage time, I wouldn’t mind that for old time’s sake.

The rest of the lineup is a bit more fluid. Ty Wigginton (power heavy .358 wOBA) is now the regular third baseman after Ian Stewart’s disaster start, and the duo of Ryan Spilborghs (.320 wOBA vs. LHP) and Seth Smith (.427 wOBA vs. RHP) platoon in right. Catcher Chris Iannetta sports a .229 batting average but a .389 OBP because his 19.9% walk rate is the second highest in baseball (behind only Jose Bautista). His power is very real as well (.218 ISO). Recent call-up Charlie Blackmon (.338 wOBA in limited time) handles left field duties. Colorado has three guys that qualify as elite count-workers (Helton, Giambi, and Iannetta), three that can steal a few bags (CarGo, Tulo, Blackmon), and a number of players capable of putting one in the people. It’s a diverse and effective offense, but that top five is where the real damage is done.

Rockies On The Mound

(Photo Credit: The Chicago Sun-Times)

Friday, RHP Ubaldo Jimenez: It’s been a very up-and-down year for Mr. Jimenez. Sometimes he’ll be this guy, other times he’ll be this guy. He’s very enigmatic, almost like a younger version of A.J. Burnett (who he will be facing). Ubaldo’s strikeout numbers aren’t as good as you’d expect them to be with his stuff (7.83 K/9) but he’s gotten the walks under control (3.86 BB/9) and generates a fair number of ground balls (45.9%). His stuff is absurd despite a noticeable drop in velocity; he’ll still sit 94-96 with both a two and four seamer. Jimenez’s wide array of secondary pitches includes a changeup (mid-80’s), slider (low-80’s), and curveball (high-70’s), and his new toy is a nasty little splitter that dives down and away from lefties and sits in the high-80’s. You can see it at 0:30 and 0:40 of this video. Filthy. If good Ubaldo shows up tonight, there’s almost nothing the Yankees can do. If it’s bad Ubaldo, then it’s all about patience.

Saturday, RHP Aaron Cook: A shoulder issue kept Cook on the shelf until late-May and this will be his fourth start back. He’s an extreme pitch-to-contact guy, having struck out just four men per nine innings since his first full season in 2006. Cook will get a healthy amount of ground balls (50% in 2011, but well over that in the last few years) with an upper-80’s sinker and a low-80’s slider, plus he’ll also throw some low-70’s curves on occasion. He typically won’t hurt himself with walks, but the Yankees tend to eat pitchers without overpowering stuff and a pitch-to-contact approach for breakfast. Cook hasn’t been great since coming off the disabled list, which naturally means he’ll throw eight scoreless tomorrow.

Sunday, RHP Juan Nicasio: Nicasio started this season in Double-A and crushed the competition there (10.0 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9 in 56.2 IP) before skipping right over Triple-A and joining the Rockies’ rotation. His numbers aren’t as stellar in five big league starts (7.53 K/9, 2.20 BB/9, 40.7% grounders) but that’s to be expected. The 25-year-old relies heavily on a mid-90’s fastball, throwing it about two-thirds of the time. Nicasio backs it up with a low-80’s slider and a mid-80’s changeup, but when push comes to shove he goes back to the number one. There’s nothing tricky here, it’s power stuff and he dares you to hit it.

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Bullpen: It doesn’t show up in the ERA (3.93), but the Rockies have a phenomenal relief corps that is near the top of the league in strikeout rate (8.01 K/9) while boasting the game’s best walk rate (2.72 BB/9). It starts at the back with Huston Street (8.31 K/9 and 1.56 BB/9), who does his job well but is amazingly homer prone (1.56 HR/9 this year, 2.09 HR/9). I guess solo shots aren’t the end of the world. Rafael Betancourt might be the best setup man in the world, having struck out 11.6 batters per nine innings since the start of last season while unintentionally walking just 1.08. He’s a human rain delay because he takes his sweet time between pitches, but he’s also brutally effective.

The middle innings feature former Marlins and Astros closer Matt Lindstrom, who throws serious gas but doesn’t miss as many bats as you’d expect. He can make it interesting on occasion, but he gets it done more often than not. The criminally underrated Matt Belisle (8.39 K/9 and 2.10 BB/9) will throw four different pitches in relief and fill-in wherever manager Jim Tracy needs him. You could see him in the third or the eighth, he’s like the 2009 Al Aceves. Lefty specialist Matt Reynolds has held same side batters to a .188/.239/.288 batting line since coming up in the second half of last year. The hard-throwing Rex Brothers was just called up and doesn’t really have a defined role, and we’re most likely to see his mid-90’s gas from the left side in low leverage spots, if anything. Swingman Clayton Mortensen has done some starting and some relieving this year, and right now he’s the weak link in the bullpen (4.98 FIP). The Rockies’ bullpen is a microcosm of the team; they’re deep and diverse with no obvious weak spot, better than their .500 record would lead you to believe.

Recommended Rockies Reading: Purple Row

Series Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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It’s been a long, long time since the Yankees and Brewers played in Yankee Stadium. The last time these two clubs met in the Bronx was before Milwaukee jumped from the AL to the NL in 1998, and … well here’s the box score from that game. Scott Pose leading off! Derek Jeter batting seventh! Cats and dogs, living together! Crazy how long it’s been, a baseball lifetime basically.

What Have The Brewers Done Lately?

The Brewers are coming off a three game sweep of the Twins in Milwaukee, outscoring the road team 21-6 during the series. They’ve also won four of five but are coming out of a stretch in which they won just two of six games. It happens. At 44-35, the Brewers lead the NL Central by three games and their +27 run differential is fourth best in the so called senior circuit.

Brewers On Offense

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This is pretty damn close to an AL offense folks, at least at the top the lineup. Rickie Weeks flashes a .375 wOBA from the leadoff spot and comes into the series with a .348/.389/.576 batting line over the three weeks or so. Nyjer Morgan (.371 wOBA) will bat second against right-handers but Corey Hart (.359 wOBA overall, .506 wOBA vs. LHP) will bat there against CC Sabathia in the final game of the series. Batting third is one of the game’s very best, Ryan Braun. Dude’s got a .416 wOBA this year and comes into the series with a 17 game hitting steak. Because that’s not enough, Prince Fielder backs him up from the cleanup spot, and he’s sporting a .439 wOBA. He comes into the series hitting .363/.519/.800 over his last 26 games and .326/.473/.681 in his last 44 games. Someone hold me.

Things kinda drop off after that. Third baseman Casey McGehee handles most of the five-hole duties, but his wOBA is a pathetic .264 at the moment. He hasn’t hit at all, one little hit streak in May and that’s it. Yuniesky Betancourt is one of the very worst players in baseball (.264 wOBA with bad defense), and Carlos Gomez is just slightly better (.296 wOBA). The catching tandem of Jonathan Lucroy (.336 wOBA) and George Kottaras (.323 wOBA) is surprisingly productive for the position, and the just called up (as in yesterday) Mat Gamel (.409 wOBA in Triple-A) will get reps as the designated hitter.

Overall, the Brewers boast a .328 wOBA as a team, the fifth highest in baseball. They’ve hit the second most homers (91) behind the Yankees (111), and they’re middle of the pack with 53 steals. Braun (17), Gomez (15), and Weeks (seven) are the tops in that department. Fielder is going to make Yankee Stadium look very small with his power, smaller than it already looks. The good news is that Morgan and Kottaras are Milwaukee’s top power threats from the left side after him, but Braun, Weeks, and Hart can hit the ball out of almost any part of the park. This will not be a fun series for the Yankees pitching staff.

Brewers On The Mound

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Tuesday, RHP Zack Greinke: The Yankees had their chance to trade for Greinke this winter, but decided against it and will now have to face him later tonight. The 27-year-old right-hander comes into the series with 80 strikeouts and nine unintentional walks in 60 IP, adding up to a 2.30 FIP. His 4.77 ERA is the result of a laughably low 58.8% strand rate and a .348 BABIP. Greinke is going to carve hitters up with two low-90’s fastballs plus a slider, curveball, and changeup. Aside from Felix Hernandez in Seattle, I don’t think the Yankees have had a tougher assignment yet this season. It’s okay though, he can’t handle New York, amirite?

Wednesday, RHP Shaun Marcum: I’m not sure if Marcum is actually going to make this start. He’s left his previous two outings early due to hip issues (after just one and three innings, respectively), but as of now he’s listed as the probably starter. Marcum is another guy having a phenomenal year, sporting a 3.16 FIP in 94.2 IP. Although the numbers don’t show it this year, the right-hander has typically had a very pronounced reverse platoon split in recent years because his changeup is world class. He’ll throw it in any count to batters on either side of the plate, though it’s most effective against lefties. Beyond that, Marcum will also throw a mid-80’s fastball (yes, 80’s) and a curveball, but that changeup is how he makes his money. The Yankees have seen enough of him over the years because of his time in Toronto, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be any easier.

Thursday, LHP Randy Wolf: After Greinke and Marcum, Wolf is going to seem like batting practice. The lefty doesn’t miss many bats 6.68 K/9 and gives up a ton of fly balls (36.1%), two traits that play right into the Yankees’ hands. His 4.08 FIP is a better indication of his talent than his 3.20 ERA, but the former is still rock solid. Wolf still has that knockout curveball, the big slow (upper-60’s) bender that he can throw for strikes or bury in the dirt. An upper-80’s fastball, slider, and changeup round out his repertoire. Andruw Jones has more plate appearances against Wolf (61) than anyone in baseball not named Chipper, but he’s just a .200/.279/.436 hitter off the southpaw.

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Bullpen: Unfortunately, we won’t get to see Sergio Mitre‘s comeback tour, Milwaukee designated him for assignment just yesterday. That’s a shame. Instead we’ll have to settle for another Yankees castoff, Brewers closer John Axford. He spent a year bouncing around the farm system before being released, and he’s since turned into one the better closers in the baseball thanks to some mechanical adjustments. He will get himself into trouble (4.08 BB/9), but it’s tough to get past an 11.72 K/9 and 52.5% ground ball rate with three outs to go.

Axford’s primary setup man is Kameron Loe, who is death on righties thanks to his sinker-slider approach (64.2% grounders). Lefty Zach Braddock was just called up yesterday to replace Mitre, and he’s Milwaukee’s lone southpaw in the pen. He’s sorta like Boone Logan in that he throws hard (low-to-mid-90’s) with a slider, but he’s not like Boone Logan in that he destroys left-handed batters. Tim Dillard was also called up not too long ago, and he’s struck out 17 against just two walks in 16 IP. The Brewers other righty reliever is another Yankees castoff, old buddy LaTroy Hawkins. He came back from shoulder surgery last month and has a 2.44 FIP in 19.2 IP with a lot of grounders (60.3%). Long man Marco Estrada would (presumably) start for Marcum if he can’t go, and he’s got a 4.10 FIP in 47.2 IP.

The Yankees are going to get the best the Brewers have to offer this week, so it’s going to be a very tough series. Their starters miss bats, the lineup hits the ball out of the park from both sides of the plate, and the bullpen has some dynamite specialists in front of a very good closer. This one should be fun.

Recommended Brewers Reading: Disciples of Uecker

If you want to check out any of these three games at Yankee Stadium, RAB Tickets can get you there. We’ve got some ticket pricing info after the jump…

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Series Preview: Cincinnati Reds

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While the Cubs are more renown for their long and rich history, the Cincinnati Reds have been around for just about as long. During that long span they have one fewer World Series appearance and three more World Series victories. But they have neither the ages-old ballpark nor the infamous curse, and so they’re not paid as much attention as their fellow National League founders. But they’ve had a good deal more success than the Cubs lately, which leaves the Yankees a tougher challenge in their second (third, if we count rivalry weekend) interleague series.

What Have the Reds Done Lately?

Just a week ago the Reds were busy trouncing the Dodgers in a three-game series, outscoring them 16-8. But once interleague started back up the run scoring halted. They scored only four runs this weekend against the Blue Jays, salvaging just one win in the series. They’re now 1-5 during interleague play, losing by a collective score of 27-13.

Reds on Offense

Like a Bruce. (From Flickr user Trev Stair via a Creative Commons license.)

Despite the poor scoring in interleague affairs, the Reds lead the NL in scoring, at 4.78 runs per game. That could make for a high-scoring series, since the Yankees have scored 5.31 runs per game. Despite their NL-leading run scoring, they have produced to the level of an average offense — 100 wRC+ and 100 OPS+. That might be one reason why they’ve struggled during interleague play: of the 10 teams with a wRC+ of 100 or greater, seven are in the AL.

Leading the way on offense is one of the best 3-4 combinations in the game, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Votto is having a spectacular season that seems a bit underreported. That’s probably because he won the MVP award, but it’s not as though his numbers this season are that far off. In fact, his OBP is even higher, though his power is a bit down. But, since power is down across the league it’s not that big a difference (173 wRC+ last year, 162 this year). He already has seven intentional walks this year, after receiving just eight last year. Yet this year they hurt a lot more, because Jay Bruce has broken out in a big way. After a slow April he has put a hurting on baseballs, producing a .379 wOBA (137 wRC+) on the season. The big difference for him has been power. After 21, 22, and 25 homers in his first three seasons, he’s at 17 already in 2011.

The Reds are even more dangerous on offense because of the producers they have elsewhere in the order. Drew Stubbs’s .335 OBP might not look pristine for a leadoff hitter, but he brings some pop (10 HR) and speed (20 SB, 2 CS). If he gets on, chances are he’s headed for second base. That could become a problem when Cervelli is behind the plate. Ramon Hernandez has also put up some quality numbers, a .372 wOBA in part-time duty.

Keeping the Reds afloat is a cadre of players who hit right around league average. Scott Rolen, Miguel Cairo, Jonny Gomes, Chris Heisey, Fred Lewis, Brandon Phillips, and Ryan Hanigan all have more than 120 PA and a wRC+ with 10 of the league average. That covers all but one starting position and some bench spots. Their only weakness comes at shortstop, though it is a glaring hole. Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria have spent time there, and have wRC+ numbers of 41 and 56. That does leave them with two black holes at the bottom of the order, but it also does give them averagish or better production everywhere else.

Reds on the Mound

(From Flickr user crymzn via a Creative Commons license.)

Monday: RHP Johnny Cueto. The Reds came into the season with more starters than rotation spots, but that strength quickly turned into a weakness after many of them pitched poorly. Cueto actually didn’t start the season in the rotation; he spent the first month on the DL. But since his return he’s been a bright spot for the Reds. In eight starts he’s produced a 1.68 ERA, though he’s not going to keep that up all year. In fact, his numbers closely resemble his career marks, with the exception of his home run rate. He’s getting more grounders, which might play into that. But as we know, when ground ball guys miss they often give up the long ball. His 6.7% home run to fly ball rate is due for a correction, and the Yankees are just the team to do that. Then again, it’s hard to bet against someone who is going so well. He’s gone at least seven innings in each of his last four starts, allowing two runs at most.

Tuesday: LHP Travis Wood. While Cueto has outperformed his peripherals this season, Wood has underperformed his. That’s not to say he’s pitched particularly well: he has a 4.30 FIP against a 3.84 league average, and has a 5.11 ERA overall. Above average walk and home run rates have hurt him, which seemingly plays into the Yankees hands. That goes even more so, because the start is at home. Of the 10 homers Wood has surrendered this year, eight have come at home. But it seems as though every time the Yankees come up against someone like that, he holds them homerless.

Wednesday: RHP Mike Leake. The year did not start off well for Leake, but after being sent down to the minors in May — which is odd, considering his two AAA starts this year are the only minor league innings he’s ever pitched — he’s been on something of a tear. In his five starts back he’s gone 35 IP, 33 H, 9 R, 5 BB, 19 K, including three straight starts in which he has pitched seven or more innings. He’s also allowed just two homers in that span, meaning he’s essentially the anti-Travis Wood.

Bullpen: The Reds bullpen has been pretty middle of the road, with a 3.46 ERA and 4.05 FIP. They do have a number of quality contributors, including lefty, and former first round pick Bill Bray, Logan Ondrusek, and closer Francisco Cordero. Nick Masset can also be a weapon, though his propensity to walk batters has haunted him at times this season. But with those four they can handle most leads, so it would benefit the Yankees greatly to work up Cueto’s pitch count tonight and get into that bullpen early. A wild card here is Aroldis Chapman, whose rehab clock has expired. The Reds could bring him up, but will more likely let him work on his control issues in AAA for a bit.

Recommended Reds Reading: Redleg Nation and Red Reporter.

Series Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Only interleague play could bring these two storied franchises together, though they’re historic for very different reasons. The Yankees have won more World Championships than anyone else while the Cubs have gone more than a century since their last title. Wrigley Field is a homer friendly place, so we could be in for some very high scoring games as the NL park portion of the Yankees’ interleague scheduled begins.

What Have The Cubs Done Lately?

The Cubs are gonna Cub. Yesterday’s 12-7 win over Zack Greinke and the Brewers was their third win in four games, but just their fifth win in their last 17 games and their 19th win in their last 50 games. At 28-40, Chicago’s north siders are ten games back in the NL Central and their -66 run differential is second worst in all of baseball. Talk of a fire sale has been met with “who would take those contracts?” responses. The looks like that World Series drought will extend to 104 years this season.

Cubs On Offense

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Express Monorail)

The Cubbies’ lineup changes by the day but it’s anchored by a handful of stalwarts. Kosuke Fukudome is not the player they thought they were getting with that four year, $48M deal, but you know what? A .301/.409/.419 batting line is fine work from a leadoff guy. Superstar in training Starlin Castro sports a .312/.342/.426 batting line, which is damn impressive for a kid that turned 21 in Spring Training. Yankee killer Carlos Pena is hitting just .211/.355/.402 on the year, but you know he’ll have two or three homers by time the series ends. It’s just the way it is, he kills them. Aramis Ramirez is the other middle of the order mainstay, though he’s at .275/.327/.408 on the season. That’s not the Aramis we’re used to seeing. Former Yankee Alfonso Soriano is at .275/.300/.538, though he’s hit just one homer since hitting eleven in the first month of the season.

Those guys are the core, everyone else just fills in around them. Geovany Soto missed a big chunk of the season due to injury, and he’s at just .220/.307/.384 on the year. My fantasy team weeps. You’ll hear many references about Darwin Barney being a winner and playing the game the right way and all of that this weekend, but his .294/.321/.359 batting line lacks substance and he was just placed on the disabled list anyway.. Jeff Baker is fresh off the disabled list with a .347/.366/.480 line, then you’ve got bit pieces Blake DeWitt (.273/.286/.400), Reed Johnson (.362/.423/.652 in limited time), Lou Montanez (.281/.303/.344 in very limited time), Tony Campana (.239/.255/.283 in very limited time), and D.J. LeMahieu (.294/.294/.294 in extremely limited time). Manager Mike Quade fashions a lineup of those guys around Fukudome, Castro, Soriano, Aramis, and Pena.

Overall, the Cubs are limping along with a .264/.319/.390 batting line as a team, pretty much middle of the pack among the 30 clubs. They don’t steal many bases (Campana has seven, Castro six) and they’re near the bottom of the NL in sacrifice bunts, so they don’t do the small ball thing very well. Essentially, Chicago is a power and patience team without much power or patience. Castro’s a bonafide stud, but the rest of the offense is a bunch of square pegs jammed into round holes.

Cubs On The Mound

Friday, LHP Doug Davis: Signed to a minor league deal after the season started, Davis has made just six starts so far this year. He’s always struck out a fair amount of guys thanks to his big breaking curveball, and he continues to do so this year (8.38 K/9) despite a sky high walk rate (5.59 BB/9). Davis is a typical finesse lefty that throws both a cutter and four seamer in the low-80’s with that curveball as well as a changeup. He’s one of those guys that can be frustrating because he throws junk and keeps hitters off balance, though the Yankees have to patient and let him work himself into trouble, because he will do it if given the opportunity.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user wisley via Creative Commons license)

Saturday, RHP Ryan Dempster: Chicago’s Opening Day starter, Dempster was absolutely brutal early in the year, like eight homers allowed with a 7.63 ERA in his first five starts brutal. He’s settled down since then and looks much more like himself, striking out 8.47 and walking just 2.87 batters per nine innings pitching with a 4.31 ERA in his last ten starts. Dempster will throw strikes and get ground balls with a true five pitch mix. His two and four seam fastballs sit in the low-90’s, his put away slider hums in around the mid-80’s, and he’ll also show a low-80’s changeup and a high-80’s splitter. He’s surrendered two earned runs or fewer in seven of his last nine starts and will be the toughest assignment of the weekend (on paper).

Sunday, RHP Randy Wells: Wells has made four starts since coming off the disabled list (forearm), though he’s allowed 15 runs and put 28 men on base in 18 IP during that time. He’s usually a ground ball guy (46+% grounder rate last three years) but it’s just not happening this season (35.1% grounders), maybe because his fastball velocity fell off a cliff. Wells will usually work with low-90’s four and two-seamers, plus low-80’s sliders and changeup, but for whatever reason it just hasn’t worked for him. Keep an eye on his location, if he’s spotting his stuff down in the zone, he’ll do alright. Anything at the thigh or above will get crushed.

Bullpen: Remember our old pal Kerry Wood? He did a bang up job for the Yankees down the stretch last year before taking that well below market deal to return to the team that drafted him, and guess what? He’s on the disabled list, which is his home away from home. Thankfully it’s just a blister this time and nothing serious. Wood’s injury puts the setup onus on Jeff Samardzija (41 K but 26 BB in 37.2 IP) and the tremendously underrated Sean Marshall (32 K and nine walks in 32.1 IP). He’s a lefty capable of getting anyone out, but the good news is that he threw two innings and 33 pitches last night, so he might not be available today.

The rest of the bullpen seems to be one big revolving door. The only mainstay is lefty specialist John Grabow, who does the job against same side batters but is prone to meltdowns. Rodrigo Lopez (6.57 ERA in 12.1 IP) is the recently acquired long man, former (unsigned) Yankees draft pick Chris Carpenter (seven batters faced, two hits and a walk) the recently called up flamethrower without a defined role. James Russell (5.30 ERA in 37.1) is the swingman with some spots starts under his belt. Oh, I guess I should mention Carlos Marmol. The closer has actually cut his walk rate from 6.0 BB/9 last year to 4.4 BB/9 this year, but his strikeout rate has plummeted from 16.0 K/9 last year to 11.6 this year. More than half of the 400-something batters he’s faced over the last two years failed to put the ball in play, but that’s who he is. Marmol’s just a freak, and I mean that in a good way. His slider might be the best in the game, but damn does he make it interesting. Fun to watch though.

Recommended Cubs Reading: The Cub Reporter

Ticket Info: If you’re in Chicago this weekend and want to catch a game or three, make sure you check out RAB Tickets. After the jump is a graphic from the wonderful people at TiqIQ with some pricing info.

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Series Preview: Texas Rangers

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For the third and final time this season, the Yankees will get a chance to exact some revenge against the team that ended their season last October. Sure, a bunch of regular season wins won’t ever make up for an ALCS loss, but it’s all we have right now. The Yankees have already won four of six games against the Rangers this year, taking two of three at home in April before doing the same in Texas in May. What does the June series have in store?

What Have The Rangers Done Lately?

The first time these two teams met, the Rangers were arguably the hottest team in baseball. The second time they met, the Rangers were stuck in a crazy tailspin. This time around, Texas is sort of in between a hot streak and a slump, winning just two of their last seven games but also winning ten of their last 16. Their lead in the division is just 1.5 games over the Mariners, but their run differential is third best in the league and 38 runs better than anyone else in the AL West.

Rangers On Offense

That's a weird place to rest. (Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

The Yankees got lucky the first two times they played Texas this year because Josh Hamilton was on the disabled list for both series, but now he’s not. His .363 wOBA is nothing special and he’s hitting a 2011 Robinson Cano-esque .268/.307/.512 since coming off the DL last month, but you know what? I don’t care. Hamilton is still one of the best players in the world and can absolutely mash anything no matter how poorly he’s performed over the last month. He’s a game changer on the same level as Miggy Cabrera or Adrian Gonzalez or Jose Bautista; he impacts the game just by standing in the on-deck circle.

Nelson Cruz was also on the shelf the last time these two clubs met, and he’s hit just .241/.259/.590 since coming back. He’s also struck out a dozen times in his last 30 at-bats, a rate that would make Mark Reynolds blush. Michael Young is actually batting cleanup these days, and he destroyed the Yankees in their six games this season (.435/.480/.696). He’s cooled off considerably of late (.241/.288/.315 in his last 118 PA), but I can’t imagine he’ll be an easy out. Hamilton, Young, and Cruz occupy the three, four, and six lineup spots, respectively, while Adrian Beltre slots in at the five-hole. He’s hit a gaudy .293/.353/.496 since the last time these two teams met, so that’s one lefty and three dangerous right-handed batters right in the middle of the lineup. I guess that’s better than four lefties given Yankee Stadium‘s dimensions.

Atop the order is Ian Kinsler, who has one hit in eight at-bats since coming back from paternity leave on Saturday. His .349 OBP and .166 ISO are fine numbers, but he doesn’t hit for average at all (just .231). Elvis Andrus is coming into the series pretty hot (.327/.364/.442 in his last 13 games), but manager Ron Washington pulled him off the field on Sunday for a lack of effort. Mitch Moreland (.396/.433/.566 in his last 15 games) and Yorvit Torrealba (.367/.375/.467 this month) are coming into the series hot while David Murphy (.211/.269/.284 in his last 30 games) most certainly isn’t. The new center field platoon of Endy Chavez and Craig Gentry has been hot (.286/.435/.596 in 64 PA) and cold (.235/.361/.294) in limited playing time, respectively. The Rangers’ .334 team wOBA is a distant third to the Red Sox (.352) and Yankees (.349) in the AL.

Rangers On The Mound

Tuesday, RHP Alexi Ogando: We’re all waiting for this two pitch (fastball, slider) reliever turned starter to regress, but it just hasn’t happened yet. Ogando’s 3.57 FIP (2.10 ERA) is propped up by a stellar walk rate (1.99 BB/9) and decent strikeout (6.64 K/9) and homer rates (0.89 HR/9). Of course a .210 BABIP and a 8.1% HR/FB ratio (just 36.5% grounders too) help matters, as does an 88.2% strand rate. Don’t get me wrong, Ogando’s been very good for Texas this year, just not as good as his ERA suggests. The Yankees hung five runs off him in 6.1 IP back in April, though a blister kept him out of the May series.

Wednesday, LHP Derek Holland: A personal fave, Holland is the opposite of Ogando in that he’s been better (4.05 FIP) than his ERA (4.41) would lead you to believe. He gave up five runs in 7.1 IP against New York back in April, then four runs in three innings (five walks) in May, so I’m sure he’s hoping the third time is a charm. Holland is a fastball-changeup guy with two usable breaking balls (both curve and slider), and he gets a good amount of strikeouts (7.71 K/9) and ground balls (46.9%) while limiting walks (3.20 BB/9). He’s just inconsistent like most young starters.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user mjl816 via Creative Commons license)

Thursday, LHP C.J. Wilson: As good as Wilson was last season, he’s been even better this year. His upped his strikeout rate a bit (7.78 K/9) while shaving a full walk off his walk rate (3.09 BB/9), though he’s paying for a decreased ground ball rate (46.4%) with more homers (0.75 HR/9). Still, a 3.47 FIP (3.04 ERA) is excellent. Wilson is a (rare) legitimate six pitch pitcher, using three low-90’s fastballs (two-seamer, four-seamer, cutter), a changeup, a curveball, and a slider at least 10.0% of the time each. The Yankees haven’t seen Wilson yet this year, though they did put 18 men on base and score nine runs off him in a dozen ALCS innings last autumn.

Bullpen: With some help from yesterday’s off day, the Rangers’ bullpen is pretty well rested. Neftali Feliz has seemingly gotten over his control problems to post six straight walk-free outings, though he’s still been touched for five hits and two runs in 6.1 IP during that time while striking out four. Feliz is righting the ship, but a guy with his stuff really should miss more bats (8.3% whiff rate). Darren Oliver (3.12 FIP), Mark Lowe (3.60), and Arthur Rhodes (5.96) handle the majority of the setup duties.

Derek Jeter punching bag Dave Bush (4.81 FIP) handles the majority of the long relief work, and southpaw Michael Kirkman (5.10) fills in the gaps. The new addition since the last time the Yankees saw Texas is Japanese import Yoshinori Tateyama, a 35-year-old righty with the traditional Japanese hesitation in his delivery even though he’s more of a sidearmer. He’s struck out eight and walked none in 10.2 IP since being called up, using his fastball-curveball combination in low-leverage situations. The Rangers’ bullpen has an MLB worst 4.90 FIP, more than a quarter of a run higher than anyone else. With any luck, the Yankees will see lots of these guys these next three days.

Recommend Rangers Reading: Baseball Time In Arlington and Lone Star Ball