Don’t overlook these under-the-radar Twins

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Like every other team in the postseason, the Twins are only going to go as far as their best players take them. Francisco Liriano needs to match the opposing team’s ace pitch-for-pitch, Joe Mauer needs to take advantage of whatever opportunities he’s given, and Jim Thome has to be that second offensive force. It’s imperative that those three do their part, but like everyone else the Twins are also going to need contributions from other players as well.

The Yankees certainly benefited from some unexpected contributions during last season’s title run, whether it be Damaso Marte‘s shutdown relief work or Jerry Hairston spot starting in rightfield, so we know how important complimentary players can be. Here’s a few names that they shouldn’t overlook when preparing for the ALDS, because if they do, chances are they’ll regret it…

Delmon Young

The Twins’ lineup certainly features plenty of dangerous lefty bats, but the Yanks are going to be able to counter that somewhat with CC Sabathia in Game One and (more than likely) Andy Pettitte in Game Two. Minnesota hasn’t had too many righthanded power bats beyond the good, but not holy crap good Michael Cuddyer to help balance out their lineup over the years, but now they have that extra power righty in Young.

A former first overall pick who didn’t turn 25 until just three weeks ago, Young finally started to deliver on his immense promise this season, hitting .298/.333/.493 with career bests in wOBA (.352), homers (21), doubles (46), and strikeout rate (14.2%). He’s done a huge chunk of his damage against lefthanded pitchers, posting a .390 wOBA against them in 2010 and .352 for his career. Young will still expand the zone and have poor at-bats on occasion, but he’s growing into some more power and mistake pitches are leaving the yard more often than ever before. Sabathia and Pettitte are going to have to make sure they’re careful with Minnesota’s best righthanded threat.

Brian Fuentes

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

I’m sure at least some of you snickered when you read Fuentes’ name, because we all remember him being pretty shaky in the closer’s role over the last two seasons or so. Well, Fuentes isn’t a closer now, instead shifted to a role that’s much more suited to his skill set: lefty specialist. Fuentes crushed lefthanded batters this season, holding them to a .128/.222/.149 batting line and just a single extra base hit. Over the last three years, his dinosaur arm delivery limited lefties to a .196/.258/.234 line, and he’s surrendered just two (!!!) extra base hits to same-side batters since 2007 and one homerun since 2006.

Laugh at him for his failures as a closer or for Alex Rodriguez‘s game-tying blast in last year’s ALCS, but the guy is shutdown lefthander that will create some matchup havoc late in games. Marcus Thames, and even … gulp … Austin Kearns are going to have to pull their weight against Fuentes this series.

Danny Valencia & J.J. Hardy

Young isn’t the only righthanded bat worth worrying about, the Twins new left side of the infield improved their team immensely in that area as well. Hardy, acquired from the Brewers in the offseason, brings what amounts to a league average bat from the shortstop position, an upgrade over what Orlando Cabrera gave them last season. The defensive improvement is considerable as well.

Valencia, the second half rookie sensation, looks like Alex Rodriguez compared to the dreck Minnesota has run out at the hot corner over the last few seasons. He brings a .351 wOBA from the right side, and like Young he murders lefthanded pitching (.424 wOBA this year). Compare that to Brendan Harris, who (mostly) started at third last year and was lucky to get his slugging percentage over .351, forget wOBA. Automatic outs like Harris, Nick Punto, and Carlos Gomez are nowhere to be found this year, so Yankee pitchers are going to have to be much more careful once they get past the heart of the order.

Yanks not the only team that stumbled in September

It wasn’t the strongest way to end the season. In the final month the Yankees went 13-17, costing them the AL East crown. Some of those losses came as a sacrifice; the Yankees invoked the old cliche about losing the battle to win the war. But even the regulars had their struggles during the month-long tumble. It has left many fans with a bad feeling heading into the playoffs. This team just hasn’t dominated in the same way it did in 2009. Yet neither of those factors — the relative dominance and the stumbling — should matter much in October.

As Mike said earlier, the Yanks have a fresh start on Wednesday. So do the other three playoff teams. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing for the Yanks. It’s good because they can recover from a rough September. It’s bad because the other playoff teams share the same advantage. None of the four teams played particularly well down the stretch. They didn’t stumble in the same manner the Yankees did, but we’d be kidding ourselves to think any team is heading into the playoffs on a hot streak.

Tampa Bay

The Yankees opened September with a one-game lead in the AL East. They lost four of seven to the Rays that month, which covered the difference. They also lost one more game otherwise and finished one back. That should say something about how the Rays played during the month. If the Yanks played so poorly, shouldn’t the Rays have run away with the division?

In the final month the Rays went 15-15 despite playing 16 of those games against sub-.500 teams. They were a bit worse at the end, too, losing four of seven to Baltimore and Kansas City. It wasn’t as bad as the Yanks losing six of nine to Boston and Toronto, but then again both of those teams finished the season over .500. Tampa Bay’s losses are a bit less excusable.

Texas

Of all the AL postseason teams, the Rangers probably finished the strongest. In their final three series they went 6-5 against Oakland, Seattle, and Anaheim. But, again, those aren’t the strongest teams. Oakland was the best among them, as they finished 81-81. If you go back a bit further, though, the results aren’t quite as good. Their final five series all came against AL West teams, and during that span the Rangers went 8-9, losing four of six to Seattle and five of seven to Anaheim. Their seven-game win streak against Toronto, New York, and Detroit was the highlight of the month.

Minnesota

An 18-12 record in September looks good, and was certainly the best among AL postseason teams. Yet even the Twins limped to the finish line. After an 11-1 stretch that essentially eliminated the White Sox from contention, the Twins went 6-10 to finish the season, and lost eight of their last 10 games. Not even the Yankees finished the season that poorly. While it’s true that the Twins started their losing streak once they had the division under wraps, isn’t it also true that the Yankees started playing poorly once they had a playoff spot well at hand?

It’s easy to focus on the Yankees, since they’re the ones we watch for 162 games. But their troubles are not unique. Other teams are in similar positions and find themselves needing to turn around recent poor play. We’ve seen plenty of teams limp into the playoffs and make long runs — we like to cite the 2000 Yankees, but in 2006 both World Series teams, the Cardinals and the Tigers, backed into the playoffs. It appears as though that will be the case, at least in the AL, this year. We have four limping teams meeting up during the next week. At least two of them will shed the crutches and move on.

For the Yankees, playoffs bring a much needed fresh start

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

There’s no denying that the Yankees’ regular season did not end the way we all wanted. They lost Games 161 and 162 to the Red Sox, effectively costing New York their tenth division crown in the last dozen seasons, and they limped to the finish line with an 8-17 record in their last 25 games. The Yanks won just one of their final eight series, and that win came against a team that finished the year 30 games under-.500. They got unfathomably bad starting pitching down the stretch (5.22 ERA since August 1st, 6.05 if you take out CC Sabathia) and became frustratingly prone to stranding runners on base, especially if they were in scoring position. It was an ugly end to a season that started so wonderfully, but here’s the thing: none of it matters now.

All that stuff, all the ugly losses and stranded baserunners and two out rallies by the opposition are gone now. It’s in the past. It’s a new season now, one where the remaining eight teams are all 0-0 with shiny 0.00 ERA’s. Every team is fully capable of beating the other seven in the short series, so it’ll come down to who gets the best bounces, who has players step up in big spots, who gets the favorable call. We can turn the page, forget about everything’s that’s happened in the last few weeks and start anew.

The Yanks come into the postseason with one rather considerable advantage over the rest of the playoff field. It’s not talent or payroll, it’s experience. They’ve all been here before. Everyone from Derek Jeter to Joe Girardi to Ramiro Pena, they’ve all been to the promised land and back. It’s not just the players from the 2009 team either, even the new guys have played in big games. Both Curtis Granderson and Lance Berkman know what it’s like to lose the World Series. As a rookie Boone Logan had to sit and watch while his teammates collected their World Series rings in 2006. Kerry Wood’s suffered the biggest heartbreak of them all, standing five outs away from the Fall Classic before Steve Bartman interfered.

Talent wins out, almost always, but in today’s MLB the top tier clubs are so evenly matched that something intangible like experience can make an impact. It could be the difference between Mariano Rivera retiring the next three batters after a leadoff baserunner while Neftali Feliz allows the run to score. Or J.J. Hardy throwing a booted ball away that Derek Jeter would just eat. That ability to slow everything down and treat it as just another game is something younger clubs can lack, but the Yankees are well-versed in that routine by now.

Am I nervous about the playoffs? Hell yeah I’m nervous about the playoffs, but that’s because I always am, year after year. Not because of what happened in August or September, not because the Yanks don’t have homefield advantage, but because it’s beyond my control. Everyone has a clean slate starting Wednesday, and no teams needs it more than the Yankees. Given the fact that they were here just last season, I suspect they know exactly what to do to prepare themselves.

“You have to play well obviously, but the regular season means nothing,” said Jeter after yesterday’s game. “Absolutely nothing.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 4th, 2010

Record Last Week: 2-4 (31 RS, 36 RA)
Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card
Schedule This Week: ALDS Game One (Wednesday @ Twins), ALDS Game Two (Thursday @ Twins), ALDS Game Three (Saturday vs. Twins)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

{democracy:116}

Yanks drop series finale, settle for Wild Card

After losing the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader, the Yankees were going to need to some from the Royals if they wanted to win the AL East for a second straight year. They would need to take care of business on Sunday against the Red Sox while Sean O’Sullivan did them a favor an topped Tampa. It was all moot by the late afternoon, because not only did the Rays beat Kansas City in extras, but the Yanks lost to Boston for the fourth time in their last six meetings.

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Spot Starter

It’s tough to take any game seriously when Dustin Moseley is the scheduled starter, but the righthander actually did a half-decent job through the first four frames. The problem is that he was left in to pitch the fifth.

Boston jumped out to an early two-zip lead when J.D. Drew parked a poorly located fasted into the bullpen to drive in himself as well as Jed Lowrie. Moseley retired seven of the next ten men he faced, wiggling out of a little trouble with some double plays (one a routine 6-3 grounder, the other when David Ortiz got doubled off first after Brett Gardner caught a ball at the wall), carrying the ball into the fifth. Joe Girardi indicated before the game that the starter would be limited to 75 pitches, but Moseley was left in well beyond that and it cost them.

Sticking with the theme of the month/season/decade/millennium, Moseley retired the first two men in that fifth inning before running into trouble and walking Eric Patterson on four pitches. He started Jed Lowrie off with two straight balls before dropping a curve in for a strike, but he wouldn’t fool him twice. Lowrie dropped the bat on Moseley’s 93rd pitch, sending it over the rightfield fence for Boston’s second two-run homer of the game. It broke a two-all tie, and gave the Sox a lead they would never surrender.

Punchless (Sorta)

Swish touched them all. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Well, that’s not an accuracy way to describe the Yankee offense, thought it was rather underwhelming today. They recovered from that two-zip hole thanks to a Nick Swisher solo homer and Alex Rodriguez singling in Mark Teixeira after a two-base error by Drew. They didn’t muster another threat until the eighth inning, when Jonathan Papelbon and the rest of his lolpen pals were on the mound for Boston.

Gardner doubled to lead off that eighth inning, then came around to score three batters later on a Robbie Cano single. Nick Swisher drew a walk to load the bases, but Jorge Posada couldn’t capitalize and grounded out to end the inning. Marcus Thames and Curtis Granderson then made two quick outs in the ninth before Patterson extended the game and the season when he botched a routine grounder and let Gardner reach. Derek Jeter singled him in after a defensive indifference, and before you knew it it was first and third with two outs and A-Rod at the plate with the tying run on deck. Alas it was not meant to be, because Alex grounded out to third after a hard fought at-bat to end the rally, the threat, and the season.

Just two men reached base from the fourth through eighth innings, and the attack came primarily from the top of the order. Posada, Thames, and Ramiro Pena combined to reach base just twice from the 7-8-9 spots, and Tex also went hitless from his customary three-hole. Gardner and Jeter each had two hits atop the lineup, then A-Rod, Cano, and Swisher chipped in a run scoring hit each. But otherwise that’s really it, they didn’t work John Lackey all that much (118 pitches in 7.2 innings), though they did pick up three hits in seven at-bats with men in scoring position. It certainly didn’t help that home plate ump Brian Runge had one of those “it’s the last game of the season let’s get out of here” strike zones.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Aside form Royce Ring, who threw one pitch and allowed Ortiz to reach on a bunt hit, Girardi went to his A-relievers. David Robertson, pitching for the fifth time in eight days after dealing with back spasms, allowed three of the four men he faced to reach (one hit, two walks, one strikeout), but got bailed out Boone Logan who retired the only two men he faced. Joba Chamberlain struck out the side after allowing a solo homer to Lowrie, and then Sergio Mitre chipped in a perfect frame.

It seemed like a curious move to go with the top relievers, though the game was still very close when Ring entered and Tampa was losing at the time. However, it would have been nice to give the guys, especially D-Rob, a little blow before the ALDS. Plus I really wanted to see Andrew Brackman. Good thing they’re off Monday and Tuesday.

The season ended just like it started, with a loss in Fenway Park. The difference is that the Red Sox have no games left to play while the Yanks move on. Their ALDS matchup with Minnesota starts on Wednesday.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Yeah, wasn’t all that close. Here’s the box score, here’s the other stuff. Bring on the Twins.

2011 Draft: Yankees picking 31st overall

Now that the regular season is over for all teams, we know with certainty that the Yankees’ first round pick next season will be #31 overall. They finished with the third best record in baseball, but there are some compensation picks early in the draft that push them back a few spots. Depending on how active the free agent market is for Type-A’s, the Yanks second rounder is likely to fall the 80’s somewhere. Of course, they’re very likely to surrender their first rounder to sign one such free agent, so don’t get too attached to that 31st overall pick.

ALDS first-pitch times announced

With the Wild Card firmly in hand, the Yankees will again play the Twins in the American League Division Series. While last year’s match-up gave the Yanks home field, this year, the Twins will host the first two games in Target Field. Those games will be on Wednesday, October 6 and Thursday, October 7 and will start at 8:37 p.m. and 6:07 p.m. respectively. The action moves to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 on Saturday, and that game will start at 8:37 p.m. as well. First-pitch times for Game 4 at Yankee Stadium and Game 5 at Target Field will be announced if the series goes that long. All of the ALDS games will be on TBS, and for the full slate, check out MLB.com’s postseason schedule.